But he was too late. Whoever it was had seen him, probably as soon as he’d entered, framed by the light from the doorway, and moved toward him. As it approached, he recognized the black-suited figure of Machiavelli, who placed a finger to his lips as he came. Beckoning him discreetly to follow, Machiavelli made his way into a deeper, darker area of the ancient Roman emperor’s tomb, built almost one and a half millennia previously.
At last he stopped and turned.
“Shh,” he said and, waiting, listened keenly.
“Voice down. Voice very low,” admonished Machiavelli, listening still.
At last he relaxed. “All right,” he continued. “There’s no one.”
“What do you mean?”
“Cesare Borgia has eyes everywhere.” Machiavelli’s look softened a little. “I am glad to see you here.”
“But you left me clothes at the contessa‘s…”
“She had word to watch for your arrival in Rome.” Machiavelli grinned. “Oh, I knew you’d come here. Once you’d assured yourself of the safety of your mother and sister. After all, they are the last of the Auditore family.”
“I don’t like your tone,” said Ezio, bridling slightly.
Machiavelli allowed himself a thin smile. “This is no time for tact, my dear colleague. I know the guilt you feel about your lost family, even though you are not remotely to blame for that great betrayal.” He paused. “News of the attack on Monteriggioni has spread across this city. Some of us were sure that you had died there. I left the clothes with our trusted friend because I knew you better than to go and die on us at such a crucial time! Or at any rate, just in case!”
“You still have faith in me, then?”
Machiavelli shrugged. “You blundered. Once. Because fundamentally your instinct is to show mercy and trust. Those are good instincts. But now we must strike, and strike hard. Let’s hope that the Templars never know that you are still alive.”
“But they must already know!”
“Not necessarily. My spies tell me there was a lot of confusion.”
Ezio paused for thought. “Our enemies will know soon enough that I am alive—and very much so! How many do we fight?”
“Oh, Ezio—the good news is that we have narrowed the field. We have wiped out many Templars across Italy and across many of the lands beyond its boundaries. The bad news is that the Templars and the Borgia family are now one and the same thing. And they are going to fight like a cornered lion.”
“Tell me more.”
“We are too isolated here. We need to lose ourselves in the crowds in the center of town. We will go to the bullfight.”
“Cesare excels as a bullfighter. After all, he is a Spaniard. In fact he’s not a Spaniard, but a Catalan, and that may one day prove to be to our advantage.”
“The king and queen of Spain want to unify their country. They are from Aragon and Castile. The Catalans are a thorn in their side, though they are still a powerful nation. Come, and be cautious. We must both use the skills of blending in that Paola taught you so long ago in Venice. I hope you have not forgotten them!”
They walked together through the half-ruined, once-imperial city, keeping to shadows where there was shadow, otherwise slipping in and out of crowds as fish hide in rushes. At last they reached the bullring, took seats in the more expensive and crowded shady side of it, and watched for an hour as Cesare and his many backup men dispatched three fearsome bulls. Ezio watched Cesare’s fighting technique: He used the banderilleros and the picadors to break the animal down before he himself delivered the coup de grâce, after a good deal of showing off. But there was no doubting his courage and his prowess during the grim ritual of death, despite the fact that he still had four junior matadors to support him. Ezio looked over his shoulder at the box of the presidente of the fight: there he recognized the harsh but compellingly beautiful face of Cesare’s sister, Lucrezia. Was it his imagination or had he seen her bite her lip until it bled?
At any rate, he had learned something of how Cesare would behave in the field of battle—and how far he could be trusted in any other kind of combat.
Everywhere there were Borgia guards, watching the throng, just as there had been in the streets before. And armed with those lethal-looking new guns.
“Leonardo…” he said involuntarily, thinking of his old friend.
Machiavelli looked at him. “Leonardo was forced to work for Cesare on pain of death—and a most painful death it would have been. It’s a detail—a terrible detail, but a detail nonetheless. The point is, his heart is not with his new master, who will never have the intelligence or the facility fully to control the Apple. Or at least I hope it isn’t. We must be patient. We will get it back—and we will get Leonardo back with it.”
“I wish I could be so sure.”
Machiavelli sighed. “Perhaps you are wise to be doubtful,” he said at last.
“Spain has taken over Italy,” said Ezio.
“Valencia has taken over the Vatican,” Machiavelli replied. “And we can change that. We have allies in the College of Cardinals, some powerful. They aren’t all lap-dogs. And Cesare, for all his vaunting, depends on his father, Rodrigo, for funds.” He gave Ezio a keen look. “That is why you should have made sure of this interloping Pope.”
“I didn’t know.”
“I’m as much to blame as you are. I should have told you. But as you said yourself, it’s the present we have to deal with, not the past.”
“Amen to that.”
“But how do they afford all this?” Ezio asked, as another bull foundered and fell under Cesare’s unerring and pitiless sword.
“Papa Alexander is a strange mixture,” Machiavelli replied. “He’s a great administrator and he has even done the Church some good. But the evil part of him always defeats the good. He was the Vatican’s treasurer for years and found ways of amassing money—the experience has stood him in good stead. He sells cardinal’s hats, creating dozens of cardinals virtually guaranteed to be on his side. He has even pardoned murderers—provided they have enough money to buy their way off the gallows.”
“How does he justify that?”
“Very simple. He preaches that it is better for a sinner to live and repent, than to die and forgo such pain.”