Assassin's Creed: Renaissance Page 46

Distinti saluti

Your friend

Leonardo da Vinci

‘It is good that the man is dead,’ commented Mario when Ezio showed him the letter. ‘He was the type who would steal straw from his mother’s kennel. But alas, it brings us no nearer to discovering what the Templars plan next, or even the whereabouts of Jacopo.’

Ezio had found time to visit his mother and his sister, who continued to while away their days in the serenity of the convent, watched over by the kindly abbess. Maria had, he saw to his sadness, made as much of a recovery as she would ever make. Her hair had turned prematurely grey, and there were fine crowsfeet lines at the corners of her eyes, but she had achieved an inner calm, and when she spoke of her dead husband and sons it was with affectionate and proud remembrance. But the sight of little Petruccio’s pearwood box of eagle’s plumes, which she kept on her bedside table, could still bring tears to her eyes. As for Claudia, she was now a novizia, but although Ezio regretted what he saw as a waste of her beauty and her spirit, he acknowledged that there was a light in her face which caused him to bow to her decision, and be happy for her. He visited them again over Christmas, and in the New Year took up his training again, though inside himself he was boiling over with impatience. To counter this, Mario had made him joint commander of his castle, and Ezio tirelessly sent out his own spies and scouts to range the country in quest of the quarry he implacably sought.

And then, at last, there was news. One morning in late spring Gambalto appeared in the doorway of the map-room where Ezio and Mario were deep in conference, his eyes ablaze.

‘Signori! We have found Stefano da Bagnone! He has taken refuge in the Abbey Asmodeo, only a few leagues to the south. He has been right under our noses all this time!’

‘They hang together like the dogs they are,’ snapped Mario, his stubby workman’s fingers quickly tracing a route on the map before him. He looked at Ezio. ‘But he is a lead-dog. Jacopo’s secretary! If we cannot beat something out of him – !’

But Ezio was already giving orders for his horse to be saddled and made ready. Swiftly, he made his way to his quarters and armed himself, strapping on the Codex weapons and choosing, this time, the original spring-blade over the poison one. He had replaced Leonardo’s original hemlock distillation with henbane, on the advice of Monteriggioni’s doctor, and the poison sac in its hilt was full. He had decided he would use the poison-blade with discretion, since there was always the risk of delivering himself a fatal dose. For this reason, and because his fingers were covered with small scars, he now wore supple but heavy leather gloves when using either blade.

The abbey was located near Monticiano, whose ancient castle brooded over the little hill town. It was set in the sunlit hollow of a gentle slope, packed with cypress trees. It was a new building, perhaps only one hundred years old, built of expensive imported yellow sandstone and built round a vast courtyard with a church at its centre. The gates stood wide open, and the monks of the abbey’s Order, in their ochre habits, could be seen working in the fields and orchards which had been cleared around the building, and in the vineyard above it; the wine of the monastery attached to the abbey was famous, and was exported even to Paris. Part of Ezio’s preparation had been to provide himself with a monk’s habit of his own, and, having left his horse with an ostler at the inn where he had taken a room under the guise of a state courier, he donned his disguise before arriving at the abbey.

Soon after his arrival he spotted Stefano, deep in conversation with the abbey’s hospitarius, a corpulent monk who looked as if he had taken on the shape of one of the wine barrels he so evidently frequently emptied. Ezio managed to manoeuvre himself close enough to listen without being noticed.

‘Let us pray, brother,’ said the monk.

‘Pray?’ said Stefano, whose black garb contrasted with all the sunny colours around him. He looked like a spider on a pancake. ‘For what?’ he added sardonically.

The monk looked surprised. ‘For the Lord’s protection!’

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‘If you think the Lord has any interest in our affairs, Brother Girolamo, you have another think coming! But please, by all means, continue to delude yourself, if it helps you to pass the time.’

Brother Girolamo was shocked. ‘What you speak is blasphemy!’

‘No. I speak truth.’

‘But, to deny His most exalted Presence – !’

‘- is the only rational response, when faced with the declaration that there exists some invisible madman in the sky. And believe me, if our precious Bible is anything to go by, He’s completely lost His mind.’

‘How can you say such things? You are yourself a priest!’

‘I am an administrator. I use these clerical robes to bring me closer to the accursed Medici, so that I may chop them off at the knees, in the service of my true Master. But first, there is still the business of this Assassin, Ezio. For too long he has been a thorn in our side, and we must pluck him out.’

‘There you speak truth. That unholy demon!’

‘Well,’ said Stefano with a crooked smile. ‘At least we agree on something.’

Girolamo lowered his voice. ‘They say the Devil has given him unnatural speed and strength.’

Stefano looked at him. ‘The Devil? No, my friend. These are gifts he gave himself, through rigorous training over years.’ He paused, his scrawny body bent at a pensive angle. ‘You know, Girolamo, I find it disturbing that you are so unwilling to credit people for their own circumstances. I think you’d make victims out of the entire world if you could.’

‘I forgive your lack of faith and your forked tongue,’ replied Girolamo piously. ‘You are still one of God’s children.’

‘I told you -‘ Stefano began with some asperity; but then spread his hands and gave it up. ‘Oh, what’s the use? Enough of this! It’s like speaking to the wind!’

‘I will pray for you.’

‘As you wish. But do so quietly. I must keep watch. Until we have this Assassin dead and buried, no Templar can drop his guard for an instant.’

The monk withdrew with a bow, and Stefano was left alone in the courtyard. The bell for First and Second Qauma had sounded, and all the Community were in the abbey church. Ezio emerged from the shadows like a wraith. The sun shone with the silent heaviness of midday. Stefano, crow-like, stalked up and down by the north wall, restless, impatient, possessed.

When he saw Ezio, he showed no surprise at all.

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