Chapter 5! A little something for a sadly Borgia-free weekend. Please read and review.
Caterina was not sure that her relationship with Michelotto could be accurately described as a friendship. In fact, Caterina was not sure that her relationship with Michelotto could be accurately described with any particular word or phrase.
The relationship Caterina had with Michelotto was the sort that could only be formed between assassins: a relationship founded on a mutual understanding of a shared interest or need, combined with the knowledge that either one could, and perhaps should, kill the other at any moment, were it not for the fact that to do so would result in the death of both.
Caterina had the strong suspicion that even the fastest of her poisons would give Michelotto ample time to reach her throat with either a dagger or garrote, and she knew that she would be powerless against him in a physical fight.
Similarly, Michelotto knew that attempting to kill Caterina would be unwise, as she had made abundantly clear that he had no way of knowing exactly what poisons she was carrying in fragile containers on her person, and that, if attacked, she would use every ounce of her strength to release whatever poisonous powders and vapors into the air were at her disposal, so that at the very least her attacker would die with her. Besides, she had reminded him, only she knew where the antidotes were. He would have no chance of surviving one of her poisons without her.
So they maintained a fragile acquaintance, conveyed to each other in nods and purchases, in whispers through side alleys at night. Soon Michelotto came to respect Caterina as a reliable source of information, and Caterina came to value Michelotto as a loyal and well-paying customer.
A few months after the night of their confrontation, Michelotto spied Caterina on one of her weekly shopping excursions. He somewhat enjoyed watching her shop, if only because she was a truly ferocious bargainer. It was always satisfying to see the mild expressions of terror on the faces of the shopkeepers she visited, contrasted with her steady, steely smile that seemed to extend to her amber eyes. She could counter any pitch or selling point with fact, and did so without mercy or hesitation.
Today, however, she did seem nervous. He allowed himself to be seen, and, sure enough, she noticed him and smiled. She walked towards him, her shopping basket almost overflowing with purchases. "Buongiorno, Michelotto," she beamed, "how have you been?" She then lowered her voice and whispered, "If it is not too much trouble, could you please come by the shop tonight? I have a small favor I would like to ask of you."
"A favor?" Michelotto smiled inwardly. This was unusual for the information he had gathered, Caterina was not the type to ask for help from anyone.
"Yes," she nodded, "come to the shop later. I'll explain everything to you then." She took his hand in hers. Michelotto felt the combined cold kiss of gold and roughness of parchment pass from her palm to his as she smiled, nodded, and continued her shopping, leaving him to ponder her request. It was unusual, but so long as Cesare did not require his services, he saw no reason why he could not indulge his curiosity. This woman was interesting, and a valuable source of information. Strengthening ties with her could only be to his advantage. And the information he could gather from her could also prove useful to Cesare Borgia, and his endeavors to strengthen his father's power and protect his family.
Under the silken cover of night Michelotto padded, cat-like, to Caterina's shop. He arrived just before midnight, as her note had requested, and let himself in through the front door. He found Caterina setting up some glasses of tea on the table in the front of the shop. She was so absorbed in her work that she did not notice his approach until the bell on her front door signaled his arrival. Too slow, Michelotto thought, if my intentions were different, she would be dead by now. Caterina smiled and walked to greet him. "Michelotto," she chimed, "it is so wonderful to see you again." As suddenly as she had requested his assistance in the market that morning, the cheerful hospitality faded from her amber eyes, her face hardened into a frown, and her tone became serious. "I need your help, Michelotto. I have a client coming tonight to pick up a product of a rather…delicate nature. He is the overseer of a certain Cardinal Versucci's servants, and, like the good Cardinal, his opinion of women is not of the greatest respect."
Michelotto began to pace the shop, slowly, deliberately. If Caterina Adimari was selling poison to Cardinal Versucci, or any of his servants, for that matter, Cesare would most certainly want to know about it. "Most of these Cardinals can prove rather fickle, especially in such matters as this. And your concern about this particular Cardinal's opinion of your sex is unremarkable. Most of these Cardinals feel the same way."
"Versucci has a poor opinion of my sex, but this particular servant of his has been known to act upon those opinions in ways that the Cardinal does not."
Michelotto paused. "And what do you mean by that?"
Caterina sighed. "What I mean is that this servant is known by many of the women who work for these Cardinals as being willing to do more than persuade a woman to service him. I have no interest in bedding the scoundrel, and while I could easily poison him if he tried, Cardinal Versucci has both means and power that would prove advantageous to me should I secure him as a reliable client." She scowled. "And, I'm not selling him poison. The good Cardinal is not as…vigorous as he would want to be."
This was intriguing. "So the potion…?"
"A powder, actually, to enhance potency." Caterina scoffed. "It is rather scandalous, really."
"Indeed," Michelotto made his way back towards her. "And what do you require my services for?"
"I do not think that this servant will attempt anything in my own shop, but if you could position yourself in the back room just in case, I would feel much safer conducting this business. Of course, I would compensate you for your trouble."
Michelotto did not respond right away. On the one hand, he was not working for this woman, and he did not want her to become a liability for him. On the other hand, furthering his relationship with her could prove useful, both for purposes of information and for poisonings. He looked at her again and spoke. "When did you say this man was arriving?"
