There, the Genevans killed my father. Hung him by the neck, like a common house-breaker. Even left him there to rot, refused to return his remains to my mother,” the Savoyard said, looking ahead at the gate.

“Didn’t know that, seigneur,” Gervais said, using his breathless state as excuse not to use the younger man’s name, which was one of those horrid Italian tongue-twisters Gervais preferred to not even think about, let alone speak aloud. The muddy track was something of a climb from the river, and Gervais had always liked his food and drink better than keeping pace with horses.

“Of course you don’t. Why would you, a commoner—” the rider freed one foot from the stirrup and nudged Gervais on the shoulder, “and foreigner to boot—have any inkling of events thirty years and more in the past?”

“Don’t know, that’s sure,” Gervais panted, stumbling under the touch.

Boot back in stirrup, the nobleman went on, “The duc refused to pay ransom for my father or his men. The very men he ordered into the attack. I hear they even celebrate it.”

“What?”

The mounted man reined in to look down on Gervais. “Hanging my father, dolt.”

“Ah,” Gervais answered, carefully stepping clear as the horse, irritated at being reined in, tried to stamp his foot flat.

“You don’t care, Gervais?” the Savoyard asked, leaning down to pat the massive shoulder of his stallion. Not to correct it for attacking Gervais, but because it was upset.

At a safe distance, the Frenchman bent over to catch his breath and gain a moment to think through his answer. Knowing the noble for an impatient sort, he gasped, “Church tells us it’s not for the low folk to concern ourselves with the doings of those above us.”

“You quote well the words of priests,” the Savoyard said, flicking the tail of his long coat free of the last of the morning’s rain and revealing the rapier at his hip. “Best be careful with such pious talk. We enter a nest of heretics who will not find your simple views suit their palate. It wasn’t so long ago the Calvinists were executing good Catholics for resisting their heresy. Keep your mouth shut, or you will find I shut it for you.”

Still trying to catch his breath, Gervais bowed his head, “As you say.”

The nobleman edged the mean-spirited horse closer, crowding the older man, “Not good enough, Gervais.”

Unable to remain bent over lest he get tumbled to the ground, Gervais stumbled upright, raised a hand. “I will not let slip who we are.”

“Good,” the nobleman said. “Need I remind you further that neither of us need distraction from our appointed tasks?”

“No, no.” Gervais said, unable to keep the edge of anger from his voice.

He felt the younger man’s eyes on him before the other went on, “It’s not me that holds your child hostage, thief. You would do well to remember that.”

Keeping his eyes down, Gervais nodded, “I do. Just don’t see how my work will benefit them that have my Monique. What’s more—” he hoped to tease some information from the Savoyard, “I don’t understand why they wish to put you at risk, too.”

The noble sniffed, pretending disdain. Gervais still heard the bitterness of the reply. “You don’t need to understand. Just do as the bishop told you and we might both come away from this with what we desire.”

“Yes, seigneur.”

“Are you ready, then?”

“Yes.”

The rider kneed the stallion into motion, apparently satisfied.

They did not speak again in the hundred steps it took to reach the gatehouse.

A pair of guards wearing the red and gold livery of Geneva stepped forward to bar the way, pikes shouldered. The elder of the two, a largish man with the scars of some pox, looked them over before addressing the mounted man: “Who wishes to enter Geneva ?”

Silently thanking God he easily understood the man, Gervais stepped forward and gestured at the Savoyard with a flourish, “The envoy of Duc Amadeus, first of his name: Seigneur Vicario of Turin, here to see the council and leadership of the city on behalf of the duc.”

The guard bowed slightly. “Bienvenue, then, to the duc’s envoy. The council is expecting you. There is stabling to be had just inside the gates, or you can head up the hill to the Cheval Blanc. The sign is of a white horse prancing in the paddock, the place across the square from our cathedral. Lodgings have been arranged for you there.”

Gervais dutifully translated the guard’s words. Vicario grunted and kneed his horse through the gate. The clatter of hooves echoed loudly in the gatehouse, making the Savoyard’s stallion rear slightly. Vicario quickly reined the foul-tempered beast in. Say what you will about his manners and mind, the Savoyard was a capable hand with a horse.

Gervais shot a glance at the militiaman as he broke into a trot to catch up. Based on the curled lip climbing the older guard’s face, Gervais was fairly certain the envoy had not gained a friend at the gates.

They came across few people as they followed the narrow road climbing from the gate to the cathedral. Gervais considered remarking on their absence, but decided to save his breath and concentrate on his footing for the climb. The Savoyard wasn’t likely to appreciate his observations, regardless.

Despite his exertions and the weight of leaden legs, Gervais eventually gained the plaza laid out before the Cathedral. The cathedral itself was very impressive, though lacking the ornament Gervais was used to. He’d heard Calvin and his cronies had stripped the cathedral of its ornament to pay for the city’s defenses, but seeing the graceful building so bare was sobering.

The White Horse was a set of squat buildings just where the guardsman said they would be. Turning toward it, he found the Savoyard already half-way across the square.

Again it struck Gervais there were too few people about for what had turned into a pleasantly sunny afternoon. He’d heard the Calvinists were opposed to all things pleasurable, and he’d seen none of the taverns and knocking-shops he was used to in a city this size.

A young man came out of one of the buildings in the courtyard of the inn, obviously intent on stabling the Savoyard’s horse. The youth said something to Vicario, who looked over his shoulder, then turned in his saddle. The distance wasn’t so great that Gervais missed the way the noble’s lips thinned when he discovered Gervais so far behind.

“I’ll handle it, seigneur.” Gervais called out.

“Damn right you will,” the noble snarled, dismounting.

****

The Cheval Blanc wasn’t so busy that Bertram had become used to hearing Clément calling out to customers entering the courtyard. He still managed to at least partially ignore the local’s patter and remained focused on the report he was preparing for his superiors in Grantville.

He nearly ruined the letter when a stream of angry-sounding Italian rent the air outside his window. First, because Italian always sounded to him like the speaker was cursing God. Second; because he’d been warned to watch for whomever the duke of Savoy sent to represent his interests at the council, and third: the duke’s representative was the only one who had yet to arrive.

