Ezio considered. “We need to make sure the Borgia stay away at all costs. Perhaps we could turn it into a proper, working inn.”
“I like that idea!”
“It’ll need a lot of work—repainting, reshingling, a new inn sign.”
“I’ve got a lot of men. Under your direction…”
“Then I will make it so.”
A month followed of respite, or at least semi-respite, for Ezio, as he busied himself with the business of renovating the thieves’ headquarters, helped by many willing hands. Between them, the thieves represented a variety of skills, since many were tradesmen who’d been put out of work because they’d refused to kowtow to the Borgia. At the end of that time, the place had been transformed. The paintwork was bright; the windows were clean and carried new blinds. The roof was no longer rickety and the fresh inn sign showed a young male dog-fox, still sleeping but certainly not dead. He looked as if, the moment he awoke, he’d be capable of raiding fifty hen coops at a stroke. The double doors gleamed on new hinges and stood open, revealing an immaculate yard.
Ezio, who’d had to go on a mission to Siena during the last week of work, was delighted at the finished product when he returned. It was already up and running when he arrived.
“I’ve kept the name,” La Volpe said. “I like it. La Volpe Addormentata. Can’t think why.”
“Let’s hope it lulls the enemy into a sense of false security.” Ezio grinned.
“At least all this activity hasn’t drawn any undue attention to us. And we run it like a regular inn. We even have a casino. My own idea. And it’s turned out to be a great source of income, since we ensure that the Borgia guards who patronize us now always lose!”
“And where—?” said Ezio, lowering his voice.
“Ah. Through here.” La Volpe led the way to the west wing of the inn, through a door marked UFFIZI—PRIVATI, where two thieves stood guard without making it too obvious.
They passed along a corridor that led to a suite of rooms behind heavy doors. The walls were hung with maps of Rome, the desks and tables covered with neatly stacked papers at which men and women were working already, though it was only just past dawn.
“This is where our real business is done,” said La Volpe.
“Looks very efficient.”
“One good thing about thieves—good ones, at least,” said La Volpe. “They’re independent thinkers and they like a bit of competition, even among themselves.”
“You’d probably be able to show them a thing or two, if you took part yourself.”
“Oh, I will.”
“But it wouldn’t be safe for you to stay here,” said La Volpe. “For you or for us. But visit me whenever you like—visit me often.”
“I will.” Ezio thought of his own lonely lodgings—lonely, but comfortable and very discreet. He’d have been happy nowhere else. He turned his mind to the business at hand. “Now that we are organized—the most important thing is to locate the Apple. We have to get it back.”
“We know the Borgia have it, but despite our best efforts, we still haven’t been able to track it down. So far, at least, they seem to have made no use of it. I can only think they are still studying it, and getting nowhere.”
“Have they sought…expert advice?”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure they will have. But he may be pretending to be less intelligent than he is. Let’s hope so. Let’s hope the Borgia don’t become impatient with him.”
La Volpe smiled. “I won’t pursue you on that. But in the meantime, rest assured that we already have people scouring Rome for its location.”
“They’ll have hidden it well. Very well. Maybe even from one another. There’s an increasingly rebellious streak in young Cesare, and his father doesn’t like it.”
“What are thieves for, but to sniff out well-hidden valuables?”
“Molto bene. And now, I must go.”
“A last glass, before you do?”
“No. I have much to do now. But we will see each other again soon.”
“And where shall I send my reports?”
Ezio considered. Then he said: “To the rendezvous of the Assassin Brotherhood—on Tiber Island!”
It was high time now, Ezio decided, to look up his old friend Bartolomeo d’Alviano, Fabio Orsini’s cousin. He’d fought shoulder to shoulder with the Orsini against the papal forces back in 1496 and had recently returned from mercenary service in Spain.
Bartolomeo was one of the greatest of the condottieri, and an old companion-in-arms of Ezio’s. He was also, despite his sometimes oafish manner and a tendency to alarming fits both of anger and depression, a man of unbending loyalty and integrity. Those qualities made him one of the mainstays of the Brotherhood—those, and his adamantine hatred of the Templar sect.
But how would Ezio find him to be now? Well, he would soon know. He had learned that Bartolomeo had just returned from fighting and was at the barracks of his private army, on the outskirts of Rome. The barracks were well outside town, in the countryside to the northeast, but not far from one of the fortified watchtowers the Borgia had erected at various vantage points in and around the city; but the Borgia knew better than to tangle with Bartolomeo—at least, not until they felt powerful enough to crush him like the cockroach they considered him to be. And their power, Ezio knew, was growing daily.
He arrived at his destination soon after the hour of pranzo. The sun was past its peak and the day was too hot, the discomfort mitigated by a westerly breeze. Arriving at the huge gate in the high palisade that surrounded the barracks, he pounded it with his fist.
A judas set in the gate opened and Ezio sensed an eye appraising him. Then it closed and he heard a muffled and brief conversation. The judas opened again. Then there was a joyous, baritone bellow, and after much drawing of bolts, the gate was flung open. A large man, slightly younger than Ezio, stood there, his rough army clothes in slightly less than their usual disarray, with his arms held wide.
“Ezio Auditore! You old so-and-so! Come in! Come in! I’ll kill you if you don’t!”
The two old friends embraced warmly, then walked across the barracks square toward Bartolomeo’s quarters.
“Come on! Come on!” Bartolomeo said with his usual eagerness. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”