The Pope glanced at Beheim. "Those fishermen were examined with great care." Perhaps there was a certain dreadful irony to this "care." But if so, His Holiness's face did not convey it. "My boy's assassins ripped this from his neck." His Holiness snatched the amulet from me as if I were its thief. "They took it as their trophy."
"Surely the woman from whom you obtained this charm-bag can tell you who gave it to her." I was surprised at the desperate pitch of my own voice.
"She can tell us nothing. The charm-bag belonged to a dead woman. It was found in her hand."
"I presume someone recognized her her body."
His Holiness's nostrils pinched, as if he had smelled the putrefying remains. "She inconvenienced us in that regard. Duke Valentino's soldiers discovered her corpse in a field outside Imola." I noted the formality with which he now referred to his son Cesare. "Absent her head, which has yet to be retrieved."
I crossed myself. "Then the murderers presumed she would be recognized by someone in Duke Valentino's household, if not your own people. Did she have scars or birthmarks upon her body?" I wondered if I would be expected to know these, still being familiar with the distinguishing marks of a number of ladies in our business.
The Pope studied me for several heartbeats. "I am sending you to Imola."
"To examine what is left of her?"
His hand flew at me and struck the top of my skull so hard that the stars winked at me; he clutched my hair as though he wanted to rip my scalp away with it, forcing back my neck. "You will go to Imola and wait in lodging provided you by the Holy See." The words seethed through his teeth. "You will wait there until you receive instruction from me."
I looked into a satyr's leering face, so close that our noses briefly touched. I could no longer smell the wine on his breath. Instead this was the foul, earthy stench of a long-buried corpse.
I thought: Hell smells like this.
After a moment the Pope released me, nodded again at Beheim, then left the room.
* * *
In the arch above the door where you entered a moment later, Pinturrichio had painted the Holy Madonna displaying her Child to the adoring saints. Your grandfather's people had already dressed you in a little hunting costume, with a padded jerkin and red Morocco boots that reached to your knees. In your arms squirmed a dear Tenerife almost identical to our precious Ermes, licking at your face.
"Mama! Mama! Look!" you cried out like a carillon of tiny bells. An angel's voice. "I have met my nonno at last and he has given me Ermes's brother! In the morning we shall go back to our house and get Ermes and mend the cut those evil men gave him! I'm going to stay here with the dogs while you are away and receive instruction in fencing and riding!" You bounded into my lap and the fluffy Tenerife now licked madly at my face, eager for the salt in my tears. "Mama, nonno says we are all going to live here when you get back!"
I had hardly composed my sobs when I observed that your nonno had returned to stand behind you. His Holiness's fleshy lips trembled as they drew a tauter line. "Now you understand why I have every conviction you will go to Imola and do as I say."
"I understand," I whispered, "that you have made your own grandson hostage to my obedience in this errand."
Your grandfather nodded at Beheim, who gently tugged you from my embrace. At once I felt the pain of birth, when a mother first parts with the child of her womb. Yet I knew that if I clung to you, I would only frighten you.
It is through love, Plato said, that all conversation between God and man is conducted. Thus the vow I whispered to you was for God's ears as well as your own. "I will come back and hold you again, my most precious darling. Soon. As soon as I am able. Until then you will be brave and do what you are told. And whenever you think of me you will know that I am thinking of you and how I adore you more than the love that turns the stars, and that is when you must smile for me. Even if it is a hundred times every day. Even if it is only once. Each time you smile, my heart will know it."
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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