The Chinese woman did not reply, but she was not angry. She was very calm.

“I am very sorry. But I cannot help you. I don’t want any part of this.”

Shao Jun raised her eyes to meet his. “I want to understand.”

“Understand what?”

“How to lead. How to rebuild my Order.”

He sighed, now slightly annoyed. “No. For me, that is over. Finito.” He paused. “Now, I think you should go.”

“Ezio, think!” Sofia scolded him. “Shao Jun has come a long way.” She turned to their guest. “Did I pronounce your name correctly?”

Jun nodded.

“Will you stay for dinner?”

Ezio gave his wife a black look and turned to face the fireplace.

“Grah-zie,” said Jun, in hesitant Italian.

Sofia smiled. “Good. And we have a bedroom already made up. You are welcome to stay for a few nights—or as long as you like.”

Ezio growled but said nothing. Sofia left in the direction of the kitchens, while Ezio slowly turned and observed his guest. Shao Jun sat quietly, but she was completely self-possessed. She surveyed the room.

“I’ll be back before dark,” he told her in a bad-tempered voice.

He stormed out, throwing his manners to the wind. Jun watched him go, a subtle smile on her lips.

Once outside, Ezio took refuge in his vineyard.

EIGHTY-SIX

Ezio was in the children’s room, watching their sleeping figures by candlelight. He stepped up to the window and locked it. He sat on the edge of Flavia’s bed, watching her and Marcello with a heavy heart. They looked so peaceful—so angelic.

Suddenly, the room got a little brighter as Sofia entered, holding another candle. He looked up at her and smiled. She smiled back and sat at the foot of Marcello’s bed.

Ezio said nothing for a moment.

“Are you all right?” she asked, a little timidly.

He looked down at his children again, lost in thought. “I can’t seem to leave my past behind me,” he muttered. Then he turned his gaze to his wife. “I started this act of my life so late, Sofia. I knew I wouldn’t have time to do everything . . . But now I worry that I won’t have time to do anything.”

Her eyes were sad but full of understanding.

They heard a faint creaking from above and looked toward the ceiling.

“What is she doing on the roof?” Ezio muttered.

“Leave her be,” said Sofia.

Above them, Shao Jun stood on the red tiles high up near the chimneys. She had taken up a pose that was something between an Assassin attack position and simply that of someone relaxing and enjoying herself. She scanned the moonlit countryside as the night wind whispered around her.

The next day, Ezio emerged from the villa early, to grey skies. He glanced up at the roof, but, though the window of her room was open, there was no sign of Shao Jun.

He called her name, but there was no answer. He went to give orders to his foreman, for the time of the vendange was approaching, and he prayed for a good harvest this year—the grapes certainly promised it, and the summer weather had been favorable. The veraison had been good, too, but he wanted to double-check the sugar and acid levels in the grapes before picking. Then he’d send the foreman into Fiesole and as far as Florence if need be, to recruit the seasonal labor they’d need. It was going to be a busy time, and it was one that Ezio looked forward to every year—lots of physical activity and little time to think about anything else. Shao Jun’s arrival had thrown the hard-won security he enjoyed off track. He resented it. He found himself hoping that she had left before dawn.

Once he had finished his meeting with his foreman, he felt an irresistible impulse to return to the villa to see if his prayer had been answered. Somehow, he doubted it, but there was no one about when he entered the house. Grimly, following some instinct that hollowed his stomach, he made his way to his den.

He stopped short at the door. It was open. He swept into the room and discovered the Chinese woman standing behind his desk—still littered with discarded notes and pages from the days before—and reading part of the completed manuscript.

Ezio fell into a red rage. “What do you think you’re doing? Get out!”

She put down the sheaf of papers she was reading from and looked at him calmly. “The wind—it opened the door.”

“Fuori!”

Jun walked quickly past him and out of the room. He made his way quickly to the desk and shuffled the papers around, picking up one that caught his eye and reading from it. Then, unimpressed, he tossed it back on the pile and turned from the desk to stare blankly out the window. He could see Jun out there, in the yard, her back to him, apparently waiting.

His shoulders slumped. After a few more minutes’ hesitation, he left the den and made his way out to her.

She was sitting on a low stone wall. He approached her, coughing lightly in the keen October wind.

She turned. “Duìbùqi—I’m sorry. It was wrong of me.”

“It was.” He paused. “I think you should leave.”

She sat silently for a moment, then, without warning, she quoted: “ ‘My name is Ezio Auditore. When I was a young man, I had liberty, but I did not see it; I had time, but I did not know it; and I had love, but I did not feel it. It would be thirty long years before I understood the meaning of all three.’ ” She paused. “That is beautiful,” she said.

Ezio was stunned. He stared past Jun, reflecting. In the distance, they could hear the jingling of a horse’s reins.

“I want to understand, like you do,” Jun went on. “To help my people.”

Ezio looked at her with a friendlier eye. “I was an Assassin for a long time, Jun. And I know that at any moment, someone could come for me. Or my family.” He paused. “Do you see? That is why I must be careful.”

She nodded, and he could see that she almost felt sorry for him. He looked toward his vineyards. “I should be starting to hire people to help me with the vendange, but . . .”

He trailed off. Jun tilted her head, listening.

“Come inside. Let’s get something to eat.”

She slid off the wall and followed him.

EIGHTY-SEVEN

The market in the great square southwest of the cathedral was as busy as ever. Merchants, businessmen, servants, and peasants jostled each other in a more or less friendly way as they passed between the stalls. Jun stood under one side of the surrounding colonnade, watching the bustle as Ezio, nearby, haggled in the cold sunlight with a stallholder over the price of a grape picker’s basket. Jun was rapt, absorbing the sights and sounds of Florence. She stared openly at people just as openly as people stared at her. She was unbothered.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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