Still seated at the tiny escritoire he’d purchased from the university provost, Bertram pushed the shutters wide in hopes of getting a look. Too late, he caught the merest glimpse of a dark-haired man in a fine coat stalking into the inn. He gave up trying to pierce the shadowed doorway and examined those he could see.

Clément held the bridle of a large, powerful horse while a pot-bellied, red-faced man of middle years worked at the leather thongs lacing saddlebags in place.

The stablehand, unusually glib for a Genevan, said something Bertram couldn’t hear. The older man’s laughter was easy to catch, but his reply was too quiet for Bertram to overhear. Whatever it was, both men chuckled, sharing a moment as working men do when commiserating over the behavior of bad employers.

Even though he couldn’t hear what was said, Bertram was encouraged by the exchange. First, the stablehand spoke nothing but the local French-Provençal, so Bertram was reassured that he might at least communicate with the fat man. Second, if the noble’s use of Italian was any sign, the Savoyard might not understand the local tongue. Such ignorance could play in Bertram’s favor.

Assuming he’d have more to report once he’d observed the newcomer, Bertram put down his pen and corked the ink pot. He carefully slid the unfinished report into the escritoire and positioned both pen and pot where any disturbance would be readily apparent. Satisfied things were as secure as he could make them without raising undue suspicion, he stood.

His stomach growled, lending wings to his feet as he descended the stair. Geneva ‘s strict adherence to the Calvinist faith might preclude houses of ill repute or even quality drinking establishments, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with the food prepared at the Cheval Blanc.

****

Gervais slung the saddlebags over his shoulder and smiled across the horse’s back, “Thanks, I needed the laugh. I’d like to buy you a drink, when you’ve time.”

“I’ll take you up o— Ah, good afternoon, Monsieur Weiman,” Clément said, looking past Gervais.

“Good day, Clément. See you for supper?”

Gervais turned to see who was speaking, saw a slight man of about Clément’s years walking across the courtyard. He was dressed well, though not so well Gervais could peg him a noble—or even rich—man.

“Lamb tonight, just the way you like it.” Clément sniffed. “Though why you should like such spices is beyond me.”

“Blame it on my misspent youth.”

Weiman had a faint accent, but one Gervais couldn’t place. He certainly didn’t sound as German as his name.

“I will, Monsieur Weiman,” the stable hand said with a grin.

Weiman chuckled, nodded at Gervais, and stepped into the inn.

“Who is that?” Gervais asked.

Clément hiked a thumb at the door, “Monsieur Bertram Weiman?”

Gervais nodded.

“He’s been here near a month now. Like your master, come to observe or take part in the council deliberations. Supposed to be some kind of steward for an eastern princeling of the Germanies, he says. Educated, but a good sort, even so.”

Gervais shared a chuckle at the follies of the over-educated, then asked, “Not the place where all the strangeness started?”

“No, someplace farther east,” The stablehand shrugged. “I think.”

“Ah.” Gervais picked up the Savoyard’s saddle bags.

“Go on, I’ll be in after I’ve seen to your master’s horse. I doubt there’ll be another needs my service tonight.”

“There anyone I should speak to about food?”

“My aunt Nadine will see to it.”

Gervais nodded, making a point to remember the familial relation to avoid complications that might arise from a little slap and tickle with any of the women here.

“Gervais! Get in here and explain to this woman what I want!” Vicario called.

“Coming, seigneur.” With a long suffering glance at Clément, Gervais suited actions to words and walked from the courtyard.

The taproom was well-lit and quite clean, surprising Gervais, who was used to the smells of stale beer and old piss in most public houses he frequented. Here, all he could smell was the mouth-watering odor of roast lamb.

Vicario was standing before a matronly woman at the hearth, lips twisted in his habitual scowl.

Gervais hurried over, “Yes, seigneur?”

“Tell this woman I want a bath prepared, and a meal sent to my rooms.”

Gervais translated, adding courtesy where Vicario refused to.

The lady looked relieved as Gervais spoke up but shrugged helplessly, “So very sorry, seigneur, but there is only the one room set aside for you, and it will take some time to get water drawn and heated. We have no baths in the rooms, you will have to come down.”

Gervais repeated her words in Italian, knowing the noble wouldn’t accept her apology with grace. Is it too much to ask, Dear Lord, that you make this noble shit to mind his manners? Just enough that he doesn’t get everyone looking at us as the villains before I’ve done the job?

“And the meal? I trust that won’t be too much to ask?” Vicario snapped. From his expression, you would be forgiven for thinking the man robbed of his birthright rather than slightly inconvenienced.

With what he’d learned outside the gates, Gervais had begun to lay the blame for Vicario’s lack of courtesies on the absence of a fatherly example growing up at court, but the man’s constant petulance made each offense harder and harder to excuse. Some people, nobles especially, were simply incapable of courtesy.

Then again, the bishop was similarly high-born, full of courtesies, and far more dangerous than the Savoyard.

“No, seigneur, the food will be along in just a short while,” the woman said. She waved, prompting a younger, slightly more pudgy version of the stablehand to come to her. “My son will take you to your room, seigneur.”

The boy grinned, “It’s in the garret. I love the garret,” he raised a hand above his head, “the roof is right there.”

Crushed by the thought of another climb, Gervais stifled a groan, saving his breath for the stairs. He decided not to translate the boy’s words for Vicario, if only to save himself the effort of editing the noble’s rude response.

Vicario and the boy quickly left him behind, the glory of youthful vigor outpacing weight of wisdom and old legs. As Gervais prepared to climb the third flight, the boy passed him going down, muttering something foul.

Breathless again, Gervais made the attic.

Vicario was sitting, and gave Gervais no time to catch his breath before pointing at his high riding boots, “Get these off.”

Gervais, still fighting for air, stumbled over and started to pull on the offending boot.

“Get the weight of that massive gut of yours into it.”

Wishing he was pulling the man’s leg from its socket, the better to beat him with, Gervais managed to pull the boots free.

“There . . . ” Vicario sighed, wriggling his toes.

Gervais leaned against the wall, doing his best to catch his breath and ignore the smell coming off the noble’s stockings. He didn’t even want to look at the bed he knew he would not be allowed to rest in.

After a moment he sensed Vicario watching him. He glanced at the younger man.

