All enjoying themselves, all relaxed, and all—he hoped—unsuspecting. But the proof of the pudding would lie in the value of the information Claudia’s courtesans were able to extract from this venal bunch of slobs.
He caught sight of his sister—modestly dressed, he was glad to see—talking rather (to his mind) too affectionately to Ascanio Sforza, the former vice-chancellor of the Curia and now in Rome again after his brief disgrace, trying to wheedle his way back into papal favor. When Claudia caught sight of Ezio, her expression changed. She excused herself from the cardinal and came toward him, a brittle smile on her face.
“Welcome to the Rosa in Fiore, Brother,” she said.
“Indeed.” He did not smile.
“As you can see, it is the most popular brothel in Rome.”
“Corruption is still corruption, however well dressed it is.”
She bit her lip. “We have done well. And don’t forget why this place really exists.”
“Yes,” he replied. “The Brotherhood’s money seems to have been well invested.”
“That’s not all. Come to the office.”
To Ezio’s surprise, he found Maria there, doing some paperwork with an accountant. Mother and son greeted each other guardedly.
“I want to show you this,” said Claudia, producing a book. “Here is where I keep a list of all the skills taught to my girls.”
“Your girls?” Ezio could not keep the sarcasm out of his voice. His sister was taking to this like a duck to water.
“Why not? Take a look.” Her own manner had tightened.
Ezio leafed through the proffered book. “You are not teaching them much.”
“Think you could do better?” she answered sarcastically.
“Nessun problema,” Ezio said unpleasantly.
Sensing trouble, Maria abandoned her accounts and came up to them. “Ezio,” she said, “the Borgia make it difficult for Claudia’s girls. They keep out of trouble, but it’s hard to avoid suspicion. There are several things you could do to aid them…”
“I’ll keep that in mind. You must let me have a note of them.” Ezio turned his attention back to Claudia. “Anything else?”
“No.” She paused, then said: “Ezio—”
Ezio turned as if to go. Then he said: “Have you found Caterina?”
“We are working on it,” she replied coldly.
“I’m glad to hear it. Bene. Come to see me at Isola Tiberina the minute you have found out exactly where they are holding her.” He inclined his head toward the sounds of merriment coming from the central salon. “With this lot to milk, you shouldn’t find it all that difficult.”
He left them to it.
Outside in the street, he felt like a heel about the way he’d behaved. They seemed to be doing a great job. But would Claudia be able to hold her own?
Inwardly, he shrugged. He acknowledged once again that the true source of his anger was his own anxiety about his ability to protect those whom he held most dear. He needed them, he knew, but he was aware that his fear for their safety threatened to cramp his style.
Ezio’s long-awaited reunion with Machiavelli finally took place on Tiber Island, soon after the encounter at the brothel. Ezio was reserved at first—he didn’t like any of the Brotherhood disappearing without his knowledge of where they’d gone, but he recognized in his heart that, for Machiavelli, he must make an exception. And indeed, the Brotherhood itself was an association of free-minded, free-spirited souls acting together not from coercion or obedience, but from a common concern and interest. He didn’t own, or have any right to control, any of them.
Serious and determined, he shook hands with his old colleague—Machiavelli shunned the warmth of an embrace. “We must talk,” he said.
“We certainly must.” Machiavelli looked at him. “I gather you know about my little arrangement with Pantasilea?”
“Good. That woman has more sense of tactics in her little finger than her husband has in his whole body—not that he isn’t the best man possible in his own field.” He paused. “I’ve been able to secure something of great worth from one of my contacts. We now have the names of nine key Templar agents whom Cesare has recruited to terrorize Rome.”
“Just tell me how I may find them.”
Machiavelli considered. “I suggest looking for signs of distress within any given city district. Visit the people there. Perhaps you’ll uncover citizens who can point you in the right direction.”
“Did you get this information from a Borgia official?”
“Yes,” said Machiavelli carefully, after a pause. “How do you know?”
Ezio, thinking of the encounter he had witnessed with La Volpe in the market square, wondered if that might not have been the initial contact. Machiavelli must have been following it up ever since.
“Lucky guess,” he said. “Grazie.”
“Look—Claudia, Bartolomeo, and La Volpe are waiting for you in the inner room here.” He paused. “That was a lucky guess.”
“Virtù, dear Niccolò, that’s all,” said Ezio, leading the way.
“Virtue?” said Machiavelli to himself, as he followed.
His companions in the Brotherhood stood as he entered the hideout’s inner sanctum. Their faces were somber.
“Buona sera,” Ezio said and got straight down to business. “What have you discovered?”
Bartolomeo spoke first. “We’ve ascertained that that bastardo Cesare is now at the Castel Sant’Angelo—with the Pope!”
La Volpe added, “And my spies have confirmed that the Apple has indeed been given to someone for secret study. I am working on determining his identity.”
“We can’t guess it?”
“Guesswork’s no good. We need to know for sure.”
“I have news of Caterina Sforza,” Claudia put in. “She will be moved to the prison within the Castel next week, on Thursday toward dusk.”
Ezio’s heart involuntarily skipped a beat at this. But it was all good news.
“Bene,” said Machiavelli. “So—the Castel it is. Rome will heal quickly once Cesare and Rodrigo have gone.”
Ezio held up a hand. “Only if the right opportunity to assassinate them arises will I take it.”
Machiavelli looked irritated. “Do not repeat your mistake in the Vault. You must kill them now.”