“How about the Swiss Guard?” suggested Ezio, who was a little tired.

The Pope considered this. “Well, it’s not startlingly original, Ezio. Frankly, I rather favored the Julian Guard—but one doesn’t like to sound too egotistical.” He grinned. “All right! I’ll use what you propose! It’ll do for the time being, at any rate.”

They were interrupted by the sound of hammering and other building works, coming from above their heads, and in other parts of the Vatican.

“Wretched builders!” commented the Pope. “Still, it has to be done.” He crossed the room to a bellpull. “I’ll get someone to go and shut them up until we’ve finished. Sometimes I think builders are the greatest destructive force Man has yet invented.”

An attendant arrived at once and the Pope gave him his orders. Minutes later, amid muffled swearing, tools were downed, noisily.

“What are you having done?” asked Ezio, knowing that architecture vied with warfare as the Pope’s greatest passion.

“I’m having all the Borgia apartments and offices boarded up,” replied Julius. “Far too sumptuous. More worthy of a Nero than the leader of the Church. And I’m razing all their buildings on the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo. Turning it into one big garden. Might stick a little summerhouse up there, though.”

“Good idea,” said Ezio, smiling to himself. The summerhouse would doubtless be a real pleasure dome, fit, if not for a king, at least for trysts with one or another of the Pope’s lovers—female or male. But the Pope’s private life didn’t concern Ezio. What mattered was that he was a good man and a staunch ally. And compared with Rodrigo, his corruptions were about as significant as a child’s tantrum. Furthermore, he’d steadily continued the moral reforms of Pius III, his predecessor.

“I’m having the Sistine Chapel done up as well,” continued the Pope. “It’s so dull! So I’ve commissioned that bright young artist from Florence, Michelangelo what’s-his-name, to paint some frescoes on the ceiling. Lots of religious scenes, you know the kind of thing. I’d thought of asking Leonardo, but his head’s so full of ideas that he scarcely ever finishes a big painting. Pity. I rather liked that portrait he did of Francesco del Giocondo’s wife…”

Julius interrupted himself and looked at Ezio. “But you didn’t come here to talk about my interest in modern art.”

“No.”

“Are you sure you’re not taking the threat of a Borgia revival too seriously?”

“I think we should take it seriously.”

“Look—my army has regained most of the Romagna for the Vatican. There’s no army left for the Borgia to fight with.”

“Cesare is still alive! With him as a figurehead—”

“I hope you’re not questioning my judgment, Ezio! You know my reasons for sparing his life. In any case, where he is now, he’s as good as buried alive.”

“Micheletto is still at large.”

“Pah! Without Cesare, Micheletto is nothing.”

“Micheletto knows Spain well.”

“He’s nothing, I tell you.”

“He knows Spain. He was born in Valencia. He’s a bastard nephew of Rodrigo!”

The Pope, who, despite his years, was a large and vigorous man still in the prime of life, had been pacing the room during this last exchange. Now he returned to the desk, placed his large hands on it, and leaned threateningly over Ezio. His manner was convincing.

“You are letting your worst fears run away with you,” he said. “We don’t even know whether Micheletto is still alive or not.”

“I think we should find out, once and for all.”

The Pope pondered Ezio’s point and relaxed slightly, sitting down again. He tapped the heavy signet ring on his left hand with the index finger of his right.

“What do you want to do?” he asked heavily. “Don’t expect any resources from me. The budget’s over-stretched as it is.”

“The first thing is to locate and destroy any last diehards in the city of Rome itself. We may find someone who knows something about Micheletto—his whereabouts or his fate. Then—”

“Then?”

“Then, if he is still alive—”

“You’ll destroy him?”

“Yes.” But Ezio thought: Unless he turns out to be more useful to me alive.

Julius sat back. “I am impressed by your determination, Ezio. It almost frightens me. And I am glad I am not myself an enemy of the Assassins.”

Ezio looked up sharply. “You know about the Brotherhood?”

The Pope made a tent of his fingers. “I always needed to know who the enemies of my enemy were. But your secret is safe with me. As I told you, I am not a fool.”

FIFTY

“Your instinct is right. I will guide you and guard you. But I do not belong to you and soon you must let me go. And I have no power over he who controls me. I must obey the will of the Master of the Apple.”

Ezio, alone in his secret lodgings, was holding the Apple in his hands as he tried to use it to help him locate his quarry in Rome, when the mysterious voice had come to him again. This time he could not tell if the voice was male or female, and he could not even tell whether it came from the Apple or from somewhere in his own mind.

Your instinct is right. But also: I have no power over he who controls me. Why then had the Apple only shown him hazy images of Micheletto—just enough to tell him that Cesare’s henchman was still alive? And it could not—or would not—pinpoint Cesare’s location. At least for now.

He suddenly realized something his inner self had always known: that he should not abuse the object’s power by overusing it, that he should not become dependent on the Apple. Ezio knew that it was his own will that had blurred the answers he sought. He must not be slothful. He must fend for himself. One day he would have to again, anyway.

He thought of Leonardo. What could that man not do, if he had the Apple? And Leonardo, the best of men, nevertheless invented weapons of destruction as easily as he produced sublime paintings. Might the Apple have the power not only to help mankind, but to corrupt it? In Rodrigo’s or Cesare’s hands, had either of those two ever been able to master it, it could have become the instrument not of salvation, but destruction!

Power is a potent drug. Ezio did not want to fall victim to it.

He looked at the Apple again. It seemed inert in his hands now. But as he placed it back in its box, he found he could hardly bear to close the lid. What paths could it not open up for him?!

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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