“No wonder you were caught, thief.”

Gervais leaned over, sucking wind. Eventually he replied, as respectfully as he could given the circumstances, “While it helps when running, wind is not—” another breath, “everything.”

Vicario snorted, disbelieving or mildly entertained, Gervais could not say.

****

So, what do you think of the latecomer, young Bertram?” the minister asked.

“Outspoken.” Bertram answered, moving his piece. His opponent’s next move would prove the turning point beyond which there would be no saving the game.

“Ha! Your gift for understatement is almost as good as those Englishmen of my acquaintance.”

Bertram smiled though he did not find the observation funny. Best to keep the local happy, however. All the development taking place back home needs funding, and the family coffers can carry only so much debt . . . He hid a grin. And when, exactly, did I start thinking of Grantville as home?

Concentrate: you have to lose without appearing to throw the game, he thought, eyeing his host.

Gregoire Sauveterre was a power on the ruling council, and the reason Bertram had been sent to Geneva. Gordon Partow, an up-timer studying for his ordination as a Calvinist minister, had reported Sauveterre’s interest in the USE’s banking system last year. Knowledge of the financial practices used in the USE were not, precisely, state secrets, but they were a powerful attractant for rulers of states whose coffers had never recovered from the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Knowing how successful the banking enterprises would be in those states that would eventually comprise the Swiss Confederacy was reassurance to the USE leadership, who recognized the need for strong financial allies. Better still if the people of the Confederacy could acquire other means to support themselves than taking service as mercenaries in the armies of the USE’s enemies.

Prime Minister Stearns and his advisors decided informal and discrete contact would be best, what with Cardinal Richelieu’s close interest in everything Grantville and the USE did. So Bertram had been dispatched with several useful books and a stern admonition to remain in the background unless it looked as if the venture would fail completely.

He glanced across at his opponent’s contented smile. Failure did not seem likely, given how Sauveterre said things stood with the council.

He sighed. Sauveterre’s continuing contentment was another reason Bertram moved his queen instead of taking the knight and setting up his victory in three moves. However cooperative the man was, Bertram still didn’t like having all of his information passed, and therefore filtered, by the one source. It was a weakness he would have seen remedied if he’d had more resources. As things stood, Sauveterre had to be kept happy.

Sauveterre apparently had no such concerns, and took merciless advantage of the opening offered, placing Bertram’s king in check.

The younger man pulled at his lip as if suddenly vexed, “Has the council considered the man was sent here to ruin the talks?”

“He seems to be doing that, regardless of his patron’s intent.”

Bertram nodded, moved his rook to remove the threatening piece. “I can’t believe the duc would wish to sustain such poor relations when, by agreement, he would first gain an ally aligned with the Confederacy of Helvetian States, and second, gain considerable financial assets. With so many of his holdings under quarantine to prevent spreading the plague, you’d think he needs coin for his coffers.”

“You pre-suppose two things: One, that the duc is his own man. Two, that either the duc or the seigneur possess the sense to know where their own best interests lie.”

No, I don’t. Pretending surprise, he asked, “Whose man is Seigneur Vicario, then?”

The minister again placed Bertram’s king in check, “The bishop of Geneva.”

Genuine surprise lifted Bertram’s brows, “But why?”

A shrug. “The bishop is not the man of God his predecessor was. Lacking that fine man’s holiness, he hasn’t even managed to maintain the flock Francis managed to return to Rome ‘s shadow, let alone reclaim the seat better men than he managed to lose.”

Bertram cocked his head, mildly surprised a leading Calvinist would speak so highly of a Catholic bishop, even one dead many years. “But how does the bishop gain the allegiance of one of the duc’s men? So many of them are Huguenots who fled to Savoy for protection after Saint Bartholomew’s Day.”

The elder stroked his beard, nodding approval. “You know the history of our struggle, young man. Not all Lutherans do.”

Sorry, you’re the only Christian in the room, putz.

Unaware of Bertram’s inner monologue, Gregoire continued. “But even back then there were more than a few nobles already in Savoy and the French Piedmont who would have sided with both Rome and the Spanish, had they not seen which way the wind was blowing.”

Bertram nodded, mind racing. “But how did you learn who was behind the man?”

A shrug and a movement of the man’s beard that Bertram took for a smile. “A little bird told me disparate facts. Like a mosaic, they but needed placement in the proper mortar to make a picture.”

“And may I know the facts you learned?” Bertram asked with a smile, putting his king on its side, ceding the game.

The older man leaned forward, eyes glinting in the candlelight. “Just one. The man with him, the fat servant?”

Bertram nodded. “Yes.”

“He was being held for the ecclesiastic court in Annecy three months ago. A thief. Apparently quite accomplished. He made off with the lion’s share of the bishop’s personal portable wealth. He was caught only because his daughter made the mistake of telling her love she was leaving town, never to return. The bishop’s men caught him on the road as a result.”

“And what was the sentence?”

“That’s just it. There was no judgment entered. He disappeared from both prison and rolls.”

“So the servant is the bishop’s creature, does it necessarily follow the seigneur is, as well?”

“Perhaps not without other information I possess that you, alas, do not,” the minister said, picking up the pieces and beginning to re-set the board.

“Another game, perhaps?” Bertram asked, knowing that to press at the wrong time would do his cause no service.

The minister shushed him, glancing at the door. “You know we followers of Calvin don’t play games nor dance. Such is unseemly in God’s eyes.”

“Oh, of course. Perhaps, as the ancients called such things, more ‘exercises of state’?”

The minister strangled a laugh. “Yes!”

And you’ll tell me all I need know by night’s end.

“Exercises of state indeed . . . ” The older man chuckled, hands busy on the board, finishing the set-up.

****

So, how went the council today?”

Vicario’s lips twisted in a snarl. “I made better progress than you, I suspect.”

“So sorry, I was but trying to make conversation.”

“Are we now a married couple, to be making small talk?”

“No, seigneur.”

“Then leave me to my work.”

“Yes, seigneur.”

It was Vicario who couldn’t maintain the silence he claimed to desire: “What progress have you made?”

“All is ready. It is only the timing of the thing that remains.”

Vicario’s mouth dropped open. “In less than a week, you have it arranged?”

