It had been a few weeks since Fee's disappearance, and Leonardo busied himself with menial tasks in the Villa – cleaning, preparing his equipment, decorating canvases that were not for commissions. Anything to keep his mind from his missing son.
After he had returned to Monteriggioni, he decided that Fee must have been mortally wounded and, not wanting to worry anyone, had hurried off to die alone. The image of his son, beaten and bloody, lying in some gutter in his final moments was enough to make him wretch, weep and cry out in anger. Why was it that those with good hearts had such cruel lives? Why did circumstance favour the bitter and deceitful, when if Fiorentino could have had his pen and written his books he stood the chance to save the world from its moral demise?
As he swept away all the paraphernalia on his workshop table, Leonardo began to sketch. He had a painting in mind for Florence. He would make the buildings melt and lean like crooked old men, forcing the trees in the park, which he would draw bare and twisted, to become walking sticks. The grand sky would drip down and the sun would fizzle out to become a chunk of black coal. He would make all the people ugly; toad-faced, slimy creatures that scuttled on two chicken-like legs, arms filled with petty, pointless things, eyes wide but dumb. Their ignorance to his boy's gentle nature was fuel for Leonardo's wrath, and he would deal with his rage in the only way he knew how.
Gian worried for the artist. He would watch as late at night Leonardo worked, candle flickering at his side, exaggerating his shadow across a stone wall now stripped of its paintings. His head hardly rose, and when it did, it was only to gaze vacantly at the grey in front of him.
Mario and Ezio mourned him in their own way. They burned replicas of his clothes, praying to a conventional deity that he would be received well, before quitting the memorial and fighting with everything they had in them. Soldiers both brave and cunning were brought down, for the men longed to see the fresh-faced child that they had indoctrinated to their cause, and who they had lost to it. Like Frederico. But Frederico had always been a willing martyr; Fiorentino had wished for nothing more than to wash his hands of it.
Salaì helped Claudia, listening to her share fond memories of her nephew. She revealed he had often read Angelo stories, recited to him great epics of books he no longer had but had memorised, and never failed to put a smile on her face with his constant willingness to help. Even if he had returned from eight weeks on the field, she said, he had always offered to do some household chores before he went to bed. He had a heart of gold not meant for Auditore men.
They sat in the front office of the Villa, the sunlight having died and the silver glow of the moonlight shining through the windows, pooling on the floor. The desk was filled with knitting equipment and their finished pieces. They had become close through it, though Claudia had often joked with the boy that he would make a fine wife, should he knit so well for a man.
Fiorentino's portrait hung proudly in the art room. Mario had asked to put it on display, and Leonardo did not object. His four year old self, bright smile, kind eyes, looked down at the collections of landscape art and portraits, the paintings of old, degenerate people just moments before being hanged; it brought a sort of joy to the room. Visitors could not feel the despair and loss that now resonated from the image. They just commented about it, asked who the boy was, and moved on.
"Have you seen Maestro Leonardo today, Salaì?" the woman asked, packing away some of the large blunted knitting needles; "He never came down for dinner."
Gian nodded; "He said he had just made some progress on his recent painting, and felt rude to the piece if he left it. Nobiltà al suo meglio."
"He really must stop doing that. I worry for his health."
"Well," the apprentice ducked his head down to the patch of ground beneath him, hesitant to bring up old haunts; "We all know why he does it."
There was a moment of tense silence, then; "Yes, we do."
The pair began to place the knitting away in handy compartments; behind the shelves, in the small desk drawers, even in Angelo's toy chest that was hidden in a dark corner. Gian made no further comment on his mentor's health. He knew that Leonardo was still in mourning, perhaps would always be so, for Fiorentino had been the one consistent source of light for him in an increasingly dim world, and now that light had been extinguished.
Mario entered the Villa, face grubby and eyes tired. He looked first at the artwork room thrown into shadow, and then ambled towards the front office where his niece and guest were tidying.
"A courier came," he announced, surprising the pair who had their backs turned to him. He produced a letter from his belt, clean despite the dirt on his hands; "He gave me this letter. It's for Leonardo."
Gian jumped to take it from him. Rarely did people cross into the artist's domain, worried for how his mind was faring in grief.
"A courier, so late?" Claudia asked as the boy began to check it over, "That can't be right. Troppo strano."
"He said he was paid extra for the trouble. He seemed an honest sort."
Gian nodded; "I'll take it to him."
Upstairs, surrounded by hasty sketches and rage-fuelled, half-finished paintings, Leonardo set to work on his latest piece. He cared not for the state of his room. He just worked, worked until the image of his happy faced young boy was gone from his mind, even to be replaced by the creatures of grief.
He heard the feet traipsing up the stone staircase. For one wild moment, he thought it might be Fiorentino. Perhaps the boy had finally made good on his promise? To return to him, even in death. But he was left disappointed; Gian walked in, looking at him with an almost hesitant gaze as he toyed with the letter in hand.
"Maestro?" he asked.
"What is it?" Leonardo fixed himself back on what he was doing; "I'm busy right now, Salaì. What's so important that you have to disturb me?"
"Maestro…it's a letter."
Stilling, Leonardo was silent as a white envelope was placed next to him. He dared not look. If he looked, he might have been driven insane. Gian could not read it for him, though, and after a while of motionlessness, the artist turned his head.
In curly writing so familiar to him, read the words 'MAESTRO DA VINCI.'
The candle flickered beside him as though waiting for a reaction. Then, Leonardo snatched him up, pulling the candleholder towards him so he could better inspect the words, believing them to be forgeries. Who would do something so cruel?
"Who gave you this?" he demanded.
"Mario was given it by a courier. He said he was paid extra to deliver it so late."
"Who paid him?"
"We don't know. Mario didn't say."
Without any other lead to go on, Leonardo tore the letter open, ignoring the delicate letter opener he usually used in his haste.
He stilled. Gian noticed his shoulders tensing, his eyes widening, and his mouth becoming a hard frown. Then, almost elated, he began to laugh – something close to hysterical, but not quite so, and so comforting to the ears of the apprentice that had long watched him grieve.
"I knew it," he said; "I knew it."
The letter was short, concise, no more than three words long;
I am safe.