Chapter CXL: It's A Trap!
Author's note: As far as the puzzle plates, this is the fourth out of eight. I will say that whatever is on the picture background (or lack thereof) DOES have an important meaning as does the letter. Everything else including the numbers may have a meaning indeed, and in fact it may be an important one but it's up to you guys to figure out what's a 'trap' clue and which one is not. All the images, however, are not traps as are all of the letters not traps. Good luck!
***Special Guest Calipah provides the following section
14 April 1643
He attached his golden earrings wistfully, the bracelets ringing lightly with the gentle movements of his slender body. Pouting his rosy lips, the youth examined himself closely in the mirror. His hair was dangling freely, he had the famed reddish hue on his cheeks, and his fake-breasts gave him a supple yet firm quality. He nearly laughed madly as he cupped the prosthetic pieces onto his chest.
The makeup was perfect, and he could not hold back a hushed chuckle of satisfaction at what his naughty hands had wrought. He was not called the whore of Yerevan for nothing. Well, he would much prefer the namesake of Babylon, but whatever. Lifting and tightening his jingling skirt at the knot, he revealed more of his hairless thigh and midriff. Good. Flying a kiss at the mirror with a last cursory check, he left the little room nestled in the upper levels of the Dela Maggio, the much famed ‘Romani’ brothel appropriated by the Persian Jayish for its own ‘needs’ and ‘strategic purposes.’ Allah be his witness, these were not his words.
As he descended the stairs, he was greeted by the cacophony of aroused and rancid drunken voices cutting through the steam of Italian folk music. The birra was flowing freely, leaving a trail of rowdy laughs at the wake of every pint. He had seen this before, and something was up in the air no doubt. Clearly some were out here to loosen tongues. The war was going very well it seems, and there’s talk of Al-Hind having been conquered if he understood correctly from all the gossiping. To the victor go the vassals and all that.
He examined the motley crowds of patrons, and found them to be of an interesting variety tonight – yummy blonde Germans, delightful Dutchmen, and the usual hodgepodge of high-ranking Arab and Persian lieutenants and Emirs – the dinari group as he liked to call them. Pity he’d have to go, it would have been so fun. Sigh. Making his way through the jungle of smacking hands and intoxicated winks, he stepped out into the street as a willowy silhouette.
At once he heard a slurred “Cuánto puta?” muttered by a slumped drunk struggling to keep his balance on the wall’s ledge.
The 'puta' rolled his eyes at this wreck of a Spanish soldier and with a denigrating wave of the hand said “Gracias mi amori, but this nalgas is taken.” He gave the Spaniard an airy-kiss and continued his way down the dimly lit street, leaving at the onset of his departure a string of hurled yet incomprehensible insults from the less-than-sober drunkard. He cooed in delight a bit at the attention.
When another man called him a Puttana, Goosebumps tickled his backs, and mind you, it felt good in a weird way. He nibbled on his nail, keeping his eyes alert. There was the typical Sardauker patrol – those unforgiving monoliths in black metal – and of course the usual passerby rushing home. These Romans were all likely blinded by the flush of Persia’s black and red. Not only was the occupation, by virtue of its nature, oppressive, but it had a flare nobody expected.
These Catholics yap about guilt but they never met Shiites. Now those bastards, he reflected, were extreme. He giggled at the thought of the gasps and hurried cross signs made at the sight of half the Persian army flagellating itself for Ashura in the middle of the grand Palazzos. He really should have went, but a boy needs his pay, right?
Winding through the parapets of Roman alleyways, he swiftly found himself near the main stone bridge overlooking the mighty Tiber separating him from his goal: the Apostolic Palace. He appraised the object of his desire with the eye of a would be buyer. He was impressed. St. Peter's majestic dome towered the city with a dominating aura, emanating like a solar orb the strength and confidence the faithful would seek at these trying times from their beloved Church. He could however also see well enough from his vantage point that St. Peter’s grounds were thronged with Persian Sardauker and Ghulman. Sprinkle that with a bit of Swiss Guard and one gets the picture: security tight as a Virgin’s chastity belt.