“You needn’t look so surprised, seigneur.” He couldn’t keep all the sarcasm from his voice as he went on, “We are about God’s business, after all.”

“I hope your bitterness will not cause undue haste.”

“I won’t have my daughter in Annecy any longer than she has to be.”

The younger man snapped his mouth closed, clearly wishing to find fault with Gervais’ answer. He shook his head after a moment. “Tell me how it’s to be done, then.”

“Do you really need to know? I would rather not say.”

Vicario’s lips thinned. “Just tell me.”

Gervais nodded, “Once you have chosen the day, I will wait till the services are done and the cathedral empties for the night.”

“Where will you wait?”

“The crypt.”

Vicario’s brows rose. “You have no difficulty with disturbing the dead?”

Gervais looked away. “The bishop promises absolution for my actions on his behalf, and a full pardon for me and mine for my earlier, earthly crimes.”

“And what of after?”

“Everything will be as I was ordered to make it before I return here.”

The noble didn’t appear to recognize the careful response for what it was. “And if they catch you?”

“They will not.”

Vicario tossed his head. “I’m sure our friend the bishop would tell you that such pride surely went before your fall.”

“That he did. But I argued then, and still do, that it was my daughter’s love that led to my capture, not my sins.”

The noble’s smile was dark, and held nothing of humor. “And yet, despite your thoughts on the matter, here you are.”

“Yes. Here I am. When great men feel their interests lie counter to those of the common man’s, there is little the common man can offer except compliance.”

“You sometimes speak like a man of learning, thief.”

“I had some schooling as a child, seigneur.” More than you, I wager.

“Ah, some priest take an interest in you?” Vicario made the very idea sound lecherous.

“Something like that,” Gervais said. He managed to avoid further conversation by leaving the room, ostensibly to collect the seigneur’s meal.

****

And where have you been? Bertram thought, watching Seigneur Vicario’s thief enter the Cheval Blanc from the courtyard. The commons was quiet this early. Bertram himself had only just taken his place, having been driven from sleep when the innkeep’s boy began his daily molestation of the chickens. Not that he minded, he had hens of his own to check the laying of; one having just entered the inn.

The Savoyard’s man seemed far too sober for someone who’d been out all night, even if the Genevans were inclined to tolerate such debauchery as an all-night bender.

Catching the Frenchman’s eye, Bertram gestured with his drink. “Come share a cup with me. I do not like to eat alone.”

The fat man stopped, gave a tired smile, and changed direction, joining Bertram at his table.

Taking note of the man’s fatigued stride, Bertram poured the man a cup of weak beer that passed for part of breakfast here and gestured at the bread and cheese set out for him by their hostess. “Break your fast, Monsieur . . . ?”

The man hesitated. “Gervais, sir.”

Bertram pushed the bench across from him back with one foot, repeating the gesture.

Gervais sat heavily and took a piece of cheese. “My thanks, sir.”

Bertram noticed a whitish smear of something—dust or chalk—on the sleeve of the arm that reached for the cheese. Now, I wonder where that came from? Filing the observation away, he smiled and shook his head. “I’m no noble, Gervais.”

A flashing grin. “All the same, very noble of you.”

Bertram chuckled at the wry humor. “Not so noble a motive. I’m starved for conversation this early.”

Gervais yawned. “Afraid I’m not yet fully able to feed your need. I’m hardly awake myself.”

“And what had you out all hours, the soft touch of a young and pretty thing I hope?” Bertram asked, quirking an eyebrow.

The Frenchman snorted. “While it is young, the seigneur’s horse is all hard muscle, hoof and bone. He has me watching the damn thing all night. You would think the big brute was his lover, the way he insists it be lavished with care.”

Bertram smiled and took another drink to cover his thoughts. And that, as the up-timers would put it, is absolute bullshit. And not very good fieldcraft, telling two absolutely different cover stories so close in time and space. If you’re working for Richelieu, he’s not getting full value for his coin. Clément already told me the tale of the young woman you told him you would be visiting nightly. Then again, he clearly sees me as some kind of noble; more like Seigneur Vicario than a burgher or peasant he could rely on to share certain attitudes.

Swallowing. “An indifferent horseman myself, I do see the prudence in protecting one’s investment. Such horses do not come cheap.”

“That’s a fact.” The man nodded. “And what is it that you do, being an indifferent horseman?”

“I am here to study at the university and, coincidentally, report back on how things are proceeding with the current matter under consideration by the council.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, while my father might labor under the belief that I’m wasting my time getting a foreign education, the Austrian lordling my father collects the rents for is somewhat different from his peers—and my father—in that he actually looks forward in time, rather than backward, when planning for the future.”

****

At last the cathedral grew silent and descended into darkness.

Why on God’s green earth did you ever agree to do this? Gervais asked himself.

The same answer he’d had for months now was graven in his mind’s eye: Monique, thin and dirty, eyes tearing in the light of the bailiff’s torch, begging forgiveness of him, of all people.

Now, after all the waiting, you haven’t time for this. Matins will start soon.

Pulling a slow match from his pocket and using the attached striker to light it, he used its dim glow to find the small bullseye lantern he’d hidden in the crypt on an earlier excursion. The lantern quickly caught.

Reaching under his heavy tunic, he unbuckled his belly. Catching the weight in both hands, he lowered it to the steps and checked the seal. Satisfied, he shuttered the lantern until only the air holes were emitting light, and picked it and the bladder up. Holding the heavy weight before him, he followed it up the narrow stair.

Gervais walked across the cavernous apse of the cathedral, passing the chair and pulpit that had been enshrined by Calvin’s followers to approach the altar.

He inspected the work of the last few nights. Finding all was as it should be, he raised his eyes heavenward and said a brief prayer. He knelt behind the altar and put the bladder between his knees. He carefully unwound the lead wire that prevented the stopper from popping out should he bump against something in his guise as kettle-bellied servant.

Gervais carefully wound a third of the wire around his finger, then folded the remaining metal to form a stand. Setting his handiwork aside, he eased the stopper from the large mouth of the bladder and looked inside. The vial was not immediately visible. He gently tilted the bladder to one side, careful not to spill the contents. It took a moment, but the end of a glass vial slid into view. He reached in and carefully withdrew it. Placing the vial in the stand, he replaced the stopper and set the bladder aside. Sweating, he pulled a chamois from his belt-line and wiped his hands. The slaked lime wasn’t only caustic, it reacted strongly to water, something he planned to take advantage of, in due time. For now, though, it had to be kept absolutely dry if he was to keep to the timetable.

