“Let me show you something.”
She led the way from the room to a wide balcony overlooking an inner courtyard of the barracks. On one side of it was a sizable new dovecote, alive with birds.
“These are carrier pigeons,” Pantasilea explained. “Each one, sent from Niccolò Machiavelli in the city, now brings me the name of a Borgia agent in Rome. The Borgia grew fat on the Jubilee of 1500. All that money from eager pilgrims, willing to buy themselves absolution. And those who would not pay were robbed.”
Ezio looked grim.
“But your various attacks have unsettled the Borgia badly,” Pantasilea continued. “Their spies comb the city, seeking out our people and exposing them where they can. Machiavelli has uncovered some of their names as well, and these, too, he is often able to send me by pigeon post. Meanwhile, Rodrigo has added even more new members to the Curia, in an attempt to maintain his balance of power among the cardinals. As you know, he has decades of experience in Vatican politics.”
“Indeed he has.”
“You must take these names with you when you return to the city. They will be useful to you.”
“I am lost in admiration, Madonna.”
“Hunt these people down, eliminate them if you can, and we will all breathe more easily for it.”
“I must return to Rome without delay. And I will tell you something that makes me breathe more easily.”
“What you have just disclosed proves that Machiavelli is undoubtedly one of us.” But then Ezio hesitated. “Even so…”
“I have a similar arrangement with Bartolomeo. Give it a week, and then ask him to come to the island in the Tiber—he knows the place and I daresay you do, too—bringing me what he has gleaned about Rodrigo and Cesare.”
“Do you doubt Machiavelli still?”
“No—but I am sure you’ll agree that it is good to double-check all the information one gets, especially in times like these.”
A shadow seemed to pass across her face, but then she smiled and said, “He will be there.”
Back in Rome, Ezio made his first port of call the brothel Machiavelli had mentioned as being another source of information—perhaps some of the names he was sending Pantasilea by carrier pigeon came from there. He needed to check on how the girls collected their information, but he’d decided to go there incognito. If they knew who he was, they might just give him the information they thought he wanted.
He arrived at the address and checked the sign: the Rosa in Fiore. There was no doubt of it, and yet it didn’t look like the kind of place the Borgia nomenclatura might normally frequent. Unless they went in for slumming. It certainly wasn’t a patch on Paola’s establishment in Florence, at least from the outside. But then, Paola’s place had kept a pretty discreet shopfront. He knocked, dubiously, on the door.
It was opened immediately by an attractive, plump girl of about eighteen. She was wearing a tired-looking silk dress.
She flashed him a professional smile. “Welcome, stranger! Welcome to the Rosa in Fiore.”
“Salve,” he said, as she let him pass. The entrance hall certainly was a step up, but even so, there seemed to be an air of neglect about the place.
“And what did you have in mind for today?” the girl asked.
“Would you be kind enough to get your boss for me?”
The girl’s eyes became slits. “Madonna Solari isn’t in.”
“I see.” He paused, uncertain what to do. “Do you know where she is?”
“Out.” The girl was distinctly less friendly now.
Ezio gave her his most charming smile, but he wasn’t a young man anymore and he could see that it cut no ice with the girl. She thought he was an official of some sort. Damn! Well, if he wanted to get any farther in, he’d have to pretend to be a client. And if pretending to be one meant actually becoming one, well, so be it.
He’d decided on this course of action when the street door suddenly burst open and another girl burst in, her hair awry, her dress disarranged. She was distraught.
“Aiuto! Aiuto!” she cried urgently. “Madonna Solari—” She sobbed, unable to continue.
“What is it, Lucia? Pull yourself together. And what are you doing back so soon? I thought you’d gone off with Madonna and some clients.”
“Those men weren’t clients, Agnella! They—they said they were taking us to a place they knew down by the Tiber but there was a boat there and they started to slap us about and drew knives. They took Madonna Solari on board and chained her up.”
“Lucia! Dio mio! How did you get away?” Agnella put an arm around her friend and guided her to a couch set along one wall. She took out a handkerchief and dabbed at a red weal that was starting to rise on Lucia’s cheek.
“They let me go—sent me back with a message—they’re slave traders, Agnella! They say they’ll only let her go if we buy her back! Otherwise they’ll kill her!”
“How much do they want?” Ezio asked.
“A thousand ducats.”
“How much time do we have?”
“They’ll wait an hour.”
“Then we have time. Wait here! I’ll get her back for you.” Cazzo, Ezio thought. This looks bad. I need to talk to that woman. “Where are they?”
“There’s a jetty, Messere. Near Isola Tiberina. Do you know the place?”
Ezio made haste. There was no time to get to Chigi’s bank and none of its three branches was on his route, so he resorted to a moneylender, who drove a hard bargain, but made up the sum Ezio already carried to the one thousand required. Armed with this, but determined not to part with a penny of it if he could possibly avoid it, and swearing to exact the interest he’d have to pay from the bastards who’d taken the one person he most needed to talk to, he hired a horse and rode recklessly through the streets toward the Tiber, scattering the people, chickens, and dogs that cluttered the street as he did so.
He found the boat—a large one, more of a small ship—without difficulty, thank God, and, dismounting, ran to the end of the jetty at which it was moored, yelling Madonna Solari’s name.
But they were prepared for him. There were two men already on deck, and they trained pistols on him. Ezio’s eyes narrowed. Pistols? In the hands of cheap little villains like these?