“Well done,” said the armorer. “Perfetto! At least one person here apart from me knows how to shoot.”
Ezio had the men reload and fired again. But this time he missed.
“Can’t win ’em all,” said the armorer. “But come back at dawn. We’ll be practicing again then and it’ll give you a chance to get your eye in.”
“I will,” said Ezio, little realizing that when he next fired a cannon, it would be in deadly earnest.
When Ezio entered the great hall of Mario’s citadel, the shadows of evening were already gathering, and servants were beginning to light torches and candles to dispel the gloom. The gloom accorded with Ezio’s increasingly somber mood as the hour of the meeting approached.
So wrapped up in his own thoughts was he that he did not at first notice the person hovering by the massive fireplace, her slight but strong figure dwarfed by the giant caryatids that flanked the chimney, and so was startled when the woman approached him, touching his arm. Immediately he recognized her, and his features softened into an expression of pure pleasure.
“Buona sera, Ezio,” she said—for her, a little shyly, he thought.
“Buona sera, Caterina,” he replied, bowing to the Countess of Forlì. Their former intimacy was some way in the past, though neither of them had forgotten it, and when she had touched his arm, both—Ezio thought—had felt the chemistry of the moment. “Claudia told me you were here, and I have been looking forward to seeing you. But”—he hesitated—”Monteriggioni is far from Forlì, and—”
“You needn’t flatter yourself that I have come all this way just on your account,” she said with a trace of her former sharpness, though he could see by her smile that she was not entirely serious, and, for himself, he knew that he was still drawn to this fiercely independent and dangerous woman.
“I am always willing to be of service to you, Madonna—in any way I can.” He meant it.
“Some ways are harder than others,” she countered, and now there was a tough note in her voice.
“What is it?”
“It is not a simple matter,” continued Caterina Sforza. “I come in search of an alliance.”
“Tell me more.”
“I am afraid your work is not over yet, Ezio. The papal armies are marching on Forlì. My dominion is small, but fortunately or unfortunately for me it lies in an area of the utmost strategic importance to whoever controls it.”
“And you desire my help?”
“My forces on their own are weak—your condottieri would be a great asset to my cause.”
“This is something I will have to discuss with Mario.”
“He will not refuse me.”
“And nor will I.”
“By helping me, you will not just be doing me a good deed. You will be taking a stand against the forces of evil we have always been united against.”
As they spoke, Mario appeared. “Ezio, Contessa, we are gathered and await you,” he said, his face unusually serious.
“We will talk more of this,” Ezio told her. “I am bidden to a meeting that my uncle has convened. I am expected to explain myself, I think. But afterward—let us arrange to see each other afterward.”
“The meeting concerns me, too,” said Caterina. “Shall we go in?”
The room was very familiar to Ezio. There, on the now-exposed inner wall, the pages of the Great Codex were arranged in order. The desk, usually littered with maps, was cleared and around it, on severe straight-backed chairs of dark wood, sat those members of the Assassins’ Brotherhood who had gathered at Monteriggioni, together with those of the Auditore family who were privy to its cause. Mario sat behind his desk, and at one end sat a sober, dark-suited man, still young-looking, though with deep lines of thought now etched into his forehead, who had become one of Ezio’s closest associates, but also one of his most unremitting critics—Niccolò Machiavelli. The two men nodded guardedly at each other as Ezio went over to greet Claudia and his mother, Maria Auditore, matriarch of the family since his father’s death. Maria hugged her only surviving son hard, as if her life depended on it, and looked at him with shining eyes as he broke free and took a seat near Caterina and opposite Machiavelli, who now rose and looked questioningly at him. Clearly there was going to be no polite prologue to the matter at hand.
“First, perhaps, I owe you an apology,” began Machiavelli. “I was not present in the Vault and urgent business took me to Florence before I could truly analyze what happened there. Mario has given us his account, but yours alone can be the full one.”
Ezio rose in his turn and spoke simply and directly. “I entered the Vatican and encountered Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, and confronted him. He was in possession of one of the Pieces of Eden, the Staff, and used it against me. I managed to defeat him and, using the combined powers of the Apple and the Staff, gained access to the Secret Vault, leaving him outside. He was in despair and begged me to kill him. I would not.” Ezio paused.
“What then?” prompted Machiavelli, as the others watched silently.
“Within the Vault were many strange things—things not dreamed of in our world.” Visibly moved, Ezio forced himself to continue in level tones. “A vision of the goddess Minerva appeared to me. She told of a terrible tragedy that would befall mankind at some future time. But she also spoke of lost temples that may, when found, lead us to a kind of redemption and aid us. She appeared to invoke a phantom that had some close connection with me, but what that was, I cannot tell. And after her warning and her predictions, she vanished. I emerged to see the Pope dying—or so it seemed; he told me he appeared to have taken poison. But then something compelled me to return. I seized the Apple, but the Staff and a great Sword, which may have been another Piece of Eden, were swallowed up by the earth, and I am glad of it. The Apple alone, which I have given in custody to Mario, is already more than I personally wish to have responsibility for.”
“Amazing!” cried Caterina.
“I cannot imagine such wonders,” added Claudia.
“So—the Vault did not house the terrible weapon we feared—or at any rate, the Templars did not gain control of it. This at least is good news,” said Machiavelli evenly.
“What of this goddess—Minerva?” Claudia asked. “Did she appear—like us?”