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"When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study
Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savor. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death. I live entirely through them."
-Niccolo Machiavelli, soon before his death in 1527, in a letter written to Francesco Vettori.
Another night another performance. Niccolo Machiavelli had a birds-eye view from the box seat of his latest work being utterly butchered. He sighed noisily, running a hand through his now ever-thinning brown hair. He was actually grateful that Ezio had seemed to have forgotten to attend this final performance of La Mandragola. Machiavelli would have been outright ashamed to call it his own work. But he had come to expect such mediocrity from a Florentine theater. The people may be well-known for their warmth and hospitality, but their acting skills suffered greatly. Perhaps he'd take his manuscripts back to Venezia this next summer. It'd be something to look forward to.
The former political tyrant had precious little to occupy his time, ever since losing office in Firenze. He had welcomed his somewhat unexpected retirement at the time, but soon found himself bored with giving lectures to scholars and writing comedies. In his earlier years he'd devoted much of his time to more serious, analytical works of literature, but Machiavelli eventually came to realize that the Assassin Order had granted him insight to more death and dramatics then he ever had a taste for. Upon retiring from the Order, he had decided to try his hand and writing something a little less serious, and turned to comedies and the stage.
He'd found some success, but the critics would be blathering their dissatisfaction over this one.
Niccolo wordlessly left the theater, hailing a carriage. He had access to his own horse and driver, but on nice days he preferred to walk the streets of his hometown, minding the busy markets, the noisy chatter, the heavenly smell of baking bread and the steady, insistent cries of the heralds. Unfortunately the weather had betrayed him this particular afternoon, and the sky threatened to thunderstorm. Hoping to avoid getting caught in a torrential rainfall, Machiavelli instead opted to pay for the carriage rental.
Why Ezio had traded the excitement of the city for a dull, country life in San Gimignano was beyond him. While Machiavelli would never verbally express his concern for the aging Assassin directly to him, inwardly he often worried for his old friend. Ezio's health had been in slow decline in the last several years, ever since they journeyed to France to visit Leonardo one final time. Living far out in the Tuscan countryside, surrounded by acres of vineyards, Machiavelli could not shake his worry. Still, so long as Ezio continued to write to him on a regular basis and visit when he was in town, the former politician figured he had little right to question him.
Upon arriving back at his palazzo near the center of town, Machiavelli changed into more comfortable attire. A glass of red wine in hand, he had just sat down to enjoy an evening of solitude before a slow knock sounded on the door to his estate. Content to let Emilia answer, Machiavelli took a slow sip from his glass, straining to hear the voices in the next room. He didn't have to try very hard even after sixty-four years of age, Ezio's voice had something of a 'quiet booming' quality that Machiavelli often found himself wishing the so-called 'thespians' over at the Florentine stage could master. Even speaking normally, the man could be heard from an impressive distance. Niccolo stood just as the aging Assassin was ushered into his study, already holding out a second glass of wine. Ezio took it, swirling the red liquid around in his glass before taking a drink. Machiavelli nodded to Emilia, who smiled and let the men be.
"Ezio. What brings you to see an old colleague?"
The older Assassin arched a bushy white brow. "And friend, Niccolo. Do not forget that."
"How could I?" He smiled ruefully, sitting himself back down. Ezio followed suit, staring critically into his wine glass. Machiavelli knew that look, and simply waited.
this isn't what I grow."
"Ezio, out with it." Machiavelli tilted his head impatiently. "Something is troubling you."
Ezio was silent for several long moments. The younger man simply waited. He was used to playing Ezio's waiting games.
Eventually Ezio cleared his throat, setting down his glass on the table beside his chair.
"Do you regret your life, Niccolo? Do you regret being an Assassin for so long?"
Machiavelli blinked. He hadn't expected this, exactly. But he supposed he shouldn't be surprised. Perhaps they were long over-due for this particular conversation.
"No, Ezio. I do not. I take it you do?"
Ezio frowned, hands resting on the arms of the comfortable chair.
"I did not choose my life, Niccolo. It was chosen for me when my family was murdered. If I recall, you once told me that you never had a choice, either."
Machiavelli chuckled. "Perhaps your memory is not old as you would like me to think." He received an odd look in return, but decided not to bring up the 'performance' Ezio had missed.
"I was seven years old when your father and brothers were killed, Ezio. And already I was well into my Assassin training." He leaned back, tilting his head for another sip. He noticed Ezio lean forward with interest.
"You were born into the Assassins."
"Si." He set down his glass. "And I knew your father. But we had only met briefly, through one Lorenzo de Medici."
"When was this?..."
