But Ezio was bound for Rome. Rome, he knew, would be where Cesare would go now, to regroup. It might even be that Cesare in his arrogance would think Ezio beaten, even dead on the road, like carrion. If so, then that could only be to the Assassin’s advantage. But something else was haunting Ezio. With Mario dead, the Brotherhood was leaderless. Machiavelli was a powerful force within it, and at present Machiavelli did not seem to be Ezio’s friend.
This was something that had to be resolved.
Along with the human survivors of the town, they had managed to bring livestock with them, and among the animals was the great chestnut warhorse Mario had loved so much.
He now mounted the steed, held for him by the old stable-master, who had managed to get out, too—though, alas, most of his horses had been captured by the Borgia.
As he reined the horse in, he took his leave of his mother and sister.
“Must you really go to Rome?” asked Maria.
“Mother, the only way to win this war is to take it to the enemy.”
“But how can you possibly succeed against the forces of the Borgia?”
“I am not their only enemy. And besides, Machiavelli is already there. I must make my peace with him, and work with him.”
“Cesare has the Apple,” Claudia said soberly.
“We must pray that he does not master its powers,” Ezio replied, though privately he felt great misgivings. Leonardo was in Cesare’s pay and Cesare’s power now, and Ezio was well aware of the intelligence of his former friend. If Leonardo taught Cesare the mysteries of the Apple—worse still, if Rodrigo got hold of it again…
He shook his head to rid himself of these thoughts. Time enough to confront the threat of the Apple when it presented itself.
“You shouldn’t be riding now. Rome is miles to the south. Can’t you at least give it a day or two?” asked Claudia.
“The Borgia will not rest and the evil spirit of the Templars rides within them,” rejoined Ezio drily. “No one will be able to sleep easily until their power is broken.”
“What if it never is?”
“We must never give up the fight. The minute we do that, we have lost.”
“È vero.” His sister’s shoulders slumped, but then she straightened them again. “The fight must never be given up,” she said firmly.
“Until death,” said Ezio.
“Take care on the road.”
“Take care on the road.”
Ezio leaned down from the saddle to kiss his mother and his sister before wheeling the horse around and onto the road south. His head was pounding with the pain of his wound and the exertions of battle. More than this was the aching of his heart and soul at the loss of Mario and the capture of Caterina. He shuddered at the thought of her in the clutches of the evil Borgia family—he knew all too well what fate might befall her in their hands. But Ezio also knew that if ever a person would go down fighting, she was that person. He’d have to skirt the Borgia troops but his heart told him that, now that his main objective had been achieved, to break the Assassins’ stronghold, Cesare would head home.
But the most important thing was to lance the boil that was infecting Italy, and lance it soon, before it could infect the whole body of the land.
He dug his heels hard into the horse’s flanks and galloped south down the dusty road.
His head was swimming with exhaustion but he willed himself to keep awake. He vowed he would not rest until he arrived in the broken-down capital of his beleaguered country. But he had miles to go before he would be able to sleep.
How stupid had he been…to ride for so long, wounded; and so far—only breaking the ride for the horse’s sake and then impatiently flogging the poor beast on before he was properly rested. Post-horses would have been a more sensible choice, but Campione was his last link with Mario.
Now—where was he? He remembered a crumbling, dingy suburb and then, rising out of it, a once-majestic yellow stone arch, an erstwhile gateway that pierced a formerly magnificent city’s walls.
Ezio’s impulse had been to rejoin Machiavelli—to right the wrong he had committed by not making sure that Rodrigo Borgia, the Spaniard, was dead.
But by God, he was tired!
He lay back on the pallet. He could smell the dry straw, its odor carrying with it a hint of cow dung.
Where was he?
An image of Caterina came suddenly and strongly into his mind. He must free her! They had to be together at last!
But perhaps he should also free himself from her—though part of his heart still told him that this was not what he really wanted. How could he trust her? How could a simple man ever understand the subtle labyrinths of a woman’s mind? And, alas, the torture of love didn’t get any less acute with age.
Was she using him?
Ezio had always maintained an inner room within his heart, where he was himself alone, where he had his sanctum sanctorum; it was kept locked, even to his most intimate friends, to his mother (who knew of it and respected it), to his sister, and, formerly, to his late brothers and father.
Had Caterina broken in? He hadn’t been able to prevent the killing of his father and brothers, and by Christ and the Cross he had done his best to protect Maria and Claudia.
Caterina could look after herself—she was a book that kept its covers closed—and yet—and yet—how he longed to read it!
“I love you!”—his heart cried out to Caterina, despite himself. The woman of his dreams at last—at last, this late in life. But his duty, he told himself, came first—and Caterina—Caterina!—never truly showed her cards. Her brown, enigmatic eyes, her smile, the way she could twist him around her little finger. Her long, expert fingers. The closeness. The closeness. But also the keen silence of her hair, which always smelled of vanilla and roses…
How could he ever trust her, even when he laid his head on her breast after they had made passionate love and wanted—wanted so much—to feel secure?
No! The Brotherhood. The Brotherhood. The Brotherhood! His mission and his destiny.
I am dead, Ezio said to himself. I am already dead inside. But I will finish what I have to do.
The dream dissolved and his eyelids flickered open. They bestowed a view of an ample but elderly cleavage descending toward him, the chemise the woman was wearing parting like the Red Sea.
Ezio sat up rapidly in the straw he’d been lying on. His wound was properly dressed now, and the pain was so dull as to be almost negligible. As his eyes focused, they took in a small room with walls of rough-hewn stone. Calico curtains were drawn across the small windows, and in a corner an iron stove burned, the embers from its open door giving the place its only light. Then the door was shut, but whoever it was with him in the room lit the stump of a candle.