I.

May 1635, Outside Rome

Giulio Gentileschi paused to re-tie the kerchief around his nose and mouth to keep out the dust. His companion, a hulking lefferto named Carlo Belzoni did the same. If only cloth could keep the smell of panic out of their noses as well as it kept out the dirt being stirred up by the thousands fleeing Rome ahead of the Spanish.

They could still hear the alarm bells ringing faintly behind them. Giulio had hoped that they would be farther down the road by now. On a normal day they'd already be at their intended destination, the cottage of a certain young widow of Giulio's acquaintance who lived a couple of hours outside Rome on the Latin Plain. But while Carlo's bulk and scowl could get them through the stalled knots of people here and there, they did nothing to hurry their already skittish oxen.

Carlo pulled out a wine skin and took a long swig, then handed the skin to Giulio. "We've been lucky so far," he said. "Borja's thugs have been leaving us alone. If we keep our heads down we'll probably not have any worries."

Giulio nodded. He'd been worried about that. The troops securing Rome and the countryside for Cardinal Borja had been harassing lefferti they found on the roads, as much for the fact that they were spoiling for a fight as for the fact that many lefferti absorbed their role model Harry Lefferts' radical political sympathies along with his dress and behavior. In this, Carlo Belzoni was not the typical lefferto. He was a barber-surgeon by trade, but he'd gained small fame as a circus strong man and leg-breaker in the rough Borgo quarter of Rome long before Harry Lefferts had arrived there in the company of the cleric-diplomat Mazzarini the previous year. Carlo understood Harry Lefferts better than most of the American's Roman imitators, in that it was as important to cultivate an intimidating reputation, for a fearsome reputation was frequently key in avoiding fights altogether. If one had to back that reputation up now and then, well, that was life. Carlo was generally good-natured enough to offer to patch up his opponents, if they showed enough humility after their defeat.

There was also the matter of the cloth badge sewn onto Carlo's tunic—a white circle quartered with a blue cross and a blue shield. When Sharon Nichols arrived in Rome as the USE's ambassador, she brought with her a number of doctors she'd begun training at her previous post in Venice. Her price for the training was that these doctors would in turn help train barber-surgeons, midwives and herbalists in up-time "first-aid"— basic, easy-to-learn techniques that would help treat people with minor injuries and help keep people with more serious problems alive until they could seek advanced treatment. This training cadre was told to begin training people in the poorer quarters of Rome, Venice and Florence, who would in turn train others while providing care themselves. Carlo's badge was proof that he'd received this training, and for now Spanish forces seemed to be leaving such people alone.

Carlo nodded to Giulio, and they goaded the oxen into motion once more, maintaining a comfortable walking pace.

"I'm just glad that I'm too obscure to be worried about, at least for now," Giulio said. "If my sister were here . . . "

"Yes, it's just as well Artemisia is living in Grantville, given the trash Borja and his lapdogs are putting out about her." Carlo spat on the ground. "She'd probably be going, what's the up-time word, ballistic, at the sight of those pamphlets."

"Don't think she's not. My niece's betrothed says my sister is very upset. He's quite upset himself, and I get the feeling Signore McDougal doesn't get so angry often. He's a friend of Frank Stone, and Signore Stone's unwillingness to respond to the attacks against Artemisia has not sat well."

"Young McDougal has a point. Caution is commendable, but there's a time when one must act. I don't believe Signore Stone, for all his good work, understood that lesson until it was too late. Thankfully, your niece's intended has given us the means to take more direct action." Carlo patted one of the crates on the oxcart. "Assuming, of course, we can stay out of trouble."

That turned out to be more easily said than done. As they rounded a bend in the road they found a wagon upended in a ditch. A few crates had been thrown some distance and pillaged by other refugees but otherwise it looked like the wreck had been avoided. No one wanted to court trouble. There were no signs of life, but Carlo insisted on investigating anyway. He took his calling as a healer very seriously.

Giulio stayed with the oxen while Carlo took a closer look. "Nothing we can do for this poor devil," he heard Carlo say from the far side of the wagon. "Broke his neck, from the look of it."

Just then, Giulio heard a groan. At first, he thought it was the shattered wagon's remaining axle squeaking, but he heard the groan a second time and the wheel clearly wasn't spinning. "There's someone under the cart, Carlo."

