“Stop!” shouted Ezio, bursting in on the scene and catching his breath after his headlong ride.
All eyes turned to him, while La Volpe stood rooted to the spot.
“Stay your hand, Gilberto!” commanded Ezio. “I have discovered the real traitor!”
“What?” said La Volpe, shocked, against a background of excited murmuring from his people.
“He is—was—none other than one of your own men—Paganino! He was present at the attack on Monteriggioni, and now I see his mischief in many of our recent misfortunes.”
“Are you sure of this?”
“He himself revealed his guilt.”
La Volpe’s brow darkened. He sheathed his dagger. “Where is he now?” he growled.
“Where no one can touch him anymore.”
“By his own hand. He was carrying this letter.” Ezio held the sealed parchment aloft.
Ezio passed the letter to La Volpe, and Machiavelli came up as the thieves’ leader broke the seal and opened the paper.
“My God!” said La Volpe, scanning the words.
“Let me see,” said Machiavelli.
“Of course,” La Volpe said, crestfallen.
But Machiavelli was scanning the letter. “It’s from Rodrigo to Cesare. Details of our plans for the French general, Octavien—among other things.”
“One of my own men!”
“This is good news,” Machiavelli said to Ezio. “We can substitute this letter with another. Containing false information—put them off the scent…”
“Good news indeed,” replied Ezio, but his tone was cold. “Gilberto, you should have listened to me.”
“I am once again in your debt, Ezio,” said La Volpe, humbly.
Ezio allowed himself a smile. “What debt can there be amongst friends who trust—who must trust—one another?’
Before La Volpe could reply, Machiavelli put in, “And congratulations, by the way. I gather you resurrected Christ three days early!”
Ezio laughed, thinking of his rescue of Pietro. How did Machiavelli find out about things so fast?
La Volpe looked around at the men and women of the Guild gathered around them. “Well, what are you staring at?” he said. “We’re losing business here!”
Later, after Machiavelli had left to deal with the intercepted letter, La Volpe drew Ezio aside. “I am glad you are here,” he said, “and not just for preventing me from making a total fool of myself.”
“More than that,” said Ezio lightly. “Do you know what I would have done to you, if you had killed Niccolò?”
La Volpe grunted. “Ezio…” he said.
Ezio clapped him on the back. “But all’s well. No more quarrels. Within the Brotherhood, we cannot afford them! Now—what is it you wanted to say to me? Do you have need of my assistance?”
“I do. The Guild is strong, but many of my men are young and untried in any real test. Look at that kid who nicked your purse. Look at young Claudio.”
“And your point is…?”
“I was coming to that. The thieves in Rome generally are also young men and women. Skilled in their trade, sure, but young. Prone to rivalries. Damaging rivalries.”
“Are you speaking of another gang?”
“Yes. One in particular that may pose a threat. I need reinforcements to deal with them.”
La Volpe was silent, then said, “I know I refused you help when my suspicions of Niccolò were at their height, but now…”
“Who are they?”
“They call themselves the Cento Occhi—the One Hundred Eyes. They are creatures of Cesare Borgia, and they cause us significant trouble.”
“Where is their base?”
“My spies have located it.”
“Just a moment. They are angry, and they are spoiling for a fight.”
“Then we must surprise them.”
“But we must be prepared for retaliation.”
“We will strike first. Then they will have no opportunity for retaliation!” La Volpe, now more and more his old self, rubbed his hands in anticipation. “The main thing is to take out their leaders. They alone have direct contact with the Borgia. Remove them, and we will have as good as beheaded the Cento Occhi.”
“And you really need my help for this?”
“You broke the power of the wolfmen.”
“Without your help.”
“The man who helped me break the wolfmen was—”
“Listen, Gilberto. We will combine forces and do this together—have no fear of that. Then, I presume your Guild will be the dominant cartel in Rome.”
“That is true,” agreed La Volpe reluctantly.
“If I help you in this,” said Ezio slowly, “there is a condition.”
“That you shall not again threaten the unity of the Brotherhood. For that is what you almost did.”
La Volpe bowed his head. “I am schooled,” he said meekly.
“Whether we succeed in this venture of yours—or fail.”
“Whether we succeed or fail,” agreed La Volpe. “But we won’t.”
La Volpe gave his friend a Mephistophelean grin. “Fail,” he said.
Having detailed a group of his growing militia of new recruits to help La Volpe in his efforts against the Cento Occhi, Ezio made his way back to his lodgings. He was exhausted and fell into a deep sleep.
When he awoke, he refilled the poison-blade’s inner vial with the venom especially prepared by Leonardo and checked and cleaned the retractable pistol, the double-blade, and the new crossbow and poison darts.
His work was interrupted by a messenger from Bartolomeo, bidding him come to the mercenaries’ barracks as quickly as possible. Sensing trouble, and worried about it, for he had hoped that Bartolomeo and his condottieri had the French well in check, Ezio packed the Codex weapons he judged he might need into a saddlebag and made his way with all speed to the stables, where he rented his favorite horse and set off. It was a fine day, and the road was more or less dry, since rain had held off for about a week. The countryside even seemed a little dusty as he rode through it, taking care to choose a route obscure enough not to be monitored by Borgia troops, and often taking shortcuts through woods and across fields where cows raised their heads idly from their grazing to watch him pass.