“We will track down the perpetrator of this crime, Uncle,” Suleiman was saying. “Have patience.”
Ezio mulled that over. Could matters be that dire? But he didn’t know Suleiman that well. And what was it Yusuf had warned about? Against meddling in Ottoman politics?
His mood was grim as he left the palace. There was one place he needed to be. One place where he could relax—as he badly needed to—and collect his thoughts.
So now we entered on that hidden path,
my lord and I, to move once more towards
a shining world. We did not care to rest.
We climbed, he going first and I behind,
until through some small aperture I saw
the lovely things the skies above us bear.
Now we came out, and once more saw the stars.
Ezio had started rereading Dante’s Inferno at Sofia’s suggestion several days earlier. He had read it before, as a student, but never really taken it in, since his mind was preoccupied with other matters in those days, but now it seemed like a revelation. But, having finally finished it, he put the book down with a sigh of pleasure. He looked across at Sofia, her glasses perched on her nose as she sat, head down, glancing from the original map to her reference books, to a notebook she was writing in. He gazed at her as she worked but did not interrupt, so deeply engaged did she seem in the task at hand. Instead, he reached for the book again. Perhaps he should make a start on the Purgatorio.
But just then, Sofia lifted her eyes from her work. She smiled at him.
“Enjoying the poem?”
He smiled back, placed the book on the table by his chair, and rose. “Who were these men he condemned to hell?”
“Political opponents, men who wronged him. Dante Alghieri’s pen cuts deeply, no?”
“Sì,” Ezio replied, thoughtfully. “It is a subtle way to seek revenge.”
He didn’t want to return to reality, but the urgency of the journey he soon had to make pressed upon him. Still, there was nothing he could do until he had word from Suleiman. Provided that he could trust the prince. But his thoughts had calmed. How could it profit Suleiman to betray him? He resumed his seat, picked up The Divine Comedy again, and turned to the place where he had left off.
She interrupted him. “Ezio,” she began, hesitantly, “I plan to make a trip to Adrianopolis in a few weeks, to visit a new printing press there.”
Ezio noticed the shy tone of her voice and wondered if she had picked up the softness that had crept into his whenever he spoke to her. Had she realized how great his . . . affection for her had become? Overcompensating, he was deliberately nonchalant when he replied, “That should be fun.”
She was still diffident. “It is a five- or six-day ride from here, and I will need an escort . . .”
She was instantly embarrassed. “I’m sorry. You are a busy man.”
It was his turn to be embarrassed. “Sofia, I would love to accompany you, but my time is running short—”
“That is true for all of us.”
He didn’t know how to respond to that, taking its meaning several ways, and remained silent. He was thinking of the twenty-year age gap between them.
Sofia looked down at the map for a moment, then back up. “Well, I could try to finish this last cipher now, but I need to run an errand before sundown. Can you wait a day?”
“What do you need?”
She looked away and back again. “It’s silly, but . . . a bouquet of fresh flowers. White tulips, specifically.”
He got up. “I’ll get you the flowers. Nessun problema.”
“Are you sure?”
“It will be a nice change of pace.”
She smiled warmly. “Bene! Look—meet me in the park just to the east of Haghia Sofia. We will trade: flowers for . . . information!”
The Flower Market was a blaze of color and pleasant scents, and there wasn’t a Janissary in sight. Ezio made his way through it anxiously, as nowhere in all this cornucopia had he yet been able to find any of the flowers he sought.
“You look like a man with money to spend,” said a flower seller, as Ezio approached his stall. “What do need, my friend?”
“I’m looking for tulips. White ones, if you have them.”
The flower seller looked doubtful. “Ah. Tulips. Forgive me, but I am fresh out. Something else, perhaps?”
Ezio shook his head. “It’s not my call, unfortunately.”
The flower seller thought about the problem for a moment, then leaned forward. He spoke confidentially. “OK, just for you, here is my secret. Many of the white tulips I sell, I pick myself near the hippodrome. Not a word of a lie. You go and see for yourself.”
Ezio smiled, took out his wallet, and tipped the flower seller generously. “Grazie.”
Busily, a man in haste, he made his way through the sun-warmed streets to the hippodrome, and, sure enough, in the grass along one side of the racetrack, he found white tulips growing in abundance. Happily, he bent down and, unleashing his hidden-blade, cut as many as he hoped Sofia would want.
The Imperial Park to the east of Haghia Sofia was laid out in formal gardens, interspersed with verdant lawns dotted with white marble benches and arbors ideal for private meetings, and in one of them he soon found Sofia.
She had laid out a little picnic, and Ezio could see at a glance that it wasn’t local food and drink. She’d managed somehow to organize a lunch that brought together some of the specialties of both their hometowns, so there was moleche and rixoto de gò from Venice, and panzanella and salame toscano from Florence. She’d also provided figs from Tuscolo and olives from Piceno, and there was a dish of macaroni and turbot. The wine she’d brought was a Frescobaldi. A wicker hamper stood by the neat white cloth she’d laid.
“What is this?” he said, marveling.
“A gift. Sit.”
Ezio bowed, handing her the flowers, and did as he was bidden.
“These are beautiful—thank you,” she said, accepting the huge bouquet of tulips he had cut for her.
“So is this,” he replied. “And don’t think I don’t appreciate the trouble you’ve been to.”
“I wanted to thank you for letting me play a small role in your adventure.”
“I would scarcely have called it small, but a ‘small’ role is quite enough for this adventure, believe me.”
She laughed quietly. “You are a mystery, Ezio Auditore.”