Opening his right shirtsleeve and pulling it up, he revealed what appeared to be a long bracelet of copper. He unwound the hollow metal tube from his arm, careful not to pinch the relatively soft metal. Inserting one end into the acorn atop the lantern, he carefully worked to open that end into a wider funnel-shape.

Pulling the hand drill and soft mallet from their slots inside the leather and taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, Gervais set to work on the third and last hole, praying this would be the last night he’d require.

****

We shall pray upon our path and render our decision Monday,” the elder said, a roll of thunder punctuating the statement. Spring thunderstorms were not common, but suited the mood in the council chamber well.

Bertram barely stopped a sigh of relief passing his lips. Such would not be proper, given he was present only as an observer, with supposedly little at stake. He needn’t have bothered, as those he shared the gallery with began to whisper among themselves, providing plenty of cover noise.

“And?” Vicario asked, lips pulled into the probably unconscious and certainly habitual sneer Bertram had grown to detest over the last weeks.

The elder spokesman frowned, “I do not understand the question.”

“Very well, I will make it explicit. Why the wait?”

“Because the council needs to confer and pray upon the matter, as I said.”

“I do not see why. The duc has pledged a portion of his treasury to back the formation of the bank, has he not?”

Several councilors nodded, but the elder shook his head. “And that is good, but we, the free people of Geneva, are somewhat wary of the promises of Catholic princes.”

The remark caused murmurs among the watchers sharing the gallery with him, but Bertram ignored them, kept his eyes on the Savoyard. Not so undiplomatic as it might seem, given the elder probably wanted to come right out and say “Savoyard Princes.”

The seigneur’s sneer became a toothy grin. “Well then, I suppose we wait for greed to overcome distrust.”

Several of the councilors muttered darkly. They don’t appreciate being reminded how precarious their financial situation is, and even less how much they need the Duc to do as he’s promised.

The elder councilor, red-faced and clearly reaching the end of his diplomatic rope, nodded curtly and rose to his feet, signaling an end to the session.

Most everyone followed suit, though Seigneur Vicario remained, putting his boots up on the council table. The councilors chose to ignore the man’s disrespectful posturing, filing out through the side door.

The audience slowly left, the day’s session causing quite a few animated conversations to linger in the air. Bertram waited, watching t he Savoyard from the shadows.

Why should he be so entirely pleased with himself? Frustrates me no end I can’t see what either of his patrons might win from his disrespect.

Realizing his presence would be noted if he stayed much longer, he left. The wind was up, and the skies weeping. Pulling the collar of his coat up, he walked up the hill toward the cathedral and his lodgings. He pulled at his lip the entire way, as if by pulling flesh he could pull the Savoyard’s thoughts from behind the sneer.

He had no more answers by the time the White Horse came into view.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Weimer,” Jean, the proprietor’s son, called from the shelter of the porch.

“And to you, Jean,” Bertram returned absently, turning for his quarters and the hope of dry clothes.

Lightning flashed almost directly overhead, followed closely by a rolling crash of thunder so loud it made Bertram jump despite knowing it was coming.

A horse screamed in the stable, the human-like sound followed closely by the heavy, thudding blows of hooves on wood.

“Woah, Ezio!” Clément’s strained voice carried across the court.

A second man shouted, “Watch it!” an instant before a splintering crash.

Bertram charged into the stable to lend a hand.

He paused at the door, taking in the scene: Seigneur Vicario’s stallion was thrashing, hind hoof run cleanly through the wooden gate of its stall. Clément, hands up, was trying to both calm the horse and climb over from the stall next door. Seigneur Vicario’s servant was bent over, either trying to immobilize the horse’s hoof or free it, Bertram couldn’t tell.

Unsure how to help, Bertram hesitated.

Clément dropped into the stall with the horse.

Screaming, the stallion thrashed again, kicking at the panel holding his leg in its splintered maw. The powerful kick crunched through the weakened wood and into Gervais, tossing him across the stable like an angry child’s discarded doll. The man fetched up against the far wall, coming to rest upright with his back to the wall.

Clément worked to calm the stallion as it backed most of the way out of its stall, snorting and stamping.

As soon as it appeared even half safe, Bertram rushed to the stricken man. He knelt, trying to remember everything about first aid they’d taught him in Grantville.

Gervais looked unconscious, but his graying head wasn’t at the odd angle that might indicate a broken neck. The head didn’t appear to have any wounds or large swellings, a good sign. Bertram pushed fingers into the neck, found a strong pulse, nodded in satisfaction. He next put his fingers under the man’s nose over the mouth, felt warm breath. Consciously ignoring the damp stain spreading from the man’s belly, he checked the collarbone and ribs. They felt sound. He moved on to the belly, which was damp with a clear liquid he forced himself to ignore. The abdomen felt . . . odd.

Odd, not good. If he’s ruptured something internal, there’s nothing to be done. But this . . . Trying not to think about what he was about to see and just do, Bertram lifted the man’s tunic to take a look.

What, upon God’s green . . . leather?

****

Gervais came to in a puddle. Not the first time, but he couldn’t remember the last time. Come to think of it, I haven’t got drunk since my Rochelle died.

Not drunk, then.

A horse whicker brought him a little closer to the now. Memory surged. Damn, the belly burst!

He moved too quickly, threw up in the straw.

A friendly pat on his shoulder. “Well now, Gervais, just who the blazes are you?”

Gervais—slowly—turned his head to look at Bertram, swallowed. “No one special.” It looked like they were alone in the stable.

A smile greeted that claim. “Come now, I find that hard to believe. A man who can disappear from the bishop’s prison and reappear in the company of another of the Bishop’s foils is no common thief.”

“So you know who I am, then?”

A shrug. “Does one ever truly know the heart of another?”

Gervais smiled weakly, liking the younger man, even in his deceit.

Don’t. Liking him won’t make silencing him easier. Find out how much time you have. “Where’s Clément?”

