It is now the 23d hour, and the greatest turmoil prevails, so that I really do not know whether I shall be able to despatch this letter, having no one whom I can send. I shall write more fully in my next, but according to my judgment the prisoners will not be alive to-morrow.[i]
Niccolò set down his pen and frowned. He could still hear the faraway sounds of a city being given up to ruin by an invading army. The condottiere with whom they were meant to be meeting had been imprisoned by none other than the Duke's infamous Michelotto, whose skill with a garrotte was rapidly becoming legendary. And he--as it had been for the past several months--had nothing to say.
The Duke was simply unpredictable. He barely informed his closest captains of what he planned, let alone a diplomatic secretary from Florence. Niccolò signed his name to the letter, sealed it, and snatched up his cloak. The couriers were housed several houses away, but it was sufficiently chilly on this final day of December and he hoped to have this letter on its way to Florence by nightfall. Il Valentino was nothing if not thorough in his gathering of intelligence.
What he did not expect was to find the Duke himself there, handing a letter to one of the couriers. When he saw Niccolò, he smiled and shrugged. "For my sister. If I am lucky, it will reach before Epiphany. If not, I shall never hear the end of it."
"Women are rarely rational, Your Excellency," was Niccolò's rejoinder as he handed his letter to one of the couriers bound in the direction of Florence, for a crippling price of six ducats. He could only hope the Signoria would be kind enough to reimburse him. "I fear my news is not as cheerful."
"You are conscientious, Signor Machiavelli." When he started back toward the well-appointed house where he had been staying, Niccolò hesitated until the Duke glanced back at him impatiently. "Well? Are you coming or not?"
"Of course, Your Excellency." He ignored the looks thrown at him by the men they passed as they entered. One of them was Michelotto, who seemed to engage in an entire, wordless conversation with his master that concluded with the Duke's men stepping aside to let them reach the staircase.
The Duke preceded Machiavelli into an upper chamber where a fire roared in the hearth and the walls were lined with tapestries in the latest Burgundian style. Whoever had been turned out of this house might thank their fortune in the end, since the Duke Valentino was unlikely to burn it to the ground. He might, however, steal the tapestries--it had not been so long ago that he had, as a favour to his new sister-in-law, the Marchesa of Mantua, stolen a statue from the Duke of Urbino and had it specially sent to grace her hall. One could not argue his flair, whatever one thought of his methods.
Nor, Niccolò soon discovered, could one argue the quality of his wine.
"You are remarkably diligent, Signor Machiavelli," the Duke said, studying him over his glass. The accounts were right, Niccolò found himself thinking. His eyes were rather unnerving. Having never met His Holiness, Pope Alexander VI face-to-face, Niccolò could not confirm or deny their resemblance to his father's, but he was certainly willing to allow for their effect. "Florence does not deserve you."
"It is my home, Your Excellency." Advantageous and endlessly fascinating as this position was, he did sometimes ache for the green Tuscan hills and the towers of his city. "Just as Rome is yours."
He shrugged. "Rome is a city, same as any other. It is my father's home, but a son must strike out on his own, eventually. Otherwise there is nothing but stagnation. I thought that was something you Florentines deplored above all other things. Your city does have the oddest system of governance I have ever run across."
"We have our priorities, Your Excellency, as Rome has hers." Niccolò took a sip of wine. "Brutus had a point, you know. About the basic excellence of republics."
Il Valentino, whose Christian name bespoke the very opposite of Brutus' republicanism, studied him for a few moments. "But the true glory of Rome, surely, happened in the time of the emperors. When Augustus ruled, Rome was mistress of the known world."
"Well...yes. I grant you." Niccolò's tongue was sticking to the roof of his mouth. This would teach him to drink with Cesare Borgia. "And it would not have happened, had it not been for Caesar before him."
"And Mark Antony's preoccupation with a certain Egyptian queen." There was the flash of a smile on Valentino's face. "I do allow for chance, Signor. And forces beyond man's control."
"One must always allow for such things, Your Excellency. Fortuna strikes in many ways."
"Do you not believe a man can live beyond her reach? Think on it, Machiavelli." The Duke leant forward, setting the glass on a nearby table. "To tame Fortuna herself."
"It would be a masterful feat indeed, Your Excellency. But I do not think it possible."
"Shall I lay you a wager on it?"
"Pardon?" Niccolò blinked, wishing he were less drunk. "A wager on what, Your Excellency?"
"To be collected at the end of our lives, Signor." He paused for a moment, mulling it over. "Five hundred ducats. To the man who defies Fortuna."
He had a thousand questions. How did one qualify that? What did it even mean? But there was something about the wager, something in the Duke's face that dared him to nod, to take the plunge. "Very well, Your Excellency. I accept."
"Good." The light from the fire illuminated the Duke's slow-burning smile. "You seemed an adventurous man."
Less than a year later, Fortuna played her hand. First, a summer fever carried Pope Alexander VI to his grave in August; a fever that kept Valentino himself bedridden for crucial days as the College of Cardinals scrambled to find a new Vicar of Christ. He had, however, managed to dredge up a smile for Niccolò, a feverish, darting smile that could still have charmed much of Roman society.
"I thought of everything, you know. In the event of His Holiness' death; it was all planned out perfectly." He laughed, as if the very words exhausted him. "In the credenza, Signor Machiavelli. You will find your five hundred ducats. Fortuna has afflicted me with a most inconvenient fever."
Niccolò shook his head, mumbling something about inappropriate funds, but Valentino waved his hand dismissively. "I save the breaking of my word for important occasions. Take it."
The purse was heavy with coin. Niccolò lifted it, feeling unaccountably guilty as he returned to the bed. "I cannot take this, Your Excellency."
"Of course you can. It is yours, by Fortuna's grace. I had thought to win her heart, but it seems she cannot be won by mortal men."
"I fear not, Your Excellency," said Niccolò. "Only seduced for a time before she seeks other company. But," he added, nervousness making the words trip over his tongue, "I cannot help but think that she has a weakness for men who seek to defy her."
"I wish you all the best of luck, Signor. I hope the gentlemen of Florence will see fit to listen to your counsel."
He was imprisoned by order of the new Pope, Julius II, by the end of the month--preceding him was the arrest of his favoured executioner, Michelotto. Niccolò wrote obediently to the Signoria of Florence of the fall of great Valentino, that the Duke himself was slowly slipping towards his grave.
The five hundred ducats, he kept hidden away in remembrance of the Duke who could, but for Fortuna's fickleness, have been another Caesar.
[i] Letter XLIII, dated 31 December 1502.