They had all but reached the cells now. “Remember,” Ezio said, drawing his dagger, “if you try to warn your guards, your tongue—”

Lucrezia breathed hard, but was silent. Watchfully, Ezio inched forward. The two new guards were seated at the table, playing cards. Throwing Lucrezia to the ground in front of him, he leapt on them and had dispatched them both before they had a moment to react. Then he spun around and charged after Lucrezia, who had got to her feet and begun to run back the way she had come, screaming for help. He caught up with her in two bounds, clapped a hand over her mouth, and pulled her to him with his other arm, swinging her around and pushing her back toward Caterina’s cell. She bit and tore at the gloved hand over her mouth with her teeth at first, then, seeing she was powerless, seemed to give up and went limp.

Caterina was already at the grille, which Ezio unlatched.

“Salute, Lucrezia,” said Caterina, smiling unpleasantly. “How I’ve missed you!”

“Vai a farti fottere, troia—Go fuck yourself, you whore!”

“Charming as always,” said Caterina. “Ezio! Bring her close. I’ll take the key.”

She reached out as Ezio obeyed her order. He noticed that Caterina grazed Lucrezia’s breasts as she reached between them and extracted the key, which hung on a black silk cord.

Caterina passed the key to Ezio, who quickly unlocked the door. The same key fitted the padlock securing the chains—Caterina had not, after all, been chained to the wall—and as Caterina divested herself of these, Ezio shoved Lucrezia into the cell.

“Guards! Guards!” screamed Lucrezia.

“Oh, shut up,” said Caterina, picking up a dirty rag from the guards’ table and using it to gag her enemy. Then Ezio took some more twine and bound Lucrezia’s ankles, before slamming the cell door and locking it securely.

Ezio and Caterina looked at each other.

“My hero,” she said drily.

Ezio ignored that. “Can you walk?”

Caterina tried, but stumbled. “I don’t think I can—the manacles they had on me must have done some damage.”

Ezio sighed and lifted her into his arms. He’d have to drop her like a sack if they were surprised by guards and he needed to get to his weapons quickly.

“Which way?” she asked.

“Stables first. Then the quickest route out of here.”

“Why save me, Ezio? Seriously. With Forlì taken, I am useless to you.”

“You still have a family.”

“It isn’t your family.”

Ezio kept walking. He remembered where the stables should be in relation to where they were. It was fortunate that Caterina seemed to be the only prisoner in this section. There were no other guards about. Still, he trod softly and moved quickly, but not so fast as to lumber into a trap. Every so often he stopped and listened. She was light in his arms, and, despite imprisonment, her hair still smelled of vanilla and roses, reminding him of happier times they had had together.

“Listen, Ezio—that night in Monteriggioni—when we…bathed together…I had to ensure your allegiance. To protect Forlì. It was in the Assassins’ interests as much as mine, but—” She broke off. “Do you understand, Ezio?”

“If you had wanted my allegiance, all you had to do was ask for it.”

“I needed you on my side.”

“My loyalty and my sword arm on your side weren’t enough. You wanted to be sure of my heart as well.” Ezio walked on, shifting her weight in his arms. “But, è la politica. Of course. I knew it. You need not explain.”

Within him, his heart felt as if it had fallen down a bottomless mineshaft. How could her hair still be scented?

“Caterina,” he asked, his throat dry, “did they…? Did Cesare…?”

She sensed, however dimly, what he felt, and smiled—with her lips, though, he noticed, not with her eyes. “Nothing happened. My name must still have some small value. I was left…unspoiled.”

They had reached the main door of the stables. It was unguarded, but firmly closed. Ezio put Caterina down. “Try to walk a little. You must get the strength back in your ankles.”

He looked around for a means of opening the door. It had no bolts or handles. But there had to be a way…

“Try over there,” said Caterina. “Isn’t that a lever of some kind?”

“Wait here,” Ezio said.

“As if I had a choice!”

He made his way over to the lever, noticing as he went a square hole in the floor with an open trapdoor above it. To judge from the smell beneath, it must have been some sort of grain store. And, peering down, he could make out a large number of sacks. But boxes, too—boxes of what looked like gunpowder.

“Hurry,” said Caterina.

He took the lever in his hands and hauled on it. It was stiff at first, but under the strain of his muscles, it gave a little and then swung over easily. At the same time, the door swung open.

But there were a couple of guards in the stables and they whirled around at the sound of the door creaking on its hinges and rushed toward it, drawing their swords.

“Ezio! Aiuto!”

He sped over to her, picked her up, and carried her toward the hole in the floor.

“What are you doing?!”

He held her over the hole.

“Don’t you dare!”

He dropped her down, unable to resist a short snicker at her yell of panic. It wasn’t far, and he had time to see her land safely on the soft sacks before turning to face the guards. The fight was short and sharp, and the guards were heavy with fatigue and had been taken by surprise. Ezio’s skills with the blade were more than a match for them. However, one of them managed to get a glancing blow in, but it cut the material of Ezio’s doublet and didn’t reach the flesh. Ezio was tiring himself.

When it was over, Ezio reached down and hauled Caterina out again.

“Figlio di puttana,” she swore, dusting herself down. “Never do that to me again.”

He noticed that she seemed to be walking at least a little better already.

Quickly, he selected horses for them and soon had them saddled and ready. He helped her onto one and leapt into the saddle of the other himself. An archway led off one side of the stables and through it he could see the main gate of the Castel. It was guarded, but it was open. Dawn was approaching, and no doubt tradesmen from the city were expected, to make deliveries.

“Ride like hell,” Ezio told her. “Before they have time to realize what’s going on. Across the bridge and then make for Tiber Island. You’ll be safe there. Find Machiavelli. He’ll be waiting for me.”