“Thank you,” said Sofia dutifully, looking up at him with a mixture of awe and trepidation.

“Stay with your mother in future,” said Ezio kindly. “Don’t leave her alone like that, capisci?”

The little girl nodded mutely.

“We’d be lost without you and your family to watch over us, signore,” said the mother.

“We do what we can,” Ezio said, but his thoughts were troubled as he entered the citadel. Even though he was pretty sure he could stand his ground, he was not looking forward to his encounter with Machiavelli.

But there was still time enough before the meeting, and to avoid brooding on the course it might take, but also from natural curiosity, Ezio first climbed the ramparts to have a closer look at the new cannon Mario had installed and was so proud of. There were several of them, each with a pile of iron cannonballs neatly stacked by their wheels, beautifully chased in cast bronze. The biggest had barrels ten feet long, and Mario had told him that these weighed as much as twenty thousand pounds, but there were also lighter and more easily maneuverable culverins interspersed with them. In the towers that punctuated the walls were saker cannon on cast-iron mounts and lightweight falconets on wooden trolleys.

Ezio approached a group of gunners clustered around one of the bigger guns.

“Handsome beasts,” he said, running a hand over the elaborately chased decoration around the touchhole.

“Indeed they are, Messer Ezio,” said the leader of the group, a rough-hewn master-sergeant whom Ezio remembered from his first visit to Monteriggioni as a young man.

“I heard you practicing earlier. May I try firing one of these?”

“You could indeed, but we were firing the smaller cannon earlier. These big ’uns are brand-new. We don’t seem to have got the trick of loading ’em yet and the master-armorer who’s supposed to be installing them seems to have taken off.”

“Have you got people looking for him?”

“Indeed we have, sir, but no luck so far.”

“I’ll have a look around, too—after all, these things aren’t here for decoration and you never know how soon we’ll need them.”

Ezio set off, continuing his rounds of the ramparts. He hadn’t gone more than another twenty or thirty yards when he heard a loud grunting from a wooden shed that had been erected on the top of one of the towers. Near it, outside, lay a box of tools. As he approached, the grunts resolved themselves into snores.

It was dark and hot inside the shed and smelled appallingly of stale wine. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, Ezio quickly made out the form of a large man in his none-too-clean shirtsleeves spread-eagled on a pile of straw. He gave the man a gentle kick, but its only effect was for the man to splutter, half awake, and then turn over with his face to the wall.

“Salve, Messere,” Ezio said, jostling the man again, less gently this time, with the toe of his boot.

This time the man twisted his head around to look at him and opened one eye. “What is it, friend?”

“We need you to fix the new cannon on the battlements.”

“Not today, chum. First thing.”

“Are you too drunk to do your job? I don’t think Captain Mario would be very happy if he got wind of that.”

“No more work today.”

“But it’s not that late. Do you know what time it is?”

“No. Don’t care, either. Make cannon, not clocks.”

Ezio had squatted down to speak to the man, who in turn had pulled himself into a sitting position and was treating Ezio to a gale of his breath, pungent with garlic and cheap Montalcino, as he belched luxuriously. Ezio drew himself to his feet.

“We need those cannon ready to be fired, and we need them ready now,” he said. “Do you want me to find someone else who’s more capable than you?”

The man scrambled to his feet. “Not so fast, friend—no other man’s going to lay hands on my guns.” He leaned on Ezio as he got his breath back. “You don’t know what it’s like—some of these soldiers, they got no respect for artillery. Newfangled stuff for a lot of ’em, of course, grant you that—but I ask you! They expect a gun to work like magic, just like that! No sense of coaxing a good performance out of ’em.”

“Can we talk as we walk?” said Ezio. “Time isn’t standing still, you know.”

“Mind you,” the master-armorer continued, “these things we’ve got here, and I mean they’re in a class of their own—nothing but the best for Captain Mario—but they’re still pretty simple. I’ve got hold of a French design for a handheld gun. They call it a ‘wrought-iron murderer.’ Very clever. Just think—handheld cannon. That’s the future, chum.”

By now they were approaching the group around the cannon.

“You can call off the hunt,” said Ezio cheerfully. “Here he is.”

The master-sergeant eyed the armorer narrowly. “Up to it, is he?”

“I may be a little the worse for wear,” retorted the armorer, “but I am a peaceful man at heart. In these times, encouraging the sleeping warrior in my gut is the only way to stay alive. Therefore, it is my duty to drink.” He pushed the sergeant aside. “Let’s see what we’ve got here…”

After examining the cannon for a few moments, however, he rounded on the soldiers. “What have you been doing? You’ve been tampering with them, haven’t you? Thank God you didn’t fire one—you could have got us all killed. They’re not ready yet. Got to give the bores a good clean first.”

“Perhaps with you around we won’t need cannon after all,” the sergeant told him. “We’ll just get you to breathe on the enemy!”

But the armorer was busy with a cleaning rod and wads of coarse, oily cotton. When he’d finished, he stood up, easing his back.

“There, that’s done it,” he said. Turning to Ezio, he went on, “Just get these fellows to load her—that’s something they can do, though God knows it took ’em long enough to learn—and you can have a go. Look, over there on the hill. We set some targets up there on a level with this gun. Start by aiming at something on the same level; that way, if the cannon explodes, at least it won’t take your head off with it.”

“Sounds reassuring,” said Ezio.

“Just try it, Messere. Here’s the fuse.”

Ezio placed the slow match on the touchhole. For a long moment, nothing happened, then he sprang back as the cannon bucked and roared. Looking across to the targets, he could see that his ball had shattered one of them.

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