With a heave, Carlo yanked the wooden plank that had served as a bench for the wagon free. "If he's not too far gone, we'll need to put this under whoever's under there," Carlo said. "It will help not make his injuries worse, if he's hurt his neck. But you'll have to do it. I think I can lift the cart but it will take all my strength."

Giulio nodded. He was pretty sure he could do what Carlo was asking. With a mighty heave, the former strongman lifted one end of the cart far enough off the ground so that Giulio could get underneath. There was a man, cushioned by a pile of rags he'd been hiding in when the wagon flipped over. Quickly but carefully, Giulio slid him onto the plank and then slid the plank back out from beneath the cart. With a sigh, Carlo let the cart drop back to the ground.

Rubbing his hands, Carlo looked at the man they'd rescued, examining him for internal injuries. Giulio, seeing his face clearly, exclaimed. He knew this man; knew him well in fact.

"Cavaliere dal Pozzo!"

****

"As if you haven't brought me enough trouble already, Giulio Gentileschi!" Lucia di Lazio rubbed her pregnant belly to emphasize just what kind of trouble she was referring to. She was pretty sure the baby was his, though he certainly wasn't the only man to share her bed. Brain fever, or what some called the mal'aria, had taken away her husband and daughter two years ago. Lucia was attractive enough that men offered to pay to sleep with her, and she was desperate enough to sometimes accept. And sometimes, she just got lonely between Giulio's visits and if she could ease that loneliness and make life a little less difficult, why shouldn't she?

Giulio Gentileschi wasn't a paying customer. He was kind and generous; enough so to make up for his decidedly average looks. He wasn't wealthy, but his sister made a good living as an artist and sent him a generous allowance to see to her remaining affairs in Rome. Giulio had explained on one of his visits that he used to be responsible for his sister's finances but was glad enough to be relieved of the duty by his niece's up-time fiancée. For all the affection she had for him, Lucia knew Giulio's brains were as average as his looks and couldn't take the firm hand needed when patrons tried to cheat on their commissions.

Giulio looked at her like a whipped puppy. She softened. "You did the right thing. What else could you do? You've told me how generous dal Pozzo has been to your family, and I know he's an important man. You just have to promise me something."

"You know I'll marry you, Lucia."

"I do know that, Giu'. But you're going to leave, and you must take me with you. A baby in the belly is no guarantee the soldiers will leave me alone, and I do want this baby to live, if possible. I've been so lonely."

For a time, they just held each other. There was nothing else to do while Carlo attended dal Pozzo. Then Giulio stood up and helped Lucia stand. "Let's check our crates," he said. "Since it took so much work to get them here from Rome."

When Giulio and Carlo finally arrived at Lucia's cottage in the late afternoon, they'd put their cart behind the small house. It wasn't a great hiding place, but it was the best they could do. One by one, Giulio lifted the boxes off the cart. Taking a ring of keys off his waist, he unlocked the crates and opened them. More to pass the time than anything else, he told Lucia about the contents.

The first crate contained wedding presents for the Dotta Ambassadora Sharon Nichols and her intended, Ruy Sanchez: a beautiful portrait by Artemesia depicting Sharon with her father, the Moorish doctor, and her mother, who'd died long before the event known as "The Ring of Fire."

"How did your sister know what the Ambassadora's mother looked like?"

"The up-timers have wonderful relics of a technology that they call 'photography.' It uses light and a strange kind of paper to preserve images forever." The painting was thankfully undamaged. The groom's gift was rather more durable, an edition of an up-time book called Homage to Catalonia. From the letter Signore McDougal sent with the materials, this book was an Englishman's account of fighting in a future civil war in Spain and might be of interest to Se-or Sanchez. Giulio hoped to be able to deliver these gifts as soon as he could determine where the party from the USE embassy was headed. Carlo, he hoped, would have some ideas. Carlo was clever that way.

Lucia's mind started to wander while Giulio carefully examined documents intended for the pope. The true pope, that was, Urban VIII—if he still lived. The crates were more interesting. There were a number of what looked like folios of illustrated stories. They certainly seemed fantastical enough, with strange people in colorful costumes doing incomprehensible things. But Lucia had spent enough time as an artist's model to be familiar with mythology and mythological themes. Maybe these were the tales of the gods and demigods of up-timer mythology? She recognized the Norse god Thor in one of them, fighting alongside a strangely armored man in red and orange and a warrior in red, white and blue.

