Assassin's Creed: Renaissance Page 17

She extended her long-fingered, bejewelled hand to him. ‘It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Messer Auditore.’ She looked at him appraisingly. ‘Annetta speaks quite highly of you. And now I can see why.’

Ezio, blushing despite himself, replied, ‘I appreciate the kind words, Madonna -‘

‘Please, call me Paola.’

Ezio bowed. ‘I cannot sufficiently express my gratitude to you for extending your protection to my mother and sister, Mado – I mean, Paola.’

‘It was the least I could do.’

‘Are they here? May I see them?’

‘They are not here – this would be no place for them, and some of my clients are highly placed in the city’s governance.’

‘Is this place then, forgive me, but is it what I think it is?’

Paola laughed. ‘Of course! But I hope it is rather different from those stews down by the docks! It is really too early for business, but we like to be ready – there’s always the chance of the occasional caller on his way to the office. Your timing is perfect.’

‘Where is my mother? Where is Claudia?’

‘They are safe, Ezio; but it’s too risky to take you to see them now, and we mustn’t compromise their security.’ She drew him to a sofa and sat down with him. Annetta, meanwhile, disappeared into the bowels of the house on some business of her own.

‘I think it will be best,’ Paola continued, ‘for you to leave Florence with them at the earliest opportunity. But you must rest first. You must gather your strength, for you have a long and arduous road ahead of you. Perhaps you’d like -‘

‘You are kind, Paola,’ he interrupted her gently, ‘and you are right in what you suggest. But just now, I cannot stay.’

‘Why? Where are you going?’

During their conversation Ezio had been growing ever calmer, as all his racing thoughts came crashing together. At last he found himself able to shrug off his shock and his fear, for he had come to a decision and found a purpose, both of which he knew were irrevocable. ‘I am going to kill Uberto Alberti,’ he said.

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Paola looked worried. ‘I understand your desire for vengeance, but the Gonfaloniere is a powerful man, and you’re not a natural killer, Ezio -‘

Fate is making me one, he thought, but he said, as politely as he could, ‘Spare me the lecture,’ for he was bent on his mission.

Paola ignore him and completed her sentence: ‘- but I can make you one.’

Ezio fought down suspicion. ‘And why would you want to teach me how to kill?’

She shook her head, ‘In order to teach you how to survive.’

‘I’m not sure that I need any training from you.’

She smiled. ‘I know how you feel, but please allow me to hone the skills I am sure you have naturally. Think of my teaching as an extra weapon in your armoury.’

She started his training that very day, recruiting those girls who were off-duty, and trusted house-servants, to help her. In the high-walled garden behind the house she organized twenty of her people into five groups of four. They then started to mill around the garden, crisscrossing each other, talking and laughing, some of the girls casting bold looks on Ezio, and smiling. Ezio, who still carried his precious pouch at his side, was immune to their charms.

‘Now,’ Paola told him, ‘discretion is paramount in my profession. We must be able to walk the streets freely – seen, but unseen. You too must learn properly how to blend in like us, and become one with the city’s crowds.’ Ezio was about to protest but she held up her hand. ‘I know! Annetta tells me you do not acquit yourself badly, but you have more to learn than you know. I want you to pick a group and try to blend in with them. I don’t want to be able to pick you out. Remember what almost happened to you at the execution.’

These harsh words stung Ezio, but the task didn’t appear to him that difficult, provided he used his discretion. Still, under her unforgiving eye he found it harder than he’d expected. He would jostle clumsily against someone, or trip up, sometimes causing the girls or the male servants in his selected group to scatter from him, leaving him exposed. The garden was a pleasant place, sunlit and lush, and birds chirruped in the ornamental trees, but in Ezio’s mind it became a labyrinth of unfriendly city streets, a potential enemy in every passerby. And always he was nettled by Paola’s unremitting criticism. ‘Careful!’ she would say. ‘You can’t go charging in like that!’ ‘Show my girls some respect! Tread carefully when you’re near them!’ ‘How do you plan to blend in with people if you’re busy knocking them around?’ ‘Oh, Ezio! I expected better from you!’

But at last, on the third day, the biting comments grew fewer, and on the morning of the fourth he was able to pass right under Paola’s nose without her batting an eyelid. Indeed, after fifteen minutes without saying a word, Paola called out: ‘All right, Ezio, I give up! Where are you?’

Pleased with himself, he emerged from a group of girls, himself the very model of one of the young male house-servants. Paola smiled and clapped her hands, and the others joined in the applause.

But the work didn’t end there.

‘Now that you have learned to blend into a crowd,’ Paola told him on the morning of the following day, ‘I am going to show you how to use your new-found skill – in order to steal.’

Ezio baulked at this but Paola explained, ‘It is an essential survival skill which you may need on your journey. A man is nothing without money, and you may not always be in a position to earn it honestly. I know you would never take anything from anyone who could not afford to lose it, or from a friend. Think of it as a blade in a penknife, which you seldom use, though it’s good to know it’s there.’

Learning how to pick pockets was a lot harder. He would sidle up to a girl successfully enough, but as soon as his hand closed on the purse at her girdle, she would scream ‘Al ladro!‘ and flee from him. When he first managed to draw some coins out successfully, he stayed where he was for a moment, triumphant, then felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. ‘Ti arresto!‘ said the manservant who was playing the role of a city watchman, grinning; but Paola did not smile. ‘Once you’ve stolen from someone, Ezio,’ she said, ‘you mustn’t linger.’

He was learning faster now, though, and was beginning to appreciate the need to acquire the skills he was being taught as necessary for the successful accomplishment of his mission. Once he had successfully fleeced ten girls, the last five without even Paola noticing, she announced that the tutorial was at an end.

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