“We’ll take over from here, Ezio,” said one of the girls.
“It wouldn’t do for you to get too close,” said a second. “But keep us in sight.”
They swanned off after the attendant and caught up with him; one of the girls engaged him in conversation.
“Hi, there,” she said.
“Hello,” replied the man guardedly. But it wasn’t much fun, being at such a party and yet having to be on duty.
“Mind if I walk with you? All these people! Hard to get through them with any speed.”
“Sure. I mean—I don’t mind if you want to keep me company.”
“I’ve never been here before.”
“Where did you come from?”
“Trastevere.” She shuddered theatrically. “Have to pass some of the old ruins to get here. They make me nervous.”
“You’re safe here.”
“With you, you mean?”
The attendant smiled. “I could protect you—if the need arose.”
“I bet you could.” She looked at the box. “My, what a fine chest you have there.”
“It isn’t mine.”
“Oh—but you are holding it in those strong arms of yours. What muscles you must have!”
“Want to touch them?”
“My goodness! But what would I tell the priest in Confession?”
By now they had arrived at an ironbound door flanked by two guards. Ezio watched as one of them knocked. A moment later, the door was opened and a figure in the red robes of a cardinal appeared in the entrance, with an attendant similarly dressed to the first.
“Here is the money you were expecting, Your Eminence,” said the first attendant, handing the box to the second.
Ezio drew in his breath, his suspicions confirmed. The Banker was none other than Juan Borgia the Elder, Archbishop of Monreale and Cardinal-Priest of Santa Susanna. The selfsame man he had seen in Cesare’s company at Monteriggioni and in the stable yard at the Castel Sant’Angelo!
“Good,” said the Banker. Black eyes glittered in a sallow face. He was eyeing the girl, who still stood close to the first attendant. “I’ll take her, too, I think.”
He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her to him. He looked levelly at the first attendant. “As for you—you are dismissed.”
“Onoratissima!” said the girl willingly, snuggling up to the Banker as the attendant tried to control the expression on his face. The second attendant disappeared into the room beyond the door and it closed behind him as the Banker led the girl back into the party.
The first attendant watched them go, then gave a resigned sigh. He started to leave, but then stopped, patting himself down. “My coin purse! What’s happened to it?” he muttered, then he looked in the direction the Banker had gone with the girl. They were surrounded by laughing guests, among whom agile servants moved with silver trays loaded with food and drink. “Oh, shit!” he said to himself and made his way back toward the front doors. As he passed through them, the doors closed behind him. Evidently all the guests had arrived. Ezio watched him go and thought, If they continue to treat people like that, I should have no trouble at all in mustering all the new recruits I need.
Ezio turned and pushed his way through to a position close to the Banker. At that point a herald appeared on a gallery and a trumpeter blew a short fanfare to make silence for him.
“Eminenze, Signore, Signori,” announced the herald. “Our esteemed lord, and guest of honor, the Duke of Valence and Romagna, Captain-General of the Papal Forze Armate, Prince of Andria and Venafro, Count of Dyois, and Lord of Piombino, Camerino, and Urbino—His Grace Messer Cesare Borgia—is about to honor us with an address in the great inner chamber!”
“Come on, my dear—you shall sit near me,” the Banker said to the courtesan from the Rosa in Fiore, his bony hand snaking around her buttocks. Joining the press of people that now moved obediently through the double doors leading to the inner chamber, Ezio followed. He noticed that the other two girls were not far away, but now they sensibly ignored him. He wondered how many other allies his sister had managed to infiltrate into this gathering. If she succeeded in all he had asked her to do, he would have to do more than eat humble pie, but he also felt proud and reassured.
He took a seat on an aisle near the middle of the assembly. Papal guards lined the edges of the room, and another row stood in front of the dais that had been erected at one end of it. Once everyone had settled, the women fanning themselves, for the room was hot, a familiar figure in black strode onto the dais. He was accompanied, Ezio noticed, by his father; but Rodrigo simply took a seat behind him. To his relief, Lucrezia was nowhere to be seen, though she must have been released from her cell by now.
“Welcome, my friends,” said Cesare, smiling a little. “I know we all have a long night ahead of us…” And he paused for the laughter and scattered applause…”But I will not detain you long…My friends, I am honored that the Cardinal-Priest of Santa Susanna has gone to so much trouble to help me celebrate my recent victories…”
“...And what better way shall I have to mark them than by joining in the brotherhood of Man? Soon, soon we will gather here again for an even greater gala, for then we shall be celebrating a united Italy. Then, then, my friends, the feasting and the revelry will last not one night, or two, or even five, six, or seven—but we shall spend forty days and nights in celebration!”
Ezio saw the Pope stiffen at this, but Rodrigo said nothing, did not interrupt. The speech, as Cesare had promised, was a short one, amounting to a list of the new city-states brought under his sway and a vague outline of his plans for future conquests. When it was over, amid loud shouts of approval and applause, Cesare turned to go, but his way was blocked by Rodrigo, clearly struggling to suppress his fury. Ezio made his way forward to listen to the terse conversation that had started, sotto voce, between father and son. As for the other revelers, they had begun to drift back to the main hall, their minds already on the pleasures of the party ahead.
“We did not agree to conquer all Italy,” Rodrigo was saying, his voice full of spite.
“But, caro padre, if your brilliant captain-general says we can do it, why not rejoice, and let it happen?”
“You risk ruining everything! You risk upsetting the delicate balance of power we have worked so hard to maintain!”
Cesare’s lip curled. “I appreciate all that you have done for me, of course, caro padre. But do not forget that I control the army now, and that means that I am the one who makes the decisions.” He paused to let his words sink in. “Don’t look so glum! Enjoy yourself!”