“When did you become so cynical?”
Machiavelli smiled. “I’m not being cynical at all. I’m just describing Roma as she is today! But don’t worry, Ezio—perhaps I am a little too bitter, a little too negative, sometimes. All may not be lost. The good news is that we do have allies in the city. You will meet them. And the College of Cardinals is not completely under Rodrigo’s thumb, much as he’d like it to be. But it is touch-and-go…”
“What is touch-and-go?”
“Our ultimate success.”
“We can only try. Giving up is a sure way to failure.”
“Who said anything about giving up?”
They rode on in silence and reached the gloomy hulk of the ruined Colosseum, a building over which, for Ezio, the remembered horrors of the games that had taken place here a thousand years ago still hung. But his attention was immediately caught by a group of Borgia guards with a papal courier. Their swords drawn, halberds pointing threateningly, and bearing flickering red torches, they were jostling a small, harassed-looking man.
“Merda!” said Machiavelli softly. “It’s Vinicio. They’ve got to him first.”
Silently, the two men slowed their horses, approaching the group quietly and with as much caution as they could, in order to gain the maximum element of surprise. As they neared, they picked up snatches of conversation.
“What you got there?” one guard was asking.
“Attempting to steal official Vatican correspondence, eh?”
“Perdonatemi, signore. You must be mistaken.”
“No mistake, you little thief,” said another guard, prodding the man with his halberd.
“Who are you working for, ladro?”
“Good! Then no one will care what happens to you.”
“I’ve heard enough,” said Machiavelli. “We’ve got to save him, and get the letter he carries.”
Machiavelli dug his heels into his mount’s flanks—the surprised horse bolted forward, as Machiavelli tugged hard on the reins. The beast reared, forelegs kicking wildly and slamming into the temple of the nearest Borgia guard, caving his helmet into his skull. The man fell like a stone. Meanwhile, Machiavelli had swiveled himself to his right, leaning low out of his saddle—reaching down, he slashed viciously at the shoulder of the guard threatening Vinicio. The man dropped his halberd instantly and collapsed with the pain flaming through his shoulder. Ezio spurred his own steed forward—careening past two other guards and using the pommel of his sword to strike hard, fatally hard, down on the first man’s head and slapping the second across the eyes with the flat of his blade. One more guard was left—distracted by the sudden attack, he didn’t notice Vinicio grabbing the shaft of his halberd and suddenly felt himself yanked forward. Vinicio’s dagger was waiting and pierced the man’s throat. He fell with a sickly gargling sound as blood flooded into his lungs. Once again, the element of surprise gave the Assassins the edge; the Borgia soldiers were clearly not used to such effective resistance to their bullying. Vinicio wasted no time and gestured to the main thoroughfare leading from the central plaza. A courier’s horse could be seen clattering from the plaza—the man standing hard in the stirrups urging his ride on.
“Give me the letter. Be quick about it!” ordered Machiavelli.
“But I haven’t got it—he has,” Vinicio cried, pointing toward the fleeing horse. “They got it back from me!”
“Get after him!” Machiavelli shouted to Ezio. “Whatever it costs, get that letter and bring it to me at the Terme di Diocleziano by midnight! I’ll be waiting.”
Ezio rode off in pursuit.
It was easier than catching the thief, this time. Ezio’s horse was better than the courier’s, and the man was no fighter. Ezio pulled him from the horse with ease. Ezio didn’t like to kill the man, but he couldn’t afford to let him go and raise the alarm. “Requiescat in pace,” he said softly, as he slit his throat. He put the letter, unopened, in his belt pouch and slapped the courier’s horse on its rear, hoping it would find its way back to its stable. He turned his own mount and made for the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian.
It was now almost pitch-dark, except for where the occasional torch guttered in a wall-mounted sconce. To reach the baths, Ezio had to cross a sizable stretch of wasteland, and halfway across, his horse reared and neighed in fear. But then a bloodcurdling sound came to his ears, like the howling of wolves. And yet not quite the same. Possibly worse. It sounded more like human voices imitating the animals. He spun his horse around in the dark.
But he didn’t have much time to reflect on that as he reached the deserted baths. Machiavelli had not yet arrived—no doubt off again on one of his mysterious private missions in the city—but then—
From among the hillocks and tussocks of grass that had grown over remains of the ancient Roman city, figures appeared, surrounding him. Feral-looking humans, but hardly human in appearance at all. They stood upright, but they had long ears, snouts, claws, and tails, and they were covered in rough grey hair. Their eyes seemed to glint red. Ezio drew a sharp breath—what on earth were these devilish creatures? His eyes darted around the ruins—he was encircled by at least a dozen of these wolfmen. Ezio unsheathed his sword once more. This was not turning out to be the best of days.
With wolflike snarls and howls, the creatures fell upon him. As they came close, Ezio could see that these were indeed men like him, but seemingly mad, like creatures in some kind of holy trance. Their weapons were long, sharp steel talons sewn firmly into the tips of heavy gloves, and with these they slashed at his legs and at the horse’s flanks, trying to bring him down.
He was able to keep them at bay with his sword, and, as their disguises seemed to have no chain mail or other protection under the wolfskins, he was able to damage them effectively with the keen edge of his sword. He cut one creature’s arm off at the elbow and it slunk away, wailing horribly in the darkness. The strange creatures seemed to be more aggressive than skillful—their weapons no match for the point of Ezio’s flashing blade. He quickly pressed forward—splitting the skull of another and piercing the left eye of a third. Both wolfmen fell on the spot—mortally injured by Ezio’s blows. By then the other wolfmen seemed to be having second thoughts about continuing their attack, some melting into the darkness or into hollows and caves formed by the overgrown ruins surrounding the baths. Ezio gave chase, gouging the thigh of one of his would-be assailants, while another fell under the hooves of the horse only to have his back broken by them. Overtaking a sixth, Ezio leaned down and, turning backward, ripped the man’s stomach open so that his guts spilled onto the ground, and he stumbled over them as he fell and died.