1636 The Vatican Sanctions – Snippet 17
May 6, 1636
Among the choirs of wind and wet and wing
Estève Gasquet peered through the 4x Dutch telescope. The security cordon around the majestic doors leading into St. John’s Cathedral had not visibly changed. General control of the crowd and a few lower-sensitivity access points to the building were being covered by a special detachment of army guards. Gasquet did not recognize any of them from the patrols he had observed at the city’s walls, towers, or gates. These were apparently picked troops, now serving as living barriers.
Positioned back from them, and only half-seen, were three-man teams of the Wild Geese. And although it was a certainty that troops of the Hibernian Mercenary Battalion were someplace nearby, Gasquet hadn’t been able to spot them. They were probably in similarly-sized groups, hidden in positions from which they could respond rapidly, or as individual marksmen in concealed perches.
Beside Gasquet, Klaus Müller grunted something about breakfast. Estève ignored him. It was a bother to have the big Swiss along at all, but it was unavoidable. Only one of the Swiss could reasonably claim to be ill on the very day that Ignaz von Meggen meant to present his scraggly band of hopefuls to Urban. And of course Eischoll had to be there to control the others’ reactions in what might prove to be a situation requiring both prudence and delicate timing.
Gasquet snugged the telescope’s eyepiece tighter. Müller was certainly not up to that job. He was about as subtle as an irritable bull and was large enough to look out of place among the other smaller, and in some cases, teenaged hopefuls. So, leaving him out of today’s proceedings kept the group of would-be Swiss Guards looking a bit puny, a bit impoverished, and so, a bit pathetic. The less seriously they were taken, the less scrutiny they were likely to attract.
“Do you see them yet?” Müller sounded eager, as if this was some kind of parade.
“No.” Gasquet watched the crowds pouring in through the Porte Noire, filling the square that radiated out from the cathedral’s steps. This wasn’t just any morning mass; it was being offered by Urban himself, and the faithful were emerging to get their extra bit of holiness. He suppressed a sneer. As if a pampered, nepotistic, noble-become-pontiff could confer extra holiness upon anything. All just part of the pious charlatanry that Estève Gasquet had left behind years ago, along with the family and farm upon which he’d grown up.
If he had been a superstitious man, Gasquet might have seen the sudden increase of morning light as a deistic reply to his atheistic contempt: a golden beam sent to seek out and reveal hidden assassins such as himself and the Swiss oaf whose stomach was now grumbling louder than he was. But no, it was just the sun rising above the overlapping silhouettes of Mont St. Stephen and Gran Bregille behind them. “Move back a bit,” Gasquet muttered.
Müller wriggled to the rear, into the deeper shadow cast over them by the blank northwestern wall of the cathedral’s impressive canon house. Lying on the flat roof of a shed built up against it, they were functionally invisible. Anyone looking in their direction would be staring almost directly into the rising sun, while they remained within the crisp-edged, ink-black shadow of the house’s peaked roof.
Conversely, their vantage point, while not particularly high, gave them an unobstructed line of sight to the cathedral’s open doors ninety-five yards to the west, and an almost complete view of the Porte Noire one-hundred twenty yards to the north.
The view from the small roof also confirmed that the windows of Le Boucle were overflowing with flags and pennants, as if in preparation to celebrate some festival. The new flag of Burgundy was particularly prominent, a reversion to the one that had existed before the French crown’s fleur-de-lis and the Hapsburg white and red had been added to it. And the colors of the old flag — diagonal stripes that had originally been blue and gold — had been subtly reshaded into the teal and orange hues of Bernhard’s own House of Wettin.
A minor commotion at the Porte Noire drew Gasquet’s attention. A group of men bearing makeshift wooden crosses were struggling through the crowd there. Gasquet fixed his telescope upon that area and adjusted the focus; Ignaz von Meggen’s face swam into view, his most ardent — which was to say, genuine — followers close behind him. Norwin Eischoll and the rest followed in their wake.
Whatever von Meggen was saying, the crowd grudgingly parted before him and the cross he held aloft. In surprisingly short order, he made it to the foot of the stairs and began calling up to the Irish Wild Geese. From a concealed position, another of their number stepped out: tall, slim, red hair glinting in the sun. Owen Roe O’Neill. He stared down, discovered the source of the commotion, and his shoulders slumped slightly, as if in resignation. He patiently listened to von Meggen, whose erect posture and visibly corded neck suggested a passionate appeal.
O’Neill looked away once or twice, nodded about as often; it was fairly clear that he was not enjoying this part of his duty. At all. Eventually, von Meggen finished. O’Neill looked over his shoulder, exchanged quick words with some unseen party in the cathedral’s narthex, then turned back, put his hands on his hips, and stared down at von Meggen.
The crowd had grown silent.
