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1635 The Papal Stakes: Chapter Ten
Last updated: Friday, August 10, 2012 20:24 EDT
“So, you’d send us traipsing off to Rome, then?”
“Those are your orders.”
“It’s a fool’s errand — and I’m no fool.”
Owen Roe O’Neill suppressed a gasp at John O’Neill’s truculent retort to the infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, Archduchess of the Spanish Low Countries. Owen had known Isabella — his nominal employer and the aunt of King Philip IV of Spain — for thirty years, so he was fairly sure that he knew what was coming. The infanta would tell John O’Neill that if a journey to Rome was indeed a fool’s errand, then she had found the perfect man for the job. She would then probably unleash a stream of even less oblique, yet still elegantly vitriolic, barbs at John, third earl of Tyrone. Who would probably understand about one half of them, but would certainly tweak to the fact that he was being insulted. Again.
Owen was wondering if the time had come to risk John’s resentment and intercede, but Pieter Rubens did it for him. “Come now, I know what you fear, Conde O’Neill. You fear that with you and Owen gone from your camps, and the earl of Tyrconnell unavailable –”
“– more like deserted –”
“– that Thomas Preston will be the sole acting colonel for the archduchess’s four Irish tercios.”
“Aye, that’s the heart of it, Pieter.”
Isabella, still flushed by walking from her nearby chambers to the wood-paneled library in which they were meeting, threw her cherished up-time fountain pen down in impatience. “Oh, not this again. When will you Wild Geese stop your sectarian honkings?”
Irishmen who fled English oppression to serve on the continent as mercenary soldiers were often dubbed “Wild Geese.” From most mouths, and at most times, the term enjoyed a cachet of grudging admiration. At other times and from English mouths, not so much.
“We’ll keep making noise as long as that sassenach Thomas Preston is in regular correspondence with his masters in London, Your Grace.” John O’Neill’s response was a mutter.
The room’s tall double doors opened. King Fernando entered with a dense retinue of guards, his increasingly lovely and curvaceous wife (or so it seemed to Owen) on his arm. All but Isabella rose; being Fernando’s aunt, and infirm besides, relieved her of that obligation. Fernando motioned them back into their chairs and seated his wife, but remained standing next to his aunt. “The doors are not as thick as you might believe,” he said to no one in particular. “So let me assure you, Conde O’Neill, that Colonel Preston is not an enemy agent. And his cross-Channel contacts do serve a useful purpose.”
Rubens took up the thread smoothly. “There is the minor matter of his being a known correspondent with various moderate parties in London. As a result, he is often tentatively approached by the less-schooled Anglo-Irish spies working for King Charles. This allows us to keep tabs on this lower tier of confidential agents. But more importantly, Colonel Preston is an emergency communications conduit.”
John O’Neill did not have his late father’s keen mind and rapid wit. Bold, brave, competent, John was a steady enough colonel for his own tercio — but that was, Owen had to admit, the ceiling of the third earl of Tyrone’s abilities. Which he made painfully obvious when he repeated, “What do you mean, an emergency communications conduit?”
Rubens’ tone was patient, and Owen thought he heard a measure of pity behind it, as well. “Given his part-English heritage, Colonel Preston serves as an unofficial back-channel through which we maintain contact with various persons in London, including high-placed members of the court.”
“Which persons?” John asked.
“That varies with the political climate across the Channel,” Fernando said calmly, “and is not a suitable topic of conversation in this chamber, at this time.”
Even John O’Neill seemed to get that hint.
“At any rate,” finished Fernando, “Colonel Preston is to remain here in overall command of the tercios while you travel to Rome.”
Owen cleared his throat; the king looked at him. “Please, continue your discussion as before. I am not here to hold court.”
Owen nodded and turned his eyes back toward Isabella. “Your Grace, it seems that our party to Rome is rather, well, top-heavy in senior officers — including one of the last two estranged heirs to the royal titles of Ireland. This struck us as well, strange.”
Isabella sent a small, encouraging smile down at Owen; he felt as though he’d been patted on the head. “Of late, I have had much complaint from the senior officers of my Irish tercios that they are in want of vigorous action. Being an old woman who hopes to die peacefully in her bed — and until two years ago, thought that end imminent — I profess no understanding of this ardor for war. It seems a blight upon the males of our species and particularly strong in those who come from the island of your birth, Colonel. So, since you and your young cousin the Conde O’Neill have chafed at the bit of the peace that now reigns in the Low Countries, this was the first assignment which promised to sate your appetite for risk and adventure. I except you from these characterizations, of course, Doctor,” she concluded, sending a broader, warmer smile farther down the table.
