Ezio did not like doors.
It was one of the first things that Niccolo had learned about him, this last heir of the Auditore bloodline: Ezio Auditore da Firenze did not like doors. He entered through windows, or dropped down into the courtyard from the rooftops, or commandeered a cannon to blow a hole through a wall so that he could enter thusly; but he avoided doors when he could. It was an irritating habit—something Niccolo considered on par with refusing to wash one's hands before supper, or unsolicited advice on how to arrange his hair—but he was used to it enough by now, out of sheer necessity if nothing else, and so when he heard footsteps above his head that evening Niccolo merely sighed, and set down his quill, and went to his cabinet to fetch a bottle of wine.
"It's open," he called in the direction of the window. "Come in."
The shutters swung open with a creak. Niccolo pulled out two goblets from a drawer, took a tray from the cabinet's top shelf, and brought everything over to his desk; at the other end of the room, there was a soft thud as an assassin vaulted over the window and dropped lightly to the floor.
"Ezio," Niccolo said, by way of greeting. "Wine?"
He poured. The fire was burning low in the hearth, but the other man drew close enough for Niccolo to see the faint splashes of blood on his sleeves—dark red against the white lace and silver armor, and almost exactly the color of the wine in their goblets. "It went well?" he asked, setting down the bottle.
"Very well." Ezio was smiling, dark and dangerous. "The Borgia have lost an ally, and we have gained several—and, moreover, control of most of the eastern sector. Ah, is this the fine vintage you promised me? Grazie."
"To freedom," said Niccolo, and raised his goblet.
"To the liberation of Roma," said Ezio, lifting his own.
They toasted and drank.
"What I do not understand," Ezio said, setting down his goblet with a clink, "is why the Borgia seek to destroy this city."
Anger, in his voice, and sorrow and loss and righteous indignation; Niccolo sipped at his wine and suppressed a sigh. "A common misconception," he told the other man. "I am certain the Borgia have no desire to be regents over flame and corpses. They do not seek to destroy, but to control."
"Really," Ezio said skeptically. Niccolo allowed himself a grim smile.
"They are not very good at it," he said.
Ezio snorted at that. The silence that fell between them was almost companionable; the two had their differences, and a quarrel between them could ruin what little they had managed to rebuild of the Assassin order, but for all his stubbornness and philandering and swagger, Ezio Auditore was an honorable man. Niccolo respected him.
He did not always like him, but that was unimportant.
"For a ruler," Niccolo said softly, "it is better to be feared than loved, but most of all they must take care not to be hated."
"What would you do, then, if you were Cesare?"
Ezio said the name like a curse, and Niccolo had no doubt that he would've spit in distaste, too, if they had not been inside. "I would cease the executions," he said.
"To kill so indiscriminately serves no purpose. A woman, hanged, for being too tempting for the guards? Men killed for frequenting the wrong tavern? It will only incite sentiment against you."
"How will you make the people fear you, then?" Ezio asked, and he was watching Niccolo too carefully but there was no hostility in the gaze. Niccolo shrugged.
"I would still have the guards," he said. "It is not the nobility that the Borgia must now concern themselves with, or the condottieri, or the church—but rather the people of the city, and they have neglected to consider this." It was such a simple thing, and the Borgia did not understand, and did not understand— "The people will unite and overthrow them. It is what we are doing. Cesare plays at politics at the dinner-table, but he does not know how to win the support of a rabble crowd."
"You have been considering this."
"We are fighting a revolution," Niccolo said dryly. "Of course I have been considering this."
"And when we win," said Ezio, with all the unconscious arrogance of one who has been born into nobility and wealth, "perhaps you think you should take over instead, since you have given this so much thought and know precisely what to do—"
His voice was sharp. "No."
And Niccolo could not blame the other man for his skepticism, for if their roles had been reversed he would have done the same; but it still hurt, even after all these years—
He strode to the window, gripped the sill, gazed out across a darkened city beneath the clouded moon. Off in the distance, a tower was burning, smoke and cinders spiraling into the sky. Niccolo drew in a deep breath.
