“Whatever you can do for us will earn my undying gratitude and my protection, wherever you are,” said Ezio. He made a mental note to delegate a handful of his new recruits, as soon as they finished their training, to keep a watchful eye on Leonardo and to report back regularly on him. “Now, how shall we maintain contact?”
Leonardo said, “I’ve thought of that.” He took out a piece of chalk and on the table between them drew a man’s right hand, pointing.
“It’s beautiful,” said Ezio.
“Thank you—it’s just a sketch of part of a painting I’ve been thinking of doing—of Saint John the Baptist. If I ever get around to it. Go and sit where it’s pointing to.”
“That’s it,” said Leonardo. “Tell your people to keep their eyes peeled. They see one of these—it’ll just look like a bit of graffito to anyone else—tell them to let you know, and follow the direction it’s pointing in. That’s how we’ll rendezvous.”
“Splendid,” said Ezio.
“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re forewarned. In case you’re thinking of charging off somewhere on some mission or other.”
Leonardo stood. “I must go. Otherwise I’ll be missed. But first—”
Leonardo grinned and shook the bag of money.
“First, I’m going shopping!”
Ezio left the hideout shortly after Leonardo, to continue his recruiting work but also to keep himself busy. He was impatient to have the replacement Codex weapons back in his hands.
When, later in the day, he returned for a prearranged meeting, it was to find that Machiavelli had preceded him. Caterina was with him, sitting in a chair, her knees covered with a fur rug. As usual, Machiavelli did not stand on ceremony.
“Where have you been?” he asked.
Ezio didn’t like his tone. “We all have our secrets,” he replied, keeping his voice level. “And, may I ask, what have you been up to?”
Machiavelli smiled. “I’ve been refining our carrier pigeon system. We can use it now to send orders to the new recruits scattered about the city.”
“Excellent. Thank you, Niccolò.”
They looked at each other. Machiavelli was almost ten years Ezio’s junior; yet there was no doubting the independence and ambition behind those veiled eyes. Did he resent Ezio’s leadership? Had he hoped it might have fallen on him? Ezio put the thought aside: no, surely the man was more of a theorist, a diplomat, a political animal. And there could be no doubt about his usefulness—or his allegiance—to the Brotherhood. If only Ezio could convince La Volpe of that, fully.
And, as if on cue, La Volpe entered the hideout, accompanied by Claudia.
“What news?” Ezio asked him, after the two had greeted one another.
“Bartolomeo sends his apologies. It seems that General Valois has had another stab at attacking the barracks.”
“They redoubled their assault. But we are holding our ground.”
“Good.” Ezio turned to his sister, coldly. “Claudia,” he said, inclining his head.
“Brother,” she rejoined, with equal frostiness.
“Please sit down, all of you,” said Ezio.
Once they were settled, he continued. “I have a plan prepared for the Borgia.”
“I suggest,” Machiavelli put in immediately, “that we either go after their supplies or Cesare’s followers.”
“Thank you, Niccolò,” said Ezio evenly. “My plan is to attack both. If we can cut off his funds, Cesare will lose his army and return without his men. How does he get his money?”
La Volpe said, “We know that he depends for much of his money on Rodrigo, and Rodrigo’s banker is Agostino Chigi. But Cesare also has his own banker, whose identity has yet to be confirmed, though we have our suspicions.”
Ezio decided, for the moment, to keep his own suspicions in that direction quiet. It would be best to have them confirmed, if possible, by La Volpe’s men.
“I know someone—a client of ours at the Rosa in Fiore—who owes that banker money. The senator Egidio Troche is complaining about interest rates all the time.”
“Bene,” said Ezio. “Then we must follow that up.”
“There’s something else,” said Machiavelli. “We have news that they are planning to station French troops on the road that leads to Castel Sant’Angelo. Your attack must have really rattled them. And apparently Cesare is planning to return to Rome. Immediately. Quite why, so soon, is beyond me. But we’ll find out. In any case, when he does arrive, he’ll be so well guarded that you’ll never get to him. In any case, our spies tell us that he intends to keep his return secret, at least for the moment.”
“He’s got something up his sleeve,” said La Volpe.
“Brilliant,” said Machiavelli, and the two men ex -changed a look that wasn’t friendly.
Ezio considered this. “Seems to be that our best course of action is to corner this French general of theirs, Octavien, and kill him. Once he’s out of the way, Bartolomeo will have the Frenchmen on the defensive, and they’ll abandon their guard duty at the Castel.”
Caterina spoke for the first time. “Even so, Ezio—even with those troops gone, the Papal Guard will continue to protect the bridge and the main gate.”
“Ah,” said La Volpe, “but there’s a side entrance. Lucrezia’s latest plaything, the actor Pietro Benintendi, has a key.”
“Does he?” said Ezio. “I saw him with her at the Castel.”
“I’ll have my men find out where he is,” promised La Volpe. “Shouldn’t be too difficult.”
Caterina smiled. “Sounds like a good idea. I’d like to help. We should be able to scare that key out of him—and he’ll stop seeing Lucrezia. Anything to rob that bitch of any pleasure.”
“Momentino, Contessa,” said Machiavelli. “We are going to have to do without your help.”
Caterina looked at him, surprised. “Why?”
“Because we are going to have to get you out of the city—maybe to Florence, until we can get Forlì back for you. Your children are already safe there.” He looked around. “Ezio’s rescuing you wasn’t without its consequences. There are heralds all over the city proclaiming a rich reward for the contessa‘s capture—alive or dead. And no bribe can shut them up.”