Sean Connal, surgeon in the Tyrconnell tercio and the third representative of the Wild Geese, nodded in gratitude and smiled back. “Thank you, Your Grace. However, I too must ask — Rome? Now? When it is in chaos?”
“My dear Dr. Connal, that chaos is precisely why you must go to Rome, and go now. We cannot send a large mission without drawing undue attention, even if, as Spain’s nominal vassal, our personnel would arouse no suspicion. And since you may have need of giving orders when there — of commanding Spanish troops to let you pass, to stand aside, or even to release possible prisoners to you — we cannot send men of lesser rank. And the conde — the earl, in your styling — holds the title of a lineage well-regarded in all Hapsburg territories. That high authority may be much needed where you travel.”
Owen wondered if that summary wasn’t a bit optimistic. The Spanish respected the Irish of equal rank in most professional regards, but not in social or bureaucratic matters. Equals on a battlefield or in a tavern, perhaps, but not in a ballroom or an audience chamber. But on the other hand, the fame of John’s late father, Hugh O’Neill, was particularly conspicuous in Rome, where he was buried along with various family and followers. He, his kinsman Rory O’Donnell, the prior earl of Tyrconnell, and their lieutenants, had journeyed as political supplicants to the Eternal City after fleeing Ireland in 1607. Most never found the means to leave again. Instead, they found the miasmic fevers of Rome and died, almost to a man. Hugh O’Neill outlived them all — but even his facile, ever-plotting mind had ultimately been thwarted by age, infirmity, and exclusion from the chambers of the powerful. He died all but forgotten, living on the charity of his patrons in Rome.
Owen looked over at Johnnie O’Neill: he’d been forgotten, too, most notoriously by his father. That lack of attention had not merely been a sign of his sire’s disinterest, but the man’s legendarily cold shrewdness: even in childhood, it was obvious that John had not inherited the most illustrious O’Neill’s intellect. Just as clearly, however, Johnnie had received a full measure of the man’s restlessness and spleen, so as both a youngster and a young man he had wanted action and little else. Now, it was pretty much the only thing at which John excelled; he had not been a patient child and had become a decidedly impatient man.
“There is, of course, another reason we are sending the two of you,” continued Isabella.
“Yes, Your Grace?”
“Do not be coy, Owen Roe. Your and the conde’s skill with weapons is peerless, and that could become an important factor in the success of your mission.”
“I thought Rome was in the hands of our Spanish comrades.” This time John’s tone was slow and assessing.
John thought that over. “I see.”
And Owen was glad he said no more; anything else would have been akin to poking a stick into a beehive. Technically, brothers Philip IV of Spain, and Fernando, the former cardinal-infante of the Low Countries, were indissolubly linked as part of the greater Hapsburg hegemony that straddled Europe like a colossus.
Or had. It seemed the colossus had become decrepit in some places and fragmented in others. Ferdinand III of Austria had not taken the steps necessary to become the next emperor of the Holy Roman Empire; that meant he had all but ceded the lands he had lost to the armies of Gustav Adolf. Ferdinand had also stood aside when the same Reformist forces battered down Maximilian of Bavaria, formerly a close ally and an ardent fellow Catholic. Then Philip IV’s own brother — Fernando, the cardinal-infante — had received title to the Spanish Low Countries from Isabella, and in short order, had proclaimed himself “King in the Netherlands” — a dubious title, since he was ostensibly subject to another king. Specifically, his brother in Madrid.
The consequences of all this internecine strife had been slow but certain in coming. Spanish reales had now ceased to flow into Fernando’s coffers. The new king in the Low Countries was thus hard pressed to maintain any tercios — such as the Irish — that were not paid directly by Philip. Madrid’s mood was not improved when Maria Anna, sister of Ferdinand III of Austria, eloped with Fernando when he borrowed one of the Swede’s up-time airplanes to spirit her back to the Low Countries. The once unified monolith that was Hapsburg power in Europe was undergoing troubling reconfigurations. Consequently, even a person as politically disinterested as Johnnie O’Neill understood that yesterday’s friends might easily transmogrify into tomorrow’s enemies.