“Sent away, so we might speak freely.”

“Talk?”

“First, I don’t believe we have been honestly introduced. I am Bertram Weimar. Second, I am here on behalf of the USE, and the USE is very much interested in the success of the bank. Third, I don’t think you want to be here, working with the Savoyard.”

Gervais grinned through his pain. “Was I supposed to believe that tale about Austrian nobles? As to that last, I would give a fine Gallic shrug, but I hurt too much.”

A genuine chuckle, then: “What hold does the bishop have over you?”

“Why?”

Earnest brown eyes watched him closely. “Because I might be able to help in exchange for whatever you can tell me of the bishop’s plans.”

He doesn’t know what else was in the bladder, doesn’t know what I’ve been up to . . .

“I can see you are thinking. Care to share?”

Gervais chuckled, regretting it immediately. His belly, the real one, hurt like . . . well, like he’d been kicked by a horse. He used the pain to stall a bit, thinking hard. You can’t pretend you are some kind of killer, even if you weren’t just knocked out by that bastard Vicario’s stupid stallion. This young man is offering help, and you always knew the bishop is not likely to keep his word and release Monique until he’s got full revenge for my thieving, if ever. Not to mention all the miraculous things you’ve heard about the Americans and USE.

But now, if Bertram puts a stop to things, the bishop is sure to kill her.

He looked hard at the younger man. All right, you think you can help. Let’s see what you’re willing to offer for the information. Might be we can both get what we want.

“Your people, can they really help?”

“I can’t promise success, certainly not without knowing more, but as you have probably heard regarding events in England and elsewhere, we are not without resources.” He paused a moment before going on in a slight rush, “Resources we might not be willing to expend unless you show some value for our investment.”

It was the brutal honesty of the second half of the young man’s answer that convinced Gervais. “The bishop did take exception to my breaking into his vault and appropriating his treasures. So much so that he now holds my daughter as surety against my continuing cooperation.”

“I see,” Bertram said, eyes darkening. “Not the man of God his predecessor was, indeed.”

“What?”

The younger man shrugged. “Just something I was told a few nights ago,” he said. “On to more important matters. Do you know where she’s being held?”

“The old prison, Annecy.”

Bertram pulled at his lower lip with the fingers of one hand. “That could be a problem.”

Gervais snorted, regretted it as his lower ribs protested. When he could speak again, “I should say so. It’s probably the most secure dungeon in Savoy.”

“Do you know a way in?”

“Only the way I was brought in, as a prisoner.”

“Is Duc Amadeus aware of what you were sent here to do?”

Gervais slowly shook his head, which protested by pounding. “Not that I know of. But then, his mightiness the Bishop Jean-François De Sales doesn’t include me in his private political plots. He is a most unkind prince of the church in that regard.”

Bertram grinned but stuck to the point. “The de Sales family hasn’t been on great terms with the duc since the death of the last bishop, some in-house squabble for power.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Gervais replied. He decided to offer something he’d already considered. “But I don’t think what I was sent to do was meant to please the duc in any way.”

“Oh? Why is that?”

“You understand why I might hesitate to tell all, don’t you?”

“Right.” Bertram pulled at his lower lip. “This is harder than I was led to believe.”

“What?”

“Turning an asset.”

“What?”

“Never mind. Suffice to say I thought it would be easier to get your cooperation.”

Gervais would have snorted but stopped at the last moment, knowing it would hurt. “Perhaps some of Vicario’s history will help convince you I want to help?”

Bertram nodded, gesturing him to proceed.

“His father was one of the Savoyards executed by the Genevans after the attack the locals call L’Escalade.”

“How does that help clear up matters with the duc?”

“Nobles are supposed to look out for one another. The old duc refused to admit he was behind the attack and forbade the nobles of his realm from raising ransoms for those captured in the failed attack. Vicario doesn’t seem to like anyone, but he harbors a special hate in that little black heart of his for the House of Savoy for that failure and the Genevans for killing his father.”

Bertram’s brows rose. “Well now, there’s a powerful motive.” He went back to pulling his lip.

Gervais let him be, began rubbing his temples in a vain attempt to relieve the pain behind them.

“What can you tell me?”

“The plot is already in motion. The duc will not be happy with the result, nor will the council. I doubt Vicario will be pleased either, if he wasn’t already ordered to kill me once events ripen.”

“Will anyone be hurt?”

“Not by what I’ve done, no.”

“But they might be harmed by the reactions of those affected?”

Gervais slowly nodded. “Almost certainly.”

“How much time do I have?”

“Sunday morning.”

That rocked the younger man back on his heels. “Can you put a stop to what you’ve done?” he asked after another bout of lip-pulling.

“No, though I can minimize the damage, given time and—” he couldn’t finish. The words wouldn’t come.

“And assurances your daughter is safe?” Bertram said, understanding.

Gervais nodded, thinking the younger man was just telling him what he wanted to hear. He couldn’t quite keep the bitterness from leaking past his lips, “If it’s not too much to ask.”

Bertram grinned again. “I’ll give it some thought while I ride.”

“Wait, ride?”

“I can’t very well free her from here, can I?”

“Just like that, you’ll set her free?”

“I’ll try, yes.”

“How?”

“I have an idea.”

****

The cardinal is put out with the situation, Bishop De Sales, very put out,” Bertram said, dripping muddy water on the palace marble as he rose from kissing the bishop’s ring. The receiving chamber was small, but dressed in too much cold stone for petitioners to gain any comfort from proximity to the bishop. When he’d presented his story at the palace, the bishop had immediately agreed to meet him.

“Oh?” the current Bishop De Sales answered, too mildly for Bertram.

Push on, keeping him on the back foot is your best chance.

“Yes. He believed your people under control, yet hears the duc is about to enter into a pact with the Genevans and you have managed to muddy the waters with your own agenda.”

A moue of distaste. “Hears, does he?”

“Hears, and is most displeased by it.”

“And where was his displeasure when I petitioned him regarding recovering the seat of my holy office?”

Bertram bowed slightly, but didn’t back down in the face of the powerful churchman’s anger. “I am sorry, Lord Bishop, I was sent with Cardinal Richelieu’s questions, not his answers.”

