“You savages never learn,” said Valois malevolently, and producing a pistol, he cocked it and pointed it at Pantasilea’s head.

Ezio knew he had to act fast. He took out a pistol and fired one shot into the air. At the same time, Bartolomeo, who’d been dying for the moment, bunched his fists and the manacles flew off.

Pandemonium followed. The disguised condottieri with Ezio immediately attacked the startled French soldiers, and Bartolomeo, seizing Bianca from the “guard” still on his left, bounded up the stairway. But Valois was too quick for him. Keeping a tight hold on Pantasilea, he backed into his quarters, slamming the door behind him.

“Ezio!” implored Bartolomeo. “You have to save my wife! Only you can! That place is built like a strongbox!”

Ezio nodded and tried to give his friend a reassuring smile. He scanned the building from where he stood. It was not large, but it was a massive new structure, built by French military architects and designed to be impregnable. There was nothing for it but to try to gain entry from the rooftops, where no one would be expecting an assault, and where, therefore, the weak points might be. Might be.

Well, there was nothing for it but to try. Ezio leapt up the stairs and, taking advantage of the melee, which was taking up everyone else’s attention, he looked for a place where he might best climb. Suddenly, a dozen Frenchmen started after him, keen swords flashing in the early morning sun, but in a flash Bartolomeo was standing between him and them, flourishing Bianca menacingly.

The walls were designed to be unassailable, but there were enough nooks and crannies in them for Ezio to be able to plot a route with his eyes, and within a couple of moments he was on the roof. It was flat and made of wood overlaid with tile. There were five French sentries stationed up there. They challenged him, as he sprang over the parapet, demanding a password. He could not give one, and they ran toward him, halberds lowered. It was lucky they were not armed with muskets or pistols. Ezio shot the first one, then drew his sword and gave battle to the other four, who put up a desperate struggle, surrounding him and jabbing mercilessly with the points of their weapons. One slashed his sleeve open, nicking his elbow and drawing blood, but then the blade slid harmlessly off the metal bracer on his left forearm.

Using the bracer and his sword, he was able to defend himself against the increasingly frenetic blows. Ezio’s skill with his blade was offset by having to tackle four opponents at once. But thoughts of Bartolomeo’s beloved wife spurred him on—he knew, simply, that he could not fail, he must not fail. The tide of the fight turned in his favor—he ducked under two swords that were slashing toward his head, and engaged another with his bracer—leaving him free to smash aside the fourth man’s blade. The maneuver gave him the opening—and a lethal slash across the man’s jaw felled him. Three to go. Ezio stepped forward toward the nearest Frenchman, inside his guard—it threw the man, giving him no room to wield his sword. Ezio flicked his hidden-blade forward and into the man’s abdomen. Two left—both looking more nervous. It took just a couple of minutes to defeat the two French guards—who no longer had the advantage of numbers. Their swordplay was simply not up to challenging Ezio’s mastery of the blade. Breathing heavily and leaning on his sword for a moment, Ezio stood in the midst of another five vanquished foes.

The roof gave way in its center to a large square opening. After reloading his pistol, Ezio approached this cautiously. As he’d expected, he found himself looking down into a courtyard, undecorated and bare of any plants or chairs and tables, though there were two or three stone benches arranged around a dry fountain and pool.

As he looked over the edge a shot cracked out and a bullet zinged past his left ear. He drew back a little. He didn’t know how many pistols Valois had. If only one, he calculated that it would take his man perhaps ten seconds to reload. He regretted the crossbow, but there was nothing to be done about that. Tucked into the back of his belt were five of the poison darts. But he’d have to be at fairly close range to use them, and he didn’t want to do anything that might endanger Pantasilea.

“Don’t come any nearer!” yelled Valois from below. “I’ll kill her if you do!”

Ezio hovered near the edge of the roof, looking down into the courtyard; but his line of vision was limited by the rim of the roof, and he could see no one down there. But he could sense the panic in Valois’ voice.

“Who are you?” the general called. “Who sent you? Rodrigo? Tell him it was all Cesare’s plan!”

“You’d better tell me all you know, if you want to get back to Burgundy in one piece!”

“If I tell you, will you let me go?”

“We’ll see. The woman must not be harmed. Come out where I can see you,” commanded Ezio.

Below him, Valois stepped warily out from the colonnade that surrounded the courtyard and took up a position near the dead fountain. He had tied Pantasilea’s hands behind her back, and he held her by a bridle attached to a halter around her neck. She had been crying, Ezio could see, but was silent now, and trying to keep her head held high. The look she was giving Valois was so withering that, had it been a weapon, it would have eclipsed all the Codex armaments put together.

How many men had he down there with him, kept hidden? But the sound of his voice was fearful. It suggested to Ezio that the general had run out of options, and that he was cornered.

“Cesare has been bribing the cardinals, to get them away from the Pope and onto his side. Once he had subdued the rest of the country for Rome, I was supposed to march on the capital and seize the Vatican, with anyone else who opposed the captain-general’s will.”

Valois was waving his pistol around wildly. As he turned, Ezio saw that he had two more stuck in his belt.

“It wasn’t my idea,” continued Valois. “I am above such scheming.” A trace of his old vanity was creeping back into his voice. Ezio wondered if he’d allowed the man too much latitude. He moved into view and leapt boldly down into the courtyard, landing in a pantherlike crouch.

“Stay back!” screamed Valois. “Or I’ll—”

“Harm one hair of her head and my archers above will fill you fuller of arrows than San Sebastiano,” Ezio hissed. “So—you noble little soul—what was in it for you?”

“As I am of the House of Valois, Cesare will give me Italy. I will rule here, as befits my birthright.”

Ezio almost laughed. Bartolomeo had not been exaggerating—rather, the opposite—when he’d called this popinjay a chicken-brain! But he still had Pantasilea; and he was still dangerous.

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