“I long to read of your deeds. You must finish your book.”

“The important thing to realize is this: Love binds our Order together; love of people, of cultures, of the world.” He was silent again for a moment. “Fight to preserve that which inspires hope, and you will win back your people, Shao Jun.”

Jun stared into the flames, thinking, as the grand scope of her future widened in her imagination. “It will take a long, long time,” she said quietly, at last.

“But if you do it right, it will happen.”

Jun took a deep breath and straightened up, a determined expression on her face. She looked across at Ezio and nodded. He leaned across and patted her on the shoulder.

“Get some rest,” he said.

She rose and bowed slightly, then left the room.

Ezio turned to the fire, its glow reddening his face.

Deep in the night, disturbed by stealthy sounds outside, Ezio made his way to the kitchens. From high in the sky, the moon shone through the barred windows. Ezio approached the knife blocks and pulled several knives out, testing them for balance. Not satisfied, he put them back and cast around for some other weapon. An iron ladle? No. A chopping board? No. A poker, perhaps? Yes! He went over to the stove and picked one out, three feet long and made of heavy steel. He tested it, making two or three practice passes with it.

He tensed at a noise from above. Seconds later, a body dropped past the window. Ezio saw Jun land in a crouch, then bolt into the night. He made for the door and unlocked it, flinging it open.

There was a Chinese man there, poised for attack, who instantly lunged at him with a dao. Ezio stepped back and slammed the door on the man’s arm, smashing the radius and ulna, and the sword dropped from his hand, as the Chinese howled in agony. Ezio threw the door open again and brought the poker down hard on the man’s head, splitting the skull. He jumped over the corpse and dashed outside.

He soon found Jun, engaged in combat with three attackers. It was going badly for her, but he’d arrived in time to turn the tide, and the servants of the Jiajing Emperor retreated in the direction of the vineyard.

There, they took a stand. Jun, fighting with only her fists and feet, took one of their opponents out almost immediately, as Ezio brought down a second with his poker, ramming its point squarely into his attacker’s face. But the third Chinese managed to knock the poker from his grasp, and it was only by reaching out fast for a wooden dowel, which he plucked from the vines, that he managed to regain his advantage, beating the man to the ground, then striking him hard on the nape of the neck, crushing the cervical vertebrae.

It was over. Ezio collapsed on the gentle slope where his vines were planted, exhausted but uninjured. He caught Jun’s eye and tried to laugh, but his laughter turned into a wheezing cough.

“I sound like a dying cat,” he said.

“Come on, I’ll help you.”

She helped him to his feet, and, together, they returned to the villa.

NINETY

They were awake long before break of day. The morning was cool. Some watery sunlight found its way through the haze.

Shao Jun stood in the road, her pack on her back. Staring into the distance, she was ready to depart. She seemed lost in thought, and only turned when Ezio approached from the villa. His breathing was still labored and heavy.

He came up to her. “It is long way home, no?”

“But there is much to see along the way. Dashi, xièxiè nin—Thank you, Mentor.” She bowed slightly.

Ezio was carrying something. A small, ancient box. He held it out to her. “Here. This may be of use one day.”

Jun took it and turned it in her hands. Then she began to open it, but Ezio stopped her.

“No,” he said. “Only if you lose your way.”

She nodded and packed it away. Ezio squinted past Jun, peering up the road. He saw the banners of approaching soldiers.

“You should go,” he said.

Jun followed his gaze, nodded, and set off, toward the vineyards that grew on the other side of the road. Ezio watched her as she made her way quickly over the brow of a nearby hill.

The soldiers rode up soon afterward, and Ezio greeted them. When he looked in Jun’s direction once more, she had disappeared.

A few weeks later, the harvest done, and Marcello’s ninth birthday behind them, he was back in his den, trying to write again. He had made good progress this time. He stared at the last blank sheet in front of him, then dipped his quill and scribbled a few words, concentrating hard. He read them back, and smiled. Then he dropped his quill as a shooting pain in his chest caught him off guard.

There was a knock at the door.

“Yes?” he said, collecting himself and replacing the quill in its stand by the inkwell.

Sofia entered the room.

“Just taking the kids down to Fiesole. We’ll be back just after dark.”

“Good.”

“Market day tomorrow. Are you coming with us?”

“Yes.”

“Sure?”

“I’ll be fine.”

She closed the door behind her. Ezio sat brooding for a moment, then, satisfied, began gathering the papers on his desk, stacking them neatly, and tying a ribbon round them.

NINETY-ONE

The next day was fine and fresh. They had stayed in Florence for lunch, and Sofia was bent on making just a few more purchases before the journey home. Ezio, walking down the street a few paces behind his wife and children, suddenly winced as a fit of coughing took him. He leaned against a wall for support.

In a moment, Sofia was by his side.

“You should have stayed at home.”

He smiled at her. “I am home.”

“Sit down, here.” She indicated a nearby bench. “Wait for us. We’ll be right over there. Only take a minute or two.”

He nodded, watching her rejoin the children and wander off a little farther down the street. He made himself comfortable, letting the pain subside.

He watched the people walking to and fro, going about their daily business. He felt pleased and enjoyed watching them. He breathed in the smells of the market as it broke up around him. He listened to the sound the traders made.

“I love it here,” he said to himself. Home. Home at last.

His reverie was interrupted by the peevish voice of a young Italian who plumped himself down on the bench near him. The young man was talking, apparently, to himself. He didn’t look at Ezio.

“Al diavolo! I hate this damn city. I wish I were in Rome! I hear the women there are . . . mmm . . . like ripe Sangiovese on the vine, you know? Not like here. Firenze!” He spat on the ground.

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