Sean Connal’s youthful baritone rolled the length of the table. “So, Your Graces, I take it that the exact nature of our actions in Rome will be determined by the conditions we find there.”
Fernando exchanged an approving look with his wife, who inclined her head to indicate their collective royal pleasure with the young surgeon. “This is nicely put, Doctor; I was not informed you were as deft with words as you are with a scalpel.”
“My lady the Queen is as kind as she is eloquent. And generous. I have not yet had the honor of expressing my personal thanks to her for arranging my attendance at several of the medical practica offered by Lady Anne Jefferson. I wish I had a year to study under her tutelage.”
“How charming; she used exactly the same turn of phrase when remarking how much she would have liked to keep you on as a student. But it seems other duties must take precedence, now.”
“Yes, so it seems. But we have yet to learn what those duties are, other than to journey to Rome. And once there –?”
For a reason Owen could not quite ascertain, the royalty in the room became faintly uncomfortable. Rubens, after waiting a long moment, evidently concluded that this bit of business had been left for him to handle. “We are concerned for the safety of one of your countrymen, Father Luke Wadding. We feel that if all of you were to exhort him to do so, he would agree to depart from the Irish College in Rome.”
John’s head came up; one of Connal’s eyebrows did the same. Owen Roe leaned forward. “Father Wadding is in danger? From whom?”
Rubens looked for help from the Hapsburg end of the table but found none. “Consider the angry crowds in Rome, the violence of the occupation, the disorder. Amidst all that chaos, hunger, and desperation, almost anything could –”
“No.” The voice was John’s: firm, assured, decisive, like when he was on a battlefield. “Rome would never harm Luke Wadding. I’ve been there, and have studied” — he stumbled past that dubious claim — “with some of the fathers who are now teaching at the college at St. Isidore’s. So let me tell you how the Romans feel toward Father Luke Wadding. When they see him, they don’t hail him by any of his titles; to them, he’s not ‘Guardian of the College,’ or ‘Procurator,’ or ‘Reverend Father.’ He’s just Padre Luca. They say it without bowing, but with smiles as big and bright as rainbows. Which is just how he greets them. There’s simply no reason to be worried about his safety in Rome.”
“Yet, we are worried,” announced Fernando, his face suddenly longer than usual.
“But from whom does he need protection?”
“From my brother’s servants.”
Now it was Owen’s turn to goggle. “What? The Spanish would harm Wadding? Your Highness, he studied in Salamanca! He was well-known in Philip’s court –”
Isabella leaned forward, her face pained — rather the way it is when a parent must admit they have a destructive or truant child. “My nephew Philip was — unwise — in electing to give Cardinal Borja such wide discretionary powers. In fact, there is rumor that the many of the cardinals who were killed ‘resisting lawful arrest’ during the attack upon Rome were slain by Borja’s agents.”
“What were the crimes of these cardinals?”
“What indeed?” answered Isabella, who looked at Owen directly, her face as hard and lined as slate.
Owen gaped for a moment before easing his jaw shut. So they had all been assassinated? Upwards of a dozen cardinals? Was Borja mad? And if he was, that could even mean — “What about the pope? Is there word whether he still lives?”
“That is not known. And is yet another topic for us to discuss. However, insofar as Father Wadding’s safety is concerned, part of our worry arises from the fact that the Franciscan College at St. Isidore’s was built and endowed by Ludovisi money.”
Owen shook his head; the family politics of Rome were well beyond the scope of his knowledge.
Queen Maria Anna provided the rest. “The Ludovisi family and its cardinal have a long, friendly affiliation with the Barberinis. And particularly with Maffeo Barberini — Pope Urban VIII.”
“Oh,” said Owen. “I see.”
“Yes,” nodded Isabella, confirming the magnitude of both Borja’s monstrousness and pettiness. “Now, if it was my nephew the king who was overseeing the situation in Rome, there would be a comparatively even hand guiding the actions of the tercios, inquisitors, and confidential agents. But with Borja in command –”
The whole room had become glum. In the up-timer history books, the name Borja was remembered — in its Italianate form “Borgia” — for treachery and murder, particularly poisoning. That, at least, had been the height of the family’s infamy in that world, but here –
“Still,” Owen protested, “Wadding is primarily a scholar. And he’s a staunch Counter-Reformationalist, besides. Surely Borja wouldn’t arrest him simply because his college was built with money that came from a friend of the pope.”
