“I thought—I might try my hand at a bit of writing.”
Claudia almost exploded.
But Claudia would later come to love her visits to the estate in the hills above Florence that Ezio and Sofia found, more or less falling down, but bought and, with the proceeds from the sale of the Constantinople bookshop to the Assassins, and Ezio’s own capital, restored and turned into a modest, but quite profitable, vineyard within two years.
Ezio became lean and tanned, wore workmen’s clothes during the day, and Sofia scolded him, telling him that his hands were getting too gnarled for lovemaking from working on the vines.
But that hadn’t prevented them from producing Flavia in May 1513, and Marcello arrived a year later, in October.
And Claudia loved her new niece and nephew almost more than she thought possible, though she made quite sure, given the twenty-year difference in their ages, that she never became a kind of ersatz mother-in-law to Sofia. She never interfered, and she disciplined herself to visit the Auditore estate near Fiesole no more than half the number of times she would have liked to. Besides, she had a new husband in Rome to think about as well.
But Claudia couldn’t love the children as much as Ezio did. In them, and in Sofia, Ezio had at last found the reason, which he had spent a lifetime seeking.
Machiavelli had had a hard time of it, politically, and even spent a while in prison, but when the white water was past, and he was able to take up the reins of his life in Florence again, he was a frequent visitor to the Villa Auditore.
Ezio missed him when he wasn’t there, though he didn’t take kindly to his old friend’s sometimes acerbic comments on his frequently-put-off attempts to write a memoir. The raccolto of 1518 had not been good, and Ezio had caught some kind of chest infection—which he ignored—that had dragged on throughout the winter.
Early one evening, near the beginning of the following spring, Ezio sat alone by the fire in his dining hall, a glass of his own red by him. He had pen and paper, and he was trying to make a start, for the umpteenth time, on Chapter XVI, but he found recollection far less interesting than action, and after a while, as always, he impatiently pushed the manuscript away. Reaching for his glass, he was overcome by a fit of painful coughing, knocking it over. It fell with a terrible clatter, spilling wine all over the olive-wood surface of his table, but it did not break. He stood to retrieve it as it rolled toward the edge of the table, and righted it, as Sofia came in, attracted by the noise.
“Are you all right, amore?”
“It’s nothing. I’m sorry about the mess. Hand me a cloth.”
“Forget the cloth. You need rest.”
Ezio groped for a chair as Sofia stood by his side, easing him down. “Sit,” she commanded, gently. As he did so, she picked up the unlabeled bottle, small towel wrapped round its neck, and checked the level of wine left in it.
“Best cure for a cold,” said Ezio, sheepishly. “Has Niccolò arrived yet?”
“He is right behind me,” she replied, adding drily, “I’d better bring you another bottle. This one, I see, is nearly empty.”
“A writer needs his fuel.”
Machiavelli had entered the room with the lack of ceremony he was entitled to as an old friend and a frequent guest. He took the cloth from Sofia.
“Here, let me.” He wiped the glass, then the tabletop. Ezio watched him, a slightly sour look on his face.
“I invited you here to drink, not clean up after me.”
Machiavelli finished the job before he replied, with a smile, “I can do both. A tidy room and a good glass of wine are all a man needs to feel content.”
Ezio laughed mockingly. “Rubbish! You sound like a character from one of your plays.”
“You’ve never seen one of his plays,” put in Sofia, shaking her head.
Ezio was embarrassed. “Well, I can imagine.”
“Can you? Then why not put that imagination to work? Why don’t you buckle down and get on with this?” He indicated the neglected manuscript.
“We’ve been over this, Niccolò. I don’t write. I’m a father, a husband, a winemaker. I’m quite happy with that.”
Sofia had fetched a fresh bottle of the red, and placed it by them, with two clean glasses, clean napkins, and a basket of pandiramerino. “I’ll leave you two to discuss literature together,” she said. “Once I’ve helped Andrea get the children to bed, I’ve got some writing of my own to do.”
“What’s that?” asked Machiavelli.
“Never you mind,” she said. “I’ll just wait to see what you think of the wine. He’s been fretting about it. Through several bottles.”
“She’ll get her book finished well before you do yours,” said Machiavelli.
“Never mind that,” said Ezio. “Taste this. Last year’s harvest. A disaster.”
“If you ask for my judgment, you shall have it.”
He sipped the wine Ezio had poured him, rolled it round his mouth, savoring it, and swallowed.
“It’s delicious.” He smiled. “Sangiovese again—or have you changed?”
Sofia’s face broke into a grin, as she rubbed Ezio’s shoulder. “You see?” she said.
“A blend,” said Ezio, pleased. “But mainly my old Sangiovese. I didn’t really think it was all that bad. My grapes are the best.”
“Of course they are.” Machiavelli took another deep draft. Ezio smiled, though Sofia noticed that his hand went to his chest surreptitiously, to massage it.
“Come on,” said Ezio. “There’s still some light in the sky. I’ll show you . . .”
They went outside and walked down the avenue leading to the vineyards.
“Trebbiano for the white,” Ezio said, waving his hand at a row of vines. “You must have some with dinner. We’re getting tonno al cartoccio. Serena’s specialty.”
“I love the way she cooks tuna,” Machiavelli replied. He looked around. “You’ve done well, Ezio. Leonardo would have been proud to see what you have cultivated here.”
“Only because I’m using the tools he gave me,” Ezio said, laughing. “He’d be jealous. I sell twice as much wine as he ever does from his vineyards in Porta Verci-nella. Still, he should never have sent that rascal Salai back from Amboise to run the place.” Then he paused. “What do you mean—he would have been proud?”