The two Assassins looked around—the blood of the guards spread across the paved ground, soaking into the scarlet hems of the cardinals’ vestments.
“Let’s go—before more of the Borgia’s men reach us.” They brandished their swords at the now-terrified cardinals—who quickly fled the Assassins—a path clearing that would lead them from the Vatican. They heard the sound of approaching horses, no doubt more soldiers. They pushed their way forcefully toward the southeast, running at full speed across the expanse of the plaza, away from the Vatican and in the direction of the Tiber. The horses Mario had organized for their escape were tethered just outside the purlieus of the Holy See. But they had to turn to those papal guards who had followed on horseback and were bearing down on them fast. The thundering of hooves echoed on the cobbles. Using their falchions, Ezio and Mario managed to strike away the halberds the guards were thrusting at them.
Mario cut one guard down just as he was about to stab Ezio from behind with his spear.
“Not bad for an old man,” Ezio cried gratefully.
“I expect you to return the favor,” replied his uncle. “And not so much of your ‘old man’!”
“I haven’t forgotten everything you taught me.”
“I should hope not! Look out!” And Ezio whirled around just in time to slice the legs of a horse from under a guard who’d galloped up wielding a vicious-looking mace.
“Buona questa!” shouted Mario. “Good one!”
Ezio leapt sideways, avoiding two more of his pursuers, and managed to unsaddle them as they careered past, carried forward by their own momentum. Mario, heavier and older, preferred to stand his ground and cut at his enemies before leaping out of their reach. But once they had gained the edge of the broad square that faced the great cathedral church of Saint Peter, the two Assassins quickly clambered to the safety of the rooftops, scaling the crumbling house walls as nimbly as geckos, and scampered across them, leaping over the gaps where the streets between them made canyons. It wasn’t always easy, and at one point Mario nearly didn’t make it, his fingers scrabbling for the gutters as he fell just short. Panting hard, Ezio doubled back to pull him clear, succeeding just as the crossbow bolts fired by their pursuers rattled uselessly past them into the sky.
But their going was far faster than that of the guards, who, more heavily armored and lacking the skills of the Assassins’ Brotherhood, tried in vain to keep up by running though the pathways beneath. They gradually fell back. The two men clattered to a halt on a roof overlooking a small square on the edge of Trastevere. Two large, tough-looking chestnut horses were saddled and ready outside a lowly-looking inn, its battered sign bearing the image of a sleeping fox. Watching over the horses was a walleyed hunchback with a bushy mustache.
“Gianni!” hissed Mario.
The man looked up and immediately undid the reins by which the horses were tethered to a huge iron ring set into the wall of the inn. Mario instantly leapt down from the rooftop, landing in a crouch, and from there sprang into the saddle of the nearer, and larger, of the two horses. It whinnied and trod the earth in nervous anticipation.
“Shh, Campione,” said Mario to the animal, and then, looking up to where Ezio still stood on the parapet, he yelled: “Come on! What are you waiting for?”
“Just a minute, Zio,” said Ezio, turning to face two Borgia guards who had managed after all to struggle up to the roof and were now facing him with—to his astonishment—cocked pistols of a type that was new to him. Where the hell had they got those from? But this was no time for questions. He whirled through the air at them, unleashing his hidden-blade and slicing each neatly through the jugular before they could even fire.
“Impressive,” said Mario, reining in his impatient horse. “Now, get a move on! Cosa diavolo aspetti?”
Ezio threw himself off the roof to land close by the second horse, held firmly by the hunchback, and rebounded off the ground to spring into the animal’s saddle. It reared excitedly under his weight but he immediately had it under control and wheeled it around to follow his uncle as he rode fast toward the Tiber. At the same time Gianni disappeared into the inn, and a detachment of Borgia cavalry tore around the corner, into the square. Digging his heels into the horse’s flanks, Ezio sped after his uncle as they made their way at breakneck speed through the broken-down streets of Rome toward the dirty, sluggish river. At their backs they could hear the shouts of the mounted Borgia guards—cursing their prey as Mario and Ezio galloped through the maze of ancient streets, slowly pulling farther away.
Having reached Tiber Island they crossed the river by a rickety bridge that trembled beneath their horses’ hooves, and then they doubled back, turning north to ride up the main street leading out of the squalid little town that had once been the capital of the civilized world. They did not stop until they were in the depths of the countryside and had assured themselves that they were out of the reach of their pursuers.
Near the settlement of Sette Bagni, in the shade of a massive elm tree by the side of the dusty road that ran alongside the river, they reined their horses in and took time to draw breath.
“That was too close, Uncle.”
The older man shrugged and smiled, a little painfully. From a saddlebag Mario produced a leather flagon of rough red wine and proffered it to his nephew.
“Here,” he said, slowly catching his breath. “Good for you.”
Ezio drank, then grimaced. “Where did you get this?”
“It’s the best they can do at the Sleeping Fox,” said Mario, grinning broadly. “But once we get to Monteriggioni you’ll fare better.”
Ezio, grinning, too, passed the flask back to his uncle. But then his features became troubled.
“What is it?” asked Mario, in gentler tones.
Slowly Ezio produced the Apple from the pouch in which he’d stowed it. “This. What am I to do with it?”
Mario looked grave. “It is a heavy responsibility. But it is one you must shoulder alone.”
“How can I?”
“What does you heart tell you?”
“My heart tells me to be rid of it. But my brain…”
“It was vouchsafed you…by whatever Powers you encountered in the Vault,” said Mario solemnly. “They would not have given it back to mortals if there was not a purpose devised for it.”
“It is too dangerous. If it fell into the wrong hands again…” Ezio looked ominously at the slothful river flowing nearby. Mario watched him expectantly.