“Isn’t that a feature of life?”

He smiled. “Perhaps. And perhaps it is not my fight anymore.”

“That doesn’t sound like you.” She paused. “One day, you will tell me what really happened in that vault under Masyaf.”

“One day.”

“Why not tell me now?”

He looked at her. “I will tell you this. I have come to realize that the progress of Mankind toward the goals of peace and unity will always be a journey—there will never be an arrival. It’s just like the journey through life of any man or woman. The end is always the interruption of that journey. There is no conclusion. There is always unfinished business.” Ezio was holding a book in his hands as he spoke—Petrarch’s Canzoniere. “It’s like this,” he continued. “Death doesn’t wait for you to finish a book.”

“Then read what you can, while you can.”

With a new determination, Ezio made arrangements for the journey back to Rome.

By that time, Sofia was pregnant.

EIGHTY-ONE

“What took you so long?” Claudia snapped, then pulled him to her and kissed him hard on both cheeks. “Fratello mio. You’ve put on weight. All that Venetian food. Not good for you.”

They were in the Assassins’ Headquarters on Tiber Island. It was late in February. Ezio’s arrival back in Rome had coincided with the funeral of Pope Julius.

“Some good news, I think,” Claudia went on. “Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici is going to be elected.”

“But he’s only a deacon.”

“Since when has that stopped anyone from becoming pope?”

“Well, it would be good news if he gets it.”

“He has the backing of almost the entire College of Cardinals. He’s even chosen a name—Leo.”

“Will he remember me?”

“He could hardly forget that day back in the duomo in Florence when you saved his father’s life. And his own, by the way.”

“Ah,” said Ezio, remembering. “The Pazzi. It seems like a long time ago.”

“It is a long time ago. But little Giovanni is all grownup now—he’s thirty-eight, would you believe? And a tough customer.”

“As long as he remembers his friends.”

“He’s strong. That’s what counts. And he wants us on his side.”

“If he is just, we will stand by him.”

“We need him as much as he needs us.”

“That is true.” Ezio paused, looking round the old hall. So many memories. But it was almost as if they had nothing to do with him any longer. “There is something I need to discuss with you, sister.”

“Yes?”

“The question of . . . my successor.”

“As Mentor? You are giving up?” But she did not sound surprised.

“I have told you the story of Masyaf. I have done all I can.”

“Marriage has softened you up.”

“It didn’t soften you up, and you’ve done it twice.”

“I do approve of your wife, by the way. Even if she is a Venetian.”

“Grazie.”

“When’s the happy event?”

“May.”

She sighed. “It’s true. This job wears one out. The Blessed Mother knows, I’ve only been doing it in your stead for two short years, but I have come to realize what you have been carrying on your shoulders for so long. But have you thought of who might take on the mantle?”

“Yes.”

“Machiavelli?”

Ezio shook his head. “He would never accept. He is far too much of a thinker to be a leader. But the job—and I say this in all modesty—needs a strong mind. There is one of our number, never called on to assist us before in anything but his diplomatic missions, whom I have sounded out, and who, I think, is ready.”

“And do you think the others—Niccolò himself, Bartolomeo, Rosa, Paola, and Il Volpe—will they elect him?”

“I think so.”

“Who have you in mind?”

“Lodovico Ariosto.”

“Him?”

“He was Ferraran ambassador to the Vatican twice.”

“And Julius nearly had him killed.”

“That wasn’t his fault. Julius was in conflict with Duke Alfonso at the time.”

Claudia looked astonished. “Ezio—have you taken leave of your senses? Do you not remember who Alfonso is married to?”

“Lucrezia—yes.”

“Lucrezia Borgia.”

“She’s leading a quiet life these days.”

“Tell Alfonso that! Besides, A riosto’s a sick man—and, by Saint Sebastian, he’s a weekend poet! I hear he’s working on some tosh about Sieur Roland.”

“Dante was a poet. Being a poet doesn’t automatically emasculate you, Claudia. And Lodovico is only thirty-eight, he’s got all the right contacts, and, above all, he’s loyal to the Creed.”

Claudia looked sullen. “You might as well have asked Castiglione,” she muttered. “He’s a weekend actor.”

“My decision is taken,” Ezio told her, firmly. “But we will leave it to the Assassin Council to ratify it.”

She was silent a long time, then smiled, and said, “It’s true that you need a rest, Ezio. Perhaps we all do. But what are your plans?”

“I’m not sure. I think I’d like to show Sofia Florence.”

Claudia looked sad. “There’s not much left of the Auditores there to show her. A nnetta’s dead, did you know?”

“Annetta? When?”

“Two years ago. I thought I wrote to you about it.”

“No.”

They both fell silent, thinking of their old housekeeper, who had stayed loyal and helped save them after their family and their home were destroyed by Templar agents over thirty years earlier.

“Nevertheless, I’m taking her there.”

“And what will you do there? Will you stay?”

“Sister, I really don’t know. But I thought . . . If I can find the right place . . .”

“What?”

“I might grow a little wine.”

“You don’t know the first thing about it!”

“I can learn.”

“You—in a vineyard! Cutting bunches of grapes!”

“At least I know how to use a blade.”

She looked scornful. “Brunello di Auditore, I suppose! And what else? Between harvests, I mean.”

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