The last thing he needed was an aroused but nosy officer struggling to contain his rapist urges, not to mention the depraved mass of soldiery in tow right behind him. Stopping momentarily, he took in a deep breath, balanced his boobs, made some restless last minute adjustments to his hair, and continued, with hesitation, his trek down the tepid, worn trail. So as to not stir any suspicion, he kept a certain calm swagger to his walk – he was a prostitute after all – but his hips moved just in the right amount to tell coveting eyes he was in a rush.
The little bells attached around his buttocks jingled as he quickened his pace across the bridge. He was now in the Plaza that led to the great square, and so far he had avoided most of the guards. “Ya Jamila” He rolled his eyes in exacerbated disbelief and turned to the direction of the voice that came from somewhere behind a nearby garden gazebo. He couldn’t make out the figure from the darkness, but the accent betrayed a Syrian twang. The voice laughed sinisterly, and followed it with a simple question “Bawsah ya habibati?” It sounded like a coin dropping in a vast vacuum more than a query.
The youth beamed a grin “I don’t kiss Demons and Djinn hiding in the bushes. But I might reconsider if mein kind spirit would show me the path to the Ambassadorial wings?” A tense silence hung over these two strangers, as if one threw a pebble at the other and awaited a boulder in response.
The voice cackled once more, now with familiar warmth “Oh you're one of the entertainment! La la, keep all the Qublat to yourself mein habib, I’ll find you in another dark night to ravage” he howled again, and having subsided, snorted out a suppressed laugh or two “Borgia is at the end of the road. Good luck mein hilwa. Send the Halabi’s regards to your master” The strumpet gave the Syrian a wide bow and scampered away in the pointed direction like an alerted gazelle.
The Borgia Apartments, a long extended wing artificially attached to the Apostolic Palace, acted since yonder times as the temporary residence of the Pope’s many guests. It still served that purpose, and more so given the surprise Persian attack. If news on the street was right, a delegation from eastern France was holding a gala in the La Furtora public hall. Apparently the delegate had established friendly contacts with the Persian barracks and had invited some high notables from the war council, as well as a good number from the remaining local nobility and representatives from around the city willing to mingle with the ‘enemy.’ Even if the Pope forbade it, the politicians had no trouble ingratiating themselves selfishly with the occupiers behind the Pontiff's back.
All hush-hush of course, or so it is said. Two Swiss soldiers stood guard at the gates of the Borgia, and small pockets of servants, dancers, and entertainers orbited the center of the courtyard. Furtively, he slipped amongst the other belly dancers to be another face in the crowd. A call came, and the herd slowly edged to the double doors.
Étienne paced back and forth along the marble floors of the Borgia Apartments. The young man moved himself restlessly towards the window and planted his trembling hands against the railing of the balcony as he looked down at the 'guests' filing into the double doors below. The movement of the dancing girls caught him off guard and he pulled his hands off the railing as if it was heated by fire and drew away from the window. One of the servants ran by him and Étienne quickly accosted the man from the side. “There are even Persian women joining the party now?” the young man flashed the question as quietly as he could to the servant.
“Some of the Persian officers wanted to bring entertainers for your uncle--” the servant tried to reply quickly.
“He's not my uncle,” Étienne cut him off before dismissing the servant back to his duties. He resigned a sigh and began walking down the carpeted hallway and down the stairs as the sound of music and reveling began to fill his ears. As he descended to the ground floor and through one of the antechamber doors, he entered into a large parlour hall of the Apartment where tables and food were already spread out in a rough crescent. Food was being passed around as if it was an Epicurean bangquet and the music was a shuddering mix of the latest European court favourites and the exotic incantations of Eastern music.
Étienne could see that seated along the course of tables in a semi-circle included some of the notables amongst the Roman nobility that he was forced to become acquainted with as part of the envoy to Rome as well as the other “marooned” diplomats and representatives who had been unable to flee the city before the Persians arrived to surround them. Interspersed amongst them were Persians of varying distinctions ranging from the rigid staff officers to the loose masters they served.
The young man straightened his formal attire and the unremarkable frill around his neck before walking along the wall towards the apex of the tables. There, his destination, sat his master and benefactor: The Baron. Étienne weaved through the moving crowds of spectators, guests, and servants before approaching the back end of the room. Coming up next to the Baron, his hands rubbed together nervously. The Baron was an intimidating man: medium height but with a body as round as a globe and fingers as fat as the swollen bellies of termite queens.
