For two hours they passed through a labyrinth that seemed never-ending. Ezio, as he passed, glimpsed side tunnels, blocked entranceways, strange carvings of forgotten gods over archways, and the occasional flight of steps leading upward, some leading into blackness, others, fewer, showing a glimmer of light at their heads. At last Machiavelli, who had kept up a steady but hurried pace all along, paused at one such flight.
“We’re here,” he announced. “I’ll go first. It’s almost dawn. We must be careful.” He vanished up the steps.
After what seemed an age, during which the thought crossed Ezio’s mind that he might have been abandoned, he heard a whispered “All clear” from Machiavelli.
Despite his fatigue, he ran up the steps, glad to be back in the fresh air. He’d had enough of tunnels and caves to last a lifetime.
He found himself emerging from a kind of big manhole into a large room, large enough to have been a warehouse of sorts once.
“Where are we?”
“On an island in the Tiber. It was used years ago as a depot. No one comes here now, except us.”
“Our Brotherhood. It is, if you like, our hideout in Rome.”
A burly, confident young man rose from a stool by a table on which lay papers and the remains of a meal and came to greet them. His tone was open and friendly.
“Niccolò! Ben trovato!” He turned to Ezio. “And you—you must be the famous Ezio! Welcome!” He took Ezio’s hand and shook it warmly. “Fabio Orsini—at your service. I’ve heard a lot about you from my cousin—and old friend of yours—Bartolomeo d’Alviano.”
Ezio smiled at the name. “A fine warrior,” he said.
“It was Fabio who discovered this place,” put in Machiavelli.
“Every convenience here,” said Fabio. “And outside, so overgrown with ivy and whatnot, you wouldn’t even know it existed!”
“It is good to have you on our side.”
“My family has taken a few bad blows from the Borgia of late—and my one aim is to kick their stall in and restore our patrimony.” He looked around doubtfully. “Of course, this may all seem a bit shabby to you, after your accommodations in Toscana.”
“This is perfect.”
Fabio smiled. “Bene. Well, now that you have arrived, you must forgive me that I must leave you—immediately.”
“What are your plans?” asked Machiavelli.
Fabio’s face became more serious. “I am off to begin preparations for Romagna. Today, Cesare has control of my estate and my men; but soon, I hope, we will be free again.”
And, with a friendly wave, Fabio was gone.
Machiavelli cleared a space on the table and spread out the encrypted letter, together with the wolfmen’s decoding page. “I have to get on with this,” he said. “Look—you must be exhausted—there’s food and wine there, and good, clear Roman water. Refresh yourself while I work, for there is still much to be done.”
“Is Fabio one of the allies of whom you spoke?”
“Indeed. And there are others. One very great indeed.”
“And he is? Or is it a she?” Ezio asked, thinking, despite himself, of Caterina Sforza. He could not get her out of his mind. She was the Borgia’s prisoner still. His own private priority was to free her. But was she playing games with him? He could not rid his mind of a grain of doubt. But she was a free spirit. He did not own her. Only—he did not relish the thought of being played for a fool. And he did not want to be used.
Machiavelli hesitated, as if he had already divulged too much, but then he spoke: “It is the cardinal Giuliano della Rovere. He was in competition with Rodrigo for the Papacy, and lost; but he is still a powerful man—and has powerful friends. He has potentially strong connections with the French, but bides his time—he knows that King Louis is only using the Borgia for as long as it suits him. Above all, he hates the Borgia with a deep and enduring loathing. Do you know how many Spaniards the Borgia have placed in positions of power? We are in danger of having them control Italy.”
“Then he’s the man for us. When can I meet him?”
“The time is not yet ripe. Eat, while I work.”
Ezio was glad of the hour’s respite, but found that hunger and even thirst—at least, for wine—had abandoned him. He drank some water gratefully, and toyed with a chicken leg, as he watched Machiavelli pore over the papers in front of him.
“Is it working?” he asked at one point.
The sun had reached the church towers of Rome when Machiavelli put down his quill and drew toward him the spare sheet of paper on which he’d been writing.
Ezio waited expectantly.
“It’s a directive to the wolfmen,” said Machiavelli. “It states that the Borgia will provide their usual payment, and orders the wolfmen to attack—that is, to create terrifying diversions—in various parts of the city not yet under full Borgia control. The attacks are to be timed with the ‘fortuitous’ appearance of a Borgia priest, who will use the powers of the Church to ‘banish’ the attackers.”
“What do you propose?”
“If you agree, Ezio, I think we should begin planning our own assault on the Borgia. Carry on the good work you started at the stables.”
Ezio hesitated. “You think we are ready for such an attack?”
“I’d like to know where the Borgia are holding Caterina Sforza first. She’d be a powerful ally.”
Machiavelli looked nonplussed. “If she is their prisoner, she’ll be held at the Castel Sant’Angelo. They’ve turned it into a stronghold.” He paused. “It is too bad they have control of the Apple. Oh, Ezio, how could you have let that happen?”
“You were not at Monteriggioni.” It was Ezio’s turn to pause, after an angry silence. “Do we really know what goes on with our enemies? Do we at least have an underground network here to work with?”
“Hardly. Most of our mercenaries, like Fabio, are tied up in battle with Cesare’s forces. And the French still back him.”
Ezio remembered the French general at Monteriggioni—Octavien.
“What have we got?” he asked.
“One solid source. We have girls working at a brothel. High-class joint, frequented by cardinals and other important Roman citizens; but there’s a snag. The madam we have in place is lazy and seems rather to enjoy parties for their own sake than to further our cause by gathering information.”