“That chicken-brain? No worries! But how are we going to get rid of them? We can hardly shoot them. The gunfire would be as good as a fanfare.”
“I’m going to shoot them with this,” said Ezio, producing Leonardo’s adapted compact, quick-load crossbow. “I’ve counted. There are five of them. I have six bolts. The light’s still a bit dim for me to aim properly from here. I’ll have to get a bit closer. Just you hang on here with the rest.”
Ezio slipped forward until he was within twenty paces or so of the nearest French sentry. Cranking back the string, he placed the first bolt in the groove and, lifting the tiller to his shoulder, took a quick bead on the man’s breast and fired. There was a muted snap and a hiss, and the man crumpled to the ground instantly, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. But Ezio was already on his way through the bracken to his next victim—the twang of the crossbow was barely audible. The small bolt hit the man’s throat and he made a small, strangulated, gargling sound before his knees gave way under him. Five minutes later, it was all over. He’d used all six bolts, since he’d missed on the first shot at his last man, making him lose his resolve momentarily, but he’d reloaded and fired successfully before the soldier had had time to react to the strange, dull noise he’d heard.
He had no more ammunition for the bow now, but he gave a silent thanks to Leonardo. He knew this weapon would prove more than useful on another occasion. Ezio quietly hauled the fallen French soldiers to some sparse cover—hoping it’d be enough to hide them from anyone who happened to pass by. As he did so, he retrieved the bolts he could—recalling Leonardo’s advice. Stowing the crossbow, he made his way back to Bartolomeo.
“All done?” the big man asked him.
“Valois next,” Bartolomeo vowed. “I’ll make him squeal like a stuck pig.”
The sky was lightening, and dawn, clad in a russet mantle, was walking over the dew on the distant hills to the east.
“We’d better get going,” said Bartolomeo.
“Come on, then,” replied Ezio, clapping manacles on his friend’s wrists before he could object. “Don’t worry—they’re fakes. Spring-loaded. Just make a sudden tight fist and they’ll drop off. But for God’s sake, wait for my signal. And by the way, the ‘guard’ just to your left will stay close to you. He’s got Bianca under his cloak. All you have to do is reach across and…” Ezio’s voice took on a warning note, “But at my signal!”
“Aye, aye, sir.” Bartolomeo smiled.
At the head of his men, Bartolomeo two paces behind him with a special escort of four, Ezio marched boldly in the direction of the main gate of the French headquarters. The rising sun glittered on their chain mail and breastplates.
“Halte-la!” ordered a sergeant-commander at the gate. He was backed up by a dozen heavily armed sentries, but his eyes had already taken in the uniforms of his fellow soldiers. “Déclarez-vous!”
“Je suis le Lieutenant Guillemot, et j’emmène le Général d’Alviano ici présent à Son Excellence le Général Duc Monsieur de Valois. Le Général d’Alviano s’est rendu, seul et sans armes, selon les exigences de Monsieur le Duc,” said Ezio fluently, causing Bartolomeo behind him to raise an eyebrow.
“Well, Lieutenant Guillemot, the general will be pleased to see General d’Alviano, and that he’s come to his senses,” said the captain of the guard, who had hurried up to take charge. “But there’s something—just a trace—about your accent that I cannot place. Tell me, what part of France are you from?”
Ezio drew a breath. “Montréal,” he replied firmly.
“Open the gates,” the captain of the guard said to his sergeant.
“Open the gates!” shouted the sergeant.
Within seconds, Ezio was leading his men into the heart of the French headquarters. He fell back a step so as to have Bartolomeo, and the “prisoner’s” escort, at his side.
“I’ll kill the lot of them,” muttered Bartolomeo. “And eat their kidneys fried for breakfast. By the way, I didn’t know you spoke French.”
“Picked it up in Florence,” Ezio replied casually. “Couple of girls there I knew.” He was quietly glad his accent had passed muster.
“You rogue! Still, that’s where they say the best place is to learn a language.”
“No, you fool—bed!”
“You sure these manacles are fakes?”
“Not yet, Barto. Be patient! And shut up!”
“It’s taking all my patience. What are they saying?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
And it was just as well that Bartolomeo’s French was limited to a few words, thought Ezio, as he listened to the jibes being hurled at his friend: “Chien d’Italien”—Italian dog; “Prosterne-toi devant tes supérieurs”—Bow down before your betters; “Regarde-le, comme il a honte de ce qu’il est devenu!”—Look at him, how ashamed of himself he is at his own downfall!
But the ordeal was soon over. They had arrived at the foot of the broad stairway that led up to the entrance of the French general’s quarters. Valois himself stood at the head of a bunch of officers, his prisoner, Pantasilea, at his side. Her hands were tied behind her back, and she wore loose manacles on her ankles, which would allow her to walk, but only in small steps. At the sight of her, Bartolomeo could not resist an angry growl. Ezio kicked him.
Valois held up his hand. “No need for violence, Lieutenant, though I do congratulate you on your zeal.” He turned his attention to Bartolomeo. “My dear general, it seems that you have seen the light.”
“Enough of your crap!” snarled Bartolomeo. “Release my wife! And get these cuffs off me!”
“Oh, dear,” said Valois. “Such high-handedness, and from someone born with absolutely nothing to his name.”
Ezio was about to give the signal when Bartolomeo retorted to Valois, raising his voice: “My name is worth its currency. Unlike yours, which is counterfeit!”
The surrounding troops fell silent.
“How dare you?” said Valois, white with rage.
“You think that commanding an army in itself grants you status—nobility? True nobility of spirit comes from fighting alongside your men, not by kidnapping a woman to cheat your way out of a battle. Why don’t you release my wife?!”