The visit of His Holiness was as disruptive as it was unexpected. It took slightly a minute for the news of his arrival to travel from spotters on the roof the building down to the Honcho. You could think of it as a wave phenomenon that converted from radiation to visual input, and from visual input into a memory traveling in a body. The messenger body had to go down two flights of stairs and knock on the door of his office. “Yes?”
“His Holiness's coach is pulling up in front of the building, sir!”
The Honcho mentally said a rude word. “Thank you.” He turned to Jeffrey. “Show him into the study when he gets here. If I'm not there I'll be right out.”
“What do I tell him?”
“Nothing of importance. Say as much as you can without saying anything at all.” While his son digested that, Peter strode into another room and arranged for some chilled wine and tried to think. What could this surprise visit portend? For the pope to be this determined to see him, to show up unannounced, it had to be either to ask a big favor or to deliver some sort of ultimatum.
He could think of no favor the pope needed from him at the moment. It would be nice if he could, but the more he thought about it, the more it looked like the pope was tired of waiting for the prisoner transfer and had decided to exert some leverage.
The question was, what leverage did he think he had and how could it be nullified? He did not have time to dance with the Church at the moment, and if their captive apprentice Lester managed to learn how to make everflames any time soon then he would be too valuable to waste on a public execution.
By the time he stepped into the study he had his game face on. He nodded to the papal bodyguards on his way into the chamber. “Holiness, this is an unexpected pleasure. I do hope you were not fatigued by the climb. My advisors keep asking me to move to a shorter building but I always tell them anyone who invades here will be exhausted by the time they reach my command level. But forgive me, you must be parched, Would you like some wine?”
Enrique sat on one of the chairs next to the desk. “Do you have some? We had thought you were more partial to your whiskey, Excellency.”
Peter moved to the side table and located a bottle of Alaris and poured two glasses of the purple. “Ah,well, you know we Texas men do like our firewater. But I thought perhaps you might want to go easy on it here in the depths of secular depravity that we call government.” He crossed the room and handed a glass to the Pope.
“I'll try not to notice the spiritual dangers all around me,” Enrique said, smiling, as he sipped the wine. “This is a rather nice one. It is simply amazing sometimes how much something can increase in value just sitting.”
“Well on this imperfect world value is usually a relative thing, Holiness. Many things do not improve with age, but wine is fortunately one of them.”
I can see your heir is another,” said Enrique, nodding to Jeffrey. “While I waited for you, he was just telling me of his recent escape from the savages of Rado.”
“Oh, hardly savages, Holiness,” Jeffrey protested. “They have language and horses.”
“So did the Huns,” the Pontiff replied. “But they are gone while we remain.”
“Sure, Holiness, there is more to measure a civilization by than mere survival,” the Honcho said. “Any socially coherent group of humans that still exists survived the Fall of civilization. But some have lost more than others. For example, the Church, which Texas has and Rado does not. We have not lost all of the ways of the Ancients.”
“But Rado does have churches,” Jeffrey objected. “I passed some on the way out.”
“I am sure,” said His Holiness, “that they are considered houses of worship. But they are not part of the Church, and neither are their congregations...although they will be someday. It is a little like saying that people still use silverware just because they eat with their knives.”
“They have forks, too,” said Jeffrey. “But probably most don't have silver ones.”
“Still,” said the Pope, “it is a relief that you escaped. These are not times for the security of government – the succession of leadership – to be in question.”
“An ironic statement, Holiness, considering the recent transition in your TCC that brought you to power,” said Jeffrey. “Isn't everything temporary in an imperfect world?”
“Not at all,” said Enrique smiling. “The cases are different for two reasons. We deal in matters that are eternal, not temporal. First, the Church does not concern itself with the defense of the Empire, so a change in Popes poses no threat to anyone's life.”
Except to the previous Pope's life, Peter thought. “I hope not,” he said.
“Secondly, the Church has had procedures in place for two thousand years to cover this sort of thing. It need not reinvent itself with each change in leadership, as governments often do in times of war or revolution. We have no declarations or manifestos. Life goes on.”
“Policies change, but I take your point,” said the Honcho. “The Lone Star Empire has been stable now for a hundred years. Sometimes we have to fight a war or two to prevent greater instability, but we remain, as you said.”
