“But we both have to get away from here!”

“I’ll follow. But for now I must stay and take care of the remaining guards, create a diversion, a delay, something.”

Caterina pulled the reins of her horse in, so that it reared. “Get back in one piece,” she said. “Or I will never forgive you!”

Ezio hoped she meant it, as he watched her kick the horse into a gallop. She charged past the guards at the main gate, scattering them. As soon as he saw that she was clear, he rode his own horse back through the stables to the grain and powder store, seizing a torch from its sconce as he passed. This he threw into the hole, and then he wheeled around and galloped back the way he had come, drawing his sword.

The guards had formed a cordon and were waiting for him, halberds raised. Ezio didn’t know the horse but he knew what he had to do; he rode straight at the line of guards and at the last minute pulled hard on the reins and, leaning forward in the saddle, dug his heels in. At the same time as the horse charged forward, there was an almighty explosion from near the stables. He was right! It had been gunpowder! The ground shook with the explosion—and the guards instinctively ducked down. The horse, also shocked with the noise of the bang, was more determined to make good her flight. She flew into the air, clearing the line of guards as easily as she might have cleared a fence.

Leaving panic and confusion in his wake, he rode in the direction of the rising sun. His heart swelled within him. He had saved Caterina!

TWENTY-SIX

Once he was sure he had shaken off any possible pursuers, Ezio turned his horse. He was loath to lose such a good animal, but he took it to the stables where he and Machiavelli had hired horses what seemed like a lifetime ago and turned it over to the chief ostler there. The stables were neat and clean and clearly doing a thriving business, in a district that seemed to have shaken off Borgia control and, for the moment at least, maintained its independence. Then he made his way back toward Tiber Island on foot. The Assassins’ secret ferry was waiting at the bank and, once on the island itself, he hastened toward the hideout.

Inside, he found that Caterina had arrived safely. She was lying on a makeshift bed near the door, being tended by a doctor. She smiled when she saw him, and tried to sit up, but the doctor gently restrained her.

“Ezio! I am relieved to see you safe.”

He took her hand and squeezed it. “Where is Machiavelli?” There was no return of his pressure, but perhaps she was still too weak.

“I don’t know.”

La Volpe emerged from the shadows at the end of the room. “Ezio! Good to see you again!” He embraced the younger man. “I brought your contessa here. As for Machiavelli…”

But just then the main door swung open and Machiavelli himself came in. He looked drawn.

“Where have you been?” asked La Volpe.

“Looking for Ezio—not that I am accountable to you,” said Machiavelli, and Ezio was saddened to note the tension that still existed between his two friends. Machiavelli turned to Ezio and, without ceremony, asked: “What of Cesare and Rodrigo?”

“Cesare left almost immediately for Urbino. As for Rodrigo, he was at the Vatican.”

“That is odd,” said Machiavelli. “Rodrigo should have been in the Castel.”

“Very odd indeed,” La Volpe put in evenly.

If he’d noticed the dig, Machiavelli ignored it. “What a wasted opportunity,” he mused. Then, recollecting himself, he said to Caterina, “Oh, no offense, Contessa. We are glad to see you safe.”

“I take none,” she said.

“Now that Cesare has gone to Urbino, we must concentrate on building our forces here.”

Machiavelli raised his eyebrows. “But I thought we intended to strike now! We should go after him and cut him down where he stands.”

“That would be impossible,” Caterina said. “I have seen his army. It is massive. You would never reach him.”

Ezio said, “I say we work here. In Rome. Here, we have already made a good start. We should continue to erode the Borgia’s influence, while restoring our own. And, in fact, I want to begin immediately.”

“You speak as if you were already our leader,” said Machiavelli. “But the post has not been discussed, let alone ratified, by our council.”

“And I say we need a leader, and we need one right away,” countered La Volpe. “We have no time for councils and ratifications. We need to consolidate the Brotherhood once again, and, for my money, Ezio is the right man for the job. Machiavelli, I appeal to you—you and I are two of the most senior Assassins left. Bartolomeo is bound to agree. Let us make this decision now—keep it secret if you like—and later, we can put it to a formal vote.”

Machiavelli seemed to be on the point of speech, but then let it go and simply shrugged.

“I will not fail you,” Ezio said. “Gilberto, I’d like you to bring Bartolomeo and my sister, Claudia, here. There are matters to discuss. Niccolò, please come with me.”

On his way out, Ezio paused by Caterina’s bed. “Take care of her,” he said to the doctor.

“Where are we going?” Machiavelli said, once they were back in the city center.

“There’s something I want to show you.”

He led the way to the nearest market square. Half of it was open for business: there was a baker; a butcher was swatting flies away from his wares; and a greengrocer had a selection of rather tired-looking produce on sale. Early as it was, it was the wine shops that were doing the best business. And, as Ezio expected, a small knot of Borgia guards were duffing up the hapless owner of a leather goods stall.

“Look,” said Ezio, as they blended in with the small crowd of shoppers.

“I know what is going on,” said Machiavelli.

“I know you do, Niccolò,” said Ezio. “Forgive me, but you see the big picture. You understand what is to be done politically to break the Borgia, and I for one do not doubt your sincerity in this.” He paused. “But we must start at a more fundamental level. The Borgia take what they want from the people with complete impunity, to maintain their power.”

They watched the guards push the man to the ground, then, laughing, help themselves to what they fancied from his stall and move on. The man picked himself up, watched them go in impotent rage, and then, close to tears, began to rearrange his goods. A woman came up to comfort him, but he shook her off. Nevertheless she stayed, hovering near him, care and concern in her eyes.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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