“Do you know what to do?” asked Machiavelli.
“I remember enough from when Leonardo experimented with it long ago in Venice,” replied Ezio. He held the strange artifact aloft and, concentrating, tried to project his thoughts at it.
There was no response for several minutes, and he was about to give up, when, slowly at first, and then with increasing energy, the Apple began to glow more and more brightly, until the light emanating from it made them cover their eyes.
“Stand back!” bawled Bartolomeo, as Claudia gasped in alarm, and even La Volpe started back.
“No,” said Machiavelli. “Science—but something out of our reach.” He looked at Ezio. “If only Leonardo were here!”
“As long as it serves our purpose,” said Ezio.
“Look!” said La Volpe. “It’s showing us the campanile of Santa Maria in Trastevere! That’s where Cesare must be!”
“You were right!” cried Bartolomeo. “But look at the number of troops he still seems to have!”
“I’m going. Now,” said Ezio, as the projected scene faded and the Apple became inert.
“We’re coming with you.”
“No!” Ezio held up a hand. “Claudia—I want you to go back to the Rosa in Fiore. Get your girls to find out all they can about Cesare’s plans. And mobilize our recruits. Gilberto, please get your thieves to fan out all over the city and bring word of any Templar chapters that may be reorganizing. Our enemies are fighting for their very lives! Bartolomeo, organize your men and have them ready to move at a moment’s notice.”
He turned to Machiavelli. “Niccolò. Get over to the Vatican. The College of Cardinals will be going into conclave soon, to elect a new Pope.”
“Indeed. And Cesare will certainly try to use what influence he has left to elevate a candidate favorable to him to the papal throne—or at least someone he can manipulate.”
“But Cardinal della Rovere wields great authority now. And he is the Borgia’s implacable enemy, as you know. If only—”
“I will go and talk to the cardinal camerlengo. The election may be long and drawn out.”
“We must take every advantage we can of the interregnum. Thank you, Niccolò.”
“How will you manage on your own, Ezio?”
“I’m not on my own,” said Ezio, gently replacing the Apple in its bag. “I’m taking this with me.”
“Just as long as you know how to keep it under control,” said Bartolomeo mistrustfully. “Ask me, it’s a creation straight out of Beelzebub’s workshop.”
“In the wrong hands, perhaps. But as long as we have it—”
“Then don’t let it out of your grasp, let alone your sight!”
They broke up then, each hastening away to attend to the duties Ezio had assigned them. Ezio himself crossed to the west bank of the river and sprinted the short distance to the church La Volpe had recognized in the vision accorded them by the Apple.
The scene had changed by the time he reached it, though he saw units of soldiers in Cesare’s livery making their way out of the square in organized groups as if under orders. These were disciplined men who understood that failure would spell their ruin.
There was no sign of Cesare, but Ezio knew that he must still be sick from the effects of the poison. His rallying call to the troops must have taken it out of him. There was only one place he’d think of retreating to—his own fortified palazzo, not far off. Ezio set off in its direction.
He joined a group of Borgia attendants, whom he recognized from Cesare’s crest, which they wore on the shoulders of their cloaks, and blended in with them, though they were too agitated to have noticed him even if he hadn’t been using the secret skill that rendered him as good as invisible. Using them as cover, he slipped through the palazzo’s gates, which opened quickly for them and then, just as quickly, clanged shut again behind.
He slipped into the shadows of the courtyard’s colonnade and glided along the perimeter of the inner walls, stopping to peer in at each unshuttered window. Then, ahead, he saw a door with two guards posted outside it. He looked around. The rest of the courtyard was deserted. He approached silently, releasing his hidden-blade, and fell upon the guards before they knew what was happening. One, he killed instantly. The other managed to get a blow in that would have severed his left hand from his arm had it not been for his bracer, and while the man was recovering from his astonishment at what looked like witchcraft, Ezio plunged the blade into the base of his throat, and he fell like a sack to the ground.
The door was unlocked and its hinges, when Ezio warily tried them, well oiled. Noiselessly, he slid into the room.
It was large and gloomy. Ezio took refuge behind an arras near the door, set there to exclude drafts, and watched the men seated around a large oak table at its center. The table was spread with papers and illuminated by candles in two iron candelabra. At its head sat Cesare, his personal doctor, Gaspar Torella, at his side. His face was grey, and he was sweating prodigiously. He was glaring at his officers.
“You must hunt them down!” he was saying, grasping the arms of his chair tightly in an effort to stay upright.
“They are everywhere and nowhere at once!” declared one, bolder than the rest, helplessly.
“I don’t care how you do it—just do it!”
“We cannot, signore—without your guidance. The Assassins have regrouped. With the French gone, or in disarray, our own forces are scarcely able to match them. They have spies everywhere—our own network is no longer able to root them out! And Ezio Auditore has turned vast numbers of the citizenry to his cause.”
“I am ill, idioti! I depend on your initiative!” Cesare sighed, falling back in his chair. “I was damned nearly killed! But I still have teeth!”
“Just hold them at bay, if that’s the best you can do!” Cesare paused to catch his breath, and Dr. Torella mopped the man’s brow with a lint cloth soaked in vinegar or some other strong-smelling astringent, muttering soothingly to his patient as he did so. “Soon,” Cesare continued. “Soon, Micheletto will reach Rome with my own forces from Romagna and the north, and then you will see how quickly the Assassins will crumble into dust!”
Ezio stepped forth and revealed the bag containing the Apple. “You delude yourself, Cesare!” he said in a loud voice. A voice of true authority.