The Baron's face was no sight to behold either: the skin of the man boiled and ruptured with his age and lumps and growths made the man a hideous monster to look at. Already, the trail of sauce and wine trickled along the sides of the Baron's mouth like the ravines of deep valleys treading water. Étienne approached slowly, but two young women on either side of the “delegate” writhed alongside him like protective serpents. For a moment, Étienne stood there to the left and rear of the Baron as if unsteady about his purpose. The Baron, with a twitch and sensing the saddened eyes behind him, turned his head to the side and grunted, “it's you.”
“Sir,” Étienne tried to say, but was suddenly surprised at how his own voice was drowned out by the music in front of him. “Sir,” he said this time louder, “I--”
“Mein great Lord!” someone in front of the table interrupted. Étienne looked up and, to his great surprise, found a tall soldier clad in regalia that glimmered as if a stream of stars had been draped across black, red, and gold. “Might I present a gift to your honour!” the Sardaukar announced as he revealed a robe of great girth folded neatly along his right arm and offered forward to the sitting delegate.
It was a heavy black robe much like the regalia of the princely officers with lining that blinked of a golden hue trimmed along the edge and sleeves. “What a magnificent gift!” the Baron exclaimed as he miraculously found his way to his feet to accept the offering. The two young ladies on either side quickly reached over the table and helped the man put it on—much to their own surprise that it fit him at all.
“An exotic design from the Kashmir,” the Persian officer explained before bowing to return to his place at table.
A later portrait of the Baron with his gifted robe
“Sir,” Étienne said again this time with more force. The Baron turned his head a token few degrees to his left as he sat down. “I don't think it's such a good idea to invite all these people here—the Pontiff doesn't want--”
“If the Pontiff had any political wits he would be doing what I'm doing,” the Baron snorted corpulently. “He's there praying in his chapels while there are deals to be made, sums to be paid... certain delegates to be allowed to return home.” The Baron hurriedly grappled more of his cooked bird into his mouth. “More wine!”
As a servants hurried to fulfill the request, the music's tone suddenly shifted and the crowds in front of the tables parted. A tidal wave of silk and gold sprouted from the crowd's gap like a released spring of scarlet and purple. Barely veiled faces and tanned skin rushed ahead until three lines of fabric and skin appeared at the center of the festivities. The drumbeat sounded a frantic tune and bellybuttons studded with gold and gems began to move right and then left like a hail of meteors.
The Baron clapped his hands shamelessly while Étienne stood there watching entranced before bowing his head indignantly letting his blonde bangs cover his eyes. The Baron clapped along with the festivities as the girls on his shoulders smiled with glee at the excitement of their patron. As the dance continued, one of the dancers approached the table, shimmying a well rounded well and bejeweled rump almost directly in the Baron's face. The fat man's clapping slowed as his eyes ravaged the moving frame in front of him. Snapping his fingers with a thump, he called one of the servants closer to him and rolled sideways to whisper something in the man's ear. The servant immediately nodded and walked off. It was then that Étienne's hand calmly touched upon the Baron's shoulder, but was immediately brushed off as the behemoth of the man rose up from his seat. “Sir...” Étienne said again in vain as the Baron walked off to the side.
“I shall retire for a moment, gentlemen!” the Baron called out, “please continue to enjoy yourselves!” before trudging down one of the halls adjoining the parlour. Étienne was quick to follow. Despite the man's weight, the Baron had an amazing finesse to his step especially when there was appetite involved. His burgeoning gaits were wide and his swiftness made him appear to glide through the air at times. Étienne was told once that the Baron had been a soldier before being granted a barony to rule. Coming from minor nobility, the Baron was promoted more due to his abilities as a soldier and shrewd diplomat than that of his station. Étienne was even told that under all those layers of flesh, that Baron's muscles still surged with twisted energy.
Down the hall, the Baron burst into his study chamber hastily dismissing his personal guard stationed at the door with his hand. The man took off the new gift robe and various effects of jewelry about him before turning around and realizing that Étienne had followed him. “Sir, I really can't agree with this--” Étienne began to say before the Baron shot him a glance that froze him at the doorframe.
“Come here,” the Baron said tersely. Étienne did not move. “Come here,” the Baron repeated forcing his voice into a whip that spurred the young Frenchman forward. Step by step, Étienne approached his master. The large man rose to his full height and towered above Étienne ponderously.