Isabella inclined her head in agreement. “No, probably not. But there is an added complication.”
“There always is,” observed Sean Connal with a faint smile.
Isabella darted a glance at him; Owen couldn’t tell if she was annoyed or delighted. Probably both, knowing her. “We have it on relatively good authority that in the past year, Pope Urban created a number — an unprecedented number — of cardinals in pectore.”
John O’Neill fumbled after the Latin. “In pec-what?”
Oh, Johnnie, Johnnie, you have to do better than that. Owen furnished the translation. “It’s what we call ‘close to the chest,’ Lord O’Neill. Popes can create cardinals without consulting the Consistory. Because these cardinals are not revealed to anyone else, they are considered hidden, or held ‘close to the chest.’” He turned toward Isabella. “So why was Urban creating cardinals in pectore? Do you suspect he was preparing for this kind of attack?”
Another smile from the archduchess that might have been a pat on the head. “We do not know, but it seems logical, in retrospect. After all, word has it that he consulted the up-time histories on the future of his papal tenure, and just beyond, very closely.”
“And how does all this concern Father Wadding?”
“It turns out that Father Wadding was the first Irish cleric ever to receive votes to be made a cardinal. It did not go through for political reasons. I suspect those same political reasons could make Borja fear Wadding now.”
Sean Connal nodded. “That makes sense.”
“Not to me it doesn’t,” John snapped across the table. “I know Wadding, and so must Borja. Father Luke will not lick the boots of heretics, and that’s well known by his friends in Madrid –”
“– who are not in Rome to help him,” soothed Rubens. “I have had occasion to scan the relevant histories. Wadding did indeed have many admirers among the Spanish Party in the Consistory, who appreciated his eloquent Counter-Reformation writings. But Wadding was also liked by Urban, who supported the expansion of his church, St. Isidore’s, and the Irish cause. As you all know. Yet, despite having friends in both circles, he never attracted the support necessary to become a cardinal.”
“Bigotry,” declared John O’Neill. “The same bigotry that kept the Curia from taking my father seriously when he begged them –”
“No,” interrupted Isabella. “The danger to Wadding does not stem from bigotry; it stems from fear.”
That stopped O’Neill as surely as if he had run headlong into a brick wall. “Fear? The Spanish cardinals — and Borja — fear Father Luke? But –?”
“Your esteemed Father Luke Wadding possesses a further quality that, in both this world and the up-timers’, made him anathema to all the papal parties, even though he was much admired by the individuals comprising them.”
Sean Connal nodded. “Integrity.”
“Yes. History shows that he was famous for speaking his conscience, even when it would have been far more politically prudent to trim his sails in the direction of one political faction or another.” Isabella paused. “Cardinal Borja will not trust such a man, particularly not if he suspects that Urban has already made him a cardinal in pectore.”
John went back slowly in his seat; the intricate strands of the noose that might be gathering about Luke Wadding’s neck were now clear to him.
“Yes,” nodded Rubens. “Borja wishes no opposition. He is ensuring that his new Consistory of Cardinals will have no voices that oppose his own. Wadding, if made a cardinal, would never remain silent or accept Borja’s atrocities –”
“– making Wadding a natural ally of Urban. Even if he doesn’t know it.” Owen shook his head.
“Just so. And this brings us to your final task in Rome. It concerns a related, but more — nebulous — objective.”
Owen frowned. “And what is that, Your Grace?”
“We would ask you to stay alert for any word on the location or condition of our Holy Father.”
“Of course, Your Grace.” But wait, that hardly needs to be made an assignment; we’d be doing it anyhow, given all the chaos in Rome. So why even bring it up as –? Oh. I get it. Owen pulled himself out of his thoughts and became of aware of the room again.
Isabella, eyes still on his, nodded. “Yes. We want you to seek word of Urban. With exceptional vigor.”
“And if we learn of his whereabouts?”
Fernando cleared his throat sharply. “Then, if you feel you can do so without being observed by any persons who report to Cardinal Borja, you are to endeavor to seek an audience with His Holiness the pope and offer to escort him here. For a visit.”
Owen wondered if he had heard correctly. “A a ‘visit’? Here?”
Fernando smiled. “Your hearing is, evidently, unimpaired by your many years before the cannons, Colonel.”
