“Stay, Pietro—I am sure it was nothing!”

“No—it is late. I must go!”

Putting on a melancholy expression, he slipped away across the garden and vanished through a door set into the wall on the far side.

Lucrezia waited a moment, then stood and snapped her fingers. Out of the shelter of some tall shrubs growing nearby, one of her personal guardsmen emerged and bowed.

“I heard the entire exchange, mia signora, and can vouch for it.”

Lucrezia pursed her lips. “Good. Tell Cesare. We shall see how he feels when the boot is on the other foot.”

“Yes, signora.”

Bowing again, the guard withdrew.

Left alone, Lucrezia picked a marguerite from a clump of the flowers that were growing nearby and started to pluck its petals off, one by one.

“He loves me; he loves me not; he loves me; he loves me not…”

Ezio slipped down the nearest staircase and made his way toward her. She had sat down again and looked up at his approach, but showed no fear and only slight surprise. Well, if she had any more guards concealed in the garden, Ezio would give them short shrift.

“Please continue. I do not mean to interrupt,” Ezio said, bowing in his turn, though in his case the bow was not made without irony.

“Well, well. Ezio Auditore da Firenze.” She gave him her hand to kiss. “How pleasant to meet you properly at last. I’ve heard so much about you, especially recently. That is, I imagine no one else can have been responsible for the little upsets we have been experiencing here in Rome?” She paused. “It’s a pity Cesare is no longer here. He would have enjoyed this.”

“I have no quarrel with you personally, Lucrezia. Free Caterina and I will stand down.”

Her voice hardened slightly. “I’m afraid that is impossible.”

Ezio spread his hands. “Then you leave me no choice!” He closed in on her, but cautiously. She had long fingernails.

“Guards!” she shrieked, turning in an instant from noblewoman to harpy, and slashing at his eyes as—just in time—he caught her wrists. Pulling a length of twine from his leather pouch he twisted her wrists behind her and tied them swiftly, before flinging her to the ground and placing one foot firmly on a fold of her dress so that she could not rise and run. Then he drew his sword and dagger and stood his ground, ready to face whatever guards came running from the direction of the apartments. Luckily for Ezio, they were lightly armed and heavily built and wore no chain mail. Though unable to change his position, for above all he could not afford to have Lucrezia cut and run—and already she was trying to bite his ankle through his boot—he ducked below the swinging blade of the first guard and hacked at the man’s exposed flank. One down. The second guard was more cautious but, conscious of the now-snarling Lucrezia on the floor, stepped forward to attack Ezio. He lunged at Ezio’s chest—Ezio parried upward, locking the guards of both blades, and simply swung his left hand, dagger pointing forward, at the man’s head. Two down. The final man, hoping to take advantage of the fact that both of Ezio’s blades were engaged, rushed forward. Ezio flicked his right arm hard—sending the blade of the second guard spiraling up toward the new foe. The final guard had to raise his sword to deflect the blow—but just too late and the flying blade nicked his biceps. He winced with pain but came forward again—sword swinging—at Ezio. Ezio had recovered his stance and deflected the attack with his dagger—freeing his sword hand to slash viciously at the man’s torso. It was over. The guards lay dead around him—and Lucrezia was silent for the first time. Breathing hard, Ezio pulled his captive to her feet.

“Now come on,” he said. “And don’t scream. If you do, I will be forced to take your tongue.”

He dragged her toward the door through which Pietro had left, found himself in a corridor, and half pushed, half dragged Lucrezia back down the tower, in the direction of the cells.

“Rescuing princesses from castles now? How romantic!” Lucrezia spat out.

“Shut up.”

“I suppose you think you’re achieving great things, charging around, creating havoc, killing whomever you wish.”

“I said, shut up.”

“But does your plan have any form? What do you think you are going to achieve? Don’t you know how strong we are?”

Ezio hesitated at a staircase leading down to the next floor. “Which way?” he asked her.

She laughed, and didn’t reply.

He shook her. “Which way?”

“To the left,” she replied sullenly.

She was silent for a while, then started again. This time, Ezio let her ramble on. He was sure of where he was now. She squirmed in his grip, and he was concentrating on two things: to keep a firm hold of her and to be alert for any ambush by the Castel guards.

“Do you know what became of the remains of the Pazzi family in Florence once you’d brought them to their knees? Your dear friend Lorenzo, the so-called Magnifico, stripped them of all their possessions and threw them into prison. All of them! Even those who’d played no part in the conspiracy against him.” Ezio’s mind turned unwillingly to the revenge Caterina had taken against a rebellion against her in Forlì. Her measures had far exceeded Lorenzo’s—indeed, made them look mild. He shook the thoughts away.

“The women were forbidden to marry and the family tombstones were erased,” Lucrezia went on. “Wiped from the history books. Poof! Just like that!”

But they were not tortured and killed, thought Ezio. Well, it was possible that Caterina had felt justified in her actions at the time. Still, her cruelty had cost her some of the loyalty she had always been able to depend on before, and perhaps that was why Cesare had finally been able to take Forlì.

But she was still an important ally. That was what Ezio had to remember. That, and to suppress whatever feelings—real or imagined—he may have felt for her.

“You and your Assassin friends ignore the consequences of your actions. You are content to set things in motion but you are never willing to see them through!” Lucrezia paused for breath, and Ezio gave her a savage yank forward. But that didn’t stop her. “Unlike you, Cesare will finish what he started, and bring peace to Italy. He kills for a higher purpose—again, unlike you!”

“The ignorant and the passive make easy targets,” retorted Ezio.

“Say what you like,” replied Lucrezia, seeing she had touched a nerve. “In any case, my words are wasted here, you ipocrita!”

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