“Yes--” Étienne tried to speak, but a hand clenched around his arm and pulled him upward as if he was to be hanged like a goose at the butcher's shop.
“Listen, boy,” came the thunderous voice from the middle of the Baron's throat although it was almost like a whisper. It was like a small monster was trying to speak from the cavern of that man's mouth. “I only took you on this mission because that little idiot of your father had to get himself killed by the Dutch and your mother—that sweet delicious mother of yours—needs someone to look after her boy.” the saliva was raining down on Étienne's face mercilessly. “I will tell you something, M. Vachon, you may be the little Comte de Charolais now that your father is gone, but you're only a few months into your seventeenth year. I will not have you telling me what I can and cannot do here.” The menacing look on the Baron's face clashed suddenly with an infuriated expression by Étienne who struggled against that grip. “Now get out of my sight,” the Baron concluded before tossing Étienne a few step backwards.
The young man immediately recovered and gripped his left arm and clenched his teeth before storming out of the room. Étienne stepped down the hall and cradled his wrist painfully before looking up to find that two individuals were walking in the opposite direction: one of the dancers and one of the Baron's servant. For a moment as they swept by, Étienne locked eyes with the passing performer and turned his head as that figure walked past clad only in the various silks and jewels of an entertainer's trade. For those few seconds, as his mind began to calculate the implications of such an escort, he had forgotten about the pain in his wrist. He had wanted desperately, for some reason, to say “No... don't... you'll be trapped in there...” like it was some bad childhood dream, but his lips did not move. The image of that veiled face vanished behind the doors of the chamber and only the servant walked back towards the parlour.
When Van entered the Baron's study, he immediately took stock of the surroundings. The various accommodations the Pope had afforded to his guests was impressive, but it wasn't the trinkets and decorations of the room that he was searching for. There, with a flash of his decorated eyes, he could see the small black line that formed the partition to the secret door behind the study's desk. It was exactly what the bribed diplomats had told his master: that the Borgia Apartment had an escape route.
No, it was not escape he was worried about, although that would come in handy later, but a secret tunnel system meant easy access to other areas of the Vatican complex that he was commissioned to... visit. “Bon soir ma chérie,” he heard the planet of a man gurgle saliva through his teeth. The man had already dressed down to his evening clothes while twirling a leather pouch obviously filled with cheap silver. Van smiled but in his head, he was both laughing and spitting in disgust at the sight. Not even the swarthy disgraced slobs of the former Turkish court had offered him this much to ridicule on one of his missions.
Van smiled and approached the man coyly. He orbited the monstrous beast while trailing a finger along the man's collarbone. When he wanted to be a little devil, he knew how to do it and already saw that the Baron was as excited as a pig in muck. “What would you like to do?” Van feigned a girl's voice in tortured French.
“Ahh, so they educate their whores too!” the Baron gleed with delight before reaching out for Van who immediately ducked the grasp and came up along the side of the Baron teasing him endlessly. It would be rather simple, just a little touch with one of his darts and even this giant will be sleeping silently for the rest of eternity. The red one ought to do, he thought as he reached underneath one of his fake breasts to extract a hidden needle.
The Baron, unable to control himself any longer began to strip his garments and chase “the young girl” about the room as Van gave him ample sport sprinting about the chamber. Laughter frothed out of the Baron's mouth as sharp nails reached out for Van's smooth tanned skin. Van waited for the next corner before leaping off the wall, landing behind his pursuer and planting the dart cleanly on the side of the Baron's neck. The huge man seized for a moment and Van stepped back with a smile when, to his surprise, that naked body turned around to face him.
Shock filled Van's expressions as the man in front of him struggled to move his jaw and breathe, but nonetheless the thundering juggernaut lunged at him with deadly weight. Why is he not dead?! Van barely had time to leap out of the way when arms pushed forward like falling trees and grappled with his boyish limbs. The Baron was obviously weakened by the poison, but perhaps because of his size or more likely because there was too much fat in between the needlepoint and the vein that the man refused to be a corpse. Van struggled under the great weight of the man who menaced him with half paralyzed limbs and a gnawing jaw that was unable to utter a word as the poison spread along that area of his face.
With one amazing push, Van came crashing against the desk pushing several of the desk items including a bronze statue onto the floor before the Baron assaulted him once more.
