There was a silence. Then Caterina rose, letting the rug fall to the floor. “Then it appears that I have out-stayed my welcome,” she said. “Excuse me.”

“What are you talking about?” said Ezio, alarmed.

“Only that I am in danger here—”

“We will protect you!”

“And—more important—a liability to you.” She was looking at Machiavelli as she spoke. “Isn’t that so, Niccolò?”

Machiavelli was silent.

“I am answered,” said Caterina. “I will make my preparations at once.”

TWENTY-NINE

“Are you sure you are able to ride?” Ezio asked her.

“I rode from the Castel when you rescued me, didn’t I?”

“Yes, but then there was no choice.”

“Is there a choice now?”

Ezio was silent. It was the following morning and Ezio watched as Caterina and her two female attendants packed the few clothes and provisions Claudia had organized for her journey. She would leave the next day before dawn. A small escort of Ezio’s men would ride with her part of the way, to see her safely out of Rome. Ezio had offered to join them, but this Caterina had refused. “I don’t like goodbyes,” she’d said. “And the more drawn out they are, the worse they are.”

He watched her as she bustled about her packing. He thought about the times they had had together, long ago in Forlì, and then about what he had fondly imagined was a reunion in Monteriggioni. The Assassins’ Brotherhood seemed to have taken over his life—and left him alone.

“I wish you would stay,” he said.

“Ezio, I can’t. You know I can’t.”

“Dismiss your women.”

“I have to hurry.”

“Dismiss them. This won’t take long.”

She did so, but he could see with what reluctance, and even then she said, “Be sure to return in five minutes by the water clock.”

Once they were alone, he didn’t know where to begin.

“Well?” she said, more gently, and he could see that her eyes were troubled—though by what, he could not tell.

“I…I rescued you,” he said lamely.

“You did, and I am grateful. But didn’t you tell the others that you did so purely because I am still a useful ally—even with Forlì gone?”

“We’ll get Forlì back.”

“And then I shall go there again.”

Ezio was silent again. His heart felt empty.

She came up to him and put her hands on his shoulders. “Ezio, listen. I am no use to anyone without Forlì. If I leave now, it is to seek safety—and to be with my children. Don’t you want that for me?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then—”

“I didn’t rescue you because you’re valuable to the cause.”

It was her turn to be silent.

“But because—”

“Don’t say it, Ezio.”

“Why not?”

“Because I cannot say it back.”

No weapon could have cut more deeply into him than those words. “You used me, then?”

“That sounds rather harsh.”

“What other words would you wish me to use?”

“I tried to explain earlier.”

“You are a ruthless woman.”

“I am a woman with work to do, and a duty.”

“Then whatever serves your cause, goes.”

She was silent again, then said, “I’ve tried to explain this to you already. You must accept it.” She had taken her hands from his shoulders. He could see that her mind had wandered back to her journey. She was looking at the stuff yet to be packed.

He thought, recklessly, To hell with the Brotherhood! I know what I want! Why shouldn’t I live for myself, for a change?

“I’m coming with you,” he said.

She turned to him again, her eyes serious. “Listen, Ezio. Perhaps you are making a choice, but you are making it too late. Perhaps I have done the same thing. But you are leader of the Assassins now. Don’t give up the work you have started—the great work of rebuilding after the disaster at Monteriggioni. Without you, things will fall apart again, and then who will there be to save us?”

“But you never really wanted me.”

He looked at her. She was still there, in the room with him, but her spirit had long gone. How long ago it had left him, he did not know—perhaps it had never really been there. Perhaps he had only hoped for it, or imagined it. At that moment, he felt that he was looking at the corpse of love, yet still he refused to believe in its death. But, as with any other death, he saw that he had no choice now but to get used to its reality.

There was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” said Caterina, and her attendants returned.

Ezio left them to their packing.

The next morning he was determined to resist seeing them off, but he could not. It was cold. When he got to the appointed square, in a safe district of the city, they were already mounted, the horses restless. Perhaps, even now, at the last moment, she would relent.

But her eyes, though kind, were distant. He thought he could have borne things better if she hadn’t looked at him with kindness. Kindness was almost humiliating.

All he could say was, “Buona fortuna, Contessa—and…farewell.”

“Let’s hope it’s not ‘farewell.’”

“Oh, I think it is.”

She looked at him once more. “Well, then—buona fortuna anche, my prince; and—Vittoria agli Assassini!”

She wheeled her horse around, and without another word, without even a backward glance, at the head of her guardian entourage, she galloped north out of the city and out of his life. He watched them until they were mere specks in the distance, a lonely, middle-aged man who had been given a last chance at love and missed it.

“Vittoria agli Assassini,” murmured Ezio tonelessly to himself, as he turned and made his way back into the still-sleeping city.

THIRTY

With Cesare’s return imminent, Ezio had to put his private grief aside and get on with the work Fate had given him. In his attempt to cut Cesare off from his funds, the first step was to find and neutralize Cesare’s banker, and the initial lead would come from the Rosa in Fiore.

“What do you want?” Claudia couldn’t have been less friendly if she’d tried.

“You spoke of a senator at the meeting.”

“Yes, I did. Why?”

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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