Cesare started from his chair, fear in his eyes. “You! How many lives do you have, Ezio? But this time you will surely die! Call the guard! Now!” he bellowed at his officers as he allowed his doctor to hurry him from the room to safety through an inner door.
Lightning fast, one of the officers made for the door to raise the alarm. The others drew pistols and leveled them at Ezio, who just as swiftly withdrew the Apple from its bag and held it aloft, concentrating hard and pulling the hood of his tunic down low to shield his eyes.
The Apple began to pulsate and glow, and the glow turned to an incandescence that gave out no heat but was as bright as the sun. The room turned white.
“What sorcery is this?” shouted one of the officers, firing wildly. By chance his ball hit the Apple, but it had no more effect on it than a handful of dust.
“Truly, this man has God Himself on his side!” another bawled, vainly trying to shield his eyes and staggering blindly in what he thought was the direction of the door.
The light increased. The officers blundered up against the table, covering their eyes with their hands.
“How is this possible?”
“Do not smite me, Lord!”
“I cannot see!”
His lips pressed together in concentration, Ezio continued to project his will through the Apple, but even he dared not look up from under the protecting peak of his cowl. He had to judge the moment to cease. When he did so, a wave of exhaustion hit him as the Apple, invisible within its own light, suddenly, with no afterglow, went dead. There was no sound in the room. Cautiously, Ezio lifted his hood and saw that the room was as before. The candles on the table cast a pool of light at the center of the gloom. They burned on, almost reassuringly, as if nothing had happened. Their flames were steady, as there was not the hint of a breeze.
The tapestry on the arras was bleached of all its color.
All the officers lay dead around the table, save the one who had first been making for the door, and he was slumped against it, his hand still on the latch. Ezio went over to him. He had to move him aside in order to leave.
As he rolled the man over, he inadvertently looked into his eyes.
He wished he hadn’t—it was a sight he would never forget.
“Requiescat in pace,” said Ezio, acknowledging the chill realization that the Apple indeed had powers that, if unleashed beyond check, could control the minds of men; could open up undreamed-of possibilities, and worlds.
And wreak destruction so terrible as to be beyond the power of imagination itself.
The conclave was undecided. Despite the efforts of Cardinal della Rovere to outwit him, Cesare clearly still had enough clout to hold him in check. Fear, or self-interest, kept the cardinals wavering. Machiavelli guessed what they were trying to do—they would find a candidate to elect who would, perhaps, not last long, but who would be acceptable to all parties. An interim Pope—a caretaker, until the balance of power resolved itself.
Bearing this in mind, Ezio was pleased when, after weeks of deadlock, Claudia brought news to Tiber Island.
“The Cardinal of Rouen, a Frenchman, Georges d’Amboise, has revealed under…duress…that Cesare has planned a meeting with Templar loyalists in the countryside, outside Rome. The cardinal himself attends.”
“When is it?”
“The location is to be kept secret until the last minute.”
“Then I will go to the cardinal’s residence and follow him when he leaves.”
“They have elected a new Pope,” said Machiavelli, coming in hurriedly. “Your pet French cardinal, Claudia, will take the news to Cesare tonight. In fact, a small delegation of them, still friendly to the Borgia, is going with him.”
“Who is the new Pope?” asked Ezio.
Machiavelli smiled. “It is as I thought,” he said. “Cardinal Piccolomini. Not an old man, he’s sixty-four, but he’s in poor health. He’s chosen to be known as Pius III.”
“Whom does he support?”
“We don’t know yet, but all the foreign ambassadors put pressure on Cesare to leave Rome during the election. Della Rovere is furious, but he knows how to wait.”
Ezio spent the rest of the day in consultation with Bartolomeo, and between them they put together a combined force of recruits and condottieri strong enough for any battle that might ensue with Cesare.
“Turns out just as well you didn’t kill Cesare back at his palazzo,” said Bartolomeo. “This way, he’ll draw all his supporters to him and we can smash the fuckin’ guts out of ’em.” He looked at Ezio. “Got to hand it to you, my friend. You might almost have planned it this way.”
Ezio smiled. He went back to his lodgings, where he strapped on his pistol and put the double-blade into the wallet on his belt.
With a small group of handpicked men, Ezio made up the advance guard, leaving the rest to follow some way behind. When the Cardinal of Rouen rode out in the late afternoon with his fellows and their entourage, Ezio and his horsemen followed at a safe distance. They did not have a long ride, as they expected, and the cardinal stopped at a large country estate whose mansion was set behind fortified walls near the shores of Lake Bracciano.
Ezio, alone, scaled the walls and shadowed the delegation of cardinals as it made its way to the great hall of the mansion, blending in with the Borgia’s hundred or so leading officers, though there were many other people present, from other lands, whom Ezio did not recognize but knew must be members of the Templar Order. Cesare, fully recovered now, stood on a raised dais in the center of the crowded hall. Torches flickered in their sconces on the stone walls, making shadows leap and giving the congress more the air of a witches’ coven than a gathering of military forces.
Outside, Borgia soldiers were drawn up in numbers that surprised Ezio, who had not forgotten Cesare’s remark about Micheletto bringing his remaining troops out of the provinces to back him up. He was worried that even with Bartolomeo’s men and his own recruits, who had drawn up a couple of hundred yards from the mansion, they might find their match in this assembly. But it was too late now.
Ezio watched as a pathway was made between the serried ranks in the hall to allow the cardinals to approach the dais.
“Join me! And I will take back Rome for us!” Cesare was declaiming as the Cardinal of Rouen, their spokesman, made his appearance with his fellow prelates. Seeing them, Cesare broke off.