Claudia winced, but did not cry out. Machiavelli removed the iron and put it safely to one side.
“Welcome to our Order—our Brotherhood,” he told Claudia formally.
“Sisterhood, too?” she asked, rubbing a soothing ointment onto her branded finger from a little vial Bartolomeo had proffered her.
Machiavelli smiled. “If you like.”
All eyes were on him as he now turned to Ezio.
“We have not seen eye to eye on many issues,” he began.
“Niccolò—” Ezio interrupted, but Machiavelli held up a hand to stay him.
“But ever since the epiphany in the Vault under the Sistine Chapel, and even before then, you have proven again and again that you were exactly what our Order needed. You have led the charge against the Templars, carried our gonfalon proud and high, and steadily rebuilt our Brotherhood after what it suffered after the debacle at Monteriggioni.” He looked around. “The moment has come, my friends, to appoint Ezio formally to the position he already occupies by common consent—that of our leader. I present to you Ezio Auditore di Firenze—the Grand Master of our Order.” He turned to Ezio. “My friend, from henceforth you will be known as il Mentore—the guardian of our Brotherhood and of our secrets.”
Ezio’s head swam with emotion, though still a part of him wanted to wrench itself away from this life in which the great task demanded every waking hour and allowed few even for sleep. Still, he stepped forward and austerely repeated the words central to the Creed:
“Where other men are limited by morality and law, we must, in quest of our sacred goals, always remember: Everything is permitted. Nothing is true. Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”
The others repeated the formula after him.
“And now it is time,” said Machiavelli, “for our newest member to take her Leap of Faith.”
They made their way to the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin and climbed its bell tower. Carefully guided by Bartolomeo and La Volpe, Claudia fearlessly threw herself into the void just as the golden orb of the sun broke free of the eastern horizon and caught the folds of her silver dress in its light and turned them golden, too. Ezio watched her land safely and walk with Bartolomeo and La Volpe in the direction of a nearby colonnade. Now, Machiavelli and Ezio were left alone. Just as Machiavelli was about to make his Leap, Ezio stopped him.
“Why the sudden change of heart, Niccolò?”
Machiavelli smiled. “What change of heart? I have always stood by you. I have always been loyal to the cause. My fault is independent thinking. That is what caused the doubts in your mind—and Gilberto’s. Now we are free of all that unpleasantness. I never sought the leadership. I am…more of an observer. Now, let us take our Leap of Faith together, as friends and as fellow warriors of the Creed!”
He held out his hand and, also smiling, Ezio took it in a firm grasp. Then they threw themselves off the roof of the campanile together.
Scarcely had they landed and rejoined their companions than a courier rode up. Breathless, he announced, “Maestro Machiavelli, Cesare has returned to Rome alone from his latest foray in the Romagna. He rides for the Castel Sant’Angelo.”
“Grazie, Alberto,” said Machiavelli, as the courier wheeled his horse around and sped back the way he had come.
“Well?” Ezio asked him.
Machiavelli showed his palms. “The decision is now yours, not mine.”
“Niccolò, you had better not stop telling me what you think. I now seek the opinion of my most trusted adviser.”
Machiavelli smiled. “In this case you know my opinion already. It hasn’t changed. The Borgia must be eradicated. Go and kill them, Mentore. Finish the job you have started.”
“I know.” Machiavelli looked at him appraisingly.
“What is it?” Ezio asked.
“I had been thinking of writing a book about Cesare’s methods. Now I think I will balance it with an examination of yours.”
“If you’re writing a book about me,” said Ezio, “better make it a short one!”
Ezio arrived at the Castel Sant’Angelo to find that a crowd had gathered on the opposite bank of the Tiber. Blending in with the gathered masses, he made his way to the front and saw that the French troops guarding the bridge that led to the Castel, and the Castel itself, were in total disarray. Some soldiers were already packing up their equipment, while officers and others moved frantically among them, issuing orders to unpack again. Some of the orders were contradictory, and here and there fights had broken out as a result. The Italian crowd was watching, Ezio noted, with quiet pleasure. Though he carried his own clothes in a satchel slung over his shoulder, he had taken the precaution of once again donning the French uniform he had saved from the attack on the Castra Praetoria, and he now shed the cloak he’d been wearing to cover it and walked quickly onto the bridge. No one paid him any attention, but as he passed among the French troops, he gleaned useful snippets of conversation.
“When are we expecting the attack from d’Alviano and his mercenaries?”
“They say he’s on his way now.”
“Then why are we packing? Are we retreating?”
“I hope so! Tout cela, c’est rien qu’un tas de merde.”
A private spotted Ezio. “Sir! Sir! What are our orders?”
“I’m on my way to see,” replied Ezio.
“What is it?”
“Who’s in charge now, sir? Now that General Valois is dead?”
“No doubt the king is sending a replacement.”
“Is it true, sir—that he died valorously in battle?”
Ezio smiled to himself. “Of course it’s true. At the head of his men.”
He moved on, toward the Castel itself.
Once within, he found his way up to the ramparts and from this vantage point looked down to the courtyard, where he spotted Cesare himself, talking to a captain of the Papal Guard posted at the door of the inner citadel.
“I need to see the Pope!” Cesare was saying, urgently. “I need to see my father now!”
“Of course, Your Grace. You will find His Holiness in his private apartments at the top of the Castel.”
“Then get out of my way, you fool!” Cesare thrust past the hapless captain as the latter gave hasty orders for a wicket gate in the main door to be opened to admit him. Ezio watched for a moment, then made his way around the circumference of the Castel until he came to the place where the secret gate was located. He dropped to the ground and let himself through the gate with Pietro’s key.