He threw his clothes onto the bed. Under it, in a locked elm chest, were the secret Codex weapons Leonardo da Vinci had once fashioned for him. He would check them over first thing in the morning, after the council of war he’d be holding with his uncle. The original hidden-blade never left him except when he was naked, and then it was always within arm’s reach. He wore it always; it had become part of his body.
Sighing with relief, Ezio slipped into the bath. Immersed to his neck in the hot water, breathing in the gently scented steam, he closed his eyes and let out a long, slow breath of relief. Peace at last. And he had better make the most of the few short hours he had of it.
He had dozed off and begun to dream when the softest of noises, the door opening and closing behind its heavy tapestry hanging, caused him to awake, instantly alert, like a wild animal. Silently his hand sought the blade and with a practiced movement he attached it to his wrist. Then, in one fluid motion he turned and stood upright in the tub, poised for action and looking in the direction of the door.
“Well,” said Caterina, grinning as she approached, “you certainly haven’t lost any inches with the years.”
“You have the advantage of me, Contessa.” Ezio smiled. “You are fully clothed.”
“I expect we could arrange something to change that. But I am waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
“For you to say that you don’t really need to see for yourself. For you to say that you are sure, even without seeing my naked body, that Nature has been as kind to me, if not kinder, as she has been to you.” Her grin broadened at Ezio’s confusion. “But I remember you were never as good at paying compliments as you were at ridding the world of Templars.”
He drew her to him, pulling at the girdle of her skirt as her fingers flew first at the blade, detaching it, and then at the laces of her bodice. Seconds later he had lifted her into the bath with him, their lips glued to one another’s and their naked limbs entwined.
They did not linger in the bath long, but soon got out, drying each other on the rough linen towels the servant had left. Caterina had brought a vial of scented massage oil with her and drew it from a pocket of her dress.
“Now, lie on the bed,” she said. “I want to make sure you are good and ready for me.”
“Surely you can see that I am.”
“Indulge me. Indulge yourself.”
Ezio smiled. This was better than sleep. Sleep could wait.
Sleep, Ezio found, was obliged to wait three hours. Then she curled up in his arms. She fell asleep before him and he watched her for a while. Nature had indeed been kind to her. Her slender yet curvaceous body, with its narrow hips, broad shoulders, and small but perfect breasts, was still that of a twenty-year-old, and her cloud of fine, fine light red hair that tickled his chest as she laid her head on it carried the same scent that had driven him wild all those years ago. Once or twice in the depths of the night, he woke to find he had rolled away from her, and when he took her in his arms again, she nestled up to him with a tiny sigh of joy and closed her hand round his forearm; but she did not wake. Ezio wondered later if this hadn’t been the best night of love of his life.
They overslept, of course, but Ezio was not about to forgo another bout in favor of cannon practice, though a part of his mind reproved him for this. Meanwhile, he could distantly hear the sounds of marching men—clattering men moving at a running march—and shouted orders, and then, the boom of cannon.
“Target practice with the new cannon,” said Ezio, when for a moment Caterina stopped him and looked at him quizzically. “Maneuvers. Mario’s a hard taskmaster.”
The heavy brocade curtains across the windows shut out most of the light and the room remained cocooned in comfortable dimness; and no servant came to disturb them. Soon, Caterina’s moans of pleasure drowned out any other noise to his ear. His hands tightened around her strong buttocks—she was pulling him up urgently toward her, when their lovemaking was interrupted by more than just the roar of cannon.
Suddenly, the peace and the softness of the big room was shattered. The windows blew away with a mighty roar, taking a part of the stone outer wall with them, as a gigantic cannonball smashed in and landed, searing hot, inches from the bed. The floor sagged under its weight.
Ezio had thrown himself protectively and instinctively over Caterina at the first instant of danger, and in that moment the lovers transformed themselves into professionals and colleagues—after all, if they were to remain lovers, they first had to survive.
They leapt from the bed, throwing on their clothes. Ezio noticed that apart from the delicious vial of oil, Caterina had concealed a very useful jagged-edged dagger beneath her skirts.
“What the hell—?” Ezio cried.
“Go and find Mario,” said Caterina urgently.
Another ball flew in, shattering the beams over their recently vacated bed and smashing it to pieces.
“My troops are in the main courtyard,” said Caterina. “I’ll find them and get them around the back of the citadel and see if we can’t outflank them there. Tell Mario that’s what I’ve decided.”
“Thank you,” said Ezio. “Stay out of sight.”
“I wish I’d had time to change,” she said, laughing. “We’d better book into an albergo next time, eh?”
“Let’s make damned sure there is a next time,” rejoined Ezio, laughing, too, but nervously, and strapping on his sword.
“You bet! Arrivederci!” cried Caterina, rushing from the room without forgetting to blow him a kiss.
He looked at the ruins of the bed. The Codex weapons—the double-blade, the poison-blade, the pistol—were buried under it, in all probability destroyed. At least he still had his hidden-blade. Even in extremis he would never forget that. His murdered father’s last bequest.
Ezio had no idea what time it was, but sense told him attacks usually began at dawn, when the victims were still confused and wiping the sleep out of their eyes. He was lucky that his training had bestowed on him, even after he’d reached the age of forty, the alertness and agility of a wildcat.
Once outside and on the battlements, he scanned the landscape around the little town. The town itself, now below him as he skirted around, was in flames in many quarters. He saw where the tailor’s shop was burning and Angelina’s house, too.
There would be no birthday party for poor Claudia tonight.