The old manuscript tailed off there, the rest lost, and, indeed, the parchment was so brittle with age that its edges crumbled as he touched it.
Ezio understood little of it, but some of it was so familiar that his skin tingled, even his scalp, at the memory.
It did again, as Ezio recalled it, sitting in his cell in the prison tower at Masyaf, watching the sun set on what might be his last day on earth.
He visualized the old manuscript in his mind. It was this, more than anything, that had determined him to travel east, to Masyaf.
Darkness fell quickly. The sky was cobalt blue. Stars already speckled it.
For no reason, Ezio’s thoughts turned to the young man in white. The man he’d seemed to see in the lull in the fighting. Who had appeared and disappeared so mysteriously, like a vision, but who had, somehow, been real, and who had, somehow, communicated with him.
Preparations for his journey had taken Ezio the rest of that year and spilled into the next. He rode north to Florence and conferred with Machiavelli, though he did not tell him all that he knew. In Ostia, he visited Bartolomeo d’Alviano, who had filled out with too much good food and wine but was as ferocious as ever though he was a family man now. He and Pantasilea had produced three sons and, a month ago, a daughter. What had he said?
“Time you got a move on, Ezio! None of us is getting any younger.”
Ezio had smiled. Barto was luckier than he knew.
Ezio regretted that there was no time to extend his journey farther north to Milan, but he had kept his weaponry in good order—the blades, the pistol, the bracer—and there was no time, either, to tempt Leonardo into finding yet more ways of improving them. Indeed, Leonardo himself had said, after he’d last overhauled them, a year earlier, that they were now beyond improvement.
That remained to be seen when they were next put to the test.
Machiavelli had given him other news in Florence, a city he still set foot in only with sadness, so heaped was it with memories of his lost family and his devastated inheritance. His lost love, too—the first and, he thought, perhaps the only true one of his life—Cristina Vespucci. Twelve years—could it really be so long since she had died at the hands of Savonarola’s fanatics? And now another death. Machiavelli had told him about it, hesitantly. The faithless Caterina Sforza, who had blighted Ezio’s life as much as Cristina had blessed it, had just died, a wasted old woman of forty-six, forgotten and poor, her vitality and confidence long since extinguished.
As he went through life, Ezio began to think that the best company he’d ever truly have would be his own.
But he had no time to grieve or brood. The months flew by, and soon it was Christmas, and so much still to do.
At last, early in the New Year, on the Feast of St. Hilary, he was ready, and a day was set for his departure from Rome, via Naples, to the southern port of Bari, with an escort organized by Bartolomeo, who’d ride with him.
At Bari, he would take ship.
“God go with you, brother,” Claudia told him on his last morning in Rome. They had risen before dawn. Ezio would leave at first light.
“You must take care of things here in my absence.”
“Do you doubt me?”
“Not anymore. Have you still not forgiven me for that?”
Claudia smiled. “There is a great beast in Africa called the elephant. They say it never forgets. It is the same with women. But don’t worry, Ezio. I will take care of things until you return.”
“Or until we have need of a new Mentor.”
Claudia didn’t reply to that. Her face became troubled. She said: “This mission. Why do you go alone? Why have you said so little of its import?”
“ ‘He travels fastest who travels alone,’ ” Ezio quoted by way of reply. “As for details, I have left our father’s papers in your keeping. Open them if I do not return. And I have told you all you need to know of Masyaf.”
“Giovanni was my father, too.”
“But he entrusted this responsibility to me.”
“You have assumed it, brother.”
“I am Mentor,” he said, simply. “It is my responsibility.”
She looked at him. “Well, travel safely. Write.”
“I will. In any case, you won’t have to worry about me between here and Bari. Barto will be with me all the way.”
She still looked worried. Ezio was touched that the tough woman his sister had grown up to be still had a tender spot in her heart for him. His overland journey would lead him through Italy’s southern territories, and they were controlled by the Crown of Aragon. But King Ferdinand hadn’t forgotten his debt to Ezio.
“If I’m after action,” he told her, reading her thought, “I won’t get any until I set sail. And my course leads pretty far to the north for me to have to worry about Barbary corsairs. We’ll hug the Greek coast after Corfu.”
“I’m more worried about your completing what you’re setting out to do. Not because I’m worried about you personally—”
“Oh really? Thank you for that.”
She grinned. “You know what I mean. From all you’ve said, and Santa Veronica may hold witness that you’ve told me little enough, a good outcome is important for us.”
“That’s why I’m going now. Before the Templars can regain strength.”
“Seize the initiative?”
“That’s about it.”
She took his face in her hands. He looked at her one last time. At forty-nine, she was still a strikingly beautiful woman, her dark hair still dark and her fiery nature unquenched. Sometimes he regretted that she had not found another man after the death of her husband, but she was devoted to her children and her work, and made no secret of the fact that she loved living in Rome, which, under Pope Julius, had once again become a sophisticated international city and an artistic and religious mecca.
They embraced, and Ezio mounted his horse, at the head of the short cavalcade that was accompanying him—fifteen armed riders under Barto, who was already mounted, his heavy horse pawing the dust, impatient to be gone, and a wagon to carry their supplies. For himself, all Ezio needed was in two black leather saddlebags. “I’ll forage as I go along,” he’d told Claudia.
“You’re good at that,” she’d replied with a wry grin.
Raising his hand as he settled into the saddle, Ezio wheeled his horse, and, as Barto brought his own steed alongside, they made their way down the east side of the river, away from the Assassins’ Headquarters on Tiber Island, toward the city gates and the long road south.