“What does he intend to do?”
“No idea. Break out, head for safety in the north with the French, who knows?”
“Whatever his plans are, let’s nip them in the bud.”
By early dawn, Ezio had gathered a mounted force. They rode out the short distance to Zagarolo and surrounded Micheletto’s encampment by sunrise. Ezio bore his crossbow on one arm, over the bracer, and on the other, his poison-blade. There would be no quarter given, though he wanted to take Micheletto alive.
The defenders put up a fierce fight but, in the end, Ezio’s forces were victorious, scattering the diehards under Micheletto’s command like chaff.
Among the wounded, dead, and dying, Micheletto stood proud, defiant to the last.
“We take you, Micheletto Corella, as our prisoner,” said Machiavelli. “No more shall you infect our nation with your putrid schemes.”
“Chains will never hold me,” snarled Micheletto. “Any more than they will hold my master.”
They took him in chains to Florence, where he took up residence in the Signoria, in the very cell where Ezio’s father, Giovanni, spent his last hours. There, the governor of the city, Piero Soderini, together with his friend and adviser Amerigo Vespucci, and Machiavelli, interrogated him and put him to the torture, but they could get nothing out of him and so, for the moment, left him to rot. His day as a killer seemed done.
Ezio, for his part, returned to Rome.
“I know you are a Florentine at heart, Niccolò,” he told his friend at their parting. “But I shall miss you.”
“I am also an Assassin,” replied Machiavelli. “And my first loyalty will always be to the Brotherhood. You will let me know when you next have need of me and I will come to you without delay. Besides,” he added darkly, “I haven’t given up all hope of squeezing information out of this vile man.”
“I wish you luck,” said Ezio.
But he wasn’t so sure they’d break him. Micheletto was indeed an evil man; but he was also very strong willed.
“Ezio, you must put Micheletto out of your mind,” Leonardo told him, as they sat in the former’s studio in Rome. “Rome is at peace. This Pope is strong. He has subdued the Romagna. He is a soldier as much as he’s a man of God and perhaps under him all Italy will find peace at last. And although Spain controls the south, Ferdinand and Isabella are our friends.”
Ezio knew that Leonardo was happy in his work. Pope Julius had employed him as a military engineer and he was tinkering with a host of new projects, though he sometimes pined for his beloved Milan, still in French hands, and talked in his more depressed moments of going to Amboise, where he had been offered all the facilities he needed whenever he wanted them. He frequently said he might go, when he had finished Julius’s commissions.
And as for the Romagna, Ezio’s thoughts turned often to Caterina Sforza, whom he still loved. The letter he’d received from her told him that she was now involved with someone else, the Florentine ambassador. Ezio knew her life remained in turmoil and that, despite Julius’s support, she’d been dismissed from her city by her own populace on account of her former cruelties in putting down their rebellion when they rose up against her late and intractable second husband, Giacomo Feo, and that she was now growing old in retirement in Florence. His letters in reply to her were at first angry, then remonstrative, then pleading; but she replied to none of them, and he knew that she had used him and that he would never see her again.
Thus it was with relationships between men and women. The lucky ones last; but too often when they end, they end for good, and deep intimacy is replaced by a desert.
He was hurt and humiliated, but he didn’t have time to deal with his misery. His work in Rome consolidating the Brotherhood and above all holding it in readiness kept him busy.
“I believe that as long as Micheletto lives, he will do his best to escape, free Cesare Borgia, and help him rebuild his forces.”
Leonardo was having his own problems with his feckless boyfriend, Salai, and barely listened to his old friend. “No one has ever escaped from the prison in Florence,” he said. “Not from those cells.”
“Why don’t they kill him?”
“They still think they might get something out of him, though personally I doubt it,” said Leonardo. “But in any case, the Borgia are finished. You should rest. Why don’t you take your poor sister and return to Monteriggioni?”
“She has grown to love Rome and would never return to such a small place now, and in any case the Brotherhood’s new home is here.”
This was another sadness in Ezio’s life. After an illness, his mother, Maria, had died; Claudia, after her abduction by the Borgia diehards, had given up the Rosa in Fiore. It was now controlled by Julius’s own spy network, using different girls, and La Volpe negotiated with his colleague Antonio in Venice to send Rosa, now older and statelier but no less fiery than she had been when Ezio had known her in La Serenissima, to Rome to run it.
And there was the problem of the Apple.
So much had changed. When Ezio was summoned to the Vatican for another interview with the Pope, he was unprepared for what he was to hear.
“I’m intrigued by this device you’ve got,” said Julius, coming as always straight to the point.
“What do you mean, Your Holiness?”
The Pope smiled. “Don’t prevaricate with me, my dear Ezio. I have my own sources and they tell me you have something you call the Apple, which you found under the Sistine Chapel some years ago. It seems to have great power.”
Ezio’s brain raced. How had Julius found out about it? Had Leonardo told him? Leonardo could be curiously innocent at times, and he had wanted a new patron very badly. “It was vouchsafed to me, in a manner I find hard to explain to you, by a force from an antique world to help us. And it has, but I fear its potential. I cannot think that the hands of Man are ready for such a thing, but it is known as a Piece of Eden. There are other Pieces, some lost to us, and others perhaps left hidden.”
“Sounds very useful. What does it do?”
“It has the ability to control men’s thoughts and desires. But that is not all: It is able to reveal things undreamed of.”
Julius pondered this. “It sounds as if it might be very useful to me. Very useful indeed. But it could also be turned against me in the wrong hands.”
“It is what the Borgia were misusing to try to gain total ascendancy. Luckily, Leonardo, to whom they gave it to research, kept its darkest secrets from them.”