“My bolt-hole,” said Egidio. “Useful when you have as many creditors as I have.”

“But one big one.”

“My mistake was to consolidate all my debts with the Banker. I wasn’t fully aware of his exact connections at the time. I should have stuck to Chigi. At least he’s honest—as far as a banker can be!” Egidio paused. “But what of you? A Good Samaritan in Rome? I thought they were a dying breed.”

Ezio let that go. “You are Egidio Troche, il senatore?”

Egidio looked startled. “Don’t tell me I owe you money as well!”

“No—but you can help me. I am looking for Cesare’s banker.”

The senator smiled thinly. “Cesare Borgia’s banker? Ha! And you are…?”

“Let’s just say I’m a friend of the family.”

“Cesare has a lot of friends these days. Unfortunately, I am not one of them. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have some packing to do.”

“I can pay.”

Egidio stopped looking nervous. “Ah! You can pay? Ma che merviglia! He fights off guards for one, and he offers one money! Tell me, where have you been all my life?”

“Well, I haven’t descended from heaven. You help me, and I’ll help you. It’s as simple as that.”

Egidio considered this. “We’ll go to my brother’s place. They’ve got no quarrel with him, and we can’t stay here—it’s too depressing, and it’s far too close to my—dare I say, our?—enemies.”

“Let’s go, then.”

“But you’ll have to protect me. There’ll be more of Cesare’s guards out after me, and they won’t be especially friendly, if you know what I mean—especially after that little show you put on in the piazza.”

“Come on.”

Egidio led the way out, cautiously, making sure the coast was clear before they set off by a labyrinthine route through back alleys and seedy lanes, across little piazze, and skirting the edges of markets. Twice they encountered pairs of guards, and twice Ezio had to fight them off—this time using his sword to full effect. It seemed that the city was on full alert for both men—and both men in flight together proved too good a bounty for the Borgia henchmen. Time was not on Ezio’s side—so when the next pair of guards appeared at the other side of one small piazza, they simply had to run for it, and Ezio, unable to take to the rooftops with the senator in tow, simply had to depend on Egidio’s apparently exhaustive knowledge of Rome’s backstreets. But at last they reached the rear of a new, quietly splendid villa, set in its own walled courtyard, a few blocks east of Saint Peter’s. Egidio let them into the courtyard through a small ironbound gate set into one of the walls, for which he produced a key.

Once inside, they both breathed more easily.

“Someone really wants you dead,” said Ezio.

“Not yet—they want me to pay them first.”

“Why? Once they’ve got their money—? And by the sound of things you’re something of a milch-cow to them.”

“It isn’t that simple. The fact is, I’ve been a fool. I’m no friend of the Borgia, even if I have borrowed money from them, and recently a bit of information came my way that gave me an opportunity of doing them down—if only a little.”

“And that was…?”

“A few months ago, my brother Francesco, who’s Cesare’s chamberlain—I know, I know, don’t get me started—Francesco told me a good deal about Cesare’s plans for the Romagna. What he plans to do there, I mean. And that is, to create a mini-kingdom from which he intends to conquer the rest of the country and bring it to heel. As the Romagna is on the doorstep of the Venetian territories, Venice is already unhappy about Cesare’s inroads there.”

“So what did you do?”

Egidio spread his hands. “I wrote to the Venetian ambassador, giving him all the information I’d got from Francesco. Warning him. But one of my letters must have been intercepted.”

“But won’t that implicate your brother?”

“He’s managed to keep himself in the clear so far.”

“But what possessed you to do such a thing?”

“I had to do something. The Senate has nothing to do, really, these days, except put its imprimatur on all the Borgia’s decrees. If it didn’t, it would cease to exist altogether. As it is, there’s nothing to do—nothing independent. Do you know what it’s like not to have un cazzo to do?” Egidio shook his head. “It changes a man. I admit that even I have taken to gambling, to drinking…”

“And whoring.”

The senator looked at him. “Oh, you’re good. You’re very good. What was it that gave me away? The scent of perfume on my sleeve?”

Ezio smiled. “Something like that.”

“Hmm. Well, anyway, as I was saying, senators used to do what senators are supposed to do—petitioning about real issues, like—oh, I don’t know, where to start?—like unlawful cruelty, abandoned children, street crime, lending rates, keeping some kind of rein on Chigi and the other bankers. Now the only legislation we are allowed to draw up independently concerns stuff like the appropriate width of the sleeves of women’s dresses.”

“But not you. You try to raise money for false causes in order to use it to pay off your gambling debts.”

“They’re not false causes, my boy. As soon as we have a proper government again, and as soon as I’m on an even keel financially again, I intend to pursue them vigorously.”

“And when do you think that will be?”

“We must be patient. Tyranny is unbearable, but it never lasts. It’s too brittle.”

“I wish I could believe that.”

“Of course you’ve got to stand up to it. Whatever happens. You obviously do.” He paused. “I’m probably—what?—ten or fifteen years older than you. I must make the most of my time. Or have you never looked at a grave and thought, ‘This is the most significant thing I will ever do—die’?”

Ezio was silent.

“No,” continued Egidio. “I guess not.” He turned in on himself. “Maledetto letters! I should never have sent them to the ambassador. Now Cesare will kill me as soon as he gets a chance, debt or no debt, unless by some miracle he decides to vent his anger on someone else. God knows, he’s capricious enough.”

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