“Indeed,” said His Holiness. “We are concerned, actually, with the war you are currently contemplating. It was Our understanding that you needed certain resources for that effort, and that we could provide them. But you have yet to arrange for the resolution of that.”
Jeffrey was trying not to scowl. Although he applauded the effort, Peter wished his son were more successful in concealing his reactions. It was clear he was not happy about the suggestion that they'd end up trading Lester for the Gifts.
“You are right, of course,” said Peter. “Be assured, Holiness, I haven't forgotten. There are, however, many details to attend to and so things always take longer than expected, especially with government.”
Enrique sipped his wine. “Much longer,” he said. “I do hope you understand, Excellency, that while We do have some control within the Church proper, Our influence in the population at large is less potent. Surely you must know that word of your magician prisoner has leaked out by now. There may be an outcry for his execution. There is only so much the Church can do to restrain the passions of your citizenry.”
“Particularly when you preach that aliens are demons and magicians are evil,” said Jeffrey.
He should be more silent, thought Peter. But the point, he felt, was valid. Clearly it was in the Church's interest to stir up anger against all manifestations of Tourist technology. It gave them a visible focus for their warnings. And here was the Pope claiming that the Church was only concerned with eternal matters!
“The harm they wrought upon the Earth is undeniable,” said Enrique.
“The Fall of civilization hurt a lot of people,” said Peter. “What is not at all clear is whether it was deliberately caused. Certainly we could have avoided it by declining the Gifts and maintaining our own technology without them.”
“But we accepted them, to our ruin,” said the Pope. “The people who understand what happened will not look kindly on humans who aspire to be like the Tourists.”
“Surely you don't think the people of Dallas will storm the prison and attempt a lynching?” Peter asked him. You really want to go down that road, Ricky?
“One would hope not, your Excellency. But it is possible, We suppose.”
“Everything is possible,” said the Honcho. “But we only worry about the things that are probable. Were the people to do such a thing, it is probable that many of them would have to be killed to stop them. I'm sure we both agree that would be regrettable.”
“Quite,” said His Holiness. “Regrettable...but perhaps not necessary. You could do much to prevent such unrest by merely setting a date for the trial and execution. Such a gesture might, We hope, consign such problems to the realm of improbability.”
“An interesting idea, Holiness,” said the Honcho. “We shall take it under advisement. Forgive me for changing the subject, but have you made any progress on catching the assassin?”
“Holiness, we both know Rodrigo's death was not an accident. It is the opinion of my experts that he was killed with a swizzle. No need to point out how...explosive...such a revelation might be for the Church. Imagine how insecure your flock might feel, knowing that killers are among them with silent weapons.”
“It only underscores how inappropriate it is for humans to have such things.”
“All humans, Holiness? Or only certain humans?”
“What do you mean, Excellency?”
“Well, a crossbow is not the work of demons, surely, but it is just as deadly at close range. But we can't very well go about confiscating all weapons. The defense of Texas depends on having weapons, so we must accept the necessity of some people having them.”
“I do not see the parallel,” said the pontiff. “It is impossible to prevent humans from making human-made weapons. Alien weapons, however, fall into a different category altogether. Since they cannot be made, they are limited and can be removed without anyone making more.”
“Yes, Holiness, but do you see the danger of that? If the Church confiscates swizzles because they might be used as weapons, then it soon finds itself sitting on a weapons cache. How long do you suppose it might be before the temptation's greater than some of your flock can withstand? Hoarding such temptations places your own leadership into a situation of temptation.”
“Perhaps,” said the pontiff, “But at least they are controlled by people experienced in resisting temptation. Can you say the same for your army?”
“I'm not proposing to arm my soldiers with swizzles,” the Honcho said. “As you yourself said, there are only so many of them, and we can't make more. We are left, however, with the disturbing image of secret TCC operatives skulking about with them. I would wager you have removed the privacy screens from your audience chambers.”
“Yes,” said Enrique. “And We are sure that we shall apprehend anyone who misuses Church property. But we are focusing too much on swizzles. You need both swizzles and everflames to distill your fuel, as we recall.”
“True,” said Peter. “But until we have the oil out of the ground we don't need everflames.”
“But you will, Peter” said Enrique, rising to leave. “I hope you'll keep what I said earlier in mind.”
“Oh I assure you, I will, Ricky.”
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