“Such brave talk! After Monteriggioni.”
“That is cheap of you, Niccolò. How could I have known that they would find me so quickly? That they would kill Mario?”
Machiavelli spoke earnestly, taking his companion by the shoulders. “Look, Ezio—whatever happens, we must prepare ourselves carefully. We must not hit out in rash anger. We are fighting scorpioni—worse, serpents! They can coil around your neck and bite your balls in one movement! They know nothing of right and wrong. They only know their goal! Rodrigo surrounds himself with snakes and murderers. Even his daughter, Lucrezia, has been sharpened into one of his most artful weapons, and she knows all there is to know about the art of poisoning.” He paused. “But even she pales by comparison with Cesare!”
“He is ambitious, ruthless, and cruel beyond—thank God!—your imagination. The laws of men mean nothing to him. He has murdered his own brother, the Duke of Gandia, to claw his way toward absolute power. He will stop at nothing!”
“I’ll pluck him down.”
“Only if you are not rash. He has the Apple, don’t forget. Heaven help us if he really learns its powers.”
Ezio’s mind flashed nervously onto Leonardo. Leonardo understood the Apple only too well…
“He recognizes neither danger nor fatigue,” Machiavelli continued. “Those who do not fall by his sword clamor to join his ranks. Already the powerful Orsini and Colonna families have been brought down to kneel at his feet, and King Louis of France stands at his side.” Machiavelli paused again, thoughtful. “But at least King Louis will only remain his ally as long as he is useful to him…”
“You overestimate the man!”
Machiavelli appeared not to have heard him. He was lost in his own thoughts. “What does he intend to do with all that power? All that money? What drives the man?...That, I still do not know. But, Ezio,” he added, fixing his friend with his eyes, “Cesare has indeed set his sights on all Italia, and at this rate he will have it!”
Ezio hesitated, shocked. “Is that…is that admiration I hear in your voice?”
Machiavelli’s face was set. “He knows how to exercise his will. A rare virtue in the world today. And he is the kind of man who could indeed make the world bend to that will.”
“What do you mean, exactly?”
“Just this: People need someone to look up to—even to adore. It may be God, or Christ, but better yet someone you can really see, not an image. Rodrigo, Cesare, even a great actor or singer, as long as they’re dressed well and have faith in themselves. The rest follows quite logically.” Machiavelli drank a little wine. “It’s part of us, you see—it doesn’t interest you or me or Leonardo; but there are people out there who have a hunger to be followed, and they are the dangerous ones.” He finished his drink. “Fortunately, they can also be manipulated by people like me.”
“Or destroyed by people like me.”
They sat in silence for a long moment.
“Who will lead the Assassins now that Mario is dead?” asked Ezio.
“What a question! We are in disorder and there are few candidates. It’s important, of course, but the choice will be made. In the meantime, come on. We have work to do.”
“Shall we take horses? Half of it may be falling down, but Rome’s still a big city,” suggested Ezio.
“Easier said than done. As Cesare’s conquests in the Romagna increase—and he controls most of it now—and the Borgia grow in power, they’ve taken the best areas of the city for themselves. And we’re in a Borgia rione—district—now. We won’t get horses from the stables here.”
“So—the will of the Borgia is the only law here now?”
“Ezio—what are you implying? That I approve of it?”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Niccolò.”
“I don’t play dumb with anyone. Do you have a plan?”
They made their way toward the place where the local stables with horses for hire were located, walking down streets where, Ezio noticed, many of the shops, which should have been open in normal circumstances, had their shutters down. What was the matter here? And, sure enough, the closer they got, the more numerous and menacing were the guards in mulberry-and-yellow livery. Machiavelli, Ezio noticed, was becoming increasingly wary.
It wasn’t long before a burly sergeant, at the head of a dozen or so tough-looking thugs in uniform, blocked their path.
“What’s your business here, friend?” he said to Ezio.
“Time to improvise?” whispered Machiavelli.
“We want to hire some horses,” Ezio replied evenly to the sergeant.
The sergeant barked out a laugh. “Not here, you won’t, friend. On your way.” He pointed back in the direction they’d come from.
“Isn’t it allowed?”
The sergeant drew his sword as the other guards followed suit. He held the point of his blade against Ezio’s neck and pushed slightly, so that a drop of blood appeared. “You know what curiosity did to the cat, don’t you? Now fuck off!”
With an almost imperceptible movement, Ezio swept out his hidden-blade and with it severed the tendons of the wrist holding the sword, which clattered uselessly to the ground. With a great cry the sergeant buckled over, grasping his wound. At the same time, Machiavelli leapt forward and slashed at the nearest three guards with his sword in a great sweeping motion—they all staggered back, astonished at the sudden boldness of the two men. Ezio swiftly withdrew the hidden-blade and in one fluid movement unsheathed his sword and dagger. His weapons were clear and poised just in time to cut down the first two of his own attackers, who, recovering some composure, had stepped forward to avenge their sergeant. None of the Borgia men had the skill at arms required to take on either Ezio or Machiavelli—the Assassins’ training was of a wholly different class. Even so, the odds were against the two friends, heavily outnumbered as they were. However, the unexpected ferocity of their attack was enough to give them an unassailable edge. Taken almost wholly by surprise, and unused to coming off worse in any encounter, the dozen men were soon dispatched. But the commotion of the scuffle had raised the alarm, and more Borgia soldiers came, and yet more—over two dozen men, all told. Machiavelli and Ezio were nearly overwhelmed with the sheer weight of numbers, and with the effort of taking on so many enemies, at once. The flourishes of style that they were both capable of were set aside for a wholly more efficient and quick form of swordsmanship—the three-second kill, a single thrust sufficing. The two men stood their ground, grim determination set on their faces, and finally all their enemies had either fled or lay wounded, dead or dying at their feet.