“And the others?”
“Your mother and sister are already in the citadel. They have been guiding the citizens through the escape tunnel that leads to the north, beyond the walls, to safety.”
“Good. I must go to them. Join us as fast as you can. We’ll have to fall back.”
“Kill them all,” yelled a Borgia sergeant as he rounded a corner at the head of a small troop of men. All held bloodied swords aloft, and one man brandished a pike on which he had stuck the head of a girl. Ezio’s throat went dry as he recognized the face—it was Angelina’s. With a roar, he fell on the Borgia soldiers. Six against one was nothing to him. Slicing and stabbing, within barely seconds he stood in the middle of a circle of maimed and dying men—his chest heaving as he breathed hard with the exertion.
The blood cleared from his eyes. Caterina was gone. Wiping sweat, blood, and grime from his face, he made his way back up to the citadel, telling the men guarding it to open only to Mario and Caterina. He climbed the inner tower and looked down over the burning town.
But apart from the crackle of the flames and the isolated moans of the wounded and the dying, things had gone ominously quiet.
But not for long. Just as Ezio was checking that the cannon on the ramparts were correctly aligned and loaded, a mighty explosion threw the citadel’s massive wooden gates aside, hurling the defenders in the courtyard, below where Ezio stood on the battlements, backward and killing many.
As the smoke and dust cleared, Ezio discerned a group of people standing in the gateway. Uncle Mario appeared to be at their head, but evidently something was badly wrong. His face was grey and drained of blood. He also suddenly looked far older than his sixty-two years. His eyes locked with Ezio’s as his nephew leapt down from the battlements to confront the new danger. Then, Mario fell to his knees and from there onto his face. He struggled to rise, but a long, thin, thrusting sword—a Bilbo—projected from between his shoulder blades, and the young man behind him shoved him back into the gravel with the toe of his black boot. A trail of blood formed at the corner of the old man’s mouth.
The young man was dressed in black, and a black mask partially covered his vicious face. Ezio recognized the pustules of the New Disease on the man’s skin. He shuddered inwardly. There was no doubt whom he was confronting.
Flanking the man in black were two others, both in early middle age, and a beautiful blonde with cruel lips. Another man, also dressed in black, stood apart and a little to one side. He held a bloodstained falchion in his right hand. His other hand held a chain that was attached to a heavy collar around Caterina Sforza’s neck. Bound and gagged, her eyes flashed unquenchable rage and defiance. Ezio’s heart stopped—he couldn’t believe that just this morning he’d held her once again, and now, now she’d been captured by the vile Borgia leader. How could this be happening? His eyes met hers for an instant across the courtyard, sending her a promise that she would not be a prisoner for long.
With no time to figure out all that was unfolding around him, Ezio’s soldier’s instinct took control. He must act now—or lose everything. He strode forward, closed his eyes, and stepped off the battlement, his ragged cape flowing out behind him—it was a leap of faith to the courtyard below. With practiced grace he landed on his feet, and he stood tall to confront his enemies, cold determination etched on his face.
The armorer staggered up, struggling with a wounded leg, and stood by Ezio. “Who are these people?” he breathed.
“Oh,” said the young man in black. “We haven’t introduced ourselves. How remiss of us. But of course I know you, Ezio Auditore, if only by repute. Such a pleasure. At last I shall be able to remove the biggest thorn in my side. After your dear uncle, of course.”
“Step back from him, Cesare!”
One eyebrow went up and the dark eyes blazed in the handsome, flawed face. “Oh—how flattered I am that you have guessed my name correctly. But let me present my sister, Lucrezia.” He turned to nuzzle the blonde in a most unbrotherly way as she squeezed his arm and pressed her lips dangerously close to his mouth. “And my close associates: Juan Borgia, cousin, and friend; my dear French ally, General Octavien de Valois; and, last but not least, my indispensable right-hand man, Micheletto Corella. What would I do without my friends?”
“And your father’s money.”
“Bad joke, my friend.”
As Cesare spoke, his troops moved like ghosts into the citadel. Ezio was powerless to stop them as his own men—hopelessly outnumbered—were swiftly overcome and disarmed.
“But I’m a good soldier, and part of the fun is choosing efficient support,” Cesare continued. “I must admit I didn’t think you’d be quite such a pushover. But of course, you aren’t getting any younger, are you?”
“I’ll kill you,” Ezio said evenly. “I’ll wipe you and your kind from the face of the earth.”
“Not today you won’t,” said Cesare, smiling. “And just look what I’ve got—courtesy of your uncle.” A gloved hand delved into a pouch at his side and from it he produced—to Ezio’s horror—the Apple!
“Useful gadget,” said Cesare, smiling thinly. “Leo tells me he already knows quite a lot about it so I’m hoping he’ll enlighten me further, which I’m sure he will if he wants to keep his head on his shoulders! Artists! Ten a penny, as I’m sure you’d agree.”
Lucrezia sniggered unfeelingly at this.
Ezio looked across at his old friend but da Vinci refused to meet his gaze. On the ground, Mario stirred and groaned. Cesare pushed his face into the ground with his boot and produced a gun—it was a new design, as Ezio immediately recognized, regretting the destruction of most of his own Codex weapons at the outset of the attack.
“That’s not a matchlock,” said the armorer keenly.
“It’s a wheel lock,” said Cesare. “You’re clearly no fool,” he added, addressing the armorer. “It is much more predictable and efficient than the old guns. Leonardo designed it for me. Reloads fast, too. Would you like a demonstration?”
“Indeed!” the armorer replied, his professional interest overcoming any other instinct.
“By all means,” said Cesare, leveling the pistol at him and shooting him dead. “Reload, please,” he continued, passing the gun to General Valois and producing its twin from his belt. “We’ve had so much bloodshed,” he went on. “So it’s distressing to reflect that a little more cleansing is still in order. Never mind. Ezio, I’d like you to take this in the spirit it’s meant—from my family to yours.”