He pressed his mouth close to the man’s ear.
“If you survive,” he said, “and get back to that pox-ridden louse you call your master, tell him all this was done with the compliments of Ezio Auditore. If not—requiescat in pace.”
Ezio didn’t return to the brothel immediately. It was late. He returned the horse, bought a sack from the ostler for a few coins, and stowed his spoils, and the money, in it. He slung it over his shoulder and made his way to the moneylender, who was surprised and disappointed to see him back to repay so soon, and gave him what he owed. Then he went to his lodgings, taking care to blend in with the evening crowds whenever he sighted Borgia guards.
Once there, he had them bring him water to bathe, undressed, and washed himself wearily, wishing that Caterina would once again appear at the door and surprise him. But this time there was no one to interrupt him so pleasantly. He changed into fresh clothes and shoved the ones he’d been wearing, ruined by the day’s work, into the sack. Time to get rid of them later. He cleaned the pistols and put them in a satchel. He’d thought of keeping them, but they were heavy and unwieldy, so he decided to hand them over to Bartolomeo. Most of the diamonds would go to Bartolomeo, too, but after examining them, Ezio selected five of the best and largest and put them in his own wallet. They’d ensure that he wouldn’t have to waste time scraping around after money for a while, at least.
Everything else he’d get La Volpe to send to the barracks. If you can’t trust a friendly thief, whom can you trust?
He was ready to go out again. The satchel was slung over his shoulder and his hand was on the latch. But then—then he felt tired. Tired of the killing. Tired of the greed, and the grasping for power, and the misery all of that led to.
Almost tired of the fight.
He let his hand fall from the door and unslung the satchel, placing it on his bed. He locked the door and undressed once more. Then he snuffed out the candle and all but fell onto the bed. He just had time to remember to place a protecting arm around the bag before he fell asleep.
He knew the respite wouldn’t be long.
At the Sleeping Fox, Ezio handed over the satchel with precise instructions. He didn’t like to delegate this job, but he was needed here in Rome. The reports La Volpe’s “spies” had brought in were few, but the results coincided with those Machiavelli had sent by carrier pigeon to Pantasilea, which assuaged most of Ezio’s remaining misgivings about his friend; though La Volpe remained, Ezio could see, reserved. Ezio could understand it. Machiavelli could come across as remote, even cold. Although they were fellow Florentines, and Florence had no love for Rome, and especially not for the Borgia, it seemed that La Volpe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, still harbored doubts.
“Call it a gut feeling,” was all he said, gruffly, when Ezio pressed the point.
There was no news of the Apple, except that it was still in the possession of the Borgia, though whether Cesare had it, or Rodrigo, was uncertain. Rodrigo well knew its potential, though to Ezio it seemed unlikely that he would confide much of what he knew to his son, given the tension between them; as for Cesare, he was the last person seen in control of it, but there was no sign that he was using it. Ezio prayed that whomever he had given it to for study—if he had done so—was either stumped by its mysteries or concealing them from his master.
Machiavelli was nowhere to be found. Even at the Assassins’ secret headquarters on Tiber Island he had left no news. The best information Ezio could get was that he was “away,” but he wasn’t reported to be in Florence. The two young friends who were temporarily in Rome at the time and running the hideout—Baldassare Castiglione and Pietro Bembo—were completely reliable and already associate members of the Brotherhood, not least because one had connections with Cesare and the other with Lucrezia. It was a pity, Ezio thought, that the first had soon to return to Mantua and the other to Venice. He consoled himself with the thought they would nonetheless be useful to him in their hometowns.
Satisfied that he had done what he could on those fronts, Ezio turned his thoughts back to the Rosa in Fiore.
This time when he paid a visit to the brothel, the door was open. The place seemed airier somehow, and lighter. He’d remembered the names of the girls he’d met on his previous visit, and after having given them to the older and more sophisticated woman in the entrance hall, who, he noticed, had two well-dressed, young, polite, but tough-looking men standing guard, he was ushered through to the inner courtyard. He was told he’d find the girls there.
He found himself in a rose garden, surrounded by high, redbrick walls. A pergola, almost hidden under luxuriant pink climbing roses, ran along one of these, and in the center was a small fountain with white marble benches around it. The girls he sought were with a group of others talking to two older women whose backs were to him. But they turned at his approach.
He was about to introduce himself—he’d decided to try another tack this time—but then his jaw dropped.
“Mother! Claudia! What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you. Ser Machiavelli told us we might find you here. Before he left.”
“Where is he? Did you see him in Florence?”
“But what are you doing here in Rome?” he repeated dumbly. He was filled with shock and anxiety. “Has Florence been attacked?”
“No—nothing like that,” said Maria. “But the rumors were true—our palazzo has been destroyed. There is nothing for us there.”
“And even if it were not in ruins, I would never go back to Mario’s rocca at Monteriggioni,” put in Claudia. Ezio looked at her. He understood what a backwater that place would seem to a woman like her. He nodded. But his heart was troubled.
“So we have come here. We have taken a house in Rome,” continued Maria. “Our place is with you.”
Thoughts raced across Ezio’s mind. In his innermost heart, though he scarcely admitted it to his conscious mind, he still felt that he might have prevented the deaths of his father and brothers. He had failed them. Maria and Claudia were all that was left of his family. Might he not fail them in the same way? He did not want them to be dependent on him.
He attracted danger. If they were near him, would he not attract danger to his mother and sister, too? He didn’t want their deaths on his head. They’d have been better off in Florence, where they had friends, where their safety, in a city once again stable under the wise management of Piero Soderini, would have been ensured.