“Where is he now?” asked Ezio.
Leonardo squared his shoulders. “If you want my help, I want payment.”
“What kind of payment?”
“I want you to leave him alone. He means a lot to me; he is young, with time he will improve.”
“He’s a little sewer rat,” said Machiavelli.
“Do you want my help or don’t you?”
Ezio and Machiavelli looked at each other.
“All right, Leo—but keep him under a very close rein or by God we’ll show no mercy next time.”
“All right. Now, what do you want me to do?”
“We are having problems with the Apple. It seems not as acute as it was. Could there be something wrong with it mechanically?” asked Machiavelli.
Leonardo stroked his beard. “You have it with you?”
Ezio produced the box. “Here.” He took it out and placed it carefully on Leonardo’s large worktable.
Leonardo examined it with equal care. “I don’t know what this thing really is,” he conceded finally. “It’s dangerous, it’s a mystery, and it’s very, very powerful. And yet only Ezio seems able fully to control it. God knows, when it was in my power in the old days under Cesare, I tried. But I only partially succeeded.” He paused. “No, I don’t think the word ‘mechanical’ actually describes this thing. If I weren’t more of a scientist than an artist, I’d say this thing had a mind of its own.”
Ezio remembered the voice that had come from the Apple. What if Leonardo were unconsciously telling the precise truth?
“Micheletto is on the run,” said Ezio urgently. “We need to locate him, and fast. We need to pick up his trail before it’s too late!”
“What do you think he’s planning?”
“Ezio has convinced me that Micheletto has decided to go—we are almost certain—to Spain and there locate and liberate his master Cesare. They will then attempt to return to power. We will stop them,” said Machiavelli.
“And the Apple?”
“Shows an image of a castle, somewhere in Spain, it must be; it flies the Spanish flag, but doesn’t, or won’t, or can’t give its location. We also saw an image of a town flying the Navarrese flag. And a seaport with an army gathering to embark there. But the Apple gave us nothing on Micheletto at all,” said Ezio.
“Well,” said Leonardo, “Cesare can’t have jinxed it because no one’s that clever, so it must—how can I put this?—have decided not to be helpful.”
“But why would it do that?”
“Why don’t we ask it?”
Ezio once again concentrated, and this time a most divine music, sweet and high, came to his ears. “Can you hear it?” he asked.
“Hear what?” replied the others.
Through the music came the voice he had heard before: “Ezio Auditore, you have done well. But I have more than played my part in your career and you must now return me. Take me to a vault you will find under the Capitoline, and leave me there to be found by future members of your Brotherhood. But be quick! You must then ride posthaste to Naples, where Micheletto is embarking for Valencia! This knowledge is my last gift to you. You have more than enough power of your own now to have no further need of me. But I will lie in the ground until future generations do have need of me. So you must leave a sign to indicate my burial place. Farewell, Mentor of the Brotherhood! Farewell! Farewell!”
The Apple ceased to glow and looked dead, like an old leather-bound ball.
Swiftly, Ezio told his friends what had been imparted to him.
“Naples? Why Naples?” Leonardo asked.
“Because it’s in Spanish territory. We have no jurisdiction there.”
“And because he knows—somehow—that Bartolomeo is policing Ostia,” said Ezio. “But we must make all speed. Come!”
Dusk was falling as Machiavelli and Ezio carried the Apple in its box down into the catacombs below the Colosseum and, passing through the dreadful gloomy rooms of the remains of Nero’s Golden House, carried torches before them as they made their way through a maze of tunnels under the old Roman Forum to a spot near the church of San Nicola in Carcere, where they found a secret door within the crypt. Behind it was a small, vaulted room, in the center of which stood a plinth. On this they placed the Apple in its box and withdrew. Once closed, the door ceased as if by magic to be visible even to them, but they knew where it was and near it drew the sacred, secret symbols that only a member of the Brotherhood would understand. The same symbols they inscribed at regular intervals along their way back, and again at the mouth of the entrance near the Colosseum from which they emerged.
Then, after meeting Leonardo again, who had insisted on joining them, they rode hard to Ostia, where they took a ship for the long coastal journey south to Naples. They arrived on Midsummer Day, 1505—Ezio’s forty-sixth birthday.
They didn’t go into the teeming, hilly town, but remained among the fortified docks, splitting up to search among the sailors, tradesmen, and travelers busy about their fishing smacks, their shallops, and their caravels, carracks, and cogs, visiting the taverns and brothels, and all in frantic haste, for no one, Spanish, Italian, or Arab, seemed to have an answer to their question:
“Have you seen a big man, with huge hands, scars on his face, thin, seeking passage to Valencia?”
After an hour of this, they regrouped on the main quay.
“He’s going to Valencia. He must be!” said Ezio through gritted teeth.
“But if he isn’t?” put in Leonardo. “And we charter a ship and sail to Valencia anyway—we might lose days and even weeks, and so lose Micheletto altogether.”
“The Apple didn’t lie to you. He was—or, if we’re lucky—is here. We just have to find somebody who knows for sure.”
A whore sidled up. “We’re not interested,” snapped Machiavelli.
She grinned. She was a pretty blond woman, tall and slim, with dark brown eyes, long, shapely legs, small breasts, broad shoulders, and narrow hips, maybe forty years old. “But you are interested in Micheletto Corella.”
Ezio swung around on her. She looked so like Caterina that for a moment his head swam. “What do you know?”
She snapped back with all the hardness of a whore: “What’s it worth to you?” Then came the professional smile again. “I’m Camilla, by the way.”