"He ought to be approaching the shop as we speak." Caterina coyly smirked and began gently pushing him towards the back of the shop. Michelotto almost laughed. The woman had planned this out perfectly. He could not leave now without being seen by the Cardinal's servant. The only choice was to stay in the back room of the shop until the servant left. While he was there, he might as well make sure that this meeting between her and the servant did not end in the death of either.
Mere moments after Michelotto was safely hidden in the back of the shop, he heard the bell of the front door announce the servant's arrival. He listened at the wall closest to the front of the shop to Caterina's cheerful, business-like greeting. He padded back and forth, along the rows of shelves, behind the floor-length curtains separating the rooms of the shop. It was then that he heard a soft crunching noise from behind him. Silent, he spun, dagger slipping from the concealed pocket on the inside of his right sleeve without so much as a whisper. He could kill without a sound, and was ready to dispatch of whatever trap the woman might have set.
But, instead of a trap or attacker, Michelotto saw a rabbit.
Michelotto sheathed his dagger, letting it slide back into his sleeve. "Hello, there," he whispered, stepping towards the cage to get a closer look. The rabbit looked at Michelotto with big, brown eyes, pausing from eating for a moment before returning its attention to its food. Michelotto studied the cage. The rabbit was clearly well cared for. Its cage was nearly spotless. Its coat was shiny and well groomed. Michelotto could also see that Caterina was feeding it the best cuttings of some of her plants.
This woman, who could fearlessly sell poisons to the most dangerous assassins in Italy; this woman, who possessed the audacity to sell potency powders to the Cardinals themselves; this woman was lavishing such doting care on a rabbit?
Michelotto returned to the curtains, listening to Caterina's conversation with the Cardinal's servant.
Caterina spoke first.
"Now, the powder I have prepared should restore your master to his full health. All we need do now is finalize the deal."
"You say this powder will restore the Cardinal's vigor?" This was the servant. Michelotto did not need to see him to know what kind of man he was. His voice was oily, and Michelotto could almost hear the grease dripping from his words.
"Of course," Caterina responded, "this powder will restore him to his full potency."
"Will it make him as vigorous as me?"
"Why, sir, I have no way of knowing your vigor."
"Well, then, we must remedy that, my lady."
Michelotto heard Caterina stand quickly. He let the garrote in his sleeve slide into his hand. If Caterina was not careful he would soon have use for it.
He heard someone's breath stiffen. The man was wincing, as if in pain. Strange, Caterina had not laid so much as a hand on the servant. Michelotto would have heard it if she had.
"Oh, dear, are you not feeling well, sir?" Caterina was almost purring, her voice a rich brocade. "Hold on just a moment, sir, I have a brew that will fix you right up."
Michelotto stepped back as he heard Caterina advance toward the curtain. "I'll only be a moment," she chimed, before stepping into the back room and closing the curtain behind her. She turned to Michelotto with a grimace and whispered, "Please convince me why I should not poison this man here and now."
"Haven't you already?"
Caterina shook her head. "Anemone isn't poisonous. It just isn't very wise to ingest it. A cleverer man would not drink so much of his tea."
Michelotto almost smiled. This woman was very interesting indeed. "Cardinal Versucci is a useful client," he whispered, "he has great means at his disposal, and both he and his servants could provide you with many future clients."
Caterina rubbed her temples. "Yes," she said, "you are exactly right." She walked to a kettle she had placed over a flame and quickly poured a glass, which she took with her when she returned to the front of the shop. Her voice was light as silk once more. "Here you are," she said to the servant, "this should cure whatever ails you."
Once the deal had been completed and the servant had departed into the night, Caterina quickly sorted out a small fraction of the gold she had just received. This she gave to Michelotto, "For your aid", she had said, before he himself slipped into the shadows of the streets outside.
For a while Michelotto chose to follow the servant. Information was information, after all, and he knew that Cardinal Versucci could be a useful resource for Cesare Borgia. The servant was certainly not discrete, taking the open roads and whistling to himself. Michelotto suspected that the man would venture to one of the whorehouses after he had made his delivery to the Cardinal.
But the man was stupider than Michelotto had suspected, for he did not even get halfway to Versucci's palace before he entered one of those castles of lust. The man was almost as bad as Cesare's brother, Juan. They may even have frequented the same establishments.
Michelotto took one of the coins he had just received and walked towards a woman he knew to be a prostitute. "I'm looking for a name." He let the gold flash in his hand, attracting the woman's attention. "He just entered the premises."
"Oh, him?" The woman smiled, lips closed. "That's Stefano Bossi. He is quite the regular customer of ours." She moved closer to Michelotto, hips forward. "And what about you, my dear? Would you like to stay the night?"
Michelotto played along long enough to bring the woman into an alley, before silencing her with a dagger's kiss to her throat. As he threw her body into the Tiber, he reflected on the night's events. Stefano Bossi was certainly no threat to Cesare Borgia, and Versucci had already been bribed with Borgia gold to act in the Pope's best interests. Still, he might as well keep tabs on this man. Information, after all, could always be useful in one way or another.