“Don’t come any closer.”
Ezio backed off, but kept his finger on the release trigger of his hidden-blade.
“Brought the fuckin’ money, have you?”
Ezio slowly produced the pouch that contained the thousand ducats with his other hand.
“Good. Now we’ll see if the captain’s in a good enough mood not to slit her fuckin’ throat.”
“The captain! Who the hell do you think you are? Bring her out! Bring her out now!”
The rage in Ezio’s voice subdued the slave trader who’d spoken. He turned slightly and called to someone belowdecks, who must have heard the interchange anyway, since two men started to come up the companionway from below, manhandling a woman of perhaps thirty-five. The makeup she was wearing was badly smeared, by both tears and rough treatment. There were ugly bruises on her face, shoulders, and breasts, exposed where her lilac dress had been ripped apart, revealing the bodice beneath. There was blood on her dress, lower down, and she was manacled hand and foot.
“Here’s the little treasure now,” sneered the trader who’d first spoken.
Ezio breathed hard. This was a lonely bend of the river, but he could see Tiber Island only fifty yards distant. If only he could get word to his friends. But if they’d heard anything, they’d assume it was just a bunch of drunken sailors—God knows, there were enough of them along the riverbank. And if Ezio raised his voice or called for help, La Solari would be dead in an instant, and himself, too, unless the gunmen were bad shots, for the range was negligible.
As the woman’s desperate eyes caught Ezio’s, a third man, sloppily dressed in the sad remains of a naval captain’s jacket, came up the ladder. He looked at Ezio, then at the bag of money.
“Throw it over,” he said in a rough voice.
“Hand her over first. And take off those manacles.”
“Are you fuckin’ deaf? Throw. Over. The. Fuckin’. Money!”
Involuntarily, Ezio moved forward. Immediately the guns were raised threateningly, the captain drew a falchion, and the two others took a tighter grip on the woman, making her moan and wince with pain.
“Don’t come any closer! We’ll finish her if you do!”
Ezio stopped, but he did not retreat. He measured the distance between where he stood and the deck with his eyes. His finger trembled over the trigger of the hidden-blade.
“I have the money—it’s all here,” he said, waving the bag and edging one step closer while their eyes were on it.
“Stay where you are! Don’t test me. If you take one step more, she dies!”
“You won’t get your money then.”
“Oh, won’t we? There’s five of us and one of you, and I don’t think you’d get a fuckin’ toe on board before my friends here had shot you in the gob and in the balls.”
“Hand her over first!”
“Look, you thick or what? Nobody gets near this fuckin’ boat unless you want this puttana dead!”
“Messere! Aiutateme!” whimpered the wretched woman.
“Shut the fuck up, you bitch!” snarled one of the men holding her, hitting her across the eyes with the pommel of his dagger.
“All right!” yelled Ezio, as he saw fresh blood spurt from the woman’s face. “That’s enough. Let her go. Now!”
And he threw the bag of money over to the “captain.” It landed at his feet.
“That’s better,” said the slave trader. “Now, let’s just finish this business.”
Before Ezio could react, he placed the blade of his sword against the side of the woman’s throat and drew it across, down and deep, half severing her head from her body.
“Any objections, take it up with Messer Cesare,” sneered the captain as the body slumped to the deck under a fountain of blood. Almost imperceptibly, he nodded to the two men with pistols.
Ezio knew what was coming next, and he was ready. With lightning speed he dodged both the bullets, and in the same instant that he threw himself into the air, he released the hidden-blade. With it he stabbed the first of the men who’d been holding the prisoner, deep in the left eye, penetrating the brain. Before the man had even fallen to the deck, Ezio, dodging a swinging blow from the captain’s falchion and coming up from under, plunged the blade into the other man’s belly, low down and ripping as he thrust. The blade wasn’t designed for slicing, and it bent a little, tearing rather than cutting. But no matter.
Now for the gunmen. As he’d expected, they were frantically trying to reload, but panic had made them clumsy. He rapidly withdrew the blade and unsheathed his heavy dagger. The fighting was too close for him to be able to use his sword, and he needed the dagger’s serrated edge and heavy blade. He sliced off the hand holding one man’s gun and then jabbed the point hard into the man’s side. But he hadn’t time to finish the job, for the other gunman, coming from behind, clubbed him with the butt of his pistol. Luckily the blow didn’t find its mark, and Ezio, shaking his head to clear it, swung around and was able to drive his dagger into the man’s chest as he was attempting another blow, leaving his body vulnerable by raising his arm.
He looked around. Where was the captain?
He caught sight of him stumbling along the riverbank, clutching the bag, from which coins were spilling. Fool, Ezio thought. He should have taken the horse. Panic again. He bounded after him, easily catching up, for the bag was heavy. He seized the captain by the hair and kicked his legs away, forcing him to kneel with his head back.
“Now for a taste of your own medicine,” he said, and he did to the captain exactly what the captain had done to the woman.
Letting the body fall and leaving it to writhe, he picked up the bag and made his way back to the boat, picking up the fallen coins as he went. The wounded slave trader squirmed on the deck. Ezio ignored him and went below, ransacking the meager cabin he found there and quickly locating a small strongbox, which he wrenched open with the bloody blade of his dagger. It was full of diamonds.
“That’ll do,” said Ezio to himself, tucking it under his arm and running up the companionway again.
He loaded the bag of coins and the box of diamonds into the saddlebags of his horse, and added the pistols to them. Then he went back to the wounded man, nearly slipping on the blood in which the slave trader was slithering. Bending down, Ezio cut one of the man’s hamstrings, keeping a hand over his mouth to stop him from howling. That should slow him up. For good.