“You have played with the trinkets power brings. A man of real strength would be contemptuous of such things.”

“I gave the people what they wanted!”

“You delude yourself.”

“Spare me!”

“Your own debt is due, Eminenza. Unearned pleasure only consumes itself.”

The Banker fell to his knees, mumbling half-remembered prayers.

Ezio raised the hidden-blade.

“Requiescat in pace,” he said.

He left the door open when he departed. The orgy had declined into sleepy, smelly groping. One or two of the guests, supported by servants, were vomiting. Another pair of servants was carrying out a corpse—it had all evidently been too much for someone’s heart. There was no one left on guard.

“We are ready,” said a voice at his elbow. He turned to see Claudia. Around her, around the room, a dozen girls detached and disentangled themselves and stood. Among them, dressed again and looking shaken but otherwise determined, was the girl the Banker had molested so vilely. The servants who had helped her stood by her. More recruits.

“Get out of here,” said Claudia. “We’ll recover the money. With interest.”

“Can you—?”

“Just—just this once, trust me, Ezio.”

THIRTY-FOUR

Though his mind remained full of misgivings about leaving his sister in charge, Ezio admitted to himself that he had, after all, asked her to do this job for him. A lot hung on it, but he had better do as she’d said, and trust her.

It was cold in the small hours of the new day, and he pulled his hood up as he slipped past the dozing guards posted outside the Banker’s palazzo, where the torches had burned low and the house itself, no longer so brilliantly lit from within, seemed grey, old, and tired. He toyed with the idea of going after Rodrigo, whom he hadn’t seen since his furious departure from the dais after Cesare’s speech—and Cesare himself had clearly not chosen to stay at the party—but he put the notion to one side. He wasn’t going to storm the Vatican single-handed, and he was tired.

He returned to Tiber Island to clean up and refresh himself, but he didn’t linger over it. He had to find out, as soon as possible, how Claudia had fared. Only then would he be able truly to relax.

The sun was appearing over the horizon, turning the rooftops of Rome gold as he skimmed over them in the direction of the Rosa in Fiore. From his vantage point, he saw a number of Borgia patrols running about the city, in a state of high excitement and agitation, but the brothel was well hidden, and its location was a respected secret among its clients—they certainly wouldn’t want to be answerable to Cesare if he got wind of it—so Ezio was not surprised to find no mulberry-and-yellow uniforms in its vicinity. He dropped down to a street not far away and walked—trying not to hurry—toward the bordello.

As he approached, he tensed. Outside, there were signs of a struggle, and the pavement was stained with blood. Drawing his sword, and with a pounding heart, he made his way through the door, which he found ajar.

The furniture in the reception room had been overturned and the place was a mess. Broken vases lay on the floor, and the pictures on the walls—tasteful illustrations of the juicier episodes in Boccaccio—were askew. But that was not all. The bodies of three dead Borgia guards lay in the entrance, and there was blood everywhere. He was making his way forward when one of the courtesans—the selfsame girl who had suffered so much at the hands of the Banker—came to greet him. Her dress and hands were covered in blood, but her eyes were shining.

“Oh, Ezio—! Thank God you’re here!”

“What’s happened?” His thoughts flew to his mother and sister.

“We got away all right—but the Borgia guards must have followed us all the way back here—”

“What’s happened?!”

“They tried to trap us inside—to ambush us.”

“Where are Claudia and Maria?”

The girl was crying now. “Follow me—”

She preceded him in the direction of the inner courtyard of the Rosa in Fiore. Ezio followed, still in great trepidation, but he noticed that the girl was unarmed and, despite her distress, led the way without fear. What kind of massacre—? Had the guards killed everyone except her—and how had she escaped?—and left, taking the money with them?

The girl pushed open the door leading to the courtyard. An appalling sight greeted his eyes—but it was not the one he had expected.

There were dead Borgia guards everywhere, and those that were not dead were badly wounded or dying. In their midst, by the fountain, stood Claudia, her dress drenched in blood, with a rondel dagger in one hand and a stiletto in the other. Most of the girls whom Ezio had seen at the Banker’s palazzo stood near her, similarly armed. To one side, protected by three of the girls, was Maria, and behind her, stacked against the wall, was not one, but seven metal boxes of the same type that Ezio had delivered to the Banker.

Claudia was still on guard, as were the other women, expecting another wave of the attack.

“Ezio!” she said.

“Yes,” he replied, but he was looking at the carnage.

“How did you come here?”

“Over the rooftops, from Tiber Island.”

“Did you see any more of them?”

“Plenty, but they were running around in circles. None near here.”

His sister relaxed slightly. “Good. Then we must get the street outside cleaned up and the door closed. Then we must do something about this mess.”

“Did you—lose anyone?”

“Two—Lucia and Agnella. We have already laid them on their beds. They died bravely.”

She wasn’t even trembling.

“Are you all right?” asked Ezio hesitantly.

“Perfectly,” she replied, composed. “We’ll need help disposing of this lot. Can you drum up some of your recruits to help? We left our new friends the servants behind at the palazzo, so that they can put anybody who asks off the scent.”

“Did any of this patrol escape?”

Claudia looked grim. She hadn’t yet lowered either of her weapons. “Not one. No news will get back to Cesare.”

Ezio was silent for a moment. Nothing could be heard but the splashing of the fountain and the song of the morning birds.

“How long ago?”

She half smiled. “You just missed the party.”

He smiled back. “No need for me. My sister knows how to wield a knife.”

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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