“I’m with Niccolò,” said Bartolomeo. “We shouldn’t wait.”

“Bartolomeo is right,” agreed La Volpe.

“They must pay for Mario’s death,” said Claudia.

Ezio calmed them, saying, “Do not worry, my friends: they will die. You have my word.”

TWENTY-THREE

On the day appointed for Caterina’s transfer to Castel Sant’Angelo, Ezio and Machiavelli joined the crowd that had gathered in front of a fine carriage, its windows closed with blinds, whose doors bore the Borgia crest. Guards surrounding the carriage kept the people back, and it was no wonder, because the mood of the people was not unanimously enthusiastic. One of the coachmen leapt down from his box and hastened around to open the nearside carriage door, pulled down the steps, and stood ready to assist the occupants down.

After a moment, the first figure emerged, in a dark blue gown with a white bodice. Ezio recognized the beautiful blonde with the cruel lips. He had last seen her at the sack of Monteriggioni, but it was a face he could never forget. Lucrezia Borgia. She stepped down to the ground, all dignity, but this was lost as she reached back into the carriage, seized hold of something—or someone—and pulled hard.

She dragged Caterina Sforza out by her hair and flung her to the ground in front of her. Bedraggled and in chains, wearing a coarse brown dress, Caterina in defeat still had greater presence and spirit than her captor would ever know. Machiavelli had to put a restraining hand on Ezio’s arm as he automatically started forward. Ezio had seen enough loved ones maltreated; but this was the time for restraint. A rescue now would be doomed to failure.

Lucrezia, one foot on her prostrate victim, started to speak: “Salve, cittadini de Roma! Hail, citizens of Rome! Behold a sight most splendid. Caterina Sforza, the she-whore of Forlì! Too long has she defied us! Now she has, at last, been brought to heel!”

There was little reaction from the crowd at this, and in the silence Caterina raised her head and cried: “Ha! No one stoops as low as Lucrezia Borgia! Who put you up to this? Was it your brother? Or your father? Perhaps a bit of both? Perhaps at the same time, eh? After all, you all pen in the same sty!”

“Chiudi la bocca! Shut your mouth!” screamed Lucrezia, kicking her. “No one speaks ill of the Borgia!” She bent down, dragging Caterina up to her knees, and slapped her hard, so that she fell into the mud again. She raised her head proudly. “The same will happen to any—any—who dare to defy us!”

She motioned to the guards, who seized the hapless Caterina, dragged her to her feet, and manhandled her in the direction of the Castel gates. Still, Caterina managed to cry out: “Good people of Rome! Stay strong! Your time will come! You will be free of this yoke, I swear it!”

As she disappeared, and Lucrezia got back into her carriage to follow, Machiavelli turned to Ezio. “Well, the contessa hasn’t lost any of her spirit.”

Ezio felt drained. “They are going to torture her.”

“It is unfortunate that Forlì has fallen. But we will get it back. We will get Caterina back, too. But we must concentrate. You are here, now, for Cesare and Rodrigo.”

“Caterina is a powerful ally, one of us, indeed. If we help her now, while she is weak, she will aid us in return.”

“Perhaps. But kill Cesare and Rodrigo first.”

The crowd was beginning to disperse, and, apart from the sentries at the gate, the Borgia guards withdrew into the Castel. Soon only Machiavelli and Ezio were left, standing in the shadows.

“Leave me, Niccolò,” said Ezio as the shadows lengthened. “I have work to do.”

He looked up at the sheer walls of the ancient, circular structure, the mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian over a thousand years earlier, now an unassailable fortress. Its few windows were high up, and its walls sheer. Connected to Saint Peter’s Basilica by a fortified stone corridor, it had been the great stronghold of the popes for nearly two hundred years.

Ezio studied the walls. Nothing was completely impregnable. By the light of the torches flickering in their sconces, as night fell, his eyes began to trace the slight ridges, fissures, and imperfections that, however small, would enable him to climb. Once he’d planned his route, he leapt like a cat up to the first hand-and footholds, digging fingers and toes in, steadying his breath, and then, deliberately, unhurriedly, started to scale the wall, keeping wherever possible away from the light cast by the torches.

Halfway up, he came to an opening—an unglazed window in a stone frame—beneath which, on the inner side of the wall, was a walkway for guardsmen. He looked each way along it, but it was deserted. Silently, he swung himself over and looked down, on the other side of the walkway, over a railing into what he quickly saw was the stable yard. Four men were walking there, and he recognized every one of them. Cesare was holding some kind of conference with three of his chief lieutenants: the French general Octavien de Valois; Cesare’s close associate Juan de Borgia Lanzol de Romaní and a lean man in black—a lean man with a cruel, scarred face: Micheletto Corella—Cesare’s right-hand man and most trusted killer.

“Forget the Pope,” Cesare was saying. “You answer only to me. Rome is the pillar that holds our entire enterprise aloft. She cannot waver. Which means—neither can you!”

“What of the Vatican?” asked Octavien.

“What? That tired old men’s club?” answered Cesare contemptuously. “Play along with the cardinals for now, but soon we shall have no more need of them.”

With that, he went through a door leading from the stable yard, leaving the other three alone.

“Well, it looks as if he’s left Rome for us to manage,” said Juan after a pause.

“Then the city will be in good hands,” said Micheletto evenly.

Ezio listened for a while longer but nothing more was said that he reckoned useful—nothing that he didn’t already know—so he continued his climb around the outer wall, in his quest to locate Caterina’s whereabouts. He saw light coming from another window, glazed this time, but open to the night air, and with an outer sill on which he could partially support himself. Doing so, he looked cautiously through the window into a candlelit corridor with plain wooden walls. Lucrezia was there, sitting on an upholstered bench, writing in a notebook; but every so often she looked up, as if she were expecting someone.

A few minutes later, Cesare came through a door at the far end of the corridor and made his way hurriedly toward his sister.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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