Now, I should explain that we Italians have for several generations placed the very survival of our various states and principalities in the hands of these condottieri, a brotherhood of mercenary generals whose bands of thugs carry out, for a very dear price, the martial tasks the French king would assign to a vast army of men in permanent service, led by nobles who have sworn allegiance to him. Here in Italy, however, it is our fashion to hire the agents of our own destruction. These "soldiers of fortune" strut about like pimps in their suits of engraved armor, waging phony war among themselves only to pillage the livelihoods of helpless peasants, transferring their allegiances to whomever will offer the fattest contract. And the two families presently in command of this blood-sucking cabal are the Orsini and the Vitelli.
"You made Juan the Captain-General of the Holy Roman Church," I accused my accuser. "An office for which he was entirely unsuited and which he in no way desired. And it was you who directed poor Juan to throw his soldiers into one hopeless assault after another on the Orsini fortresses around Rome, which were defended all the better by troops under the command of the Vitelli. Even a cloistered nun could have seen that Juan's assassins were Orsini or Vitelli. Or both. But you did not pursue them, did you, Holiness?" If I expected an answer, it was not forthcoming. "You were too weak to reckon with your own son's murderers. Instead you made use of them."
My meaning was clear to him, though perhaps it will not be to you. The Popes who preceded your grandfather had surrendered much of the Church's earthly domain, which at present occupies the entire middle of Italy and is known as the Papal States, to a host of tyrants large and small. Without the assistance of the Orsini and Vitelli, your grandfather and Duke Valentino could only dream of defeating this confederacy of despots. So they hired their former enemies, subordinating these condottieri to Valentino's bold and clever command, and were thus able to reclaim the Papal States with a swiftness that inspired awe throughout Europe; we heard of these victories even in the half-buried alleys of the Trastevere. That is why your grandfather, having no wish to implicate his allies, found it far more convenient to accuse me. I had no soldiers for His Holiness to hire.
"You did not come to me when we found Juan." Your grandfather's back heaved a bit. "When you might have offered us these theories. Instead you ran like a housebreaker."
"I was there when they found Juan. I waited beside the river. . . ." For a moment I walked into that memory and could hear the shouts of the fishermen. "As soon as I saw him, I knew you would demand my confession. Just as you expect it tonight." I glanced at the instruments of interrogation in the box beside me. "And I knew even then I had a child in my womb. A child I would have spit in the face of Satan to protect."
His Holiness turned, his words hissing more noticeably than before. "Henceforth the boy will enjoy my protection. Here, in the Vatican."
I wailed and wailed, bereft of all reason, these words having gutted me more effectively than any instrument Beheim might have chosen.
Only when I had exhausted myself did merciful God grant me a certain calm--whereupon I found Satan's eyes so close to my face that I could smell the wine on his breath. "Bene, bene," your grandfather said. "I have opened a door and shown you my grief. A few moments of the pain that is for me unceasing. A shirt of fire I will never be able to tear from my breast."
"I, too, grieve for Juan."
He dismissed my grief with a blink. "You call the boy Giovanni. Of course I have also known that, from the day of his birth. But I don't believe you are certain that my Juan was your Giovanni's father."
"He is the child of my womb and my soul. The Holy Mother and I know the father who put his seed in me.
Excerpted from The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Ennis. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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