Owen slumped back in his seat. Well, Mother o’ God and dancing dogs ”Your Highness, such a visit is hardly a casual day-trip. It’s a far journey, from Rome to Brussels. And with some potentially annoyed nations in the way, I might add.”
Fernando’s smile widened. “You will not be expected — you will not be allowed — to convey the pope here yourselves. You are merely to become his guardians, escort him to Venice, and send swift word through the doge. We shall make the necessary arrangements.”
“I see. Again, your pardon, but won’t that message take weeks to reach you by boat?”
“I do not recall asserting that the message would come to us by boat, Colonel.”
And then Owen knew: up-time radio. There were sets operating in Venice, and there were sets in the Lowland as well. Each of the Hapsburgs had their own, it was rumored. And if the USE were to provide additional aid in operating the devices, or even relaying the signals –
“Yes,” nodded Fernando. “You see it now. Excellent.”
The earl of Tyrone hunched forward. “Any of these missions could become a very perilous business, Your Highness.” He paused, studying the many scars on his hands. “If our Spanish allies prove to be uncooperative, we’d find ourselves a bit outnumbered.”
Fernando’s nod and expression were somber. “Unquestionably. But my aunt has procured some tools that may improve those odds.”
“Really?” John sat up, as eager as a boy on Christmas morning.
Isabella looked down the table at Sean Connal, who stood, brandishing a cumbersome looking pistol with a huge cylinder in place of its barrel.
Owen frowned; he had seen this weapon before. “That was the weapon that foiled the assassination attempt at Preston’s camp two weeks ago,” he recalled aloud.
The surgeon nodded. “Yes, a pepperbox revolver. They are being paid for by Her Grace, the archduchess, and built in accordance with ideas that the earl of Tyrconnell brought back from Grantville.”
Owen ignored John’s resentful mutter and stared at the pistol instead. It was, without question, the ugliest weapon ever conceived. “It fires five times without reloading, if I recall.”
“More likely to kill with its looks than its bullets,” grumbled John.
“It’s quite effective,” Connal observed calmly.
“Hugh O’Donnell can keep his tools and lectures on effectiveness. Me, I’d like a little style, as well.”
“Yes,” Isabella snapped, “there’s the wisdom of my beloved Spain, imbibed in full by her servitors. Let us choose style over progress. Let us all be sure to have the latest boots and saddles — and all well-polished — as we ride down into the merciless maw of history and are consumed at a gulp.” A roomful of surprised eyes turned toward her. “It is the journey my brother Philip has embarked upon, with Olivares as his footman to light the way into black oblivion.” She snapped a single, gnarled finger down upon the tabletop for emphasis. “Philip has more resources than the rest of the nations of Europe combined, or very nearly so. Does he use it to adopt the up-time radios? No. Their wondrous medicines? No. Their aircraft and steam engines? No. Their weapons? Only those which are modest improvements upon those already in his arsenals. I am sixty-nine and even I — an old, feeble, cantankerous woman — see the need to invest in the changes the Americans have brought. It hardly matters whether we like them; the changes are here permanently. And we will either master, or be mastered by, them.”
“Sounds just like her Irish godson,” muttered John in an aside to Owen.
Isabella’s ears had evidently remained as sharp as her tongue. “Or perhaps the absent earl of Tyrconnell sounds like me. Perhaps it is simply true that great minds think alike.” She left unspoken the unflattering comparison she was implying between the missing Hugh O’Donnell and John O’Neill.
But John did not miss the intimation; his lips tightened, became thin. “Ah well, this pistol is wonder of modern weaponry, I’m sure. But where is its much-praised advocate and originator? I’ve not seen much of the earl of Tyrconnell, these past weeks. Oh wait, now I’m remembering. He left Spanish service, didn’t he? Sent back his knight-captain’s tabard in the Order of Alcantara, as well as renouncing his Spanish citizenship and position on His Majesty’s Council of War. Ah, but he’d have to, wouldn’t he? All those honors are a bit hard to keep when you also decide to tell the king who raised you up that, no, you’d rather not be a member of the Royal Bedchamber anymore.”
