Once outside, he could see that the wolfmen had not touched his horse. Perhaps they had been too sure of trapping him to bother to kill it or drive it away. He untied it and realized he was trembling too much to mount. Instead he took its bridle and led it back to the Baths of Diocletian. Machiavelli had better be there and he had better be well armed. By God, if only he still had his Codex gun! Or one of those things Leonardo had fashioned for his new master. But Ezio did have the satisfaction of knowing he could still win fights by using his wits and his training—two things they couldn’t deprive him of until the day they caught him and tortured him to death.
He remained fully alert on the short journey back to the baths and found himself—something that would not have happened to him as a younger man—occasionally starting at shadows. The thought of a safe arrival back at the baths brought him no comfort. What if there was another ambush awaiting him there? And what if these creatures had surprised Machiavelli? Was Machiavelli himself aware of the Secta Luporum?
Where were Machiavelli’s loyalties anyway?
But he reached the dim, vast ruin, a memorial to the lost age when Italy had ruled the world, in safety. There was no sign of life that he could see, but then Machiavelli himself emerged from behind an olive tree and greeted him soberly.
“What kept you?”
“I was here before you. But then I was…distracted.” Ezio looked at his colleague evenly.
“What do you mean?”
“Some jokers in fancy dress. Sound familiar?”
Machiavelli’s gaze was keen. “Dressed as wolves?”
“So you do know about them.”
“Then why suggest here as a meeting place?”
“Are you suggesting that I—?”
“What else am I to think?”
“Dear Ezio—” Machiavelli took a step forward. “I assure you, by the sanctity of our Creed, that I had no idea they would be here.” He paused. “But you are right. I sought a meeting place remote from men, little realizing that they, too, might choose such a place.”
“If they’d been tipped off.”
“If you are impugning my honor—”
Ezio made an impatient gesture. “Oh, skip it,” he said. “We’ve enough to do without quarreling with each other.” In truth, Ezio knew that for the moment he would have to trust Machiavelli. And so far, he had had no reason not to. But he would play his cards closer to his chest in future. “Who are they? What are they?”
“The Sect of the Wolves. Sometimes they call themselves the Followers of Romulus.”
“Shouldn’t we move away from here? I managed to grab some papers of theirs and they might be back to collect.”
“First, tell me if you got the letter back, and tell me quickly what else has happened to you. You look as if you have been well in the wars,” said Machiavelli.
After Ezio had done so, his friend smiled. “I doubt if they will return tonight. We are two trained, armed men and it sounds as if you well and truly thrashed them. But that in itself will have incensed Cesare. You see, although there is little proof as yet, we believe that these creatures are in the Borgia’s employ. They are a band of false pagans who have been terrorizing the city for months.”
“To what purpose?”
Machiavelli spread his hands. “Political. Propaganda. The idea is that people will be encouraged to throw themselves under the protection of the Papacy—and in return, a certain loyalty is exacted from them.”
“How convenient. But even so, shouldn’t we be getting out of here now?” Ezio was suddenly and unsurprisingly tired. His very soul ached.
“They won’t be back tonight. No disparagement to your prowess, Ezio, but the wolfmen aren’t fighters or even killers. The Borgia use them as trusted go-betweens, but their main job is to frighten. They are poor, deluded souls whom the Borgia have brainwashed into working for them. They believe their new masters will help them rebuild ancient Rome—from its very beginnings. The founders of Rome were Romulus and Remus. They were suckled as babies by a she-wolf.”
“I remember the legend.”
“For the wolfmen, poor creatures, it is no legend. But they are a dangerous enough tool in the Borgia’s hands.” He paused briefly. “Now—the letter! And those papers you say you grabbed from the wolfmen’s lair. Well done, by the way.”
“If they’re of any use.”
“We’ll see. Give me the letter.”
“Here it is.”
Hastily, Machiavelli broke the seal and unfolded the parchment. “Cazzo,” he muttered. “It’s encrypted.”
“What do you mean?”
“This one was supposed to be in plain text. Vinicio is—was—one of my moles among the Borgia. He told me he had it on good authority. The fool! They are transmitting information in code. Without their code sheet, we have nothing.”
“Perhaps the papers I got hold of will help.”
Machiavelli smiled. “By heaven, Ezio—sometimes I thank God we are on the same side. Let’s have a look!”
Quickly he sifted through the pages Ezio had seized, and his troubled face cleared.
“I think…perhaps…” He read some more, his brow once more furrowed. “Yes! By God, yes! I think we have it!” He clapped Ezio on the shoulder and laughed.
Ezio laughed, too. “You see? Sometimes logic is not the only way to win a war. Luck can play a part, too. Andiamo! You said we had allies in the city. Come on! Bring me to them!”
“What about the horse?” Ezio asked.
“Turn her loose. She’ll find her way back to her stable.”
“I can’t abandon her.”
“You must. We are going back to the city. If we let her go there, they’ll know you got back. If they find the horse out here, they’ll think—with luck—that you’re still wandering around this area and divert their search here.”
Ezio reluctantly did as he was told, and Machiavelli led him to a concealed flight of stone steps leading underground. At the foot of them a torch was burning. This Machiavelli seized.
“Where are we?” asked Ezio.
“This leads to a system of ancient underground tunnels that crisscross the city. Your father discovered them and they have remained the Assassins’ secret ever since. We can use this route to avoid any guards who’ll be out looking for us, because you may be sure that the wolfmen who escaped will raise the alarm. They’re big, because they were used for transport and troops in ancient times, and well built, as everything was in those days. But many of the outlets within the city have collapsed now and are blocked. We must pick our way carefully. Stay close—it would be fatal for you to get lost down here.”