But Ezio had been thinking. Now he snapped his fingers excitedly. “Perché non ci ho pensato prima?—Why didn’t I think of it before!”
“What? Did I say something?”
Ezio’s eyes were shining. “Back to your barracks!”
“Call your men back to barracks. I’ll explain there. Come on!”
“This had better be good,” said Bartolomeo. To his men he gave the order: “Fall back!”
It was nighttime by the time they got back. Once the horses had been stabled and the men stood down, Ezio and Bartolomeo went to the map-room and sat down in conference.
“So, what’s this plan of yours?”
Ezio unrolled a map that showed the Castra Praetoria and its surroundings in detail. He pointed inside the fortress.
“Once inside, your men can overpower the camp’s patrols, am I correct?”
“Especially if they are taken completely by surprise?”
“Ma certo. The element of surprise is always—”
“Then we need to get hold of a lot of French uniforms. And their armor. Fast. At dawn, we’ll walk right in, bold as brass; but there’s no time to lose.”
Comprehension dawned on Bartolomeo’s rugged face—comprehension, and hope: “Hah! You crafty old scoundrel! Ezio Auditore, you truly are a man after my own heart! And thinking worthy of my Pantasilea herself! Magnifico!”
“Give me a few men. I’m going to make a sortie to their tower now, get in, and fetch what we need.”
“I’ll give you all the men you need—they can strip the uniforms from the dead French troops.”
“Be sure to kill them as cleanly as possible. We don’t want uniforms covered in blood.”
“They won’t feel a thing,” said Ezio, a steely look in his eyes. “Trust me.”
As Bartolomeo was detailing men for the job at hand, Ezio collected his saddlebag, and from it he selected the poison-blade.
They rode silently up to the Borgia Tower, which the French commanded, their horses’ hooves muffled with sacking. Dismounting a short way off, Ezio bade his men wait while he scaled the outer wall with the skill of a denizen of the distant Alps and the grace and cunning of a cat. A scratch from the poison-blade was enough to kill, and the overconfident French had not posted many guards—those that there were, he took completely unawares and they were dead before they even knew what had happened to them. Once the guards were out of the way, Ezio opened the main gate, which groaned on its hinges, making Ezio’s heart race. He paused to listen, but the garrison slept on. Without a sound, his men ran into the tower, entered the garrison, and overcame its inmates with barely a struggle. Collecting the uniforms took a little longer, but within an hour they were back at the barracks—mission accomplished!
“Bit of blood on this one,” grumbled Bartolomeo, sifting through their booty.
“Exception. The only man who was truly on his toes. Had to finish him the conventional way, with my sword,” said Ezio as the men detailed for the operation they had at hand changed into the French gear.
Bartolomeo said, “Well, you’d better bring me a suit of their perverted mail, too.”
“You’re not wearing one,” said Ezio as he put on a French lieutenant’s uniform himself.
“Of course you aren’t! The plan is that you gave yourself up to us. We are a French patrol, bringing you to the Général Duc de Valois.”
“Of course.” Bartolomeo thought hard. “Then what?”
“Barto, you can’t have been paying attention. Then your men attack—on my signal.”
“Bene!” Bartolomeo beamed. “Get a move on!” he said to those of his men who hadn’t yet completed dressing. “I can smell the dawn already, and it’s a long ride.”
The men formed up. They rode hard through the night, but left their horses at a little distance from the French base camp, in the charge of their squires. Before leaving them, Ezio first checked Leonardo’s little Codex pistol, its design now improved in order to enable him to fire more than one shot before reloading, and discreetly strapped it to his arm. He and his group of “French” soldiers then proceeded on foot in the direction of the Castra Praetoria.
“Valois thinks Cesare will allow the French to rule Italy,” explained Bartolomeo as he and Ezio marched side by side. Ezio was playing the part of the senior officer of the patrol and would hand Bartolomeo over himself. “Silly fool! He’s so blinded by the trickle of royalty in his blood that he can’t see the plan of the battlefield—blasted little inbred runt that he is!” He paused. “But you know and I know that, whatever the French may think, Cesare intends to be the first king of a united Italy himself!”
“Unless we stop him.”
“Yes,” Bartolomeo reflected. “You know, brilliant though your plan is, personally I don’t like using this kind of trick. I believe in a fair fight—and may the best man win!”
“Cesare and Valois may have different styles, Barto, but they both fight dirty, and we have no choice but to fight fire with fire.”
“Hmph! ‘There will come a day when men no longer cheat each other. And on that day we shall see what mankind is truly capable of,’” he quoted.
“I’ve heard that somewhere before.”
“You should have! It’s something your father once wrote.”
They had drawn close to the French encampment, and up ahead Ezio could see figures moving about—French perimeter guards.
“What’ll we do?” asked Bartolomeo, sotto voce.
“I’ll kill them. There aren’t many of them. But we must do this noiselessly and without fuss.”
“Got enough poison left in that gadget of yours?”
“This lot are alert and they’re quite widely spaced apart. If I kill one and I’m noticed, I may not be able to prevent some getting back and raising the alarm.”
“Why kill them at all? We’re in French uniforms. Well, you lot are.”
“They ask questions. If we make an entrance with you in chains…”
“Shh! If we make an entrance, Valois will be so tickled it won’t occur to him to ask where we sprang from. At least, I hope it won’t.”