“What about the city’s thieves?” asked Ezio, thinking about the adroit robber who’d almost cost him his purse.
“Well, sì; but they refuse to talk to us.”
Machiavelli shrugged. “I have no idea.”
Ezio rose. “You’d better tell me how to get out of here.”
“Where are you going?”
“To make some friends!”
“May I ask what friends?”
“I think for the moment you had better leave that to me.”
It was nightfall again by the time Ezio had found the headquarters of the Roman Thieves’ Guild. Another long day lay behind him, a day of asking questions discreetly in taverns, getting suspicious looks and misleading answers, until, finally, word must have got around that it was all right to let him know the secret location, and a ragamuffin of a boy had led him into a run-down district through a maze of alleys and left him at a door, only to disappear immediately the way he had come.
It wasn’t much to look at: a large but broken-down-looking inn, whose sign, showing a fox, either asleep or dead, hung awry; whose windows were shrouded with tattered blinds; and whose woodwork was in need of repainting. This was the same Sleeping Fox Inn that he and Mario visited a week ago.
Unusually for an inn, its door was shut fast. Ezio hammered on it. In vain.
Then he was surprised by a voice coming from behind him, speaking softly. Ezio spun around. It wasn’t like him to allow himself to be approached noiselessly from behind like that. He must ensure that it didn’t happen again.
Fortunately, the voice was friendly, if guarded.
The man who’d spoken stepped forward from the shelter of a tree. Ezio recognized him immediately. It was his old ally Gilberto—La Volpe, the Fox—who had led the thieves in Florence in alliance with the Assassins some time previously.
“La Volpe! What are you doing here?”
Gilberto grinned as they embraced. “Why am I not in Florence, do you mean? Well, that’s simply answered. The thieves’ leader here died, and they elected me. I felt like a change of air, and my old assistant, Corradin, was ready to take over back home. Besides”—he lowered his voice conspiratorially—”just at the moment, Rome presents me with a little bit more of a…challenge, shall we say?”
“Seems a good enough reason to me. Shall we go in?”
“Of course.” La Volpe knocked at the door himself—obviously a coded knock, for the door swung open almost immediately, to reveal a spacious courtyard, with tables and benches laid out, just as you’d expect at an inn—but all still very dingy. A handful of people, men and women, bustled about, in and out of doors that led from the courtyard into the inn itself, built around it.
“Doesn’t look like much, does it?” said La Volpe, ushering him to a seat and calling for wine.
“It suits our purposes. And I have plans. But what brings you here?” La Volpe held up a hand. “Wait! Don’t tell me. I think I know the answer.”
“You usually do.”
“You want to put my thieves to work as spies for you.”
“Exactly!” Ezio said, leaning forward eagerly. “Will you join me?”
La Volpe raised his beaker in a silent toast, and drank a little of the wine that had been brought, before replying, flatly: “No.”
Ezio was taken aback. “What? Why not?”
“Because that would only play into Niccolò Machiavelli’s hands. No, thank you. That man is a traitor to our Brotherhood.”
This came as a little less of a surprise, though Ezio was very far from convinced of the truth of it. He said: “That’s a very serious allegation, coming from a thief. What proof do you have?”
La Volpe looked sour. “He was an ambassador to the papal court, you know—and he traveled as a personal guest of Cesare himself.”
“He did those things on our behalf!”
“Did he? I also happen to know he abandoned you just before the attack on Monteriggioni.”
Ezio made a gesture of disgust. “Pure coincidence! Look, Gilberto, Machiavelli may not please all tastes, but he is an Assassin, not a traitor.”
La Volpe looked at him with a set face. “I am not convinced.”
At that point in their conversation, a thief—Ezio, recognizing him as the one who had cut his purse, glared at him—scuttled up and whispered in La Volpe’s ear. La Volpe stood as the thief scuttled off. Ezio, sensing trouble, stood, too.
“I apologize for Benito’s behavior the other day,” said La Volpe. “He did not then know who you were. But he did see you riding with Machiavelli.”
“To hell with Benito. What’s going on?”
“Ah. Benito brought news. Machiavelli is meeting someone in Trastevere very soon. I’m going to check out what’s going on. Care to accompany me?”
“We’ll use one of the old routes—the rooftops. It’s a bit tougher here than it was in Florence. Do you think you’re up to it?”
“Just lead on!”
It was hard going. The roofs of Rome were spaced farther apart than in Florence, and many were crumbling, making it harder to gain footing. More than once, Ezio sent a loose tile crashing to the ground. But there were few people about in the streets, and they moved so fast that by the time any Borgia guards could react, they were already out of sight of them. At last they reached a market square, its stalls closed up except for one or two brightly lit wine booths, where a number of people were gathered. Ezio and La Volpe paused on a roof overlooking it, concealing themselves behind chimney stacks, and watched.
Soon afterward, Machiavelli himself walked into the square, first glancing around carefully. Ezio watched keenly as another man, wearing the Borgia crest on his cloak, approached Machiavelli and discreetly handed him what looked like a note before walking on, barely breaking his stride. Machiavelli similarly moved on, out of the square.
“What do you make of that?” La Volpe asked Ezio.
“I’ll follow Machiavelli; you follow the other guy,” snapped Ezio tersely.
But at that moment a brawl broke out at one of the wine booths. They heard angry cries and saw the flash of weapons.
“Oh, merda! That’s some of my men. They’ve picked a fight with a Borgia guard!” cried La Volpe.
Ezio glimpsed Machiavelli’s retreating back as he fled down a street that led toward the Tiber, then he was gone. Too late to follow him now. He turned his attention back to the brawl. The Borgia guard lay prostrate on the ground. Most of the thieves had scattered, scrambling up the walls to the rooftops and safety, but one of them, a young man, scarcely more than a boy, lay groaning on the ground, his arm spurting blood from a flesh wound.