Assassin's Creed: Renaissance Page 78

‘Yes, my boy,’ said Mario, stepping forward. ‘We have all been guiding you, for years, teaching you all the skills you’d need to join our ranks.’

Ezio’s head filled with questions. He did not know where to begin. ‘I must ask you for news of my family,’ he said to Mario. ‘My mother, my sister…’

Mario smiled. ‘You are right to do so. They are safe and well. And they are no longer at the convent but at home with me at Monteriggioni. Maria will always be touched by the sadness of her loss, but she has much to console herself with now as she devotes herself to charitable work alongside the abbess. As for Claudia, the abbess could see, long before she could herself, that the life of a nun was not ideal for one of her temperament, and that there were other ways in which she might seek to serve Our Lord. She was released from her vows. She married my senior captain and soon, Ezio, she will present you with a nephew or niece of your own.’

‘Excellent news, Uncle. I never quite liked the idea of Claudia spending her life in a convent. But I have so many more questions to ask you.’

‘There will be a time for questions soon,’ said Machiavelli.

‘Much remains to be done before we can see our loved ones again, and celebrate,’ said Mario. ‘And it may be that we never will. We made Rodrigo abandon his box but he will not rest until it is back in his possession, so we must guard it with our lives.’

Ezio looked around the circle of Assassins, and noticed for the first time that each of them had a brand around the base of his or her left ring finger. But there was clearly no time for further questions now. Mario said to his associates, ‘I think it is time…’ Gravely, they nodded their assent, and Antonio took out a map and unfolded it, showing Ezio a point marked on it.

‘Meet us here at sunset,’ he said, in a tone of solemn command.

‘Come,’ said Mario to the others.

Machiavelli took charge of the box with its precious, mysterious contents, and the Assassins filed silently out into the street and departed, leaving Ezio alone.

Venice was eerily empty that evening and the great square in front of the basilica was silent and unoccupied save for the pigeons which were its permanent denizens. The bell tower rose to a giddying height above Ezio’s head as he began to climb it, but he did not hesitate. The meeting to which he’d been summoned would surely provide him with the answers to some of his questions, and though he knew in his heart of hearts that he would find some of the answers frightening, he also knew that he could not turn his back on them.

As he approached the top he could hear muted voices. At last he reached the stonework at the very top of the tower and swung himself into the bell-loft. A circular space had been cleared and the seven Assassins, all wearing cowls, were ranged around its perimeter, while a fire in a small brazier burned at its centre.

Paola took him by the hand and led him to the centre as Mario began to utter an incantation:

‘Laa shay’a waqi’un moutlaq bale koulon moumkine… These are the words, spoken by our ancestors, that lie at the heart of our Creed…’

Machiavelli stepped forward and looked hard at Ezio. ‘Where other men blindly follow the truth, remember -‘

And Ezio picked up the rest of the words as if he had known them all his life: ‘- Nothing is true.’

‘Where other men are limited by morality or law,’ continued Machiavelli, ‘remember -‘

‘- Everything is permitted.’

Machiavelli said, ‘We work in the dark, to serve the light. We are Assassins.’

And the others joined in, intoning in unison: ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted. Nothing is true, everything is permitted. Nothing is true, everything is permitted…’

When they had finished, Mario took Ezio’s left hand. ‘It is time,’ he told him. ‘In this modern age, we are not so literal as our ancestors. We do not demand the sacrifice of a finger. But the seal we mark ourselves with is permanent.’ He drew in his breath. ‘Are you ready to join us?’

Ezio, as if in a dream, but somehow knowing what to do and what was to come, extended his hand unhesitatingly. ‘I am,’ he said.

Antonio moved to the brazier and from it drew a red-hot branding-iron ending in two small semi-circles which could be brought together by means of a lever in the handle. Then he took Ezio’s hand and isolated the ring finger. ‘This only hurts for a while, brother,’ he said. ‘Like so many things.’

He inserted the branding-iron over the finger and squeezed the red-hot metal semi-circles together around its base. It seared the flesh and there was a burning smell but Ezio did not flinch. Antonio quickly removed the branding-iron and put it safely to one side. Then the Assassins removed their hoods and gathered round him. Uncle Mario clapped him proudly on the back. Teodora produced a little glass phial containing a clear, thick liquid, which she delicately rubbed on the ring burnt for ever on to Ezio’s finger. ‘This will soothe it,’ she said. ‘We are proud of you.’

Then Machiavelli stood in front of him and gave him a meaningful nod. ‘Benvenuto, Ezio. You are one of us now. It only remains to conclude your initiation ceremony, and then – then, my friend, we have serious work to do!’

With that, he glanced over the edge of the bell-tower. Far below, a number of bales of hay had been stacked a short distance away in various locations around the campanile – horse-fodder destined for the Ducal Palace. It seemed impossible to Ezio that from this height anyone could direct their fall accurately enough to land on one of those tiny targets, but that is what Machiavelli now did, his cloak flying in the wind as he leapt. His companions followed suit, and Ezio watched with a mixture of horror and admiration as each made perfect landings and then gathered, looking up at him with what he hoped were encouraging expressions on their faces.

Used as he was to bounding over rooftops, he had never faced a leap of faith from such a height as this. The hay-bales seemed the size of slices of polenta, but he knew that there was no other way for him to reach the ground again but this; and that the longer he hesitated, the harder it would be. He took two or three deep breaths and then cast himself outwards and downwards into the night, arms aloft in a perfect swallow dive.

The fall seemed to take hours and the wind whistled past his ears, ruffling and shaking his clothing and his hair. Then the hay-bales rushed up to meet him. At the last moment, he shut his eyes…

... And crashed down into the hay! All the breath was knocked from his body, but as he got shakily to his feet he found that nothing was broken, and that he was, in fact, elated.

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