Mutely, Pietro delved into his loincloth and handed it over. “I always keep it with me,” he said.

“Wise of you,” said Ezio, pocketing the key. It was reassuring to have it, for it would guarantee him access to the Castel whenever he had need of it. “My men will fetch your clothes and get you to a place of safety. I’ll detail a couple to keep watch over you. Just keep out of sight for a while.”

“But…my public!” wailed the actor.

“They’ll have to make do with Longinus until it’s safe for you to put your head above the parapet again.” Ezio grinned. “I shouldn’t worry. He isn’t a patch on you.”

“Oh, do you really think so?”

“No question.”

“Ouch!” said Pietro, as the first leech went on.

In the wink of an eye, Ezio had disappeared outside, and there gave the necessary orders to his men. “Get out of those costumes as soon as you can,” he added. “The Baths of Trajan aren’t far. With any luck, your street clothes will still be where you left them.”

He departed on his own, but he hadn’t gone far when he noticed a figure skulking in the shadows. As soon as the man felt Ezio’s eyes on him, he cut and ran. But not before Ezio had recognized Paganino, the thief who’d been determined to stay behind at the sack of Monteriggioni.

“Hey!” Ezio shouted, giving chase. “Un momento!”

The thief certainly knew his way around these streets. Ducking and diving, he was so adroit that Ezio all but lost him in the pursuit and more than once had to leap to the rooftops to scan the streets below in order to locate the man again. Leonardo’s magical glove came in surprisingly handy at such times, he found.

At last he managed to get ahead of his prey and cut off his line of escape. The thief went for his dagger, an ugly-looking cinquedea, but Ezio quickly wrested it out of his hand and it clattered harmlessly to the pavement.

“Why did you run?” asked Ezio, pinioning the man. Then he noticed a letter protruding from the man’s leather belt pouch. The seal was unmistakable: It was that of Pope Alexander VI—Rodrigo—the Spaniard!

Ezio let out a long breath as a series of suspicions fell into place. Paganino had long ago been with Antonio de Magianis’s Thieves’ Guild in Venice. He must have been offered enough money by the Borgia to persuade him to switch sides and had infiltrated La Volpe’s group here—the Borgia had had a mole at the heart of the Assassins’ organization all along.

Here was the traitor—not Machiavelli at all!

But while Ezio’s attention was distracted, the thief wrenched himself free and, in a flash, seized his fallen weapon. His desperate eyes met Ezio’s.

“Long live the Borgia!” he cried and thrust the cinquedea firmly into his own breast.

Ezio looked down at the fallen man as he thrashed about in his death agonies. Well, better this death than a slow one at the hands of his masters—Ezio well knew the price exacted by the Borgia for failure. He stuffed the letter into his doublet and made off. Merda, he thought to himself, I was right! And now I have to stop La Volpe before he gets to Machiavelli!

THIRTY-SEVEN

As Ezio made his way across the city, he was accosted by Saraghina, one of the girls from the Rosa in Fiore.

“You must come quickly,” she said. “Your mother wants to see you urgently.”

Ezio bit his lip. There should be time. “Hurry,” he said.

Once at the bordello, he found Maria waiting for him. Her face betrayed her anxiety.

“Ezio,” she said, “thank you for coming to see me.”

“I have to be quick, Mother.”

“There’s something amiss.”

“Tell me.”

“The old proprietor of this establishment—”

“Madonna Solari?”

“Yes.” Maria collected herself. “It turns out that she was a cheat and a liar. We’ve discovered that she was playing il doppio gioco. She had close ties with the Vatican. Worse—several of those still employed here may still be—”

“Don’t worry, Madre. I’ll root them out. I’ll send my most trusted recruits to interview the girls. Under Claudia’s direction, they will soon get at the truth.”

“Thank you, Ezio.”

“We will ensure that only girls loyal to us remain here. As for the rest—” The expression on Ezio’s face was harsh.

“I have other news.”

“Yes?”

“We have word that ambassadors from King Ferdinand of Spain and from the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian, have arrived in Rome. It seems they seek an alliance with Cesare.”

“Are you sure, Mother? What need have they of him?”

“I don’t know, figlio mio.”

Ezio’s jaw was set. “We had better be safe rather than sorry. Ask Claudia to investigate for me. I give her a full mandate to give orders to the recruits I will send.”

“You trust her for this?”

“Mother, after the business with the Banker, I would trust the two of you with my life. I am ashamed not to have done so before—but it was only my anxiety for your safety that—”

Maria held up a hand. “You do not need to explain. And there is nothing to forgive. We are all friends again now. That is what matters.”

“And Cesare’s days are numbered. Even if the ambassadors gain his support, they will soon find it is worthless.”

“I hope your confidence is well-founded.”

“Believe me, Mother, it is. Or will be—if I can save Machiavelli from La Volpe’s misguided suspicion!”

THIRTY-EIGHT

Borrowing a horse from the stables he had liberated, Ezio rode posthaste to the Sleeping Fox. It was crucial that he get there before anything happened to Machiavelli. Lose him, and he’d lose the best brains in the Brotherhood.

Although the hour was not that late, he was alarmed to see that the inn was closed. He had his own key and let himself in through the wicket gate.

The scene that met his eyes told him that he had arrived not a moment too soon. The members of the Thieves’ Guild were all present. La Volpe and his principal lieutenants stood together, busily discussing something that appeared to be of great importance and it looked as though judgment had been reached, since La Volpe, a baleful look on his face, was approaching Machiavelli with a businesslike basilard in his right hand. Machiavelli, for his part, looked unconcerned, seemingly without any idea about what was happening.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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