“Good. Now, let the woman go.”
“Get me out first. Then I’ll let her go.”
“I have King Louis’s ear. Ask for what you want in France and it shall be yours. An estate, perhaps? A title?”
“Those things I already have. Here. And you are never going to rule over them.”
“The Borgia try to overturn the natural order,” wheedled Valois, changing tack. “I intend to set it right again. Royal blood should rule—not the foul, tainted stuff that runs in their veins.” He paused. “I know you are not a barbarian, like them.”
“Neither you, nor Cesare, nor the Pope, nor anyone who does not have peace and justice on his side, will ever rule Italy while I have life in my body,” said Ezio, moving slowly forward.
Fear seemed to have frozen the French general to the spot. The hand that again now held the pistol to Pantasilea’s temple trembled, and he did not retreat. Evidently they were alone in his quarters, unless the only other occupants were servants who’d had the sense to hide. They could hear a steady, heavy noise, as of deliberate, slow blows being struck, and the outer doors of the quarters vibrated. Bartolomeo must have routed the French and brought up battering rams.
“Please…” quavered the general, all his urbanity gone. “I will kill her.” He glanced up to the opening in the roof, trying to catch a glimpse of Ezio’s imaginary archers, not even reflecting, as Ezio had feared he might when he’d first mentioned them—the first thing that’d come into his head—that such soldiery had been all but superseded in modern warfare, though the bow was still far quicker to reload than the pistol or musket.
Ezio took another step forward.
“I’ll give you anything you want—there’s money here, plenty of it, it’s to pay my men with, but you may have it all! And I—I--I will do anything you want of me!” His voice was pleading now, and the man himself cut such a pathetic figure that Ezio could hardly bridle his contempt. This man actually saw himself as king of Italy!
It hardly seemed worth killing him.
Ezio was close to him now. The two men looked each other in the eye. Ezio slowly took first the pistol and then the bridle out of the general’s nerveless hands. With a whimper of relief, Pantasilea hobbled back out of the way, watching the scene with wide eyes.
“I—I only wanted respect,” said the general faintly.
“But real respect is earned,” said Ezio. “Not inherited, or purchased. And it cannot be gained by force. Oderint dum metuant must be one of the stupidest sayings ever coined. No wonder Caligula adopted it: ‘Let them hate, as long as they fear.’ And no wonder our modern Caligula lives by it. And you serve him.”
“I serve my king, Louis XII!” Valois looked crestfallen. “But perhaps you are right. I see that now.” Hope sparked in his eyes. “I need more time…”
Ezio sighed. “Alas, friend. You have run out of that.” He drew his sword as Valois, understanding, and acting with dignity at last, knelt and lowered his head.
“Requiescat in pace,” said Ezio.
With a mighty crash, the outer doors of the quarters splintered and fell open, revealing Bartolomeo, dusty and bloody but uninjured, standing at the head of a troop of his men. He rushed up to his wife and hugged her so tightly that he knocked the breath out of her, before busying himself about getting the halter off her neck, but his fingers were so nervous and clumsy that Ezio had to do it for him. He cut the manacles from her feet with two mighty blows of Bianca and, calmer, fiddled free the cords that bound her wrists.
“Oh, Pantasilea, my dove, my heart, my own! Don’t you ever dare disappear like that again! I was lost without you!”
“No, you weren’t! You rescued me!”
“Ah.” Bartolomeo looked embarrassed. “No. Not I—it was Ezio! He came up with a—”
“Madonna, I am glad you are safe,” interrupted Ezio.
“My dear Ezio, how can I thank you? You saved me!”
“I was but an instrument—just a part of your husband’s brilliant plan.”
Bartolomeo looked at Ezio with an expression of confusion and gratitude on his face.
“My prince!” said Pantasilea, embracing her husband. “My hero!”
Bartolomeo blushed and, winking at Ezio, said, “Well, if I’m your prince, I’d better earn that title. Mind you, it wasn’t all my idea, you know—”
As they turned to go, Pantasilea brushed by Ezio and whispered, “Thank you.”
A few days later, after Bartolomeo had rounded up the remains of Valois’ dispirited army, Ezio fell in with La Volpe, both on their way to a convocation Ezio had ordered of the Brotherhood at the Assassins’ hideaway on Tiber Island.
“How do things stand here in Rome now?” was Ezio’s first question.
“Very good, Ezio. With the French army in disarray, Cesare has lost important support. Your sister, Claudia, tells us that the Spanish and the Holy Roman ambassadors have left hurriedly for home, and my men have routed the Cento Occhi.”
“There is still much to do.”
They arrived at their destination and found the rest of their companions already gathered in the inner room of the hideout. A fire blazed on a hearth in the middle of the floor.
After they had greeted each other and taken their places, Machiavelli stood and intoned in Arabic:
“Laa shay’a waqi’un moutlaq bale kouloun moumkine: The Wisdom of our Creed is revealed through these words. We work in the Dark, to serve the Light. We are Assassins.”
Ezio stood in turn and addressed his sister. “Claudia. We dedicate our lives to protecting the freedom of humanity. Mario Auditore and our father, Giovanni, his brother, once stood at a fire similar to this one, engaged in the same task. Now, I offer the choice to you: of joining us.”
He extended his hand and she placed hers in his. Machiavelli withdrew from the fire the familiar branding iron ending in two small semicircles like the letter C, which could be brought together by means of a lever in the handle.
“Everything is permitted. Nothing is true,” he said gravely. And the others—Bartolomeo, La Volpe, and Ezio—repeated the words after him.
Just as Antonio de Magianis had once done to Ezio, so Machiavelli now solemnly applied the branding iron to Claudia’s ring finger and closed the clamp, so that the mark of a ring was burned there forever.