Ezio couldn’t help laughing, though his laugh was a mirthless one. His own mind went back to the celebrations to mark the year 1500—the Great Year of the Half-Millennium. True, there had been flagellants roaming the country in expectation of the Last Judgment, and hadn’t the mad monk Savonarola, who’d briefly had control of the Apple, and whom he had himself defeated in Florence—not been duped by that superstition?
Fifteen hundred had been a great jubilee year. Ezio remembered that thousands of hopeful pilgrims had made their way to the Holy See from all parts of the world. The year had perhaps even been celebrated in those small outposts across the far seas to the west in the New Lands discovered by Columbus and, a few years later, by Amerigo Vespucci, who had confirmed their existence. Money had flowed into Rome as the faithful bought indulgences to redeem them from their sins in anticipation of Christ returning to Earth to judge both the quick and the dead. It had also been the time when Cesare had set out to subjugate the city-states of the Romagna, and when the king of France had taken Milan, justifying his action as being the rightful heir—the great-grandson of Gian Galeazzo Visconti.
The Pope had then made his son Cesare captain-general of the papal forces and Gonfaloniere of the Holy Roman Church in a great ceremony on the morning of the fourth Sunday of Lent. Cesare was welcomed by boys in silk gowns, and four thousand soldiers wearing his personal livery. His triumph had seemed complete: the previous year, in May, he’d married Charlotte d’Albret, sister of John, king of Navarre, and King Louis of France—with whom the Borgia were allied—gave him the Dukedom of Valence. Having already been Cardinal of Valencia, no wonder the people gave him the nickname Valentino!
And now this viper was at the peak of his power.
How could Ezio ever defeat him?
He shared these thoughts with Machiavelli.
“In the end, we will use their own vainglory to bring them down,” said Niccolò. “They have an Achilles’ heel. Everyone does. I know what yours is.”
“And that is?” snapped Ezio, needled.
“I do not need to tell you her name. Beware of her,” rejoined Machiavelli, but then, changing the subject, he continued, “Remember the orgies?”
“Indeed they do. How Rodrigo—I refuse to call him Pope anymore—loves them! And you’ve got to hand it to him; he’s seventy years old.” Machiavelli laughed wryly and then suddenly became more serious. “The Borgia will drown under the weight of their own self-indulgence.”
Ezio remembered the orgies well. He had been witness to one. There’d been a dinner, attended by fifty of the best of the city’s army of whores, given by the Pope in his Nero-like, overdecorated, gilded apartments. Courtesans, they liked to call themselves, but whores for all that. When the eating—or should it be called feeding?—was over, the girls danced with the servants who were in attendance, clothed at first, but later they’d shed their clothes. The candelabra that had been on the tables were set down on the marble floor, and the nobler guests threw roasted chestnuts among them. The whores were then told to crawl about the floor on all fours like cattle, buttocks high in the air, and collect the chestnuts. Then almost everyone had joined in. Ezio remembered with distaste how Rodrigo, with Cesare and Lucrezia, had looked on. At the end, prizes were given—silk cloaks, fine leather boots, from Spain of course, mulberry-and-yellow velvet caps encrusted with diamonds, rings, bracelets, brocade pouches each containing a hundred ducats, daggers, silver dildos—anything you could imagine—all awarded to those men who had had sex the maximum number of times with the crawling prostitutes. And the Borgia family, fondling each other, had been the principal judges.
The two Assassins left the bullfight and made themselves invisible in the crowds that thronged the early evening streets.
“Follow me,” Machiavelli said, an edge in his voice. “Now you have had a chance to see your principal opponent at work, it would be well to purchase any equipment you are missing. And take care not to draw any undue attention to yourself.”
“Do I ever?” Ezio found himself once again needled by the younger man’s remarks. Machiavelli wasn’t the Brotherhood’s leader. After Mario’s death, no one was. And this interregnum would have to be concluded soon. “In any case, I have my blade.”
“And the guards have their guns. These things Leonardo has created for them—and you know his genius cannot control itself—are fast to reload, as you’ve seen, and moreover they have barrels filed in a cunning way on the inside to make the shot more accurate.”
“I’ll find Leonardo and talk to him.”
“You may have to kill him.”
“He’s worth more to us alive than dead. You said yourself his heart wasn’t with them.”
“I said that is what I hope.” Machiavelli stopped. “Look. Here is money.”
“Grazie,” said Ezio, taking the proffered pouch.
“While you are in my debt, listen to reason.”
“As soon as I hear more reason from you, I shall.”
Nevertheless, Ezio left his friend and made his way to the quarter of the armorers, where he provided himself with a new breastplate, steel cuffs, and a sword and dagger of higher quality and better balance than those he already possessed. He missed above all the old Codex bracer, made of a secret metal, which had staved off so many blows that otherwise would have been fatal. But it was too late to regret it now. He’d just have to rely on his wits and his training all the more. No one, no accident, could take them from him.
He returned to Machiavelli, who was waiting for him at a low inn, their preappointed rendezvous.
He found him in a prickly mood.
“Bene,” said Machiavelli. “Now you can survive the journey back to Firenze.”
“Perhaps. But I am not going back to Florence.”
“Perhaps you should. It is where you belong. I have no home there anymore.”
Machiavelli spread his hands. “It is true that your old home has indeed been destroyed. I didn’t want to tell you. But surely your mother and sister are safe there now. It is a city safe from the Borgia. My master, Piero Soderini, guards it well. You can recoup there.”
Ezio shuddered at having his worst fears confirmed. Then he pulled himself together and said: “I stay here. You said yourself, there will be no peace until we rise up against the entire Borgia family and the Templars who serve them.”