“We must use the Apple,” said Machiavelli again.

“This is but the first day of three. We must learn to trust ourselves, and our own intelligence, and not lean on what has been vouchsafed us.”

“The matter is pressing.”

“One more appointment today, Niccolò. Then, perhaps, we shall see.”

The Princesse d’Albret, Dâme de Châlus, Duchess of Valence, was, according to the gatekeepers of her opulent villa in the Pinciano district, not at home. But Ezio and Machiavelli, impatient and tired, pushed past anyway and encountered Charlotte in her piano nobile, engrossed in packing. Huge chests full of costly linen and books and jewelry stood about the half-empty room. In a corner, the confused little four-year-old Louise, Cesare’s only legitimate heir, played with a wooden doll.

“You are damned impertinent,” said the cold-looking blonde who confronted them, her dark brown eyes flashing fire.

“We have the imprimatur of the Pope himself,” lied Ezio. “Here is his warrant.” He held up a blank parchment, from which impressive-looking seals hung.

“Bastards,” said the woman coolly. “If you think I know where Cesare is imprisoned, you are fools. I never want to see him again, and I pray that none of his sang maudit has passed into the veins of my innocent little daughter.”

“We also seek Micheletto,” said Machiavelli implacably.

“That Catalan peasant,” she spat. “How should I know?”

“Your husband told you how he might escape, if taken,” suggested Machiavelli. “He depended on you.”

“Do you think so? I don’t! Perhaps Cesare confided in one of his dozens of mistresses. Perhaps the one that gave him the malattia venerea?”

“Do you—?”

“I never touched him, since the first pustules appeared, and he at least had the decency to keep away from me and wallow in the gutter with his whores afterward. And father eleven brats by them. At least I am clean, and my daughter, too. As you see, I am getting out of here. France is a far better country than this wretched hellhole. I’m going back to La Motte-Feuilly.”

“Not to Navarre?” asked Machiavelli slyly.

“I see you are trying to trick me!” She turned her cold, bony face toward them. Ezio noticed that her beauty was marred—or enhanced—by a dimple in the middle of her chin. “I do not choose to go to that province merely because my brother married the heiress to the throne and thereby became king.”

“Does your brother remain faithful to Cesare?” asked Ezio.

“I doubt it. Why don’t you stop wasting my time, and go and ask him?”

“Navarre is far away.”

“Exactly. Which is why I wish you and your saturnine friend were on your way there. And now, it is late and I have work to do. Please leave.”

“A wasted day,” commented Machiavelli as they took to the streets again, the shadows lengthening.

“I don’t think so. We know that none of those closest to Cesare are harboring or protecting him.” Ezio paused. “All the most important women in his life hated him, and even Giulia had no time for Rodrigo.”

Machiavelli grimaced. “Imagine being fucked by a man old enough to be your grandfather.”

“Well, she didn’t do too badly out of it.”

“We still don’t know where Cesare is. Use the Apple!”

“No. Not yet. We must stand on our own feet.”

“Well,” sighed Machiavelli, “at least God gave us good minds.”

At that moment, one of Machiavelli’s spies came running up, a small, bald man with alert eyes, out of breath, his face wild.

“Bruno?” said Machiavelli, surprised and concerned.

“Maestro,” panted the man. “Thank God I’ve found you.”

“What is it?”

“The Borgia diehards! They sent someone to follow you and Maestro Ezio—”

“And?”

“Sure that you were out of the way, they have taken Claudia!”

“My sister! Sweet Jesus—how?” gasped Ezio.

“She was in the square outside Saint Peter’s—you know those rickety wooden colonnades the Pope wants to tear down?”

“Get on with it!”

“They took her—she was organizing her girls, getting them to infiltrate—”

“Where is she now?”

“They have a hideout in the Prati—just to the east of the Vatican. That’s where they’ve taken her.” Bruno quickly gave them the details of where Claudia was being held prisoner.

Ezio looked at Machiavelli.

“Let’s go!” he said.

“At least we’ve found out where they are,” said Machiavelli, drily as ever, as the two of them bounded up to the rooftops again; from there they ran and leapt across Rome, until they came to the Tiber, where they crossed on the Ponte della Rovere, and made haste again toward their goal.

The place Machiavelli’s spy, Bruno, had indicated was a ramshackle villa just north of the Prati district market. But its crumbling stucco belied a brand-new ironbound front door, and the grilles on the windows were new, too, and freshly painted.

Before Machiavelli could stop him, Ezio had gone up to the door and hammered on it.

The judas set into it opened and a beady eye regarded them. And, to their amazement, the door swung smoothly back on well-oiled hinges.

They found themselves in a nondescript courtyard. There was no one about. Whoever had opened the door—and closed it firmly behind them—had disappeared. There were doors on three sides of the yard. The one opposite the entrance was open. Above it was a tattered banner—bearing a black bull in a golden field.

“Trapped,” said Machiavelli succinctly. “What weapons do you have?”

Ezio had his trusty hidden-blade, his sword, and his dagger. Machiavelli carried a light sword and a stiletto.

“Come in, gentlemen—you are most welcome,” said a disembodied voice from a window overlooking the courtyard somewhere high up in the wall above the open door. “I think we have something to trade with.”

“The Pope knows where we are,” retorted Machiavelli loudly. “You are lost. Give yourselves up! The cause you serve is dead!”

A hollow laugh was his rejoinder. “Is it indeed? I think not. But come in. We knew you’d take the bait. Bruno has been working for us for a year now.”

“Bruno?”

“Treachery runs in families, and dear Bruno’s is no exception. All Bruno wanted was a little more cash than you were giving him. He’s worth it. He managed to inveigle Claudia here, in the hope of meeting one of the English cardinals—they sit on the fence, as the English always do, and Claudia hoped to swing him to your side, and get a little information out of him. Unfortunately, Cardinal Shakeshaft met with a terrible accident—he was run over by a carriage and died on the spot. But your sister, Ezio, is still alive, just, and I am sure she is longing to see you.”

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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