When the guards brought Michelangelo into the Sala dei Gigli, Soderini was pacing back and forth in front of Ghirlandaio’s frescoes, and Niccolo Machiavelli was sitting with his feet propped up on Soderini’s desk, reading Caesar’s Commentaries on the Civil War.
“What the hell did you do?” Soderini shouted as soon as he saw Michelangelo.
“I’m — I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
Soderini brandished a letter with the papal seal. “I’m not accustomed to receiving irate letters from the pope. He’s demanding I send you back.”
It was as he feared. Michelangelo shook his head. “Julius refused to pay me what I was rightfully owed under our contract. That’s why I left Rome. It’s a legal dispute.”
“Are you crazy, or just a fool?” Soderini threw down the letter next to Machiavelli’s feet.
“I don’t work for nothing. I’m not his slave.” Michelangelo’s voice rose. “I’ll never go back to work for him.”
“He’s the pope! And he’s demanding I send you back in chains if need be. Tell me why I shouldn’t.”
Michelangelo looked over at Machiavelli. “You know Julius, Niccolo. He’s not an entirely honorable man.”
Machiavelli slowly looked up from his book. “I might as well say the same about you. Twice you have left us here to explain that you’ve run off to Rome, when we’re paying you good money to paint the Great Hall.”
“Niccolo, you know I’m a man of my word,” said Michelangelo. “I’m not like Julius. You must believe me.”
“It doesn’t matter what I believe,” Machiavelli answered. “Julius has the church and an army standing behind him, and he’s not afraid to use either.”
Michelangelo turned to Soderini. “The last time I saw you, you didn’t want me to go to Rome. Now that I’m here and ready to paint, you want to send me back?”
Soderini’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re ready to paint?”
“I’m already back at work on the drawings.”
“When can you begin?”
“I have to finalize the drawings, line up some assistants, and prepare the wall. I should start painting in a month or so.”
Soderini let out a yelp. “I’ve been waiting a long time to see the two of you working side by side on that wall.”
“What are we to do about the pope?” asked Machiavelli.
“Well,” Michelangelo said slowly, “You could tell him I can sculpt his tomb in Florence just as easily as I can in Rome. That will let me satisfy him while also painting your battle scene.”
“That could work,” said Soderini. “Yes, I will do just that.”
Soon afterward, Michelangelo left the Sala dei Gigli and made his way down the wide marble staircase.
He had been away four months, and was sure Leonardo’s battle scene was even better than when he had last seen it. The thought made his throat tighten. Once he saw it he would know what he needed to match — and he still wasn’t at all certain that he could do so.
As he reached the bottom of the stairs he smelled a whiff of smoke coming from the entrance to the Great Hall. Then he heard shouting. Was that Leonardo? It couldn’t be, because the man Michelangelo was listening to sounded like he was in some kind of trouble.