“Calma,” said Machiavelli as the two men looked at each other. Ezio’s blood boiled. He’d spent a day trying to trace the diehards only to find himself led straight to them.
He dug his fingernails into his palms.
“Where is she, bastardi?” he yelled.
Cautiously, the two Assassins approached the dark entrance.
There was a dimly lit hall, in whose center, on a plinth, was a bust of Pope Alexander VI, the coarse features—the hooked nose, the weak chin, the fat lips—done to the life. There was no other furniture, and again there were three doors leading off the three walls facing the entrance, only that facing the entrance open. Ezio and Machiavelli made for it and, passing the door, found themselves in another bleak room. There was a table, on which various rusty surgical instruments were arrayed, glittering under the light of a single candle, on a stained cloth. Next to it was a chair, and on it Claudia was seated, half undressed and bound, her hands in her lap, her face and breasts bruised, a gag in her mouth.
Three men detached themselves from the shadows that obscured the back wall. Ezio and Machiavelli were aware of others, too, men and women, behind them and on either side. Those they could see in the darkling light wore the now-grubby mulberry-and-yellow of the former holders of power.
All were heavily armed.
Claudia’s eyes spoke to Ezio’s. She managed to wrestle her branded finger free enough to show him. She had not given in, despite the torture. She was a true Assassin. Why had he ever doubted her?
“We know how you feel about your family,” said a gaunt man of perhaps fifty summers whom Ezio did not recognize. He seemed to be the leader of these Borgia supporters. “You let your father and brothers die. Your mother we need not bother about; she is dying anyway. But you can still save your sister. If you wish. She’s already well struck in years and doesn’t even have any children, so perhaps you won’t bother.”
Ezio controlled himself. “What do you want?”
“In exchange? I want you to leave Rome. Why don’t you go back to Monteriggioni and build the place up again? Do some farming. Leave the power game to those who understand it.”
“Oh, dear,” said the thin man. He seized Claudia by the hair and, producing a small knife, cut her left breast.
“She’s damaged goods at the moment, but I’m sure she’ll recover under your tender care.”
“I’ll take her back and then I’ll kill you. Slowly.”
“Ezio Auditore! I gave you a chance. But you threaten me—and you are in no position to threaten. If there’s any killing to be done, it’ll be by me. Forget Monteriggioni—a sophisticated lady like Madonna Claudia would doubtless hate it there anyway—your destiny is here—to die in this room.”
The men and women on each side closed in, drawing swords.
“Told you—trapped,” said Machiavelli.
“At least we’ve found the bastards,” replied Ezio, as each man looked the other in the eye. “Here!” He passed a handful of poison darts to his companion. “Make them work!”
“You didn’t tell me you came prepared.”
“You didn’t ask.”
Ezio fell into a crouch as the diehards advanced. Their leader held the thin knife to Claudia’s throat.
As one, they drew their swords. And with their free hand they threw the poison darts with deadly aim.
The Borgia supporters toppled on either side, as Machiavelli closed in and sliced and slashed with his sword and dagger, pushing against the diehards who tried to crush him—in vain—by force of numbers.
Ezio had one goal—to kill the thin man before he could rip open Claudia’s throat. He leapt forward and seized the man by the throat, but his adversary was as slippery as an eel and wrenched himself to one side, without letting go of his victim.
Ezio wrestled him to the floor at last and, grasping the man’s right hand with his left, forced the point of the thin knife the man was holding close to his throat. Its point touched the jugular vein.
“Have mercy,” babbled the diehard leader. “I served a cause I thought was true.”
“How much mercy would you have shown my sister?” asked Ezio. “You filth! You are finished.”
There was no need to release the hidden-blade. “I told you it would be a slow death,” said Ezio, drawing the knife down to the man’s groin. “But I am going to be merciful.” He slid the knife back up and sliced the man’s throat open. Blood bubbled in the man’s mouth. “Bastardo!” he gurgled. “You will die by Micheletto’s hand!”
“Requiescat in pace,” said Ezio, letting the man’s head fall, though for once he spoke the words without much conviction.
The other diehards lay dead or dying about them as Machiavelli and Ezio hastened to untie the harsh cords that bound Claudia.
She had been badly beaten, but the diehards had at least drawn the line at leaving her honor intact.
“Are you all right?”
“I hope so.”
“Come on. We must get out of here.”
Ezio took his sister in his arms and, followed by a somber Machiavelli, walked out into the dying light of day.
“Well,” said Machiavelli, “at least we have confirmation that Micheletto is still alive.”
“We’ve found Micheletto,” said La Volpe.
“Where?” Ezio’s voice was urgent.
“He’s holed up in Zagarolo, just to the east of here.”
“Let’s get him, then.”
“Not so fast. He’s got contingents from the Romagna towns still loyal to Cesare. He’ll put up a fight.”
“We’ll have to organize.”
“Then let’s do it! Now!”
Ezio, with Machiavelli and La Volpe, summoned a meeting on Tiber Island that night. Bartolomeo was still in Ostia, watching the port, and Claudia was resting up at the Rosa in Fiore, tended by her ailing mother, after her terrible ordeal, but there were enough thieves and recruits to muster a force of one hundred men and women able to bear arms. There was no need of other condottieri to back them up.
“He’s encamped in an old gladiatorial school, and he’s got maybe two hundred fifty men with him.”