They’d arrived inside a long, low room, well lit from large windows facing the inner square. It was a room that clearly served both for living and dining, and it was spacious and airy. But there was something very un-Bartolomeo-ish about it. There were clean blinds on the windows. There was an embroidered cloth spread on the table, from which the remains of any lunch had already been cleared. There were pictures on the walls. There was even a bookcase. Bianca, Bartolomeo’s beloved greatsword, was nowhere to be seen. Above all, the place was unbelievably tidy.

“Wait here,” said Bartolomeo, snapping his fingers at an orderly for wine and clearly in a high state of excitement. “Now just guess whom I want you to meet!”

Ezio glanced around the room again. “Well, I’ve met Bianca…”

Bartolomeo made a gesture of impatience. “No, no! She’s in the map-room—it’s where she lives nowadays. Guess again!”

“Well,” Ezio said slyly, “could it possibly be—your wife?”

Bartolomeo looked so crestfallen that Ezio almost felt sorry for having made so accurate a deduction, not that it’d been hard, exactly. But the big man cheered up quickly and went on: “She’s such a treasure. You wouldn’t believe!” He turned and bellowed in the direction of the inner rooms: “Pantasilea! Pantasilea!” The orderly appeared again with a tray bearing sweetmeats, a decanter, and glasses. “Where is she?” Bartolomeo asked him.

“Have you checked behind the table?” Ezio asked, tongue in cheek.

Just then, Pantasilea herself appeared, descending a staircase that ran along the western wall of the room.

“Here she is!”

Ezio stood to greet her.

He bowed. “Auditore, Ezio.”

“Baglioni, Pantasilea—now Baglioni-d’Alviano.”

She was still young—in her mid to late twenties, Ezio judged. Judging by her name she was from a noble family, and her dress, though modest, was pretty and tasteful. Her face, framed in fine blond hair, was oval, her nose tip-tilted like a flower, her lips generous and humorous, as were her intelligent eyes—a deep, dark brown, which were welcoming when she looked at you and yet seemed to withhold something of herself. She was tall, reaching Bartolomeo’s shoulders, and slender, with quite wide shoulders and rather narrow hips, long, slim arms, and shapely legs. Bartolomeo had clearly found a treasure. Ezio hoped he’d be able to hang on to her.

“Lieta di conoscervi,” Pantasilea was saying.

“Altrettanto a Lei.”

She glanced from one man to the other. “We will have time to meet properly on another occasion,” she said to Ezio, with the air of a woman not leaving men to their business, but of having business of her own.

“Stay a little, tesora mia.”

“No, Barto, you know I have to see the clerk. He always manages to bungle the accounts somehow. And there is something wrong with the water supply. I must see to that, too.” To Ezio she said, “Ora, mi scusi, ma…”

“Con piacere.”

Smiling at both, she remounted the stairs and disappeared.

“What do you think?” Bartolomeo asked.

“Charmed, truly.” Ezio was sincere. And he’d also noticed how his friend reined himself in, in her presence. He imagined there’d be very little barrack-room swearing around Pantasilea. He did wonder what on earth she saw in her husband, but then, he didn’t know her at all.

“I think she’d do anything for me.”

“Where did you meet her?”

“We’ll talk about that some other time.” Bartolomeo seized the decanter and two glasses and put his free arm around Ezio’s shoulders. “I am very glad you’ve come. I’ve just got back from campaigning, as you must know, and as soon as I heard you were in Rome I was going to send men out to locate you—I know you like to keep your lodgings secret, and I don’t blame you, especially not in this nest of vipers. But luckily, you’ve beaten me to it. And that’s good, because I want to talk to you about the war. Let’s go to the map-room.”

“I know Cesare has an alliance with the French,” Ezio said. “How goes the fight against them?”

“Bene. The companies I’ve left out there, who’ll be campaigning under Fabio, are holding their own. And I’ve more men to train here.”

Ezio considered this. “Machiavelli seemed to think things were…more difficult.”

Bartolomeo shrugged. “Well, you know Machiavelli. He—”

They were interrupted by the arrival of one of Bartolomeo’s sergeants. Pantasilea was at his side. The man was in a panic. She was calm.

“Capitano!” said the sergeant urgently. “We need your help now. The Borgia have launched an attack.”

“What? I hadn’t expected that so soon! Excuse me, Ezio.” To Pantasilea, Bartolomeo cried, “Throw me Bianca!”

She immediately tossed the greatsword across the room to him, and, buckling it on, Bartolomeo hurled himself out of the room, following his sergeant. Ezio made to follow, but Pantasilea held him back, grasping his arm firmly.

“Wait!” she said.

“What is it?”

She looked deeply concerned. “Ezio. Let me get straight to the point. The fight is not going well—either here or out in the Romagna. We’ve been attacked on both sides. The Borgia are on one flank, the French under General Valois on the other. But know this: The Borgia position is weak. If we can defeat them, we can concentrate our forces on the French front. Taking this tower would help. If someone could get around the back…”

Ezio inclined his head. “Then I think I know a way I can help. Your information is invaluable. Mille grazie, Madonna d’Alviano.”

She smiled. “It is the least a wife can do to help her husband.”

EIGHTEEN

The Borgia had launched a surprise attack on the barracks, choosing the hour of the siesta to do so. Bartolomeo’s men had fought them off, using traditional weapons, but as they drove them back toward the tower, Ezio could see Cesare’s gunmen massing on its battlement, all armed with their new wheel locks, which they were training on the condottieri swarming below.

He skirted the melee, managing to avoid any confrontation with the Borgia troops. He circled and made his way around to the back of the tower. As he’d expected, everyone’s attention was focused on the battle going on at the front. He clambered up the outer walls, easily finding footholds in the rough-hewn stones of which it had been built. Bartolomeo’s men were armed with crossbows, and some had matchlocks, for long-range work, but they would not be able to withstand the deadly fire of the sophisticated new guns.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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