BOOK ONE: THE ROGUE DECAMPS
A FINE KETTLE OF FISH
Sly was glum, glum as he’d ever been, ever in his life.
AFTER TENSE HOURS with testy officials in a stuffy room, he’d followed his embattled superior down a secret stair and through a concealed door providing unobserved access to expansive formal gardens.
. . . . . He knew what was coming. They were about to have – the conversation, he called
it – yet again. He tried a diversionary tactic, a string of acidic quips assessing the intellects of the men they had spent the afternoon sparring with. In response, he got annoyed shrugs and a variety of mirthless sounds, snorts, snarls, and sighs aplenty.
In his best nothing-fazes-me voice he exclaimed, “Sir! We are out of sorts. I can’t
face another quarrel. I’m not up to it just now. We’ll talk it out tomorrow. What do you say?”
. . . . . The old man tramped sullenly along the brickwork path. Sly followed dutifully.
Finally, out of sight of anyone who might be in the vicinity, behind a dense hedge, the
graybeard bent low, a hand cupped on one knee to steady himself nose to nose with his
diminutive associate. The other hand clutched his cloak tight at his throat. His thin lips, half hidden in bunched fabric, frowned grotesquely. “Look here,” he spat, “You would abandon me to those fat-heads? I refuse to believe it.”
. . . . . The hunched form was tettering. Though small of stature, nowhere near the other’s heft, Sly, out of sincere concern, resisted the impulse to back off. To hide his anguish, that was beyond him. “I have failed you,” he hissed. “It’s my own fault, of course, but the harm is done. Please! Let me slip away. Long-term, mind, none of this sojourn garbage. We’re beyond an easy fix here. Things will settle down once I’m gone, I’m sure of it.”
. . . . . “Don’t leave me!” shrieked the anguished ancient. He lurched toward a stone bench, collapsed onto it, and buried his face in his hands.
. . . . . “There’s no other way,” howled Sly. “I’m sorry, but there is no other way!” Their combined wails brought attendants running, ending the painful exchange.
. . . . . Is the wobble an inmate of an asylum? You will think so when I tell you that he’s
conversing with a cat. Sly, Sylvester Boots, happens to be a feline, that talks, I swear
to God. Swallow that – I’ll have powerful arguments in support of the assertion by and by – and nothing else in my tale will throw you.
. . . . . Rupert, that’s the wreck’s name, is no ordinary sad-sack. He’s a king, and far from an impressive one. Timid from childhood, he had aged into one alarmingly withdrawn. His habit was to brush long bangs over his eyes, using the heavy crown to hold a flimsy screen in place, to conceal the panic that pinched his brow whenever he was forced to commit to a course of action. Forthright pronouncements felt uncomfortable on his tongue. He was not sure of his stance on the smallest issue. He was easily persuaded to just about anything.
. . . . . The man regularly sat blank-faced, unable to respond to a question until the cat hopped onto his lap and whispered instructions. Circumspect was the kindest thing that could be said of him. His conduct went beyond the usual royal fatuity. It could not be branded judicious temporizing, nor cunning dissimulation, nor, least of all, innocuous bafflement. It was dangerous dithering. Even his friends conceded that he was unfit to rule. But they propped him on the throne, for the son promised to be an even greater disaster.
. . . . . Rupert’s tiny kingdom occupied a strategic position in a contentious Europe. It was tolerated as a maverick principality by hulking neighbors, Spain to the south, France to the north. Long independent, though migrating from one sphere of influence to the other over the course of centuries, it was peopled by a belligerent tribe that cherished its national identity.
. . . . . This was the mountainous territory to which the original Indo-European settlers
were driven by wave after wave of subsequent migrations. It was a harsh land,
providing a poor living. It had been, over the years, nominally absorbed, the principality temporarily disappeared from the maps, but the people never considered themselves to be other than proud Haute-Navarrese.1 Independence was in their blood, but active resistance would have been futile. Their form of revolt was inertia. In the end, it was not worth the effort necessary to bludgeon them into anything resembling submission.
. . . . . The country functioned as a site permitting surreptitious parlays between two at-odds giants. Risky proposal might be advanced quietly, without fanfare, and as quietly disowned, if need be. This was the principal requirement for being tolerated as an independent entity. And Haute-Navarre was a haven to which traitors on both sides might safely withdraw while they negotiated a pardon for their latest offense.
. . . . . The economy was built on sheep: wool, sheared, spun, and woven into cloth, and on the item for which the region was best known, its ewe’s milk cheese. The only city worth mentioning, a nest of cramped, gable-roofed houses and angular streets, housed a crafty populace – you never lost the feeling of being watched from behind every curtain – who greeted you and cheated you with the same show of hearty welcome.
. . . . . They natives communicated with a great deal of gesticulation, seeming to convey what they would not suffer to be plainly spoken, affording them the opportunity to un-say what had never been clearly articulated. A visitor often gained an impression of approval and agreement, later to understand that no deal had been struck.
. . . . . National pride had long held that the country was lusted after by the adjoining giants, a maxim that had a grip on the national soul that only profound idiocy can achieve. Strangers were suspected spies (why else would they be there?) and every innkeep tried to sell information to perplexed patrons, while simultaneously badgering them for loose-lipped intelligence. The nobility followed suit, only demanding a vastly higher price. The king himself was above the game but, due to his odd behaviors, was reckoned (by neophyte diplomats, not by old hands) a master at it. Foreign envoys could make neither head nor tail of his intentions. One ambassador wrote home in frustration: “When I see him engaged against any person whatsoever, I wish myself in Calcutta.”2 All of this, of course, is no more than an amusing footnote to the more riveting animosities of the day.
. . . . . This fear of being gobbled up was a valid one. The eastern branch of the predatory house of Hapsburg, based in Austria, controlling Germany, Naples, Sicily, Bohemia, Hungary, Burgundy, Flanders, Sardinia, the Low Countries, and huge tracts of the New World was always trying to nibble at French territory by means of secret alliances too numerous to be effectively denied. The equally greedy Spanish branch had the same policies, to create small sovereignties within nominally French territory, which would be in reality fiefs of the Spanish crown.3
. . . . . Spain and France concurred on one point: they shared an antipathy to England. The English were not only heretics, they were masters of artifice, to the detriment of stable relations with their European cousins. Diplomats gossiped freely about strategies for an overdue comeuppance. It was an open secret that Spain was preparing to invade the British Isles. The question was how, where, and when.
. . . . . Sly was subjected to diatribes against his homeland and was forbidden by the king to respond to them. Beneath his veneer of worldly sophistication he was pure, insular English. When he could take no more knocks he would grumble to King Rupert, “I have a tongue in my head, I guess, and I guess I know how to use it.”
. . . . . The king would admonish him, “You have a brain in your head also, and a good one. It cannot but instruct your tongue to keep still.” And the cat, although spitting mad, would comply, make nice with men he detested.
- Haute-Navarre is fictitious, although the country of Navarre did exist in this period.
- This quip, ‘enraged’ replaced by ‘engaged’, was made about Elizabeth I in a diplomatic report.
- Much of this paragraph was extracted from somewhere or other decades ago. See my remarks in the introduction to Paying the Piper.