No! He must bury it. He must learn to live by the code without it. But not yet!

He had always sensed in his heart that Micheletto lived. Now he knew it for a fact. And while he lived, he would do his utmost to free his evil master—Cesare!

Ezio had not told Pope Julius his full plan. He intended to seek out Cesare and kill him, or die in the attempt.

It was the only way.

He would use the Apple next only when he had to. He had to keep his own instincts and powers of deduction sharp, against the day when the Apple would no longer be in his possession. He would hunt down the Borgia diehards in Rome without it. Only if he failed—within three days—to unearth them, would he resort to its power again. He still had his friends—the girls of the Rosa in Fiore, La Volpe’s thieves, his fellow Assassins—and with their help, how could he fail?

And he knew that the Apple would—in ways he could not fully comprehend—help him, as long as he respected its potential. Perhaps that was its secret. Perhaps no one could ever fully master it—except a member of the race of ancient Adepts who had left the world in trust to humanity, to make or break it, as their will elected.

He closed the lid and locked the box.

Ezio summoned a meeting of the Brotherhood on Tiber Island that night.

“My friends,” he started, “I know how hard we have striven, and I believe that victory may be in sight, but there is still work to do.”

The others, all except Machiavelli, looked at each other in surprise.

“But Cesare is muzzled!” cried La Volpe. “For good!”

“And we have a new Pope who has always been an enemy of the Borgia,” added Claudia.

“And the French are driven back!” put in Bartolomeo. “The countryside is secure. And the Romagna is back in papal hands!”

Ezio held out a hand to quiet them. “We all know that a victory is not a victory until it is absolute.”

“And Cesare may indeed be muzzled, but he lives,” said Machiavelli quietly. “And Micheletto—”

“Exactly!” Ezio said. “And as long as there are pockets of Borgia diehards, both here and in the Papal States, there is still seed from which a Borgia revival may grow.”

“You are too cautious, Ezio! We have won!” cried Bartolomeo.

“Barto, you know as well as I do that a handful of city-states in the Romagna remain loyal to Cesare. They are strongly fortified.”

“Then I’ll go and sort them out!”

“They will keep. Caterina Sforza’s army is not strong enough to attack them from Forlì, but I have sent messengers requesting her to keep a close watch on them. I have a more pressing job for you.” Oh, God, thought Ezio, why does my heart still skip a beat when I mention her name?

“Which is…?”

“I want you to take a force to Ostia and keep a sharp eye on the port. I want to know about any suspicious ships coming into, and, especially, leaving the harbor. I want you to have messengers on horseback ready to bring news to me here the instant you have anything to report.”

Bartolomeo snorted. “Sentry duty! Hardly the sort of work for a man of action like me!”

“You will get as much action as you need when the time is ripe to move against the rebel city-states I’ve mentioned. In the meantime, they live in hope, waiting for a signal. Let them live in hope; it’ll keep them quiet. Our job is to snuff that hope out! Forever! Then, if they don’t listen to reason, they still won’t put up half the fight they would now.”

Machiavelli smiled. “I agree with Ezio,” he said.

“Well, all right. If you insist,” Bartolomeo replied grumpily.

“Pantasilea will enjoy the sea air, after her ordeal.”

Bartolomeo brightened. “I hadn’t thought of that!”

“Good.” Ezio turned to his sister. “Claudia. I imagine the change of regime hasn’t affected business at the Rosa in Fiore too badly, has it?”

Claudia grinned. “It’s funny how even princes of the Church find it so hard to keep the devil between their loins in abeyance. However many cold baths they say they take!”

“Tell your girls to keep their ears to the ground. Julius has the College of Cardinals firmly under his control, but he still has plenty of enemies with ambitions of their own, and some of them might just be mad enough to think that if they could set Cesare at liberty again, they could use him as a means of furthering their own ends. And keep an eye on Johann Burchard.”

“What—Rodrigo’s master of ceremonies? Surely he’s harmless enough. He hated having to organize all those orgies! Isn’t he just a functionary?”

“Nevertheless—anything you hear—especially if it leads to diehard factions still at large here—let me know.”

“It’ll be easier, now that we no longer have Borgia guards breathing down our necks every minute of the day.”

Ezio smiled a little absently. “I have another question to ask. I have been too busy to visit, and it troubles me, but—how is Mother?”

Claudia’s face clouded. “She keeps the accounts, but, Ezio, I fear she is failing. She seldom goes out. She speaks more and more often of Father, and of Federico and Petruccio.”

Ezio fell silent for a moment, thinking of his lost father, Giovanni, and his brothers. “I will come when I can,” he said. “Give her my love; ask her to forgive my neglect.”

“She understands the work you have to do. She knows that you do it not only for the good of us all, but for the sake of our departed kinsmen.”

“The destruction of those who killed them shall be their monument,” said Ezio, his voice hard.

“And what of my people?” asked La Volpe.

“Gilberto, your people are vital to me. All my recruits remain loyal, but they see that life returns to normal, and most of them long to return also to the lives they led before we persuaded them to join us in the struggle to throw off the Borgia yoke. They retain their skills, but they are not sworn members of our Brotherhood, and I cannot expect them to bear that other yoke we bear—for it is a yoke that only Death will relieve us of.”

“I understand.”

“I know the men and women under your command are city bred. Some country air will make a change.”

“How do you mean?” asked La Volpe suspiciously.

“Send your best people into the towns and villages around Rome. There will be no need to go further out than Viterbo, Terni, L’Aquila, Avezzano, and Nettuno. I doubt if, beyond the rough circle around Rome that those towns define, we’d find much. There can’t be many diehards left, and those there are will want to be within striking distance of Rome.”

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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