Ezio arrived at the top, some forty feet above the ground, in less than half a minute. He heaved himself over the rear parapet, sinews straining, and silently lowered himself to the roof of the tower. He stalked behind the musketeers, moving one quiet step after another closer to the enemy. He silently drew his dagger and also unleashed his hidden-blade. He stole up on the backs of the men and, in a sudden frenzy of movement, dispatched four gunmen with the two blades. It was only then that the Borgia sharpshooters realized that the enemy was among them. Ezio saw a man turn his loaded wheel lock toward him—the man was still some fifteen feet away, so Ezio simply launched his dagger through the air. It pirouetted three times before embedding between the man’s eyes with a sickening thud. The man fell, but in doing so squeezed the trigger of his musket—luckily for Ezio the barrel had slipped away from its intended aim. The ball shot to the man’s right—hitting his nearest colleague—but passing clean through his Adam’s apple and embedding in the shoulder of the man behind him. Both men fell—leaving only three Borgia gunmen on the tower roof. Without pausing, Ezio leapt sideways—and with the flat of his hand slapped the nearest man across the face with such force that he toppled backward over the battlements. Ezio grabbed his weapon by the barrel as the man fell and swung the gun, butt first, into the next soldier’s face. He followed his colleague over the wall with an agonized yell. The last man raised his hands in surrender—but too late—Ezio’s hidden-blade had already found its way between his ribs.

Ezio grabbed another rifle and bounded down the stairs to the floor below. There were four men down here, firing through narrow slits in the thick stone walls. Ezio squeezed the trigger, holding the musket at waist height. The farthest went down with the impact of the shot—his chest exploding with red gore. Taking two strides forward, again, Ezio swung the gun like a club, barrel first this time, connecting with another man’s knee. He crumpled. One of the remaining men had turned sufficiently to take a shot. Ezio rolled forward instinctively—he felt the air searing as the ball missed his cheek by only a matter of inches and embedded in the wall behind. Ezio’s momentum sent him crashing into the gunman—the man lurched backward, his head crunching into the thick stone battlement. The last man had also swiveled around to tackle the unexpected threat. He looked down as Ezio was springing up from the floor, but only for an instant, as the hidden-blade skewered under the man’s jaw.

The man whose knee Ezio had shattered stirred to reach for his own dagger. Ezio simply kicked the man’s temple and turned, unbothered, to watch the battle unfolding down below. It was resolving itself into a rout. With no overwhelming firepower on their side anymore, the Borgia soldiers fell back fast and soon turned tail and fled, abandoning the tower to the condottieri.

Ezio descended the staircase to the tower’s main gate, encountering a handful of guards, who put up fierce resistance before succumbing to his sword, but no one else. Ensuring that the tower was now clear of Borgia men, he flung open the gate and went out to join Bartolomeo. The battle was over, and Pantasilea had joined her husband.

“Ezio! Well done! Together, we sent those luridi codardi running for the hills!”

“Yes, we did.” Ezio exchanged a secret, conspiratorial smile with Pantasilea. Her sound advice had won the fight as much as anything.

“Those newfangled guns,” said Bartolomeo. “We managed to capture a few, but we’re still working out how to use them.” He beamed. “Anyway, now that the Pope’s dogs have fled, I’ll be able to draw more men to the fight on our side. But first, and especially after this business, I want to reinforce our barracks.”

“Good idea. But who’s going to do it?”

Bartolomeo shook his head. “I’m not much good with these things. You’re the one with an education, why don’t you approve the plans?”

“You got some drawn up?”

“Yes! Engaged the services of a pretty brilliant young man. Florentine like you. Name of Michelangelo Buonarroti.”

“I’ve heard of him, but I don’t know him. Either way, va bene. In return I need to know Cesare’s and Rodrigo’s every move. Can some of your men shadow them for me?”

“One thing I’ll soon have no shortage of is men. At least, I’ve enough to give you a decent workforce for the rebuilding work and a handful of skilled scouts to cover the Borgia for you.”

“Excellent!” Ezio well knew that Machiavelli had spies in place, but Machiavelli tended to play his cards close to his chest, and Bartolomeo didn’t. Machiavelli was a closed room; Bartolomeo was the open sky. And while Ezio didn’t share La Volpe’s suspicions—which he hoped he’d now allayed—there was still no harm at all in having a second string to his bow.

He spent the next month supervising the strengthening of the barracks, repairing the damage done in the attack, building taller and stronger watchtowers, and replacing the palisades with stone walls. When the work was complete, he and Bartolomeo took a tour of inspection.

“Isn’t she a thing of beauty?” Bartolomeo beamed.

“Very impressive, I think.”

“And the even better news is, more and more men are joining us every day. Of course, I encourage great competition between them—it’s good for morale, and it’s good training, too, for when they go out and fight for real.” He showed Ezio a large wooden board with his crest at the top, mounted on an easel. “As you can see, this board shows the ranking of our top warriors. The better they become, the higher they move up the board.”

“And where am I?”

Bartolomeo gave him a look and waved at the air above the board. “Somewhere up here, I should think!”

A condottiero came up to tell him that one of his best men, Gian, had begun his fight down in the parade ground.

“If you want to show off, we have sparring matches, too. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got money on this boy!” Laughing, he took his leave.

Ezio made his way to the new, improved map-room. The natural light was better, and the room had been enlarged to accommodate broader map tables and easels. He was poring over a map of the Romagna when Pantasilea joined him.

“Where is Bartolomeo?” she asked.

“At the fight.”

Pantasilea sighed. “He has such an aggressive view of the world. However, I think strategy is just as important. Don’t you agree?”

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