The crash was the final straw. Étienne could no longer hold back his indignation as he charged towards the study. He bit his lip utterly terrified of the sight he might see and the pain in his wrist was beginning to become heated again. His heart pumped nervous blood into his brain as he swung the study door open.
Whatever he had imagined, the sight before him now was worse. The poor dancer was pinned down against the table in an awful position as his naked “benefactor” loomed above violently. Étienne barely had time to catch his breath and his voice was silent. Only his legs moved as if instinct drove him. The bronze statue on the floor attached itself to his hands as he came up behind the Baron and swung. He swung as hard as he could and with a sickly thud, the bronze statue connected with the man's bald head and seized him in his rapacious deed. The towering figure faltered and rolled off to the side and onto the floor.
Étienne found his breath again as he dropped the bronze statue though he could have sworn he could not hear the bang it made on the floor, so filled were his ears with a kind of ringing. He looked at the would-be victim in front of him who seemed both terrified and surprised and at first he averted his eyes before he realized that the dancer was not undressed. As the hearing returned to his ears, his arm reached forward quickly as he took a decisive step forward.
“Venez avec moi,” Van heard the boy say and although he understood what the words meant, he was still quite surprised at the rescue—an unexpected rescue. He did not know he was blushing as that handsome young man offered his hand to him.
He doesn't know anything Van thought to himself: just another gallant knight to save the damsel? Van wanted to smile, Van wanted to play along with this half true fantasy, but the mission kept his lips stiff and his hand carefully readying another pin.
Before he could act, however, the boy's hand reached for his and grabbed hold. Van's first instinct was to stab it quickly with his second dart, but he hesitated: the blood in his head swirled at the audacity... “Come with me,” the boy repeated in his French tongue, “I know of a secret way out of this place... I can lead you outside.” Van tensed up at the mention of the passage. This boy knows about it, very well. He wouldn't mind playing for just a little while, he thought to himself. Van followed along as the boy went over to the secret panel Van had spied earlier. If the boy knows his way around, it should be easier. However, he would have to lose him halfway. After all, there was still the Pope to kill.
The Cardinal watched the Pope hold still as the pin was gently inserted: the last of the three which, when inserted in the pallium, represented the three nails of Christ. The Cardinal excused himself as the last vestments in preparation for the audience were being prepared for the Pope's usual appearance. Quickly filing into one of the various antechambers in the Apostolic Palace, he reached into his pocket and procured his mobile.
“I'm sorry I made you wait, I had to brief His Holiness on a different matter,” the Cardinal spoke quietly into the phone.
“It's not about the death threats, is it?” the voice on the other end asked dully.
“Now, Juliana,” the Cardinal chuckled, “you don't need to worry about that. Vatican security and the Swiss Guard will take care of these things, I'm sure: there hasn't been a serious threat on His Holiness since--” for some reason the Cardinal stopped, flashing his old eyes down the halls of the Apostolic Palace as if something was replaying itself before his eyes.
“We have that Natasha girl in custody and we've made contact with the professor Dr. Braun through one of our agents,” the woman on the line spoke up. “You were right, there is a connection between the Natasha girl and the dead Romanian boy. After searching the murder suspect Belmont's house, we found evidence that he was going to target Natasha next. We're holding the girl on the grounds of shooting one of her 'classmates'. You know the one.”
“Yes... him. I see... It was good you were able to apprehend her in time.”
“I'll contact you when I have more information, but I'm going to start looking for answers, Eminence, whether you're going to tell me the full truth of this or not.”
“I know, Juliana,” the Cardinal sighed out loud, “but just stay on this path and you'll find what you need to know.” There was the soft click of the call being terminated and the Cardinal calmly placed his mobile in his pocket again. One of his aides, seeing that the phone conversation was done, moved up and presented the Cardinal with some papers. “I see,” the old prelate said quietly, “very well: these death threats have been a distraction enough as it is. I'll head to Boston: I'll leave the matter of the Pope to that ghost of a Cardinal in Madrid.” The aide nodded and took the papers back before moving off. “Oh, but do one thing,” His Eminence brought up while looking down the Apostolic Palace halls again, “have the tunnels searched again and seal off the entrances: we don't want a repeat of what happened last time...”
Chapter CXLI: Secret Tunnels (coming soon)