“Her appearance was human, and also superhuman,” Ezio said. “Her words proved that she belonged to a race far older and greater than ours. The rest of her kind died many centuries ago. She’d been waiting for that moment all that time. I wish I had the words to describe the magic she performed.”

“What are these temples she spoke of?” put in Mario.

“I know not.”

“Did she say we should search for them? How do we know what to look for?”

“Perhaps we should—perhaps the quest will show us the way.”

“The quest must be undertaken,” said Machiavelli crisply. “But we must clear the path for it first. Tell us of the Pope. He did not die, you say?”

“When I returned, his cope lay on the chapel floor. He himself had disappeared.”

“Had he made any promises? Had he shown repentance?”

“Neither. He was bent on gaining the power. When he saw he was not going to get it, he collapsed.”

“And you left him to die.”

“I would not be the one to kill him.”

“You should have done so.”

“I am not here to debate the past. I stand by my decision. Now we should discuss the future. What we are to do.”

“What we are to do is made all the more urgent by your failure to finish off the Templar leader when you had the chance.” Machiavelli breathed hard, but then relaxed a little. “All right, Ezio. You know in what high esteem we all hold you. We would not have got anything like this far without the twenty years of devotion you have shown to the Assassins’ Brotherhood and to our Creed. And a part of me applauds you for not having killed when you deemed it unnecessary to do so. That is also in keeping with our code of honor. But you misjudged, my friend, and that means we have an immediate and dangerous task ahead of us.” He paused, scanning the assembled company with eagle eyes. “Our spies in Rome report that Rodrigo is indeed a reduced threat. He is at least somewhat broken in spirit. There is a saying that it is less dangerous to do battle with a lion’s whelp than with an old, dying lion; but in the case of the Borgia the position is quite otherwise. Rodrigo’s son, Cesare, is the man we must match ourselves against now. Armed with the vast fortune the Borgia have amassed by fair means and foul—but mostly foul”—Machiavelli allowed himself a wry smile—”he heads a large army of highly trained troops and with it he intends to take over all Italy—the whole peninsula—and he does not intend to stop at the borders of the Kingdom of Naples.”

“He would never dare—he could never do it!” Mario roared.

“He would and he could,” snapped Machiavelli. “He is evil through and through, and as dedicated a Templar as his father the Pope ever was, but he is also a fine though utterly ruthless soldier. He always wanted to be a soldier, even after his father made him Cardinal of Valencia when he was only seventeen years old! But as we all know, he resigned from that post—the first cardinal in the Church’s history to do so! The Borgia treat our country and the Vatican as if they were their own private fiefdom! Cesare’s plan now is to crush the North first, to subdue the Romagna and isolate Venice. He also intends to extirpate and destroy all of us remaining Assassins, since he knows that in the end we are the only people who can stop him. Aut Caesar, aut nihil—that’s his motto—’Either you’re with me or you’re dead.’ And do you know, I think the madman actually believes it.”

“My uncle mentioned a sister,” Ezio began.

Machiavelli turned to him. “Yes. Lucrezia. She and Cesare are…how shall I say? Very close. They are a very close-knit family; when they are not killing those other brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, whom they find inconvenient to them, they are…coupling with each other.”

Maria Auditore could not suppress a cry of disgust.

“We must approach them with all the caution we would use to approach a nest of vipers,” Machiavelli concluded. “And God knows where and how soon they will next strike.” He paused and drank half a glass of wine. “And now, Mario, I leave you. Ezio, we will soon meet again, I trust.”

“You’re leaving this evening?”

“Time is of the essence, good Mario. I ride for Rome tonight. Farewell!”

The room was silent after Machiavelli left. After a long pause, Ezio said bitterly, “He blames me for not killing Rodrigo when I had the chance.” He looked around at them. “You all do!”

“Any of us might have made the decision you made,” said his mother. “You were sure he was dying.”

Mario came and put an arm around his shoulders. “Machiavelli knows your value—we all do. And even with the Pope out of the way, we’d still have had to deal with his brood—”

“But if I had cut off the head, could the body have survived?”

“We must deal with the situation as it is, good Ezio, not with it as it might have been.” Mario clapped him on the back. “And now, as we are in for a busy day tomorrow, I suggest we dine and then prepare for an early night!”

Caterina’s eyes met Ezio’s. Did he imagine it, or was there a flicker of the old lust there? He shrugged inwardly. Perhaps he’d just imagined it.

SEVEN

Ezio ate lightly—just pollo ripieno with roasted vegetables; and he drank his Chianti cut half-and-half with water. There was little conversation at dinner, and he answered his mother’s string of questions politely but laconically. After all the tension that had mounted in anticipation of the meeting, and which had now melted away, he was very tired. He had barely had a chance to rest since leaving Rome, and it looked now as if it would be a long time still before he could realize a long-cherished ambition of spending some time back in his old home in Florence, reading and walking in the surrounding gentle hills.

As soon as he decently could, he made his excuses to the company and set off for his bedroom, a large, quiet, dimly lit space on one of the upper floors, with a view across the countryside rather than the town. Once he’d reached it and dismissed the servant, he let go of the steeliness that had supported him throughout the day, and his very body slumped, his shoulders sagged, and his walk eased. His movements were slow and deliberate. He moved across the room to where the servant had already drawn him a bath. He approached it, tugging at his boots and taking off his clothes as he did so, and, naked, stood for a moment, his clothes bundled in his hands, before a full-length mirror on a stand near the copper tub. He looked at his reflection with weary eyes. Where had the four long decades gone? He straightened. He was older, stronger even, certainly wiser; but he could not deny the profound fatigue he felt.

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