“What news of the conclave?” he demanded.
The Cardinal of Rouen hesitated. “Good news—and bad,” he said.
“Spit it out!”
“We have elected Piccolomini.”
Cesare considered this. “Well, at least it isn’t that fisherman’s son, della Rovere!” Then he turned on the cardinal. “But it’s still not the man I wanted! I wanted a puppet! Piccolomini may have one foot in the grave, but he can still do me a lot of damage. I paid for your appointment! Is this how you thank me?”
“Della Rovere is a powerful foe!” The cardinal hesitated again. “And Rome is not what it once was. Borgia money has become tainted!”
Cesare looked at him coldly. “You will regret this decision,” he said frostily.
The cardinal bowed his head and turned to go, but as he did so, he spotted Ezio, who had made his way forward in order to see more clearly.
“It’s the Assassin!” he yelled. “His sister put me to the question! That’s how he got here! Run! He’ll kill us all!”
The cardinals, as one man, took to their heels amid a general panic. Ezio followed them and, once outside, fired his pistol. The sound carried to his advance guard, posted just outside the walls, and they in turn fired muskets as signal to Bartolomeo to attack. They arrived just as the gates in the walls were opened to allow the fleeing cardinals to depart. The defenders had no time to close them before being overpowered by the advance guard, who managed to hold the gate until Bartolomeo, whirling Bianca above his head and roaring his war cry, came up with the main Assassin force. Ezio fired his second shot into the belly of a Borgia guard who came screaming up, flailing a wicked-looking mace, but he had no time to reload. In any case, for close fighting, the double-blade was the perfect weapon. Finding an alcove in the wall, he took shelter in it and, with practiced hands, exchanged the pistol for the blade. Then he rushed back into the hall, looking for Cesare.
The battle in the mansion and the area within its encircling walls was short and bloody. The Borgia and Templar troops were unprepared for an attack of this magnitude, and they were trapped within the walls. They fought hard, and many a condottiero and Assassin recruit lay dead by the time it was over. The Assassins had the advantage of being already mounted, and few of the Borgia faction could get to their own horses before they were cut down.
It was late by the time the dust had settled. Ezio, bleeding from a flesh wound in his chest, had laid about him so furiously with the double-blade that it had sliced through his own glove and cut his hand deeply. Around him lay a host of bodies, half, perhaps, of the assembly—those who had not been able to flee and ride off south, into the night.
But Cesare was not among them. Cesare, too, had fled.
Much occurred in the weeks that followed. The Assassins sought Cesare frantically, but in vain. He did not return to Rome, and indeed Rome seemed purged of all Borgia and Templar influence, though Ezio and his companions remained on the alert, knowing that as long as the enemy lived, there was danger. They suspected there were still pockets of die-hard loyalists, just waiting for the signal.
And the Vatican was rocked once more. Pius III was a bookish and deeply religious man. After a reign of only twenty-six days, his already frail health succumbed to the extra pressures and responsibilities the Papacy placed on it, and, in October, he died. But he had not, as Ezio had feared, proved to be a puppet of the Borgia. Rather, during the short span of his supremacy, he set in motion reforms within the College of Cardinals that swept away all the corruption and sensuality fomented by his predecessor. There would be no more selling of cardinalates for money, and no more accepting of payments in order to let well-off murderers escape the gallows. Alexander VI’s pragmatic doctrine, “Let them live in order to repent,” no longer held currency.
And he had issued a warrant throughout the Papal States for the arrest of Cesare Borgia.
His successor was elected immediately and by an overwhelming majority. Only three cardinals opposed him, and one of them was Georges d’Amboise, the Cardinal of Rouen, who vainly hoped to gain the triple tiara for the French. Following the check in his career caused by the election of Pius, Giuliano della Rovere, Cardinal of San Pietro in Vincoli, had wasted no time in consolidating his supporters and assuring himself of the Papacy at the next opportunity, which he knew would come soon.
Julius II, as he styled himself, was tough man of sixty, still vigorous, as much in his arms and loins as in his brain. He was a man of great energy, as Ezio would soon learn, a political intriguer and a warrior, and proud of his humble origins as the descendant of fishermen—for had not Saint Peter himself been a fisherman?
But the Borgia threat still cast its shadow.
“If only Cesare would show himself,” growled Bartolomeo as he and Ezio sat in conference in the map-room of his barracks.
“He will. But only when he’s ready.”
“My spies tell me that he plans to gather his best men to attack Rome through one of its principal gates.”
Ezio considered this. “If Cesare’s coming from the north, as seems almost certain, he’ll try to get in by the gate near the Castra Praetoria. He might even try to retake the Castra itself. It’s in a strong strategic position.”
“You’re probably right.”
Ezio stood. “Gather the Assassins. We’ll face Cesare together.”
“And if we cannot?”
“That’s fine talk from you, Barto! If we can’t, I will face him alone.”
They parted company, arranging to meet in Rome later in the day. If there was going to be an attack, the Holy City would be ready for it.
And Ezio’s hunch proved right. He’d told Bartolomeo to summon the others to a church piazza near the Castra. All of them arrived, and they made their way to the northern gate, already heavily defended, as Julius II had shown himself perfectly happy to accept Ezio’s advice. But the sight that met their eyes, a couple of hundred yards’ distant, was a sobering one. There was Cesare, on a pale horse, surrounded by a group of officers wearing the uniform of his own private army, and behind him was at least a battalion of his own troops.
Even at that distance, Ezio’s keen ears could pick out Cesare’s bombast—the odd thing was, why did anyone fall for it? At least, why do so still?
“All of Italy shall be united, and you will rule at my side!” Cesare was proclaiming. Then he turned and spotted Ezio and his fellow Assassins ranged along the ramparts of the gate.