O’Neill hung his head and motioned with one hand for von Meggen to ascend the steps. But when the rest of the Swiss made to follow, O’Neill’s stance changed instantly to one of readiness: the other Wild Geese snapped-to, as well. His command, “Hold!” was clearly audible despite the distance. The rest of his instructions were not, but their content was clear: the rest of the Swiss reversed their course and stopped in a knot at the base of the cathedral stairs. At which point, von Meggen was waved up. But before the young freiherr entered, O’Neill made him pause again. Two of the rank-and-file Hibernian Mercenaries emerged from the cathedral. They searched von Meggen’s person in a brisk, efficient fashion that told Gasquet that this simple act — checking for concealed weapons — had been strategized and trained, just like the rest of their actions.
Evidently the significance of that was not even lost on Müller. “If it comes to it, those soldiers will be men to be reckoned with.”
“And that is one of the reasons we are watching them, studying them.”
“So that we might better fight them when the time comes?”
Dolt. “No. So that maybe, we will not have to fight them at all. They are creatures of training and habit. That may show us ways to avoid, or trick, them.” Gasquet ignored Müller’s increasingly puzzled frown, raised a hand to mute the question that was struggling toward enough coherence to push past his lips. “Your idealistic von Meggen is being allowed inside.”
“Yes, but he’s the wrong man. He doesn’t want to kill the pope; he wants to protect him.”
If there was a just god or a useful devil, he would certainly have picked this moment to strike Müller down for stating the obvious, an activity that was just one step above buggering goats, in Gasquet’s opinion. “The moment the guards intercepted your friends, it was clear there would be no killing of a pope today, no convenient shortcut. And frankly, we held out no real hope of doing so.”
“Then why are we –?”
Gasquet did not have the patience to let Müller finish. “Von Meggen is getting a new, essential weapon for us. We call it ‘trust.'” The vapid expression on the Swiss’s face told him that explication was required. “If von Meggen seems genuine, they are likely to grant his request to consider making you all members of the Pontifical Guard. However, if your fellows aren’t allowed to swear their service today — well, then our job becomes more difficult.”
Müller nodded: possibly he comprehended, possibly he just wanted to act as though he did. “So when will we find out which it is?
The doors to the cathedral began closing. Gasquet squinted at the shadows cast by the sundial in the enclosed gardens of the cloister just north of the cathedral. “About an hour now.”
“And until then?”
Gasquet pulled a stick-mounted mirror and a whistle out of his satchel and laid them in ready reach. “Until then, we wait.”
The choir began to sing, and the sun edged higher.
* * *
The sun dial was touching the nine-thirty mark when the last notes of the concluding hymn suddenly increased in volume: the cathedral doors had been opened once again.
Müller’s head snapped up. “Now what?” He sounded groggy.
“Now you stay awake. Things should start moving pretty quickly.”
Crowds were pouring out the doorway, quickly ushered aside to make a path for those who were following, and also for three sedan chairs approaching from the cloister.
“For the pope?” Müller wondered aloud.
“That’s what our crossbowmen have been told.”
“Crossbowmen? Where?” Müller rose slightly, head swiveling through the points of the compass.
Gasquet reached over, pulled him down. “Remain hidden, oaf. Our job is to observe, only.”
As the crowd filed out, the army guards turned their heads slowly, dutifully, in a dumb-show of ostensibly scanning for suspicious characters or weapons. However, as the volume of the exiting faithful began to taper, one of the Wild Geese extracted a golden-haired man from the line: it was von Meggen. Again he was searched, thoroughly but without the same rehearsed precision demonstrated by the Hibernian Mercenaries, and then released. But as he went slowly down the steps, he cast an expectant gaze back up over his shoulder.
The Prouvènço swung his Dutch telescope up along the path of von Meggen’s glance and discovered Sanchez himself staring down from between the shutters of a narrow window, probably on the staircase that led up to the rather alarmingly tilted belfry.
Müller’s gaze had tracked along with the aim of Gasquet’s telescope. The Swiss apparently had very keen eyes. “That’s the Catalan, Sanchez.”
“Well, what is he doing up there?”
“Looking for us.”
“What?” It sounded as if Müller had swallowed his tongue. “Us?”
“Not you and I specifically, you dimwit. But persons like us.”
“Like us? What do you mean?” If Müller was insulted by Gasquet’s characterization, he gave no sign of it.
Gasquet was grateful that his impatient slip hadn’t angered the Swiss, since there was little enough trust or amity between the two groups involved in the plot as it was. “I mean that they are clearly interested in watching whom von Meggen joins as he exits, or if someone is loitering around, watching over him. They — or at least the Catalan — are not entirely certain he is acting genuinely; they are prudent, watching any person who tries to get direct access to Urban. They cannot afford to simply accept any such overtures as innocent, not without being watchful for signs that it is part of a broader ploy.”