“Why did you not help him?” asked Machiavelli. “Send them packing?”
“Look,” said Ezio, “helping one man is good, but it will not solve the problem. They will come again, when we are not here, and they will do the same again. Look at the quality of the stuff on offer here. The vegetables are old, the meat is flyblown, and the bread, no doubt, is hard. The best goes to the Borgia. And why do you think so many people are drinking?”
Machiavelli said, “I do not know.”
“Because they are in pain,” Ezio replied. “They are without hope and they are oppressed. They want to blot it all out. But we can change that.”
“By recruiting them to our cause.” He spread his arms. “These people—these are the ones who will form the backbone of our resistance to the Borgia.”
“We’ve talked of this before,” said Machiavelli sharply. “You cannot be serious.”
“I’m going to start with that stallholder. To win this war, Niccolò, we need loyal soldiers—however they fight for us. We must sow the seeds of rebellion in their minds.” He paused, then continued earnestly, “By recruiting those whom the bullying State has made its enemies, we arm the people who have been disarmed by the Borgia.”
Machiavelli looked at his friend long and hard. “Go, then,” he said. “Go, and recruit our first novices.”
“Oh, I intend to,” said Ezio. “And you will see that from the group of determined men and women I gather around us, I will forge a sword capable of cutting the limbs and head from the trunk of the Borgia—and of the Templars themselves.”
Ezio returned to the Assassins’ center of operations on Tiber Island having done a good morning’s work, discreetly converting a number of disaffected citizens to his cause.
Apart from the loyal attendants who staffed and guarded the place, it was deserted, and Ezio looked forward to a little quiet time, to think and plan; but as he approached, he found that, after all, he had a visitor. One who wanted to be quite sure that his presence would not be noted, and one who, therefore, waited until the general staff had gone about their business elsewhere in the building before he made himself known.
“Psst! Ezio! Over here!”
“Who’s there?” Ezio was instantly alert, though already he thought he knew the voice. Tall bushes grew on either side of the lane that led to the hideout, and the place was known to no one outside the organization. If by any chance the secret had been penetrated…
“Who is it?”
And Leonardo da Vinci, dandified and distracted as ever, stepped out of his hiding place into the lane.
“Leo! My God!”
But then Ezio, remembering who Leonardo’s new master was, checked his initial impulse, which had been to run and embrace his old friend.
His reaction registered with Leonardo, who looked a little older, to be sure, but who had lost none of his élan, or his vigorous enthusiasm. He took a step forward, but kept his head lowered. “I’m not surprised you don’t show that much enthusiasm at seeing me again.”
“Well, Leo, I must admit, you have disappointed me.”
Leonardo spread his hands. “I knew you were behind the break-in at the Castel. It could only have been you. So—I knew you were still alive!”
“Surely your new masters would have told you that.”
“They tell me nothing! I am no more than a slave to them.” There was a smallest twinkle in Leonardo’s eye. “But they have to trust me.”
“As long as you deliver.”
“I think I’m just about bright enough to stay one step ahead of them.” Leonardo took another step toward Ezio, arms half held out. “It is good to see you again, my friend.”
“You have designed weapons for them—new guns we will find difficult to match.”
“I know. But if you will let me explain…”
“And how did you find this place?”
“I can explain…”
Leonardo looked so contrite, and so unhappy, and he seemed so sincere, that Ezio’s heart warmed, despite himself, toward his old friend. He also reflected that, after all, Leonardo had come to see him, no doubt at great personal risk; and that if he sought a rapprochement, it would be a foolish leader indeed who would turn down the friendship and the partnership of such a man.
“Come here!” cried Ezio, spreading his arms wide.
“Oh, Ezio!” Leonardo hurried forward and the two men embraced warmly.
Ezio led his friend inside and they sat down together. Ezio knew that Caterina had been moved to an inner room, where she could complete her recovery in peace and quiet, and the doctor had given orders that she was not to be disturbed. He was tempted to disobey, but there would be time enough for talk with her later. Besides, Leonardo’s appearance dictated a change of priorities.
Ezio had wine and cakes brought for them.
“Tell me everything,” said Ezio.
“I will explain. First of all, you must forgive me. The Borgia commandeered my services—but under duress. If I’d refused to serve them, they would have subjected me to a long and painful death. They described what they would do to me if I refused to help them. Even now I cannot think of it without trembling.”
“You are perfectly safe now.”
Leonardo shook his head. “No! I must go back to them. I am of far more use to you if they think I am still working for them. As it is, I have done my utmost to create the minimum possible number of new inventions to satisfy them.” Ezio was about to interrupt but Leonardo held up a nervous hand. “Please—this is a kind of confession, and I’d like to complete it. Then you may judge me as you think fit.”
“No one is judging you, Leonardo.”
Leonardo’s manner became more intense. Ignoring the refreshments, he leaned forward. “I say I work for them under duress,” he went on, “but it is more than that. You know I keep out of politics. I like to keep my nose clean. But men who seek power seek me out because they know what I can do for them.”
“This I do know.”
“But I play along, too. I play along to stay alive. And why do I wish to stay alive? Because I have so much to do!” He took a breath. “I cannot tell you, Ezio, how my poor brain teems!” He made a gesture that seemed partly all-embracing and partly despairing. “There is so much to discover!”