“Take your daggers,” I bade him, “and rip me that blazon from your coats. See that you leave no sign about you to proclaim you of the House of Santafior, or all is lost. It is a precaution you would have taken earlier if God had given you the wit of a grasshopper.”
He nodded that he understood my order, and scowled his disapproval of my comment on his wit. For the rest, they did my bidding there and then.
Having satisfied myself that no betraying sign remained about them, I drew the curtains of my litter, and reclining there I gave myself up to pondering the manner in which I should greet the Borgia sbirri when they overtook me. From that I passed on to the contemplation of the position in which I found myself, and the thing that I had done. And the proportions of the jest that I was perpetrating afforded me no little amusement. It was a burla not unworthy the peerless gifts of Boccadoro, and a fitting one on which to close his wild career of folly. For had I not vowed that Boccadoro I would be no more once the errand on which I travelled was accomplished? By Cesare Borgia’s grace I looked to—
A sudden jolt brought me back to the immediate present, and the realisation that in the last few moments we had increased our pace. I put out my head.
“Giacopo!” I shouted. He was at my side in an instant. “Why are we galloping?”
“They are behind,” he answered, and fear was again overspreading his fat face. “We caught a glimpse of them as we mounted the last hill.”
“You caught a glimpse of whom?” quoth I.
“Why, of the Borgia soldiers.”
“Animal,” I answered him, “what have we to do with them? They may have mistaken us for some party of which they are in pursuit. But since we are not that party, let your jaded beasts travel at a more reasonable speed. We do not wish to have the air of fugitives.”
He understood me, and I was obeyed. For a half-hour we rode at a more gentle pace. That was about the time they took to come up with us, still a league or so from Fabriano. We heard their cantering hoofs crushing the snow, and then a loud imperious voice shouting to us a command to stay. Instantly we brought up in unconcerned obedience, and they thundered alongside with cries of triumph at having run their prey to earth.
I cast aside my hat, and thrust my motleyed head through the curtains with a jangle of bells, to inquire into the reason of this halt. Whom my appearance astounded the more—whether the lacqueys of Santafior, or the Borgia men-at-arms that now encircled us—I cannot guess. But in the crowd of faces that confronted me there was not one but wore a look of deep amazement.
THE COZENING OF RAMIRO
The cavalcade that had overtaken us proved to number some twenty men-at-arms, whose leader was no less a person than Ramiro del’ Orca—that same mountain of a man who had attended my departure from the Vatican three nights ago. From the circumstance that so important a personage should have been charged with the pursuit of the Lady of Santafior, I inferred that great issues were at stake.