Ezio smiled at the memory of his friend. Leonardo, whose mind was ever teeming with new ideas though it always took him a while to get around to them. He thought ruefully of the hidden-blade, which had been shattered in the fight when they’d ambushed him. Leonardo—how he missed him!—the one man he could have really trusted to mend it. But at least Leonardo had sent him the plans he’d made for a new device, which he called a parachute. Ezio had had it constructed back in Rome, and it was packed with his kit, and he doubted if the Templars would make much sense of it. He would put it to good use as soon as he got a chance.
If he got a chance.
He steeled himself against dark thoughts.
But there was nothing to do, no means of escape, until they came to get him, to hang him. He would have to plan what to do then. He imagined that, as so often in the past, he would have to extemporize. In the meantime, he’d try to rest his body. Still fit, he’d made sure of that in training before this journey, and the journey itself had hardened him. But he was glad—even in these circumstances—of the chance to rest after that fight.
It had all started with a letter.
Under the benevolent eye of Pope Julius II, who had aided him in his vanquishing of the Borgia family, Ezio had rebuilt and restructured the Assassins’ Brotherhood in Rome and established his power base there.
For a while at least, the Templars were in abeyance, and Ezio left the running of operations in the capable hands of his sister Claudia; but the Assassins remained vigilant. They knew that the Templars would regroup, secretly, elsewhere, insatiable in their quest for the instruments by which they could at last control the world in accordance with their somber tenets.
They were bested for the moment, but the beast was not dead.
Ezio drew comfort and satisfaction from the fact—and he shared this dark knowledge with Machiavelli and Leonardo alone—that the Apple of Eden, which had fallen into his care, and which had caused so much anguish and death in the battle for its possession, was buried and hidden deep in the vaults below the Church of San Nicola in Carcere, in a secret sealed room whose location they had marked only with the sacred symbols of the Brotherhood—which only a future Assassin would be able to discern, let alone decipher. The greatest Piece of Eden was safely concealed from the ambitious grasp of the Templars—as Ezio hoped, forever.
After the damage wrought to the Brotherhood by the Borgias, there had been much to retrieve, much to put in order, and to this task Ezio had devoted himself, uncomplainingly, although he was far more inclined to open air and action than to poring over papers in dusty archives. That was a job more suited to his late father’s secretary, Giulio, or to the bookish Machiavelli; but Machiavelli was busy commanding the Florentine militia these days, and Giulio was long dead.
Still, Ezio reflected, if he hadn’t saddled himself with the responsibility for what was to him a dreary task, he might never have found the letter. And if another had, that person might not have guessed its significance.
The letter, which he’d found in a leather satchel, brittle with age, was from Ezio’s father, Giovanni, to his brother Mario, the man who’d taught Ezio the art of war and initiated him into the Brotherhood three long decades earlier. Mario. Ezio flinched at the memory. Mario, who had died at the cruel and cowardly hands of Cesare Borgia in the wake of the battle of Monteriggioni.
Mario had long since been avenged, but the letter Ezio found opened a new chapter, and its contents proffered him the chance of a new mission. It was 1509 when he’d found it, and he’d just turned fifty; he knew that the chance of new missions seldom came to men of his age. Besides, the letter offered him the hope and the challenge of closing the gates of opportunity on the Templars forever.
iv febbraio MCDLVIII
The forces against us are gathering strength, and there is a man in Rome who has taken command of our enemies who is perhaps the greatest power you and I will ever have to reckon with. For this reason, I impart to you, under the seal of utmost secrecy, the following information. If fate should overtake me, ensure—with your life, if necessary—that this information never falls into our enemies’ hands.
There is, as you know, a castle called Masyaf in Syria, which was once the seat of our Brotherhood. There, over two centuries ago, our then Mentor, Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, greatest of our Order, established a library deep beneath the fortress.
I say no more now. Discretion dictates that what else I have to tell you of this must be in conversation and never written down.
This is a quest I would have longed to accomplish myself, but there is no time now. Our enemies press upon us, and we have no time except to fight back.
Your Brother Giovanni Auditore
With this letter was another sheet of paper—a tantalizing fragment, clearly in his father’s handwriting but equally clearly not by him—a translation of a much older document, also there with it, on parchment that accorded very closely with that on which the original Codex pages, uncovered by Ezio and his companions nearly thirty years earlier, had been written:
I have spent days with the artifact now. Or has it been weeks? Months? The others come from time to time, offering food or distraction; and though I know in my heart I should separate myself from these dark studies, I find it more and more difficult to assume my normal duties. Malik has been supportive, but even now that old edge returns to his voice. Still, my work must continue. This Apple of Eden must be understood. Its function is simple. Elementary, even: dominion. Control. But the process . . . the methods and means it employs . . . THESE are fascinating. It is temptation incarnate. Those subjected to its glow are promised all that they desire. It asks only one thing in return: complete and total obedience. And who can truly refuse? I remember my own moment of weakness when confronted by Al Mualim, my Mentor, and my confidence was shaken by his words. He, who had been like a father, was now revealed to be my greatest enemy. Just the briefest flicker of doubt was all he needed to creep into my mind. But I vanquished his phantoms—restored my self-confidence—and sent him from this world. I freed myself from his control. But now I wonder, is this true? For here I sit—desperate to understand that which I intended to destroy. I sense it is more than just a weapon, a tool for manipulating men’s minds. Or is it? Perhaps it’s simply following its design: showing me what I desire most. Knowledge . . . Always hovering at the edge. Just out of reach. Beckoning. Promising. Tempting . . .