"These are comic books," Giulio explained. "My sister and niece have been using them to teach the basics of composition and storytelling techniques to their beginning students and she thought they might be useful to her friends here. She doesn't think much of the artists themselves, though."

Finally, Giulio opened up a crate that had been hidden beneath the others. First, another book, full of colorful posters with powerful images. Despite her illiteracy Lucia was able to understand that the images encouraged people to fight and work harder. Though she now lived in the country she grew up in the Borgo; she grasped immediately the impact such images would have posted by the dozens or hundreds there and in other poor quarters of Rome. And when Giulio unrolled a poster, she saw she wasn't alone in sensing that possibility.

The image was visceral. In a style that combined modern sensibilities with the style of the posters in the book—which Giulio said came from up-time Russia—Cardinal Borja leered out from infernal flames, pointing a finger at Pope Urban, who was trying to protect a group of scared people. There was a line of printing under the image which Giulio said read "Beware false prophets!"

"I hope we can manage to smuggle these back into Rome, but I hope they will have an effect in other cities." He held up a cloth-wrapped bundle. "These plates my sister had engraved will let us print out as many copies as we want."

Giulio then carefully repacked the crates, and Lucia helped him with the lighter items. By the time they were done, Carlo had emerged from the bedroom where Cassiano dal Pozzo lay.

"Cavaliere dal Pozzo has revived a little and would like to talk to us," he said.

****

At first, dal Pozzo didn't do much talking. Giulio looked on while Lucia helped him drink the broth she insisted on making for him. He and Carlo made a stew out of the leftover broth, enough to make a filling meal for the three of them.

Cassiano dal Pozzo's injuries looked worse than Carlo said they actually were. "A lot of cuts and bruises, and one shoulder out of joint." How he made it through the accident without breaking any bones, Giulio would never know. Dal Pozzo was hardly a young man. Maybe there was an explanation, maybe it was a miracle—at this point, given that they could not stay at Lucia's cottage for long, Giulio didn't care so long as his family's old patron would be fit to travel.

"The Castel de Sant'Angelo was in flames, and if the pope isn't dead or captured by now, he will be soon," Carlo reported. "It also seems certain that Signore and Signora Stone have been captured or killed, along with their compatriots in the Committee of Correspondence."

"And the rest of the up-timers?" Dal Pozzo asked.

"We saw smoke coming from their embassy," Giulio said. "But it is my feeling that they have escaped."

"You are so certain, Giulio? A good many cardinals with the resources to protect themselves or escape have been killed." Dal Pozzo sounded surprised that Giulio could be so confident.

"The Dotta Ambassadora and her intended, Se-or Sanchez, are very smart and very brave. And I know that the Ambassadora's father, the doctor, was a soldier in his youth up-time. Prudentia's fiancée wrote to me once that on the day of the Ring of Fire, Dotto Nichols rather calmly killed a number of marauding mercenaries before attending Dotto Abrabanel and his daughter. And Signore Thomas Simpson is in their company as well, a man even bigger than Carlo here. They will escape the Spanish."

Dal Pozzo nodded. After admonishing Lucia to eat something, he told of his escape from Rome.

"Poor Mattias, whom you buried, came from Casa Barberini to warn me to flee. His Holiness' elder nephew, Francesco, was in residence and had sent Mattias to me. We are old friends, Francesco and I. I was his secretary until just a few years ago, you know, so it seemed certain the Spanish would arrest me, or worse." Giulio nodded. Dal Pozzo shifted in the bed and winced in pain.

"I will make some Lethe for you," Carlo said.

"Not until we're done talking. We'll need my wits. Then, I will rest."

Dal Pozzo continued with his tale. After receiving Cardinal Francesco Barberini's warning, he directed Mattias to prepare a horse cart for departure and directed his servants to gather rags and junk to load on the cart. He then dismissed his servants with as much money as he could afford to pay them, hid in the cart, and they left. If questioned, Mattias would claim to be a rag merchant. Mattias would say that no papermakers in Rome would buy his wares in the current chaos, so he was going to try elsewhere. It was the best story they could come up with in a short time.

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- The Grantville Gazette Staff