1636 The Vatican Sanctions – Snippet 21
Ambassador Sharon Nichols entered the Palais Granvelle preceded by Marine Captain Taggart — a formality, really, since the place was practically crawling with the Wild Geese and no small number of the Hibernian Mercenaries. Of all the places in Besançon, none were more secure at this moment, because Pope Urban VIII was on the premises.
She made her way across the entry hall, toward the staircase at the far side. Ruy was standing at the center of the broad first landing, the place from which speakers usually made public announcements to gathered guests. He smiled warmly when he saw her, but kept at least half of his attention fixed upon the speech of two well-attired besontsins who were leaning in towards him conspiratorially: junior members of the town council, if Sharon remembered correctly.
Servants — long since vetted and selected from the palace’s core staff — moved briskly to and fro, traversing the hard stone floors as loads from the main kitchen crisscrossed with furniture being reshuffled out of the great salon, which was the room selected for today’s preliminary gathering of all the cardinals who had come to Besançon. Taggart made to block the traffic to facilitate Sharon’s progress, but she stopped him with a small wave. For what seemed like the first time in a week, she was not in a rush and she wanted to savor that feeling. She was quite sure it would be over all too soon.
As she started up the steps, Ruy hastily nodded his thanks to the two besontsins and gestured toward his approaching wife. The young men turned, were quite surprised, then bowed and muttered respectful greetings to the USE ambassador before descending the stairs at a brisk pace.
Ruy moved closer, so that when she set foot on the landing, she was almost in contact with him. Well, part of her, anyway. Ruy’s smile turned into a mischievous grin.
Sharon rolled her eyes. “You are incorrigible.”
“Indeed I am! It is the greater part of my charm.”
Sharon managed to restrict her reaction to a smile, rather than the snort of laughter that was her first reflex. “Then heaven help you.”
“Heaven is my only help when it comes to retaining any decorum when so close to you, my love. And even heaven’s power is not so great that I can be assured of remaining in control of my actions.”
“You don’t give up, do you?”
Ruy’s frown was histrionic. “My heart, you married a soldier — a latter day conquistador! Surrender is not a concept we understand. And certainly not when the object of our desire — and yet also veneration — is so perfect. And so very close.”
“Ruy, stop it. No, I mean it. Now, what were those two local politicos talking to you about?”
“Ah,” he said, eyes averting in some mix of despair and disappointment, “these days you only come to me to discuss our duties. And at nights — at nights you do not come to me at all, anymore! What, then, is a conquistador to do?”
“Ruy, you were the one who put the security protocols in place. You’re the one who put yourself in a windowless, subterranean cubicle next to the pope’s. And put me in almost equally protected quarters. But at least I have a window.”
“To which I would come every night, if I could, and serenade you.”
“Why? To scare the stray cats out of the cloister?”
Ruy looked as if he might actually have taken some small part of that retort seriously. “Is it my fault that God chose to give me the arm of a swordsman rather than the voice of a courtier?”
“Not your fault at all, Ruy — and better still he gave you two hearts: a lion’s for the times when you are fighting, and a lamb’s for the times when you are just being my husband. Now, don’t get all sentimental on me. Let’s get through the business; it looked like those two were delivering a report.”
“My wife is not merely a gentle-tongued poetess who extols my humble virtues, but also a hard taskmaster. Very well. Yes, it was a report. A preliminary report, to be precise.”
Sharon lowered her voice. “On the assassins?”
“Yes. So far, we have little in the way of identification.”
Sharon frowned. “That’s a strange way to put it. Usually, someone is identified or not.”
“Exactly. But this is a middle case. None of the senior Burgundians recognized any of them from the weeks of security screening. But several militiamen think one or two of them look familiar.”
Sharon felt her frown deepen. “Familiar how?”
Ruy leaned closer: for the sake of secrecy or salaciousness, she wasn’t entirely sure. “Familiar in that they may have had run-ins with the local watch on prior occasions.”
Sharon pursed her lips. “Not arrests, just run-ins? That would mean something like suspicious behavior, petty burglary, a bar-fight, right?”
“Yes. And I have the same reservations as it sounds you do, my love: it is a long step from petty crimes to assassinating a pope.”
“So what are you doing?”
“I have charged younger Valençay, Léonore, to gather senior members of the watch and militia over the course of the day, and have them view the bodies. Hopefully, we shall find someone who recognizes the bodies. That should produce a list of known associates. From there, we may hope for information on their recent activities, the places they habituate, where they dwell.”
