Once inside, he looked around warily, then, seeing no one, he dived down a stairway in the direction of the cells from which, an age ago, it seemed, he’d rescued Caterina Sforza. Finding a quiet spot, he swiftly shed the French lieutenant’s uniform and changed back into his own clothes, which were designed for the work he had to do. He checked his weapons quickly, strapping on the bracer and the poison-blade and confirming that he had a supply of poison darts safely stowed in his belt. Then, hugging the walls, he made off in the direction of the stairway that led to the top of the Castel. But these were guarded and he had to send three guards to their Maker before he could proceed.

At last he arrived at the garden where he had watched Lucrezia and her lover keep their tryst. In daylight he could see that her apartments were part of a complex. Larger and even grander ones stood beyond, and he guessed these to be the Pope’s. But as he was making in that direction he was interrupted by a conversation coming from within Lucrezia’s rooms. He made his way stealthily to the open window where the voices were coming from and listened. He could just see Lucrezia, apparently none the worse for wear after her ordeal in the cells, talking to the same attendant he’d seen her entrust with the information about her affair with Pietro, which he had passed on to her jealous brother—with evident success, to judge by Cesare’s fast return to Rome.

“I don’t understand it,” Lucrezia was saying irritably. “I ordered a fresh batch of cantarella only last night. Toffana was to have delivered it to me personally by noon. Did you see her? What’s going on?”

“I’m terribly sorry, mia signora, but I’ve just heard that the Pope intercepted the delivery. He’s taken it all for himself.”

“That old bastard. Where is he?”

“In his rooms. Madonna. There’s a meeting—”

“A meeting? With whom?”

The attendant hesitated. “With Cesare, Madonna.”

Lucrezia took this in, then said, half to herself: “That’s strange. My father didn’t tell me Cesare was back here again.”

Deep in thought, she left the room.

Alone, the attendant started to tidy up, rearranging tables and chairs while muttering under his breath.

Ezio waited a moment to see if there would be any more information useful to him, but all the attendant said was, “That woman gives me so much trouble…Why didn’t I stay in the stables, where I was well off? Call this a promotion?! I put my head on the block every time I run an errand. And I have to taste her food before she does, every time she sits down to a bloody meal.” He paused for a moment.

“What a family!” he added.

FORTY-THREE

But Ezio had left before he could hear those last words. He slipped through the garden toward the Pope’s apartments and, since the single entrance was heavily guarded and he did not want to draw attention to himself—it wouldn’t be long before the bodies of the guards he’d killed downstairs were discovered—he found a place where he could climb to one of the principal windows of the building unobtrusively. His hunch that this would be a window giving on to the Pope’s principal chamber paid off, and it had a broad external sill on one end of which he could perch out of sight. Using the blade of his dagger, he was able to pry a sidelight open a fraction, so that he could hear anything that might be said.

Rodrigo—Pope Alexander VI—was alone in the room, standing by a table on which sat a large silver bowl full of red and yellow apples, whose position he adjusted nervously just as the door opened and Cesare entered, unannounced. He was clearly angry, and without any preamble he launched into a bitter diatribe.

“What the hell is going on?” he began.

“I don’t know what you mean,” replied his father, with reserve.

“Oh, yes, you do! My funds have been cut off, and my troops dispersed.”

“Ah. Well, you know that after your banker’s tragic…demise, Agostino Chigi took over all his affairs…”

Cesare laughed mirthlessly. “Your banker! I might have known! And my men?”

“Financial difficulties strike all of us from time to time, my boy, even those of us with armies and overweening ambition.”

“Are you going to get Chigi to release money for me or not?”

“No.”

“We’ll see about that!” Angrily, Cesare snatched an apple from the bowl. Ezio saw that the Pope was watching his son carefully.

“Chigi won’t help you,” said the Pope levelly. “And he’s too powerful for even you to bend to your will.”

“In that case,” said Cesare, sneering, “I’ll use the Piece of Eden to get what I want. It will render your help unnecessary.” He bit into the apple with a mean smile.

“That has been made abundantly clear to me already,” said the Pope drily. “By the way, I suppose you are aware that General Valois is dead?”

Cesare’s smile disappeared in a flash. “No. I have only just returned to Rome.” His tone became threatening. “Did you—?”

The Pope spread his hands. “What possible reason could I have had to kill him? Or was he plotting against me, perhaps, with my own, dear, brilliant, treacherous captain-general?”

Cesare took another bite of the apple. “I do not have to stand for this!” he snarled as he chewed.

“If you must know, the Assassins murdered him.”

Cesare swallowed, his eyes wide. Then his face went dark with fury. “Why did you not stop them?”

“As if I could! It was your decision to attack Monteriggioni, not mine. It’s high time you took responsibility for your misdeeds—if it’s not too late.”

“My actions, you mean,” replied Cesare proudly. “Despite the constant interference of failures like you!”

The younger man turned to go, but the Pope hurried around the table to block his way to the door.

“You’re not going anywhere,” Rodrigo growled. “And you are deluded. I have the Piece of Eden.”

“Liar! Get out of my way, you old fool!”

The Pope shook his head sadly. “I gave you everything I could—and yet it was never enough.”

At that instant, Ezio saw Lucrezia burst into the room, her eyes wild.

“Cesare!” she shrieked. “Be careful! He intends to poison you!”

Cesare froze. He looked at the apple in his hand, spitting out the chunk he had just bitten out, his expression a mask. Rodrigo’s own expression changed from one of triumph to one of fear. He backed away from his son, putting the table between them.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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