“Look out!” yelled Jacopo, who was holding the shallop close alongside the caravel as the master of the other boat strove to get clear. A third seaman had emerged from below and was using a crowbar to pry open the upright crate with the holes along its top sides, while a fourth was crouching at his side, covering him with a wheel-lock pistol. No ordinary sailor would have access to such a gun, thought Ezio, remembering the battle with the slave traders. Claudio leapt from the shallop onto the caravel’s deck and threw himself on the man with the crowbar, while Ezio darted forward and skewered the wrist of the hand holding the gun with his hidden-blade. It fired harmlessly into the deck and the man retreated, whimpering, holding his wrist, trying to stop the blood pulsing out of the antibrachial vein.

The master, seeing his men routed, pulled a pistol himself and fired it at Ezio, but the caravel lurched in the current at the crucial moment and the shot went wide, though not wide enough, as the ball sliced a nick in Ezio’s right ear, which bled heavily. Shaking his head, Ezio leveled his gun at the master and shot him through the forehead.

“Quick!” he said to Claudio. “You take the wheel of this thing and I’ll deal with our friend here.”

Claudio nodded and ran to bring the caravel under control. Feeling the blood from his ear soak his collar, he twisted his opponent’s wrist fiercely to make him lose his grip on the crowbar. Then he brought his knee hard into the man’s groin, seized his collar, and half dragged, half kicked him to the gunwale, where he tossed him overboard.

In the silence that followed the fight, furious and confused shouts and imprecations could be heard coming from the crate.

“I will kill you for this. I will twist my sword in your gut and give you more pain than you could ever dream was possible.”

“I hope you’re comfortable, Cesare,” said Ezio. “But if you’re not, don’t worry. Once we get to Ostia, we’ll arrange something a little more civilized for your return trip.”

“It’s not fair,” said Jacopo from the shallop. “I didn’t get a chance to use my blackjack once!”

PART II

Nothing is true.

—DOGMA SICARII, I, I.

FORTY-NINE

It was late in the spring of the year of Our Lord 1504. The Pope tore open the letter a courier had just brought him, scanned it, and then banged a meaty fist down on his desk in triumph. The other hand held up the letter, from which heavy seals dangled.

“God bless King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Aragon and Castile!” he cried.

“Good news, Your Holiness?” asked Ezio, seated in a chair across from him.

Julius II smiled darkly. “Yes! Cesare Borgia has been safely delivered into one of their strongest and most remote rocche!”

“Where?”

“Ah—that’s classified information—even to you. I can’t take any chances with Cesare.”

Ezio bit his lip. Had Julius guessed what he’d do if he knew the location?

Julius continued reassuringly, “Don’t look so downcast, dear Ezio. I can tell you this: It’s a massive fortress, lost in the plains of central northeastern Spain, and totally impregnable.”

Ezio knew that Julius had had his reasons for not having Cesare burned at the stake—thus making a possible martyr of him—and he acknowledged that this was the next best thing. But still Cesare’s words haunted him—Chains will never hold me. Ezio felt in his heart that the only thing that would hold Cesare—and securely—was Death. But he smiled his congratulations.

“They’ve got him in a cell at the top of the central keep, in a tower one hundred forty feet high,” Julius continued. “We don’t have anything more to worry about, as far as he’s concerned.” The Pope looked at Ezio keenly. “What I’ve just told you is also classified information, by the way, so don’t go getting any ideas. In any event, at a word from me, they’ll switch the location, just in case anyone goes looking for him, and I get wind of it.”

Ezio let it go and changed tack. “And Lucrezia? Do we have any news from Ferrara?”

“Well, her third marriage seems to be doing her good, though I must admit I was worried at first. The d’Este family are such a bunch of snobs that I thought the old duke would never accept her as a suitable wife for his son. Marrying a Borgia! Talk about marrying beneath you! To them, it’d be a bit like you getting hitched to your scullery maid!” The Pope laughed heartily. “But she’s settled down. Not a peep out of her. Taken to exchanging love letters and even poems with her old friend Pietro Bembo—all aboveboard, of course.” Here Julius winked broadly. “But basically a good and faithful wife—she even goes to church and embroiders tapestries. And of course there’s no question of her coming back to Rome—ever! She’ll end her days in Ferrara, and she should be thankful she’s got away with her head still on her shoulders. So, all in all, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve got that flock of Catalan perverts out of our hair for good.”

Ezio wondered if the Vatican spy ring was as well-informed about the Templars as it was about the Borgia. Cesare had been their leader and continued to be so, even in prison. But he kept his counsel.

He had to admit that the affairs of Italy had seen worse days than these. A strong Pope, who’d had the sense to retain Agostino Chigi as his banker; and the French on the back foot. King Louis hadn’t left Italy, but he had at least withdrawn to the north, and seemed content to dig in there. In addition, the French king had ceded Naples to King Ferdinand of Aragon.

“I hope so, Your Holiness.”

Julius looked at Ezio keenly. “Listen, Ezio, I’m not a fool, so don’t take me for one! Why do you think I brought you in as my counselor? I know there are still Borgia loyalist pockets in the countryside, and even a few diehards left in the city. But I have other enemies than the Borgia to worry about these days.”

“The Borgia could still pose a threat.”

“I don’t think so.”

“And what are you doing about your other enemies?”

“I’m reforming the Papal Guard. Have you seen what good soldiers the Swiss are? Best mercenaries of the lot! And since they got independence from the Holy Roman Empire and Maximilian five or six years ago, they’ve been putting themselves out to hire. They’re totally loyal and not very emotional—such a change from our own dear fellow countrymen. I’m thinking of getting a brigade of them put together as my personal bodyguard. I’ll arm them with the usual halberds and stuff, but I’m also issuing them Leonardo’s muskets.” He paused. “All I need is a name for them.” He looked at Ezio quizzically. “Any ideas?”

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