The actor who was playing Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy Jewish leader who donated his own tomb—which had already been built—for the housing of Christ’s body, then spoke: “Ah, Lord God, what heart had Thou to allow them to slay this man that I see here dead, and hanging from a cross—a man who ne’er did aught amiss? For surely, God’s own Son is He. Therefore, in the tomb that is made for me, therein shall His body buried be—for He is King of Bliss!”
Nicodemus, Joseph’s colleague in the Sanhedrin and a fellow sympathizer, added his voice. “Ser Joseph, I say surely, this is God’s Son Almighty. Let us request His body of Pontius Pilate, and nobly buried He shall be. And I will help thee to take Him down devotedly.”
Joseph then turned to the actor playing Pilate and spoke again. “Ser Pilate, I ask of thee a special boon to grant me as thou may. This prophet that is dead today—allow me of His body custody!”
During this, Ezio had slipped backstage. Micheletto has taken up a position very near the central cross. He rummaged swiftly through a costume skip and found a rabbinical robe, which he hurriedly put on. He’d have to get onstage himself. Entering from backstage left, he managed to slip close to, and behind, Micheletto, without anyone’s noticing or the action skipping a beat.
“Joseph, if indeed Jesus Nazarenus is dead, as the Centurion must confirm, I will not deny you custody.” Turning to Micheletto, Pilate spoke again. “Centurion! Is Jesus dead?”
“Ay, Ser Governor,” said Micheletto flatly, and Ezio noticed him draw a stiletto from under his cloak. Ezio had replaced his poison-blade, now exhausted of venom, with his trusty hidden-blade, and with it he now pierced Micheletto’s side, holding him upright and maneuvering him offstage, in the direction he had come. Once backstage, he laid the man down.
Micheletto fixed him with a glittering look. “Hah!” he said. “You cannot save Pietro. The vinegar on the sponge was poisoned. As I promised Cesare, I made doubly sure.” He fought for breath. “You had better finish me.”
“I did not come here to kill you—you helped your master rise and you will fall with him—you don’t need me—you are the agent of your own destruction! If you live, well, a dog always returns to its master, and you will lead me to my real quarry.”
Ezio had no time for more. He had to save Pietro!
As he rushed back onstage, he saw a scene of chaos. Pietro was writhing on the cross and vomiting. He’d turned the color of a peeled almond. The audience was in uproar.
“What’s going on? What’s happening?” cried Longinus, as the other actors scattered.
“Cut him down!” Ezio yelled to his recruits. Some threw keenly aimed daggers to slice through the ropes that bound Pietro to the cross, while others stood ready to catch him. Yet others were fighting back the Borgia guards who had appeared from nowhere and were now storming the stage.
“This wasn’t in the script!” gurgled Pietro as he fell into the arms of the recruits.
“Will he die?” asked Longinus hopefully. One rival less is always good news in a tough profession.
“Hold off the guards!” shouted Ezio, leading the recruits off the stage and carrying Pietro in his arms across a shallow pool of water in the middle of the Colosseum, disturbing dozens of drinking pigeons, which flew up and away in alarm. The very last glimmer from the setting sun bathed Ezio and Pietro in a dull red light.
Ezio had trained his recruits well, and those bringing up the rear guard successfully fought off the pursuing Borgia guards as the rest made their way out of the Colosseum and into the network of streets to the north of it. Ezio led the way to the house of a doctor of his acquaintance. He hammered on the door and, having been granted reluctant admission, had Pietro laid on a table covered with a palliasse in the doctor’s consulting room, from whose beams a baffling number of different dried herbs hung in organized bunches, giving the room a pungent smell. On shelves, unidentifiable or unmentionable objects and creatures and parts of creatures floated in glass bottles filled with cloudy liquid.
Ezio ordered his men outside, to keep watch. He wondered what any passersby might think if they saw a bunch of Roman soldiers. They’d probably think they were seeing ghosts, and run a mile. He himself had shed his Pharisee outfit at the first opportunity.
“Who are you?” murmured Pietro. Ezio was concerned to see that the actor’s lips had turned blue.
“Your savior,” said Ezio. To the doctor he said, “He’s been poisoned, Dottor Brunelleschi.”
The doctor examined the actor quickly, shining a light into his eyes. “From the pallor, it looks like they used canterella. Poison of choice for our dear masters, the Borgia.” To Pietro, he said, “Lie still.”
“Feel sleepy,” said Pietro.
“Lie still! Has he been sick?” Brunelleschi asked Ezio.
“Good.” The doctor bustled about, mixing a number of fluids from bottles of variously colored glass with practiced ease and pouring the mixture into a vial. This he handed to Pietro, propping his head up.
“Hurry up,” said Ezio urgently.
“Just give him a moment.”
Ezio watched anxiously. After what seemed an age, the actor sat up.
“I think I feel slightly better,” he said.
“Miracolo!” said Ezio in relief.
“Not really,” said the doctor. “He can’t have had much, and for my sins I’ve had quite a bit of experience with canterella victims—it’s enabled me to develop this pretty effective antidote. Now,” he continued judiciously, “I’ll apply some leeches. They will lead to a full recovery. You can rest here, my boy, and very soon you’ll be as right as rain.” He bustled some more and produced a glass jar full of black, wriggling creatures. He scooped out a handful.
“I cannot thank you enough,” said Pietro to Ezio. “I—”
“You can thank me enough,” replied Ezio briskly. “The key to the little gate you use for your trysts at the Castel Sant’Angelo with Lucrezia. Give it to me. Now!”
Misgiving appeared on Pietro’s face. “What are you talking about? I’m simply a poor actor, a victim of circumstance—I--”
“Listen, Pietro: Cesare knows about you and Lucrezia.”
Now misgiving was replaced by fear. “Oh, God!”
“But I can help you. If you give me the key.”