With obvious distaste, De Sales took the hint and swallowed his pride, just as Bertram hoped he would. “And what would the cardinal wish of his humble servant?”

“He asks that you put a stop to your plot in Geneva and provide me with the daughter of the man you thought to make your agent.”

“Thought to—” The bishop stopped, shook his head in disbelief, “His Red Eminence is well informed.”

Bertram cocked an eyebrow, glad of the rainwater that hid the nervous sweat he felt oozing from every pore. “You, perhaps, thought he should be otherwise?”

“No, of course not.”

“You might consider how the thief managed to get his hands on your treasures so easily, and recall remarks made by his confidant and advisor on the use of one poison to counteract another at the Diet of Regensberg?”

The bishop looked lost, which was exactly where Bertram wanted him, “Poison! What?”

Bertram leaned close and dropped his voice, forcing the churchman to lean forward in his seat to hear. “His Eminence has been known to use pretexts to get things wanted by his friends and allies. Even when those friends are, themselves, unaware of his hand in the act.”

“What are you saying?” the bishop whispered.

“I would not presume to knowledge of such a great man’s thoughts, but I believe the cardinal had plans for your treasury. Something about stringing several causes together to get first the duc and then the pope to move on your behalf in the matter of recovering the seat of your office. He, therefore, employed the Frenchman toward this end. Now, learning of your . . . re-purposing of his tool, His Eminence would like to ask for it back before you break something delicate.”

“He— I?” The man’s eyes were darting, searching for something to latch onto in the confused and entirely imaginary sea Bertram had thrown him into. “Nonsense!”

Bertram’s bow was immediate and deep. “I apologize, Lord Bishop, I meant no offense against the cardinal’s good name by giving voice to my thoughts. It is merely fatigue and your good reputation as a valued ally to His Eminence that led me into error. I will restrict myself to his requirements and cease to comment on them from now on.”

“Indeed!” the bishop said, but the heat was gone.

I have you, Bertram thought, recognizing defeat in the eyes of the man across from him.

It was all Bertram could do not to sag with relief; hoping Cardinal Richelieu intimidated the starch from the collars of his allies was not the same as knowing how they would react when placed under stress. If De Sales felt even a fraction of the unease that had the acid churning in his gut, Bertram had conveyed exactly the right misinformation.

“Again, my apologies, Lord Bishop.” Bertram paused, waiting for permission to continue.

The bishop waved a hand, giving him leave to speak. “His Eminence would like the girl given to me. Now. Oh, and I will need mounts for the both of us, mine was blown in my rush to retrieve the situation.”

“And the cardinal will reward me?”

The proper response was a difficult pass between the mountains of too general and too vague. “I don’t know, precisely, but I’ll be sure to report your quick compliance, when I get it.”

****

Bertram is not back. The thought would not leave Gervais, hadn’t left him since last night. Hadn’t left while he packed the seigneur’s things for a quick escape. Wouldn’t leave while he sat watching his idle hands, long finished with the few things Seigneur De Turin traveled with. Sighing, Gervais made his way down the stair.

Vicario was already sitting down to eat in the common room. As Gervais entered, the Savoyard slapped his rapier down on the trestle, denting the fine finish with the basket.

“Break your fast, Gervais?” Nadine offered, trying to ignore the nobleman.

Bertram is not back! he wanted to scream at her.

“Please.”

Gervais noted the quiet of the room as the matron served him. The stablehand had already eaten and left. Clément had been making himself scarce since Friday, avoiding both Vicario and his servant at Bertram’s request. He had little appetite, but ate anyway, fortifying himself against whatever the day might hold.

The bell tolled, calling the faithful to Sunday service.

Bertram is not back.

Vicario rose to his feet, a smile, dark but genuine, teasing the edges of his mouth.

Gervais wanted to kill him. Slowly. With a dull blade.

“He’s not going to services, is he?” Nadine asked as the Savoyard stepped out into the Sunday sun.

“I think he might.”

Her blue eyes widened. “Why? He’s no friend to our faith.”

“No, that he is not,” Gervais said with a sigh.

“The men say he’s just here to provoke ill will.”

“Bank on it, madam,” Gervais muttered, rising to follow.

“What?”

“Nothing. My thanks for your fine hospitality. I do believe we’ll be leaving soon, and I’d rather not have the Savoyard screaming in my ear because I slowed his progress by taking the time to thank you.”

She giggled behind a hand. “He would, wouldn’t he!”

He nodded, a tiny part of him noticing what a fine woman she was.

“Gervais!” Vicario shouted from the court, shattering the Sunday quiet and Nadine’s good humor.

“As he’s doing already,” Gervais murmured before taking his leave.

The day seemed to promise warm embraces, morning sun already drying the ground it touched.

“Everything prepared?” Vicario asked, tapping his riding gloves against one leg.

Bertram is not back.

“All that can be, seigneur.”

“Well then, let’s go to church, shall we?” He turned.

“I don’t think it a good idea, seigneur,” Gervais said.

“Just as I don’t care what you think, thief,” the noble said without turning to face him.

Gervais ground his teeth and followed.

“If your incompetence hasn’t caused you to fail our patron, today should be the first step in seeing your daughter freed. Though I should think she’ll be better off with the bishop than with a penniless thief.”

Consciously removing his hand from the handle of the small knife at his belt, Gervais fumed silently, the stress eating at his stomach. Bertram is not back, he and my daughter are probably dead! I’ll be damned if I let this ball of horse dung treat me like I’m not worthy of even the tiniest courtesy! I swear I’ll kill him the next time he opens that sneering hole in insult.

Struggling for calm, he looked for distraction. Gervais had often, since coming to the city, noticed how few people were on the streets at any given time. Sunday services were the exception, with a great number of families making their way toward the massive structure. Even so, the crowd made less noise than similar ones anywhere else he’d been. Even the children were sober and quiet here.

The clopping of horse’s hooves drew his eye to the far side of the square. He squinted. A pair of riders, one in front of the other. Maddeningly, he couldn’t discern details. They were riding toward the cathedral. He climbed the porch to get a better view.

He glanced back, looking for the Savoyard. Vicario was already in the portico of the cathedral. Gervais prayed he’d keep going.

Gervais stopped, staring at the horseman in the lead. Saw him wave.

