"The Lord of Camerino's fortunes do not wear so prosperous a look, eh?"
Malipiero's glance shunned the Duke's; his fingers toyed nervously with his grey beard.
"It was I," he said, "who made Gian Paolo afraid to come, to the end that he might send me. I did this that I might lay my services at your disposal, for at heart I have ever been your Excellency's most devoted. My only son is in your service."
"A traitor who yesterday sought to compass my assassination," Cesare informed him coldly. "It is well I wear a shirt of mail. This precious son of thine lies in my dungeons awaiting my pleasure."
"My God!" gasped Malipiero. His face was turned ashen, his limbs trembled under him.
"Hadst not heard of it? How poor are the Lord of Camerino's spies! It is the common talk of Fabriano. But thou knewest it was to be attempted, and what the price the Lord of Milan—yet another master of thine—was to have paid him. Thou damned, infernal traitor, darest so boldly bear me messages from Gian Paolo? Aye, that thou darest, knowing that as an ambassador thou'rt safe."
"My lord!" cried Malipiero in an anguish of terror, "I knew naught of such a plot."
"I think," said Cesare, "that I hate a liar almost more than an assassin; certainly as much." And he cracked the coriander-seed between his strong, white teeth.
"Highness," exclaimed the other, eagerly, "I have it in my power to make amends for what my son has done. I can rid you of this Lord of Camerino. Shall it be a deal between us? My son's life against the raising of this siege?"
Cesare shut his box with a snap and dropped it into his pocket.
"It was to make me some such proposal, I think, that thou didst request to speak with me alone. Possibly there was some other bargain in thy mind, some other price to ask for the treachery thou'rt proposing?"
Malipiero flung dissimulation to the winds. His avarice, which had made him a constant traitor to his every master had been his only stimulus to offer his foul services to Cesare Borgia. But now that he heard of the failure of that plot which he had hatched for gold, and which his only son seemed likely to pay for with his neck, the life of his boy was the only recompense he asked. He frankly said as much.
"I will not bargain with thee," was Cesare's contemptuous answer.
The distraught man dropped on his knees. With tears in his eyes he implored clemency and urged upon Cesare how much it imported that he should rejoin his army in the North.
"There is not in all Italy a knave with whom I would so scorn to deal as thou, Malipiero. Man, thou art so steeped in the mire of treachery that the very sight of thee offends me, and I think I have endured it long enough."
"My lord," the other clamoured, "I can find you a way out of this as could no other man. Give me my son's life, and it shall be done—to-morrow. I will draw Gian Paolo away—back to Camerino. What are his men without him? Hirelings all, mercenaries every man of them. They would never stay to oppose your sally and deliver battle if Gian Paolo were not by to urge them."
Cesare was tempted. At all costs he must get out of Fabriano, and that soon, or he would suffer direly. Mistrust of Malipiero prompted his next question.
"What means hast thou to perform so much?"
At this suggestion that the Duke was inclined to treat with him, Malipiero rose. He shuffled a step nearer, licking his lips, his eyes screwed cunningly.
"Gian Paolo loves his throne of Camerino dearly — so dearly that he has risked all upon his throw against your Highness. But there is one thing he loves still more — his honour. Let it be whispered to him that the lady his wife —" He leered horribly. "You understand, Magnificent. He would leave his camp out yonder, and dash back to Camerino, where she bides in the palace your Excellency has left her, as fast as horse could bear him."
Cesare felt his soul revolt. The thing was vile, the fruit of a vile mind uttered by a vile mouth, and as he looked at the leering creature before him a sense of nausea took him. But his calm, inscrutable face showed naught of this; his beautiful, passionless eyes betrayed none of the repulsion with which they looked on the creature before him. Presently his lips parted in a smile, but what that smile portended Malipiero could not guess until he spoke.
"Possibly there is in Italy a viler thing than you. Probably there is not. Still, it is for me to use thee, not convert thee. Accomplish me this thing, since thou'rt sure 'tis to be done."
Malipiero drew a deep breath of relief. Insults were of no account to him so that he gained his end.
"Grant me my son's life, and I undertake that by to-night Gian Paolo shall be in the saddle."
"I make no bargain with thee," Cesare answered. "I'll not so smirch my hands. Do thou this thing, then look to me for payment."
"You will be merciful, Magnificent?"
"It is said by the few who do not malign me that I am ever just. Rest content; thou shalt find me so."
- "The Justice of the Duke," Rafael Sabatini