“She’s being guarded by Swiss mercenaries. They’re hard as rocks.”
Ezio thought hard. If Cesare had any friends left in Rome, and evidently he had, they’d get him out of the city as fast as they could. But the gates would already have been sealed, and from what he had already seen, Cesare, bereft of the Apple and unskilled in the Assassins’ techniques, would not be able to escape the dragnets and cordons being set up all over Rome.
That left one possibility.
The Tiber flowed into Rome from the north and left it to the west, where it flowed into the sea only a few miles away, at Ostia. Ezio remembered the slave traders he had killed: they had been in Cesare’s pay. They would not have been the only ones! Get him on a boat, or a small seagoing ship, disguised as a mariner or simply concealed under a tarpaulin among the cargo. It wouldn’t take long for a ship under sail or oars, going with the current, to reach the Tyrrhenian Sea, and from there—well, that depended on what Cesare’s plans were. The thing was to catch him before he could put them into effect!
He made his way by the quickest route down to the midtown docks, those closest to the Castel. The quays were chockablock with boats and ships of all shapes and sizes. It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Half an hour. He’d barely have had time to cast off yet, and the tide was only just rising.
Ezio had the Apple with him. Finding a quiet spot, he crouched down and, without hesitation this time, drew it out. There was nowhere here for it to project its images, but he felt that, if he trusted it, it would find another way of communicating with him. He held it as close to him as he dared and closed his eyes, willing it to respond to his question.
It did not glow, but he could feel it grow warm through his gloves, and it began to pulse. As it did, strange sounds came from it—or they were sounds within his head, he wasn’t sure which. Then a woman’s voice, oddly familiar though he could not place it, and seemingly far distant, said softly but clearly, “The small caravel with red sails at Pier Six.”
Ezio ran down to the quay. It took him a little time, pushing his way through a throng of busy, cursing mariners, to locate Pier Six, and when he did so, the boat that answered the Apple’s description was just casting off. It, too, seemed familiar. Its decks were stacked with several sacks and boxes of cargo—boxes large enough to conceal a man, and on deck Ezio recognized, with a shock, the seaman he had left virtually for dead after his abortive rescue of Madonna Solari. The man was limping badly as he approached one of the boxes and, with a mate, shifted its position. Ezio noticed that the box had holes bored along each side near the top. He ducked behind a rowboat, raised on trestles for repainting, to keep out of sight, as the sailor he had lamed turned to look back toward the quay, scanning it, perhaps to check for pursuers.
He watched helplessly for a moment as the caravel pushed out into midstream, raising one of its sails to catch the stiff breeze out there. Even on horseback, he couldn’t follow the little ship along the river’s bank, since the path was often blocked or interrupted by buildings that came right up to the water. He had to find a boat for himself.
He made his way back to the quay and walked hastily along it. The crew of a shallop had just finished unloading, and the boat itself was still rigged. Ezio approached the men.
“I need to hire your boat,” he said urgently.
“We’ve just put in.”
“I’ll pay handsomely.” Ezio delved into his purse and showed a handful of gold ducats.
“We’ve got to get the cargo seen to first,” said one crew member.
“Where d’you want to go?” asked another.
“Downstream,” said Ezio. “And I need to go now.”
“See to the cargo,” said a newcomer, approaching. “I’ll take the signore. Jacopo, you come with me. Won’t take more than the two of us to sail it.”
Ezio turned to thank the newcomer and recognized, with a shock, Claudio, the young thief he’d rescued from the Borgia guards.
Claudio smiled at him. “One way of thanking you, Messere, for saving my life. And keep your money, by the way.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I wasn’t cut out for thievery,” said Claudio. “La Volpe saw that. I’ve always been a good sailor, so he lent me the money to buy this boat. I’m the master. Do a good trade, between here and Ostia.”
“We need to hurry. Cesare Borgia’s escaped!”
Claudio turned and barked out an order to his mate. Jacopo sprang aboard and began to prepare the sails. Then he and Ezio embarked, and the rest of the crew cast them off.
The shallop, free of its cargo, felt light in the water. Once they reached midstream, Claudio put on as much sail as he could. Soon, the caravel, more heavily laden, ceased to be a speck in the distance.
“That what we’re after?” asked Claudio.
“Yes, please God,” replied Ezio.
“Better get your head down,” said Claudio. “We’re well-known on this stretch, but if they see you, they’ll know what’s up. I know that craft. Run by an odd bunch. Don’t socialize.”
“Do you know how many crew?”
“Five, usually. Maybe fewer. But don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten what La Volpe taught me—still comes in handy, sometimes—and Jacopo here knows how to use a blackjack.”
Ezio sank beneath the low gunwale, raising his head from time to time just enough to check the closing distance between them and their objective.
But the caravel was a faster vessel than the shallop, and Ostia was in sight before Claudio could draw alongside. He boldly hailed the caravel.
“You look pretty heavily laden,” he called. “What you got on board—gold bullion?”
“None of your business,” the master of the caravel snarled back from his place near the wheel. “And back off. You’re crowding my water.”
“Sorry, mate,” said Claudio, as Jacopo brought the shallop right alongside, bumping the caravel’s fenders. Then he cried to Ezio, “Now!”
Ezio leapt from his hiding place across the narrow gap dividing the two ships. Recognizing him, the lame sailor, with a strangled roar, lunged at him with a bill-hook, but it caught on Ezio’s bracer, and Ezio was able to pull him close enough to finish him with a deep thrust of the hidden-blade into his side. But while he was so engaged, he failed to notice another crewman stealing up on him from behind, brandishing a cutlass. He turned in momentary alarm, unable to avoid the descending blade, when a shot rang out and the man arched his back, letting his cutlass fall to the deck before crashing overboard himself.