Owen, struck dumb by John’s titanically insolent counterattack on the archduchess, held his breath. It was well known that Isabella’s godson — Hugh Albert O’Donnell, earl of Tyrconnell — was the brightest beam in her eye and had been ever since he had been made a page in her court more than twenty years ago. But then, less than a month ago, O’Donnell had abruptly quit her service, and, along with two companies of his men, had vanished. The rest of the Irish tercios had awaited the inevitable torrent of angry invective as the spurned rulers of the Spanish Low Countries raged at the disloyalty of their favorite son. But that never happened, and in that strange silence, the Irish Wild Geese had hatched more than a few explanatory speculations, some of which had bordered on the surreal.
But now, here was John, not merely gesturing toward that mystery like the unacknowledged elephant in the middle of the room, but stabbing at it with poison-tipped words. Owen finally dared to look down the table toward Isabella, prepared to witness the end of three decades of her throne’s help to the expatriate Irish, sure to be consumed in a blaze of exceedingly justified royal wrath.
But Isabella was calm and collected. Indeed, for an instant, she did not seem a frail old woman in her late sixties; she was the high and Imperial Infanta again, the daughter of Philip II and a force majeure when her passions were aroused. Her voice was more terrible for being so level. It was not conveying opinions; it was declaring truths.
“Conde O’Neill, since you have elected to speak with such remarkable candor, I shall follow your example. My godson, the earl of Tyrconnell, traveled to Grantville when none of you would — despite his having recently lost his wife, and only son, in childbirth. He learned many things among the up-timers, and this weapon is one example of that learning. But more importantly, he learned about the collective future of the Wild Geese and their tercios in the Spanish Low Countries. About which you have heard some rumors, I believe.
“The worst of what you have heard is nothing less than the truth. Spain — the Spain in their world, and the Spain in this world — both used you abysmally. I can attest to what the up-time histories claim regarding our motivations in the two decades before this one; you were maintained here in the Low Countries primarily as a threat against the English. You were useful leverage against London, which wanted you kept here to fight against the Provinces, rather than back home, making more trouble in an already restive Ireland. However, many of us also believed that the Spanish crown would eventually make good its debt of honor to you, would help you reclaim your homeland.”
“But, in the up-time world, that did not happen.” Sean’s coda was a whisper.
“Correct, Doctor. The Philip IV of the up-time world never repaid Spain’s debt of honor. Rather, starting within a year of this date, he would begin spending your tercios like water in a new war against the French. By 1638, in that other world, four out of every five of you was dead or disabled. The remainders he moved to Spain, and poured into the maw of a Catalan revolt. You died there, John O’Neill. So did my godson.”
John apparently did not understand that Isabella was doing more than explaining, or even confessing. Her self-recriminating candor indicated that she, and evidently Fernando, had decided to set a course very different from the one that had led the Wild Geese to their grisly ends in the up-time world. Deaf to that nuance, the earl’s face was white as he leaned over the table, fists trembling atop their shimmering reflections in the dark, lacquered wood. “So my father — he died for nothing? After all the loyalty he showed you, all the sacrifice for his faith, for your damned Hapsburg pride –”
Isabella shocked the room by standing and remaining steady as she looked down the table at the earl of Tyrone. “Hugh O’Neill was loyal to himself, first and foremost. You barely knew your father; I did, quite well. He was proud, Machiavellian, brilliantly manipulative, terribly intelligent — but not as intelligent as he thought. Or rather, he had grown accustomed to believing that, almost every time he entered a room, he was the smartest, shrewdest man in it. And that may have been true back in your homeland; I cannot say. But not here on the Continent. His abilities were noteworthy, but they were not unique once he found himself among councilors and captains who routinely navigated the treacherous world of court intrigues and the stratagems of empires. It took him years to realize that Rome was not a wellspring of support for your cause: it was flypaper. The Spanish court and cardinals strung him along with vague promises and hopes — anything rather than having Hugh O’Neill return to the Low Countries, for once there, he would press the matter of invading Ireland.”
“Which was in Spain’s interest!” John O’Neill’s eyes were those of a man watching the bedrock truths of his world dissolve into gossamer and mist.
Isabella sat down and then smiled; her expression was not condescending, but was perilously close to pitying. “No, Conde O’Neill, that is precisely where you are wrong. The Irish were more useful kept sheathed as a perpetual threat, rather than brandished as an instrument of war. Had you invaded Ireland and won, you would still have become a drain on the Crown’s treasury. How would you have held your homeland against English counterattacks without constant, and increasing, Spanish support? All very expensive, my dear Conde O’Neill. But keeping you as a threat in the Low Countries, while also using you as loyal mercenaries whose arch-Roman Catholicism made you perfect instruments against the Protestants of the Provinces? Now that — that — was a bargain.”