Sharon frowned. “This is not what I was expecting to hear.”
Ruy nodded slowly. “Nor I. Common rogues, such as these seem to be, are not typically proficient with crossbows, and would hardly think to improvise firebombs.”
“Or to have such a sophisticated plan. They must have observed how we’ve used the sedan chairs like a shell game. The way they hit the first one with the crossbow, and then cleared the way to bomb the second: not amateur hour.”
One of Ruy’s eyebrows rose in response to the unfamiliar up-time colloquialism. “As do you, my love, I find some elements of the attack suspicious. Or at least worrisome.”
Sharon’s eyebrows went the opposite direction: they lowered. “Like what?”
“Let us consider the two reasons for them to conduct the attack. The first is money. If so, then why has their hirer not paid for better or more assassins? Anyone who truly wishes to slay the pope knows they must have deeper pockets than this. The second reason: personal motivation. But where is the sign of that? Those who kill to make a statement usually bring something to leave behind, a token or manifesto or some other suggestion of the grievances that compelled them to act. Lastly, the crossbowman on the Black Gate should have escaped.”
“Yes, but his ladder fell.”
“Indeed it did, my love. And ladders do indeed fall from time to time. More frequently if they are used by careless workers. But when ladders fall, they make a noise. And if it is a crowd that knocks them over, then there is usually a shout of alarm.” Ruy stroked one mustachio slowly. “So where was the sound, either of the fall or of the crowd?”
“Are you saying you think someone deliberately removed the ladder so the crossbowman couldn’t get off the top of the Gate?”
Ruy shrugged. “It would be a possible solution to the conundrum. But if so, it begs other questions, such as: why would anyone involved in the assassination want to strand the man up there? To make sure he could not get away, could not become a loose end?”
Sharon shook her head. “No, because there was no way to be sure that he would be killed simply because he was unable to get down. He might have been captured instead.”
“So what are you saying, Ruy? That the one who killed him was in on the plot, to make sure it was covered up?” She started. “Von Meggen? Really?”
Ruy shook his head. “No, my wife, I cannot envision it either; your incredulity is well placed. I spoke to that boy — well, young freiherr, I suppose — and he is as true and ardent a fellow as I’ve ever met. The kind who get themselves killed for their ideals too soon to learn to temper their fine beliefs.”
“And so, become safely jaded like some hidalgo I’m acquainted with?” Sharon made sure her smile was as private and warm as a touch to his arm.
Ruy nodded. “You chide me for fun, my love, and yet, what you say is true: Ignaz von Meggen’s head is still full of tales of noble deeds and high-minded sacrifice. He would cut his own throat before he would become part of a plot against the pope.”
“Then maybe the ladder was just removed by some mistaken workman, or your own security?”
Ruy sighed. “Not my security. I have made the inquiry of them all. So a workman? But during the mass, while the waiting crowds would have hemmed in any bystanders? And I cannot imagine it to be a random act: why would a passing person take it upon himself or herself to remove a ladder when there might indeed be someone atop the gate?”
“I don’t know; you tell me.”
“I wish I could, my lustrous love, but I cannot. And that is what I find worrisome about the attack. No matter what hypothetical plot I construct, I can find none that explain all the facts as we have them. Hopefully, we shall identify the corpses of the attackers and find new paths to new answers. And now, I believe your duties are about to commence.”
“What do you mean?”
Ruy glanced meaningfully behind her, toward the entrance. “Bedmar has just entered with his retinue.”
“Bedmar? The gathering of the cardinals is not due to start for another half hour.”
“That is correct, dear heart. And that is as His Holiness wishes. They have matters to discuss, these two.”
“And so Urban asked me here to do what? Serve as a referee?”
“I suspect much more than that. After all, the might of the United States of Europe figures crucially in both their strategies, I’m sure. And by bringing you to be part of this meeting, they make you party to whatever plans they might agree upon.” His smile almost became sad. “You are not here to be a referee, my love. You are here to complete their intended troika.”
A familiar voice hailed them from the left hand of the split staircase. “Ambassadora Nichols, you must promise to cease distracting your husband: I require his full attention upon the safety of my person!” Urban descended, two Wild Geese in front of him. His nephew Antonio and the Jesuit father general superior, Muzio Vitelleschi, followed close behind the pope. After them came Larry Mazzare.