"Too damn long ago." The old politician took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I knew he was a man I would want to follow in the footsteps of. I remember how devastated my parents were to hear of his death."
"How come it took you so long to contact me?" Ezio well-recalled his first meeting with Niccolo. Ironically enough, he had been dressed in the attire of a Borgia soldier, having only just confiscated the Apple. Rodrigo had him severely outnumbered, but at the last possible second, Ezio had been joined by his uncle Mario, La Volpe, Bartolomeo, Paula, Teodora, and Niccolo himself. The man ten years his younger had explained the Order of the Assassins to a very confused Ezio, but had never delved into how or why he had only located him than. Now he wanted to know.
Machiavelli shifted in his chair, settling back. "I had a lot of growing up to do, Ezio. My parents trained me to be an Assassin, but my interests also brought me into the world of politics and government." He noted the distasteful look on Ezio's face and sniffed.
"Do recall, Ezio, that my political leverage has brought aid to the Assassins more than once."
"How my uncle tolerated it for so long, I will never know."
"You've tolerated it as well." Machiavelli reminded him, tapping his finger against his own chair arm. "You, Mario, Bartolomeo and Volpe always knew where my true loyalty lay."
It was Ezio's turn to look surprised. "Quella Volpe astuta never told you...?"
"Never told me what?"
Ezio bowed his head and started to laugh. Machiavelli looked bewildered, but eventually found himself following suit. The laughter only grew heavier as Emilia returned to refill their wine glasses, shaking her head in disbelief. Assassins... Who could ever hope to understand them? Eventually she took her leave, and the laughter slowly began to die back down. Ezio whipped a tear from his eye, while Machiavelli busied himself with another drink.
"You asked me if I regret my life." He continued, staring up past Ezio's head for a moment. "I do not. Even though it was never my choice, I do not regret it. Nor should you." He spread his arms theatrically.
"After all, how can you regret the only life you've ever known?"
Ezio remembered hearing those words once before, but could not for the life of him remember where. It did not matter.
"You are a wise man, Niccolo."
"Tell that to the Medici." He grumbled, swirling his wine glass absentmindedly.
"That was twelve years ago, Niccolo. You certainly can bare a grudge."
"Another gift, from the Assassins." He frowned at his glass. "Ah well. I suppose retirement has treated me well."
"I hear your plays are the talk of the town." Ezio noted. Machiavelli smiled wanly.
"Indeed they are."
The two made small talk for the next several minutes, before Ezio decided it was time to head back home. Machiavelli ushered him to the door, where his own cart and horse waited.
"You take care of yourself, vecchio." Machiavelli reminded him, raising his glass. "Be careful running around on those rooftops. We are not the young men we used to be."
Ezio laughed heartily. He had done so little of that lately, it felt good to do it now.
"Those days are long behind us, Niccolo."
The old politician nodded contently.
"So they are, Ezio."
Less than ten years ago, Ezio would have asked Bartolomeo d'Alviano to watch over his family for him if he thought there was danger. Not that Niccolo wouldn't have been able to, but the old mercenario was a family man himself, and his children, while older then Ezio's own, took them under their wings and played alongside them. Ezio was always grateful that his children were distracted. They did not yet need to know about his past.
That all changed when Bartolomeo left Firenze to return to battle. He fought for both the French and the Swiss, and bravely so, until he died while besieging the city of Ghedi. Having been deeply loved by the people, his body was returned to Venice for burial. Ezio journeyed there alongside Machiavelli, where they greeted Bartolomeo's wife and children with open arms and fond memories.
Now, so many of Ezio's old friends were gone. Bartolomeo, who died in battle. Volpe, having succumbed years before to a number of ailments. Lorenzo, who died when he was but forty-three years old. Leonardo
his dearest friend
also died of illness. And Yusuf
Now only Niccolo remained, a steady reassurance. Which was why Ezio turned to him the night he and a young Chinese Assassin by the name of Shao Jun had been attacked in Florence.
The message came swiftly, and Machiavelli prepared for the arrival of Sofia and Flavia. He had Emilia sweep and clean the spare bedroom, and had his cook order in a much-needed batch of groceries. In a life such as this, you never knew for sure how long people would need to stay. And although Machiavelli prided himself with what Ezio liked to call his bachelor pad, in truth it wasn't an ideal place for a worried mother and her child.
They would be safe, though.
The two arrived just after nightfall. Machiavelli greeted them inside the carriage house and escorted them inside. Having never married, and not being very much a fan of children, Machiavelli had nothing to keep young Flavia occupied throughout the evening. Sofia saw to that herself, making sure her daughter ate something before going to bed. Machiavelli busied himself focusing on his next script. Eventually Sofia returned, settling herself down on the divan near the window, gazing wistfully outside. Machiavelli took the opportunity to study her.