Johnnie’s mouth worked uselessly for a moment. “You lied to us.” He sounded like a little boy.
Isabella’s face changed. “Some of us did — but not all of us. Like me, most of us simply wanted more favorable circumstances before you commenced your quest. So, yes, I spoke against the halfhearted invasion plans my overly optimistic nephew occasionally dangled before you.”
“And now, knowing how we’ve been used, even betrayed, what can we trust in?”
It was Fernando himself who answered that question: “You may trust that I am not my brother.” The king in the Low Countries’ eyes had become hard. “I give you my word that we shall not forsake you. And plans are afoot to make good the arrears in your pay, with rich garnishments in recognition of your long service. But I cannot promise you a triumphant return to Ireland. Not now, maybe never; I am not Spain.”
Owen ran a finger across his lip. Well, at least Fernando wasn’t a blatherskite. He was like his aunt, in that way: they both gave you the truth, even when it put them in a hard position.
The king in the Low Countries had not paused. “But the future must wait. Presently, you are the best captains we have to find Urban and to plead with him to accompany you. Not only are you men of title and martial prowess, but your people’s respect for the pontiff has ever been exemplary. No true pope has ever feared his Irish flock. They might be impetuous, but they have always been loyal.”
“A reputation that might not work in our favor, given Borja’s apparent motives in Italy.”
Fernando nodded at Sean Connal’s observation. “Among Borja and his intimates, this might be true. But among the Spanish rank and file? The Irish are held to be doughty fighters and loyal to Spain, primarily because you are obedient to the Church. The common foot soldier will not reflect upon how, at this moment, loyalty to the Church might mean — for the first time in both your memory and theirs — disloyalty to Spain.”
John O’Neill’s eyes roved across the Hapsburgs sitting at the head of the table. “So. I’m to accept that the old dream — of Ireland beneath our feet again — is dead.”
Maria Anna’s voice was gentle. “Let us say that now you are being honestly told that it is a dream that might take generations to realize. If ever.”
John nodded. “I’ve no quarrel with what His Highness has said. Truth be told, I prefer plain speech, hard and true. Better than easy promises of paradise just around the bend. But as I’m earl of my people, then I’d be knowing one more thing: with our pay in arrears, how are my men to keep their families fed? How is it that you propose to pay for our future with you?”
Rubens leaned forward. “That –” he said, glancing at the Hapsburg troika at the head of the table “– is a matter being addressed right now. As I understand it, the projection is that the king in the Netherlands will not only be able to pay you, but exceed — far exceed — your old rate. But it may take a year to achieve this. In the meantime, we will victual your families out of military stocks, if necessary.”
“Most reassuring. But how — how — will you pay us, next year? Where will the new money come from?” John had never shifted his gaze to Rubens, but kept it on the Hapsburgs.
Isabella sniffed. “Do you really need to know?”
“Aye, I do. You said it yourself: we’ve been played the fool for twenty years now. Perhaps we were partly to blame, settling for promises without worrying over the details. Well, now I’m worried over the details. Where will you find this money?”
Isabella’s eyes narrowed. “Do you believe I would lie to you, that I would sully my honor over such a filthy business as the coin we put into hands that wield swords for hire?”
Owen started. “We are no mean sell-swords, you Grace. Have your Irish tercios ever failed you? Have we ever changed sides? Have we ever been less that exemplary in our valor?”
Isabella’s expression softened as her eyes shifted toward Owen. “No, and I repent my harsh words. But let me ask you this in return: although I have not until now been able to speak openly about Spain’s use of its Irish Wild Geese, have I ever worked to your detriment?”
“Not so far.” John’s voice sounded as surly as he looked.
Isabella’s eyes — and words — shifted back over to him sharply. “Then do not insult me by doubting my word that we — the Hapsburgs of this land, and this time — will make good our promises. Projects are in hand that will provide us with coffers deep enough to retain your peerless service for years, for decades, to come.”
Owen suppressed a small smile. Heh — a slap on the wrist and a pat on the head, all in the same sentence. “Your Grace, one item remains unresolved.”
“What would be the best day for us start for Rome?”
Isabella’s smile was wry. “Yesterday, Colonel. Yesterday.”
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