1636: The Cardinal Virtues – Snippet 16
The priory had a large open courtyard, flanked by four passageways, with solid walls on one side and plain, solid pillars on the other, ending in doors leading to other parts of the complex. Inside was a square area forty or so feet across where the sisters had planted flowers and herbs. There was a single stone bench in the middle; as they approached, she saw a modestly-dressed man patiently sitting and waiting. He was middle-aged, with a carefully trimmed beard and moustache. There was a gray skullcap on his head (as opposed to the pointed, peaked Judenhut that she’d sometimes seen in Marseilles). But from his looks he might have been Estuban Miro’s cousin.
Sister Giovanna settled onto a bench and drew out her rosary. Sherrilyn set her pack beside her friend and walked out into the courtyard.
“Mademoiselle Maddox,” he said, standing up. “I am so pleased to meet you at last.”
“What can I do for you, Monsieur — Monsieur –”
“My name is Seth ben Adret,” he said. “I am a humble soap-maker by trade, but I come as a friend of Doctor Bonnel — and of another mutual friend.”
“I have a lot of friends.”
“The . . . principal,” ben Adret said. “Your former principal.”
Principal, she thought. Did he mean Harry Lefferts? . . . Then she realized what he was trying to say, and practically slapped her forehead. He meant Ed Piazza — the former principal of Grantville High School, who was now President of the State of Thuringia-Franconia.
The Principal. It was like the name of a Batman villain. “I haven’t talked to him for some time.”
“I understand. But please be informed that he is aware of your presence here in Marseilles, and the employment opportunity you have just accepted.”
“Huh. Is he trying to tell me not to take it? Because it’s none of his damn business whether I take a job or not. If this is some sort of loyalty test –”
“No, no, Mademoiselle Maddox,” he said, putting his hand up. “He is not telling you that at all. Indeed, he wishes you the best of luck in the position — there is no enmity between your new employer and . . . your previous one.”
“All right then. But he sent you to talk to me?”
“Yes. He wanted to let you know that he had not had a letter from you for some time and would welcome one. Or more.”
Sherrilyn thought about it for a moment, frowning. Before she could frame an answer, Seth ben Adret stepped forward and took her right hand in both of his. She was surprised enough not to react or pull away immediately.
Sister Giovanna, who had seemed to drift off into a nap, was sitting forward, moving to get up. Out of her sight, though, ben Adret had slipped something into her palm: a small square object, perhaps two by three inches. He withdrew his hands, letting them fall to his sides, and fixed Sherrilyn with a steady gaze.
She didn’t know what to make of it, but tucked the gift — a small, leather-bound book — into her sleeve, and nodded.
“He is sure that you will do well in your new role,” the Jewish soap-maker said. “He knows that it is trite to say so, but wherever an up-timer goes, the United States of Europe goes with him. Or her.”
“Thank you,” she said. “And please thank the Principal when you communicate with him. I’m glad to hear that he hasn’t forgotten me.”
“On that,” ben Adret answered, “you can be sure.”
De la Mothe’s troopers went out of their way to respect her person and her privacy as they traveled. She wasn’t sure if they were genuinely intimidated by her, by the cachet of an up-timer, or if the comte had warned them of her statement to him regarding broken limbs . . . or if he’d simply told them to be polite. But she was allowed privacy whenever they stopped to rest.
Late in the afternoon, the first day out from Marseilles, they stopped near a creek to water the horses. She separated herself and went a few dozen yards away to attend to her personal needs, after which she reached into a pocket within her pack and drew out the book that ben Adret had given her.
It was sixteen pages in length and carefully and beautifully printed in tiny type. The first fourteen pages consisted of a long list of common words that she might use in a letter about her assignment, but which were . . . descriptive, possibly sensitive. Rifle. Troop. Attack. March. Reinforce. Siege. There were hundreds of other, non-military terms, but those caught her eye. Next to each one was another reasonably common word: Shovel. Chorus. Invite. Vacation. Draw. Broil. It was a cipher — not an especially clever one, but something she could use to send sensitive information.
God damn it, she thought. Ed — the ‘Principal’ — wants me to be a spy. De la Mothe says that Turenne has no designs on the USE, but Ed Piazza wants to make sure.
The last two pages contained a set of substitution codes, a dozen of them, each keyed to — of all things — TV shows, all seemingly from the 1990s. To indicate which code she used, she’d have to include a reference to a character on the show: Buffy, Mulder, Cooper (that one took her a minute, then she remembered Twin Peaks); Lois; Sipowicz; Munch; and so on. It was a long way from unbreakable, but without any real computing power it would be hard.
It could also get her killed. Even having this little book could get her killed. What the hell did Ed Piazza think he was doing?
But she knew the answer to that question, even as she stowed the little book back in the inner pocket of her pack. He was watching out for the interests of the USE. It was true in a way, what ben Adret had said: wherever an up-timer went, the USE went with it. There were about three thousand up-timers in the world, a tiny little drop in a fairly big ocean, and there weren’t going to be any more of them. In five years, in ten years, that number would be even smaller. . . and not all up-timers felt loyalty to the last vestige of the world where they’d grown up. Some, and she counted Harry Lefferts among them, had really gone native — this was their time not just by circumstance but by inclination.
God damn it.
One of de la Mothe’s troopers called out to her, walking slowly along the river bank, not seeming to want to get too close. Sherrilyn smiled to herself; the guy must be attached to his limbs.
“I’ll be right there,” she answered, stepping back into view with her pack slung over her shoulder. The USE goes with me, she thought.