He had always found her to be peculiar. Although he'd found it hard to believe when Ezio first told him he'd finally found a woman he wanted to marry, Machiavelli found little to dislike about the woman. She was intelligent, beautiful and possessed a mind of her own. But she understood little of the Order, and encouraged Ezio's retirement from the Assassin lifestyle after they left Constantinople. Machiavelli had bulked, curtly informing her that there were precious few Assassins as it was, and that Ezio's continued presence as Mentor was needed.
The two butted heads off and on for the next year, until Flavia was born. Ezio had made his decision he would no longer play any role in the Assassin Order. Machiavelli made his protest known, but Ezio was nothing if not equally as stubborn as his long-time adviser. He was a family man, now.
As it turned out, Machiavelli ended up following suit anyway less than two years later. Having been dismissed by the Medici as a political figure, he found that he no longer held the same sway in the government as he once had. While he had taken to training the newer Assassin recruits, it was becoming more and more difficult for him to keep up with the energy of the youngsters. Finally admitting to himself that a fifty year old man was perhaps simply not up to the task, he left the training duties to Claudia before leaving Roma and returning to Firenze.
He liked it here
Florence was peaceful and quiet compared to the ever-busy streets of Roma. Ezio had said nothing concerning Machiavelli's sudden change of faith. He and Sofia had put their arguments to rest, but he remained ever so slightly wary of her.
Now he merely watched her. After being still for several minutes, she shifted and sighed audibly.
"If you insist on studying me like one of your manuscripts, it would do you well to at least say something." She spoke up, without so much as a glance in his direction. "It's eerie."
Machiavelli blanched, before awkwardly clearing his throat.
"Scuse, signora. I was lost in thought."
Machiavelli arched a brow. He wondered briefly if Ezio was often the victim of Sofia's own innate sixth sense. Women
No wonder Machiavelli had never cared to marry. Still, she now had his grudging respect.
"Emilia," He called into the next room. "Bring Sofia a glass of wine."
Ezio's wife accepted it gratefully, and returned her gaze to the window. Machiavelli leaned back against the comfortable chair, letting out his breath. He noticed the younger woman tense ever so slightly.
I only ever wished for Ezio to be happy with life." He sipped his drink as Sofia lowered her eyes from the window, twisting around to look back at him.
"Sometimes, I have to wonder why my husband admires you so." She said slowly. "You were a politician you worked amongst those who hunted Ezio down and plotted his murder. He defends you, claiming that you did this for his benefit. I
" She sighed, pressing her fingertips against her temple. "I think he puts too much faith in you, signore."
To his credit, Machiavelli did not appear to be the least bit offended at her harsh words. "Ezio did doubt me once." He began slowly. "Not because he did not trust me. But because we saw things differently, him and I." Sofia studied him critically, but Machiavelli went on.
"I wanted him to kill Rodrigo and Cesare, at any cost. By all means, he should have felt the same way. Cesare had just murdered Mario Auditore and razed Monteriggioni to the ground. The Assassin Order was brought to its' knees in a single morning." Machiavelli set down his glass and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands in front of him. His brow furrowed in thought.
"But Ezio had apparently grown up faster than I believed. Having left his brash-minded younger years far behind him, Ezio wanted to take his time. He wanted their deaths to mean something more than just vengeance. I may not have agreed with him, but
" The former Assassin stressed his words. "
but I supported him in my own way."
"And what way would that be?" Sofia asked in a clipped, unimpressed tone. "Giving lectures to scholars? Bartering with politicians all day?"
"Worse." Machiavelli cracked a rare smile. Maybe he liked this woman a little, after all. She didn't roll over easily. "Bringing Ezio to Roma after the villa attack. Sneaking explosives into Castel Sant'Angelo. Sending il mercenario to Ezio's aid at the Colosseo. All the while, bribing Borgia guards to look the other way." He spread his hands in a friendly gesture.
"I can fight, signora, but I choose to use my words, first."
"And your coin." Sofia added with clear distaste. "So the money earned by those out fighting made its way right back into Borgia coffers?"
"Ah. That would be the case, signora." Machiavelli tilted his chin triumphantly. "If not for my guilty habit of occasionally slipping said Borgia coin from their coffers, first."
"So you paid them
with their own paychecks."
"That I did. I would never allow Assassin money to line the pockets of our enemies."
Sofia was quiet for several moments. "My husband tells me little about those days. When you speak of him, it feels like you're talking about someone I don't even know."