Bertram.

Monique!

Gervais leapt down the stairs, charging across the square at the horses.

Bertram reined in a moment before Monique did. “Are we late?” he asked.

He didn’t hear, all of his attention on the only thing in the world: Monique. She looked pale and thin, but otherwise healthy.

“Papa?” she asked, tears welling in her eyes as she reached for him.

Crying himself, Gervais could only nod. He helped her from the saddle and folded her in a hug, crushing her to him.

Bertram cleared his throat. “We’d have been here sooner, but Monique made a run for it as soon as we cleared the gates of Annecy. I had the devil’s own time catching her. She didn’t believe I was there on your behalf.”

Gervais smiled up at the younger man, his voice thick. “My thanks, Bertram.”

“You are most welcome, but there is the small matter of payment for my services,” he answered, sliding from the saddle with a sigh of relief.

“Payment, Papa? You have no money.”

He snorted. “That’s so, but Bertram isn’t after money.” He looked back at the crowd, most of whom had already entered the cathedral. “I don’t think there’s anything to be done, Bertram. The altar will crack into three pieces during services today.”

“What?”

“Slaked lime paste stuffed in holes I carved out these last few weeks. Should be done expanding in the next hour or so, and crack the altar in three pieces. It should even resemble a lightning bolt.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“I think he’s little involved. This is a sacrilege of a sort I doubt he would approve of.”

“Wh—?” Gervais could see the wheels turning behind Bertram’s wide-shot eyes.

“And it won’t look like anyone did a thing. Have you any idea how hard it was to get a good color match for an altar I hadn’t even seen?” Gervais continued with a touch of pride.

“Damn.”

Relief still winging through his heart, Gervais grinned. “Yes, I probably am damned, despite the bishop’s promises to the contrary.”

“How?”

“Lots of practice. The bishop still owns the quarry that provided the stone here.”

“Be honest, Papa. It’s the same technique you used to crack the bishop’s vault.”

He nodded.

Bertram was a smart man, and ran through the possibilities quite quickly. He shook his head. “So the bishop wants the deal to fall through and at the same time embarrass or possibly even cause a crisis of faith amongst the Calvinists?”

Gervais nodded again.

Monique tutted. “Oh, Papa, this sounds even worse than when you sold that relic to th—”

“Monique, please. Let Bertram think.”

“No way to stop the reaction?”

“No, none that I know of.”

The man began pulling at his lip. “Out of interest, how were you going to limit the damage if I got back earlier?”

“I was going to scale the building last night and drop some stone on the altar.” The older man shrugged, “Not perfect, but the best I could come up with.”

“Not bad, but not something we can use just now.”

“What’s the plan, then?”

“Let me think.”

“We have an hour or so. No rush.”

“Now who is preventing him thinking, Papa?”

****

Bertram was pulling his lip, still undecided, when he spied Vicario stalking from the cathedral, face purple and every movement stiff with anger. “Don’t look now, but here comes the Savoyard. My, he looks unhappy.”

The sound of quite a hubbub carried from the cathedral behind him.

“That doesn’t sound good,” Monique said.

“No, it doesn’t,” her father agreed.

“Stay where you are, bastard!” Vicario shouted, pointing at Gervais. He covered the distance nearly as fast as Gervais had. Behind him, several people shot from the cathedral, heading in different directions.

Not panicked. More like runners sent for something.

“Wonder what has him so angry?”

“I think we might find out,” Bertram answered, drawing his horse pistol from the scabbard and cocking it fully. Not at all certain he would avoid being arrested if he had to use it, Bertram kept the weapon concealed behind his leg.

“You scum!” Vicario shouted, drawing close, “You had to know!”

“What?” Gervais answered, pushing his daughter to stand on the other side of her horse from the enraged Savoyard.

“Don’t pretend you didn’t know they had such treasures! But God has prevented your infamy! You’ll have no benefit of your vile scheming!” the Savoyard screeched.

The horses shied away from the noise, revealing Monique. The Savoyard finally had a look at her. Actually looked, rather than seeing her as merely an obstacle between himself and Gervais. “And there is the proof of your infamy! You made some deal to have your daughter freed!” Vicario’s face twisted, naked steel flashed in the rising sun. He lunged.

Bertram, too slow, raised the heavy pistol. He pulled the trigger, dropping the hammer to ignite the powder in the pan. Vicario Di Turin buried a handspan of his rapier in Gervais’ guts, expression twisted with hate just as Bertram’s pistol roared and bucked. Dirty white smoke connected his barrel to the nobleman for an instant before the Savoyard fell atop Gervais, skull pulped by more than an ounce of lead.

Bertram, never having killed a man before, stared at the corpse, blood rushing in his ears and the taste of copper and sulfur in his mouth.

Monique entered his field of view, crawling to her father. “Papa?”

Her father shoved the corpse from him, “Damn, but that stings.”

“Papa?”

“I’m alright, Monique. Cut, but not so deep I’m like to die.”

Several men were eyeing him from the cathedral, eyes hard. Slowly it dawned on him they were considering rushing him. Shaken, Bertram dropped the pistol to the flagstones.

He knelt, tried to speak, couldn’t find his voice. He swallowed, tried again. “That belly has saved your life twice now, Gervais.”

“Yes. Yes it has. I don’t think I’ll wear it again, all the same.”

Clément approached from the cathedral, a group of burghers on his heels.

“Clément, he went mad, tried to run Gervais through.”

“We saw.” The men behind the stable hand nodded, murmuring among themselves.

“What did he see inside that so enraged him?”

Clément’s smile was broad, “God answered our prayers!”

“Amen,” the men behind the local chorused.

Bertram and Gervais shared a look.

Clément laughed at their expressions. “It’s true! The altar, it broke just as we were entering. But inside, inside there’s a great blessing in our time of need.”

Gervais didn’t seem to understand any more than Bertram. “Huh?”

“We don’t need the duc’s money any more.”

“What?” Bertram asked.

“There was a great store of treasure hidden within the altar! The minister, he said it’s hoarded coin from the days of the Catholic bishops!”

It was too much. Bertram began to chuckle, then to laugh. If there is one thing you can bank on in life, it’s that God plays the very best of jokes.