“We’ll find it.”
“Leave them there with my sister, Claudia. May I?” Ezio took a sheet of paper and scribbled something on it. “Give this to her. I’ve sketched its location, as it’s hard to find. I’ll get the money to you as soon as possible.”
“Five thousand ducats.”
“Not cheap, these things…”
Ezio pursed his lips. “Fine.” He took back the note and wrote an additional line. “We have recently come into some new and…unexpected funds. My sister will pay you. And listen, Leo—I have to trust you. Not a word to anyone else.”
“Salai, if you have to. But if the brothel’s location is discovered by the Borgia, I will kill Salai, and I will kill you, my friend.”
Leonardo smiled. “I know these are very troubled times, my dear—but when—when—have I ever let you down?”
Content with that, Ezio took leave of his friend and continued on his way to the Sleeping Fox. He was running late, but the meeting with Leonardo had been more than worth it.
He went through the courtyard, pleased to see that business still seemed to be booming, and was about to announce himself to the thieves standing guard on either side of the door marked UFFIZI when La Volpe himself appeared, apparently out of nowhere—but he was good at that.
“Buon giorno, Ezio!”
“I’m glad you’ve come. What is it you want?”
“Let’s sit somewhere quiet.”
“In the uffizi?”
“Let’s stay here. What I have to say is for your ears alone.”
“That’s good, for I have something to say to you, too, which should stay between us—for now.”
They settled down at a table in an otherwise empty bar inside the inn, away from the gamblers and drinkers.
“It’s time to pay a visit to Lucrezia’s lover, Pietro,” said Ezio.
“Good. I’ve already got men out looking for him.”
“Molto bene; but a working actor shouldn’t be that hard to find, and this one’s famous.”
La Volpe shook his head. “He’s famous enough to have minders of his own. And we think he may have gone to ground because he’s frightened of Cesare.”
“That makes sense. Well, do your best. Now, what is it you have on your mind?”
La Volpe wrestled with himself for a moment, then said, “It’s delicate…Ezio, if I may…”
“What is it?”
“Someone has warned Rodrigo to stay away from the Castel Sant’Angelo.”
“And you think that someone is…Machiavelli?”
La Volpe was silent.
“Do you have proof?” Ezio pressed him.
“I know that Machiavelli is eating you up, but listen, Gilberto, we must not be split apart by mere suspicion.”
At that moment, the door banged open and they were interrupted by the arrival of a wounded thief, who staggered into the room. “Bad news!” he cried. “The Borgia know the whereabouts of our spies!”
“Who told them?” thundered La Volpe, rising.
“Maestro Machiavelli was asking about our search for the actor, Pietro, earlier today.”
La Volpe’s hand tightened into a fist. “Ezio?” he said quietly.
“They’ve got four of our men under guard,” said the thief. “I was lucky to get away!”
“Not far from here—near Santa Maria del Orto.”
“Come on!” La Volpe yelled to Ezio.
Within minutes, La Volpe’s men had readied two horses, and the two Assassins rode out of the stables of the Sleeping Fox at breakneck speed.
“I still do not believe Machiavelli has turned traitor,” insisted Ezio as they rode.
“He went quiet for a bit, to allay our doubts,” La Volpe hurled back. “But look at the facts: first the attack on Monteriggioni, then the business at the Castel Sant’Angelo, and now this! He is behind it all!”
“Just ride! Ride like the devil! We may still be in time to save them!”
They galloped helter-skelter through the narrow streets, reining in and thrusting forward as they strove to avoid injuring people and smashing down market booths in their headlong career. Citizens and chickens alike scattered in their path, but when Borgia guards tried to block their way, halberds raised, they simply rode them down.
They reached the place the wounded thief had indicated within seven minutes and saw the mulberry-and-yellow uniforms preparing to pack the four captured thieves onto a covered wagon, hitting them with the pommels of their swords and taunting them as they did so. In a moment, Ezio and La Volpe were upon them like avenging Furies. Swords drawn, they steered their mounts skillfully among the guards, cutting them off from their prisoners and dispersing them about the square in front of the church. Grasping his sword firmly in his right hand, La Volpe let go of his reins with his left, and, holding on with his thighs, wheeled toward the wagon, seized the driver’s whip from him, and struck hard at the flanks of the horses in the shafts. They reared and neighed and then stampeded off, as the wagoner strove in vain to control them. Hurling the whip aside and almost falling, La Volpe grabbed his reins again and swung his horse around to join Ezio, who was surrounded by five guards stabbing at his horse’s chest and quarters with their halberds. Flailing them with his sword, La Volpe gave Ezio enough time to break free of the trap and slice open the midriff of the closest guard. Turning the horse in a tight circle, he swiped with his sword again and neatly severed the head from the body of another. Meanwhile, La Volpe had dispatched the last of the guards with any fight left in them—the rest either lay wounded or had fled.
“Run, you swine,” La Volpe yelled at his men. “Back to base! Now! We’ll join you there!”
The four thieves pulled themselves together and darted down the main street out of the square, ducking and diving through the small crowd that had gathered to watch the fight. Ezio and La Volpe rode after them, shepherding them, making sure they all got back in one piece.
They made their way into the Sleeping Fox by a secret side entrance and had soon all assembled in the bar, now with a Closed sign on its door. La Volpe ordered beer for his men but did not wait for it to arrive before he started his interrogation.
“What were you able to find out?”