"Make no mistakes." Machiavelli relaxed, leaning back once more, comfortably arching his back. "That old dog still carries a sharp bite. If he had to, he could become the same man from so many years ago." To his surprise, Sofia chortled. Her laughter played like a soft melody; a familiar old tune to Machiavelli's ears. For a brief second he wondered if she would have found La Mandragola to be funny and, if so, if she would have expressed the same amusement he heard now.
Somehow, he doubted it. Sofia seemed to be a woman of more refined taste.
"You really are a politician, Niccolo."
"Old habits die hard, signora."
"Per favore. You may call me Sofia."
It was only days after that comfortable night, in both the company of old friends and new, that Ezio Auditore passed away one warm morning in Firenze. Machiavelli received the news during his dinner, and found his appetite had suddenly vanished. Niccolo was not a man to shed tears over lost friends, and yet his hands trembled as his eyes danced over the hastily scrawled text.
"Emilia. Call for my horse and do not bother with preparing my room tonight. I will not need it." The maidservant did not question her employer, but quickly fetched the stablehand. Just after nightfall, Machiavelli arrived in San Gimignano.
His reunion with Sofia was not a pleasant one. A strong, formidable woman in his home, she now collapsed against him in tears, clutching a crumpled note in her fist. Machiavelli took her weight, carefully maneuvering the letter from her gasp. He allowed her to sob against him as he carefully read the last words of his long-time friend and fellow Assassin.
for you, our children, our brothers and sisters. And for the vast and wonderful world that gave us life, and keeps us guessing. Endless affection, mio Sofia.
Niccolo Machiavelli closed his eyes, letting the parchment drop from his fingers. He held Sofia for so long he lost track of time. Eventually he led her out of the foyer and back into the livingroom, helping her to sit down in front of the warm hearth. The comparatively young woman, so poised and confident merely two nights ago, now whipped smudged makeup from her face and cheeks before wrapping her arms tightly around herself. And in the dim light from the fireplace, Machiavelli began to talk. It did not matter what he said all he believed she needed was to hear kind words of her late husband. The old politician, himself wracked with retrained grief, was all too prepared to give it to her.
He did not leave the San Gimignano villa until the day following Ezio's funeral. He promised Sofia before setting off that he would return in two week's time. Claudia would stay with the grieving family until his return. Heading back toward Firenze, however, he drew his mount to a stop. The fifty-five year old man's eyes drifted toward the small Tuscan church where Ezio's body had been laid to rest at last. Machiavelli briefly wondered if, had events allowed it, Ezio would have chosen to be buried with his ancestors in the Monteriggioni crypt. He just as quickly dismissed the thought. Even if the mostly subterranean chamber was still intact following the destruction of the city, Ezio would never have chosen to remain contained within its cold, stone walls. The more Machiavelli pondered it, the more he realized that the small, country church suited the old Assassin just fine. In time, perhaps, he would be joined by his wife and children, and perhaps his children's children. Assassin or not Auditore, or married off the holy ground would reunite them.
Dismounting, Machiavelli's feet directed him toward the small cemetery behind the church. He sat himself down in front of the mound of recently disturbed soil, tired eyes drawn to the newly erected headstone.
Beloved Husband, Father, and Mentor
Requiescat in Pace
Truer words never spoken, Machiavelli noted in weary satisfaction. The old dog would be pleased. He sat back on his knees, taking a moment to breath in the crisp Tuscan air. As much as he enjoyed Firenze, there were some things you just couldn't savor while living in the city. The fresh air was only one of them.
"A more appropriate send-off was never given to a finer man." Machiavelli told him after several minutes of thoughtful silence. "You deserved this, vecchio amico."
Silence, save for a faint breeze that rustled the leaves of the trees bordering the cemetery fence. Niccolo felt himself relax the tired ache he'd carried for days leaving his shoulders. Even his sadness began to ebb away, replaced with a feeling of ease. He, too, was an aging Assassin; a mere ten years behind Ezio. A decade may seem as endless as the far-reaching sea to the young and strong, but Machiavelli understood all too well how short the time really was.
Ezio's last words to his wife came back to linger in his mind. And now, in the twilight of my life, this understanding has passed into contentment. Machiavelli, likewise, sought understanding. Contentment. He still had time. Not much, but some. Even in death, he noted with interest, the older Assassin had granted him some measure of new life. Liberty. And time. All three tenants which Ezio had held onto so tightly, and guarded so jealously. A final gift.
Machiavelli sat in quiet contemplation well into the evening. At long last he climbed to his feet. The tips of his fingers brushed the cool stone of Ezio's silent grave marker. Far above his head, he heard the faint screech of a bird in flight. A worn smile graced his lips, and he turned away.
"Grazie mille, my old friend."