Ezio hefted the Apple in his gloved right hand. But still he hesitated. He knew, he couldn’t throw such a great treasure away, and his uncle’s words had swayed him. Surely Minerva would not have allowed him to take back the Apple without reason.
“The decision must be yours alone,” said Mario. “But if you feel unhappy at having custody of it now, give it to me for safekeeping. You can take it back later, when your mind is calmer.”
Ezio hesitated still, but then they both heard, in the distance, the sound of thundering hooves and the baying of hounds.
“Those bastards don’t give up easily,” said Mario through gritted teeth. “Come, give it to me.”
Ezio sighed but replaced the Apple in its leather pouch and swung it over to Mario, who quickly stowed it in his saddlebag.
“And now,” said Mario, “we must jump these nags into the river and swim them across. That’ll put the damned dogs off our scent, and even if they’re bright enough to ford the Tiber themselves, we’ll be able to lose them in the woods over there. Come on. I want to be in Monteriggioni by this time tomorrow.”
“How hard do you expect to ride?”
Mario dug his heels into his mount’s flanks. The beast reared, foam at the corners of its mouth.
“Very hard,” he said. “Because from now on we don’t simply have Rodrigo to contend with. His son and his daughter are with him—Cesare and Lucrezia.”
“And they are…?”
“The most dangerous people you are ever likely to meet.”
It was the afternoon of the following day when the little walled town of Monteriggioni, dominated by Mario’s rocca, appeared on its hill on the horizon. They had made better time than they’d expected and had now eased their pace to spare the horses.
“...and then Minerva told me about the sun,” Ezio was saying. “She told of a disaster that happened long ago, and foretold of another which is to come…”
“But not for some time in the future, vero?” said Mario. “Then we need not fret about it.”
“Sì,” Ezio replied. “I wonder how much more work we have to do.” He paused reflectively. “Perhaps it will soon be finished.”
“Would that be so bad?”
Ezio was about to reply when he was interrupted by the sound of an explosion—cannon fire, from the direction of the town. He drew his sword, rising in his saddle to scan the ramparts.
“Don’t worry,” said Mario, laughing heartily. “It’s only exercises. We’ve upgraded the arsenal here and installed new cannon all along the battlements. We have training sessions daily.”
“As long as they aren’t aiming at us.”
“Don’t worry,” said Mario again. “It’s true that the men still need to get their eye in, but they have enough sense not to fire at the boss!”
A short while later they were riding through the open principal gate of the town and up the broad main thoroughfare, which led to the citadel. As they did so, crowds gathered to line the street, looking at Ezio with a mixture of respect, admiration, and affection.
“Welcome back, Ezio!” one woman called.
“Grazie, Madonna.” Ezio smiled back, inclining his head slightly.
“Three cheers for Ezio!” a child’s voice rang out.
“Buon giorno, fratellino,” Ezio said to him. Turning to Mario, he added, “It’s good to be home.”
“I think they’re more pleased to see you than to see me,” said Mario, but he was smiling as he spoke, and in fact much of the cheering, especially from the older townsmen, was for him.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the old family seat again,” said Ezio. “It’s been a while.”
“It has indeed, and there are a couple of people there who’ll be looking forward to seeing you.”
“Can’t you guess? You can’t be that preoccupied with your duties to the Brotherhood.”
“Of course—you mean my mother and my sister! How are they?”
“Well. Your sister was very unhappy when her husband died, but time heals most things, and I think she’s much better now. In fact, there she is.”
They had ridden into the courtyard of Mario’s fortified residence now, and as they dismounted, Ezio’s sister, Claudia, appeared at the top of the marble staircase that led up to the main entrance, flew down it, and ran into her brother’s arms.
“Brother!” she cried, hugging him. “Your return home is the best birthday present I could have wished for!”
“Claudia, my dearest,” said Ezio, holding her close. “It is good to be back. How is our mother?”
“Well, thanks be to God. She’s dying to see you—we’ve been on tenterhooks ever since the news reached us that you were returning. And your fame goes before you!”
“Let’s go in,” said Mario.
“There’s someone else who’ll be glad to see you,” continued Claudia, taking his arm and escorting him up the staircase. “The Countess of Forlì.”
“Caterina? Here?” Ezio tried to keep the excitement out of his voice.
“We did not know when exactly you would arrive. She and Mother are with the abbess, but they will be here by sunset.”
“Business first,” said Mario, knowingly. “I am calling a meeting of the Council of the Brotherhood here tonight. Machiavelli, I know, is especially keen to talk to you.”
“Is it finished, then?” asked Claudia intently. “Is the Spaniard truly dead?”
Ezio’s grey eyes hardened. “I will explain everything at the meeting this evening,” he told her.
“Very well,” replied Claudia, but her own eyes were troubled as she took her leave.
“And please give my greetings to the countess when she returns,” Ezio called after her. “I will see her, and Mother, this evening. First I have business to attend to with Mario that will not wait.”
Once they were alone, Mario’s tone became serious. “You must prepare well for tonight, Ezio. Machiavelli will be here by sunset and I know he has many questions for you. We will discuss matters now, and then I advise you to take some time off—it won’t hurt you to get to know the town again a little.”
After a session of deep conversation with Mario in his study, Ezio made his way back into Monteriggioni. The question of the Pope’s survival hung heavily over him, and he sought distraction from it. Mario had suggested he visit his tailor to order some new clothes to replace his travel-stained ones, and first he made his way to the man’s shop, where he found him sitting cross-legged on his workbench, sewing a brocade cloak of a rich emerald green.