You had no sooner left my arms than you offered me the first of those winsome smiles, sly and a bit sad at once, reminding me of your father. You turned and offered the second as you passed beneath the immense gilded arch that framed the Madonna and Child, the little dog in your arms peering back at me as well, his wide eyes lingering longer than yours.
Your grandfather did not witness our farewell. Instead, again he stared up at his own lost son. For the first time that night, I was alone with him. And I cannot say why, but I felt between us a communion so powerful that I sobbed, as though we were the last two mourners standing at Juan's bier.
"The Orsini and the Vitelli are no longer in my employ." The Pope's voice was hollow. "Last month the condottieri met in a secret conclave at the fortress of La Magione and declared an armed rebellion against Duke Valentino, the Holy See, and our entire enterprise in the Romagna. Vitellozzo Vitelli has already attacked our garrisons in the same fortresses and towns I paid him so liberally to secure for me only months ago. Impicatti. The Orsini and Vitelli have betrayed their Heavenly Father no less than their Duke, their Pontiff, and the pledges they gave us."
"So the condottieri are no longer useful to you," I replied. "And now I am."
The Pope remained fixed on Juan's image.
"Five years, Your Holiness. That is how long you have husbanded your hatred, every day putting away a bit more, like wine in your cellar. But it will be a sour vintage if you believe I had anything to do with those men. Perhaps this unfortunate woman had a connection with the condottieri. Most likely she did." My sigh was weary. "But if I ever knew her, it was not because of some mutual association with the Orsini or the Vitelli."
The Pope spun about, his eyes as glaring as black glass in the sun. Yet knowing your grandfather as well as I did, I observed a certain subtlety of his expression, from which I drew the faintest cause for hope. I had seen this same doubt twitch across his face when he raised the golden chalice full of Christ's blood on Easter morning in San Pietro; as often as he had sold God's forgiveness, His Holiness could not be certain he would ever receive it, at any price. He could taste the stink of Hell on his own tongue.
And in the same fashion, he was not entirely certain of my guilt. If I could connect the condottieri to a faceless woman who was murdered while carrying Juan's amulet in her charm bag, I might yet prove to him my innocence.
"Very well, your Holiness," I whispered. "We have an understanding. I will establish myself in Imola, and wait there for your instruction."
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