Machiavelli’s face grew grave. “I’ve had a letter. It’s to both of us actually but it takes forever for the post to get out here to Fiesole. Look, Ezio. He’s not too well. He’d like to see us.”
Ezio squared his shoulders. “When do we start?” he said.
They reached the Clos Lucé, the manor house near the château at Amboise which King Francis had given Leonardo as part of the package of his patronage, in late April. The Loire flowed at an easy pace, the banks of its brown waters crowded with trees in new leaf.
They rode through the gates of the manor, down an avenue lined with cypress trees, to be met by a manservant. Leaving their horses in the care of an ostler, they followed the manservant into the house. In a large, airy room, its open windows overlooking the park to the rear, lay Leonardo on a chaise longue, dressed in a yellow brocade gown and half-covered by a bearskin rug. His long white hair and beard were straggly, and he had gone bald on top, but his eyes still shone brightly, and he half rose to greet them.
“My dear friends—I am so glad you have come! Etienne! Bring us wine and cakes.”
“You’re not supposed to have cakes. Let alone wine.”
“Look here—who pays your wages? Never mind—don’t answer that. The same man that pays mine, I know! Just—do as you’re told!”
The manservant bowed, and left, soon to return with a tray, which he placed ceremoniously on a nearby polished table before taking his leave again. But as he did so, he bowed once more, and said to Leonardo’s guests: “You must forgive the disorder. It’s our way.”
Machiavelli and Ezio shared a smile. The polished table and the gleaming tray were an island in a rough sea of chaos. Leonardo’s habits hadn’t changed.
“How are things, old friend?” asked Ezio, taking a seat near the artist.
“I can’t complain, but I’m interested in moving on,” Leonardo said, trying to make his voice sound stronger than it was.
“What do you mean?” said Ezio, concerned that his friend was using some kind of euphemism.
“I’m not talking about dying,” said Leonardo, irritably. “I’m talking about England. Their new king’s very interested in building up his navy. I’d like to get over there and sell him my submarine. The Venetians never did pay me, you know.”
“They never built it.”
“That’s beside the point!”
“Don’t you have enough to occupy your mind here?” asked Machiavelli.
Leonardo gave him an outraged look. “If you can call creating a mechanical lion occupying my mind!” he snapped. “That was my liege lord’s last commission. I ask you—a mechanical lion, that walks along and roars, and as a finale, his breast opens and reveals a basket of lilies!” he snorted. “Good enough in itself, I suppose; but to demand such a gewgaw of me! Me! The inventor of flying machines, and tanks!”
“And parachutes,” added Ezio, softly.
“Did it come in handy?”
“Good.” Leonardo waved a hand toward the tray. “Help yourselves. But not me.” His voice fell a little. “Etienne’s right—the most I can stomach these days is warm milk.”
They were silent. Then Machiavelli said, “Do you paint still?”
Leonardo grew sad. “I’d like to . . . But somehow I’ve lost the force. Can’t seem to finish things anymore. But I’ve left Salai the Gioconda in my will. It might help him out in his old age. I think Francis would love to buy it. Mind you, I wouldn’t give you tuppence for it myself. Not my best work, not by far. I prefer the thing I did of dear little Salai as John the Baptist . . .” His voice trailed off, and he looked into the middle distance, at nothing. “That dear boy. Such a pity I had to let him go. I miss him so much. But he was wretched here. He’s better off looking after the vineyards.”
“I tend vines myself, these days,” said Ezio, softly.
“I know! Good for you. Much more sensible for a man of your age than running around hacking off the heads of Templars.” Leonardo paused. “I’m afraid they will always be with us, whatever we do. Perhaps it’s better to bow to the inevitable.”
“Never say that!” cried Ezio.
“Sometimes we have no choice,” Leonardo replied sadly.
There was silence again, then Machiavelli said, “What’s this talk of wills, Leonardo?”
Leonardo looked at him. “Oh, Niccolò. What’s the point of pretense? I’m dying. That’s why I asked you to come. We three have been through so much. I wanted to say goodbye.”
“I thought you had plans to visit King Henry of England?”
“He’s a bullish young puppy, and I’d like to,” Leonardo replied. “But I won’t. I can’t. This room is the last place I’ll ever see. And the trees outside. Full of birds, you know, especially now it’s spring again.” He lay silent for so long, without moving, that the two friends looked at each other in alarm. But then Leonardo stirred. “Did I nod off?” he asked. “I shouldn’t. I don’t have time for sleep. Be getting enough of that, soon enough.”
Then he was silent again. He was asleep once more.
“We’ll come back tomorrow,” Ezio said gently. He and Machiavelli rose and made for the door.
“Come back tomorrow!” Leonardo’s voice stopped them in their tracks. “We’ll talk some more.”
They turned to him as he raised himself on one elbow. The bearskin fell from his knees, and Machiavelli stooped to replace it.
“Thank you, Niccolò.” Leonardo looked at them. “I’ll tell you a secret. All my life—while I thought I was learning to live, I have simply been learning how to die.”
They were with him a week later, when he breathed his last, in the small hours of May 2. But he no longer knew them. He was already gone.
“A rumor’s already going around,” said Machiavelli, as they rode sadly homeward, “that King Francis cradled his head in his arms as he died.”
Ezio spat. “Some people—even kings—will do anything for publicity,” he said.
The seasons revolved four more times. Little Flavia had turned ten; Marcello was approaching his ninth birthday. Ezio could not believe that he had reached the age of sixty-four. Time seemed to speed up more relentlessly, the less you had left of it, he thought. But he tended his vines and enjoyed it, and still, as Machiavelli and Sofia endlessly pressed him to, continued with his memoir. He had reached Chapter XXIV already!