“Boss, there’s a plan to kill the actor this evening. Cesare is sending his ‘butcher’ to see to it.”
“Who’s that?” asked Ezio.
“You’ve seen him,” replied La Volpe. “Micheletto Corella. No one could ever forget a face like that.”
Indeed, Ezio’s inner eye flashed on the man he’d seen at Cesare’s right hand at Monteriggioni, and again in the stables of the Castel Sant’Angelo. A cruel, battered face, which looked much older than its owner’s age warranted, with hideous scars near his mouth that gave him the appearance of wearing a permanent, sardonic grin. Micheletto Corella. Originally Miguel de Corella.
Corella—did that region of Navarre, which produced such good wine, really also produce this torturer and murderer?
“Can kill a person one hundred and fifty different ways,” La Volpe was saying. “But his preferred method is strangulation.” He paused. “He’s certainly the most accomplished murderer in Rome. No one escapes him.”
“Let’s hope tonight will be the first time,” said Ezio.
“Where this evening? Do you know?” La Volpe was asking the thieves.
“Pietro’s performing in a religious play this evening. He’s been rehearsing at a secret location.”
“He must be scared. And?”
“He’s playing Christ.” One of the other thieves snickered at this. La Volpe glared. “He’s to be suspended from a cross,” continued the man who’d been talking. “Micheletto will come at him with a spear—pierce his side—only it won’t be make-believe.”
“Do you know where Pietro is?”
The thief shook his head. “I cannot tell you that. We couldn’t find out. But we do know that Micheletto will wait at the old baths of the emperor Trajan.”
“The Terme di Traiano?”
“Yes. We think the plan is this: Micheletto intends to disguise his men in costumes, and he’ll make the killing look like an accident.”
“But where’s the performance taking place?”
“We don’t know. But it can’t be far from where Micheletto will be waiting for his men to gather.”
“I’ll go there and shadow him,” Ezio decided. “He’ll lead me to Lucrezia’s lover.”
“Anything else?” La Volpe asked his men.
They shook their heads. A serving-man came in then, bringing a tray with beer, bread, and salami, and the thieves fell on it gratefully. La Volpe drew Ezio to one side.
“Ezio, I am sorry, but I am convinced that Machiavelli has betrayed us.” He held up a hand. “Whatever you say will not convince me otherwise. I know we would both wish to deny it, but the truth is now clear. In my opinion, we should do…what needs to be done.” He paused. “And if you don’t, I will.”
“And there’s another thing, Ezio. God knows I’m loyal, but I also have the welfare of my men to consider. Until this thing is settled, I’m not putting them at risk—at unnecessary risk—anymore.”
“You have your priorities, Gilberto, and I have mine.”
Ezio left, to prepare himself for his evening’s work. Borrowing a horse from La Volpe, he made his way straight to the Rosa in Fiore. Claudia greeted him.
“You’ve had a delivery,” she said.
“Two men, both very dapper. One quite young and a bit shifty looking, but handsome in a pretty sort of way. The other, maybe fifty—a few years older than you, anyway. Of course I remembered him—your old friend Leonardo—but he was quite formal. Gave me this note. And I paid him.”
“That was quick.”
Claudia smiled. “He said he thought you might appreciate an express delivery.”
Ezio smiled back. It would be good to encounter tonight’s bunch—and he imagined Micheletto’s men would be trained to a very high standard of villainy—armed with a few of his old friends, the Codex weapons. But he’d need backup, too—from La Volpe’s attitude, he knew he couldn’t depend on the loan of a contingent of thieves.
His thoughts turned to his own militia of new recruits. It was time to put a few of them through their paces.
Unknown to Ezio, Messer Corella had one other small piece of business to conclude for his boss, before the main event of the evening. But it was still quite early.
He stood silently on a deserted dock by the Tiber. A few barges and two ships rode at anchor, gently moving with the river’s flow. The ships’ grubby furled sails rippled slightly in the wind. Several guards wearing Cesare’s insignia were coming toward them, half hauling, half carrying a blindfolded man between them. At their head was Cesare himself.
Micheletto recognized the man, without surprise, as Francesco Troche.
“Please,” Francesco was whimpering, “I have done nothing wrong.”
“Franceso, my dear friend,” said Cesare, “the facts are plain: Your told your brother about my plans in the Romagna, and he contacted the Venetian ambassador. Not can absterge the blame for that from you.”
“It was an accident. I am still your servant and your ally.”
“Are you demanding that I discount your actions and rely on mere friendship?”
“I am asking…not demanding.”
“My dear Francesco, in order to unite Italy I must have every institution under my control. You know what higher organization we serve—the Order of Templars, of which I am now head.”
“I thought—your father…”
“And if the Church does not fall into line,” continued Cesare firmly, “I will eliminate it entirely.”
“But you know that I really work for you, not the Pope.”
“Ah, but do I, Troche? There’s only one way I can be unconditionally sure of that now.”
“Surely you can’t intend to kill me. Your most loyal friend?”
Cesare smiled. “Of course not.”
He snapped his fingers. Noiselessly, Micheletto approached from behind Francesco’s back.
“You are—you are letting me go?” Relief flooded into Troche’s voice. “Thank you, Cesare. Thank you from my heart. You will not regret—”
But his words were cut short as Micheletto, a thin cord twisted between his hands, leaned forward and bound it tightly around Troche’s neck. Cesare watched for a moment, but even before Francesco was fully killed, he turned to the captain of the guard and said, “Have you got the costumes for the play ready?”