The air smelled like rain.
"No," he said again. "Never. We will save this city, and it will be a republic, and a man like Cesare Borgia will never hold sway here again."
"Princes," and his voice was bitter even in his own ears, "are as unfaithful as any man, and to greater consequences. The people have been accused of being fickle, but they would never appoint to office a corrupt minister or a disreputable one, when a prince would do so without a second thought if the bribe were large enough; the people have been accused of ingratitude, when the ingratitude of princes is so much worse—"
He turned around.
Ezio Auditore was looking uncomfortable, even in the dim light from the fire. "Forgive me," he said. "I did not intend to rile you."
Niccolo did not trust himself to speak. He merely inclined his head, stiffly, and pressed his lips together.
But Ezio Auditore da Firenze did not know when to shut up. "The Medici," he began cautiously, "have been good allies to the Assassins, and to me—"
"But not to me."
"I mean, I could speak to them, acquire a pardon—"
"They are princes like any other," Niccolo said coldly. "Worse, even, for they are good at what they do, in this game of crowns and princedoms. They have nothing to gain from welcoming me back, and much to lose; no, they will not do it, not for anything that you could offer them."
Ezio was watching him again, thoughtful. "So it's only about power, then?" he asked. "There is no place for friendship, unless it brings a profitable alliance?"
"This is what the world is," Niccolo told him. "I did not say I approved, but this is what it is."
Virtue was a bitter taste in his mouth, like ashes, like the memory of everything he had lost when Firenze had cast him out—
He would die here, far from the city he had served for so long, and Truth was such a pale comfort against the longing to see his home again.
"I will not forget you," Ezio told him.
Because our alliance profits you, Niccolo did not say, because it would have been ungracious. "Thank you," he said instead.
Ezio sighed and came forward to clap his shoulder. "Well, I mean it," he said. "I must be going before Claudia throws a fit, but do you know when the next assignment will be?"
"Within the month, certainly." Niccolo stepped aside to allow Ezio access to the window—perhaps the man had had an unfortunate accident with a door in his childhood?—and raised his hand in salute. "Safety and peace, Ezio."
"Safety and peace to you as well."
Then, in a flurry of robes, the other man was gone.
Niccolo returned to his desk and put away the wine. The servants would clear away the goblets in the morning. He moved them aside; beneath them were the scattered papers upon which he had attempted to arrange his thoughts before Ezio had dropped by, but he was in no mood to consider them now. It was growing late, anyway, and there would be new recruits to train on the morrow, and missions to plan, and recalcitrant assassins to argue with.
Niccolo banked the fire and went to bed.
His dreams, that night, were filled with the glitter of sunlight on the Arno, and everywhere the memory of home.
A/N: So what happens when you try to weld together AC history and real life history? Holes big enough to let a camel through, that's what. Let's pretend that Niccolo Machiavelli was in Rome in 1502 (or so) because Lorenzo de'Medici exiled him from Florence before then, and he's managing stuff for the Assassins throughout AC: Brotherhood.
In reality, the Medicis fell out of power soon after Lorenzo's death in 1492, and Machiavelli was still in Florence while Brotherhood was happening. Well, sort of in Florence—he got sent on a lot of diplomatic missions, like ones to Rome where he talked to Cesare Borgia, who was a man he greatly admired. He also went to France a few times. Anyway, he wouldn't be exiled until the Medicis came back to power in 1512, so while he did get very upset at that family, during the timeframe of Brotherhood they weren't even relevant in Florence.
Please ignore all this stuff—Ubisoft certainly did, at any rate, and I couldn't figure out a good way around it.
Things that are true:
The Arno River is the river that runs through Florence. And Machiavelli and Ezio apparently argue over who gets to be The Leader in Brotherhood, so that's why they aren't entirely happy with each other here.
Machiavelli did want to go home to Florence very badly, and he did think the sorts of things that I've had him say here. Astute readers will note that some of his dialogue are nearly direct quotations from The Prince and The Discourses, but I am, alas, too lazy to put in footnotes or references. I also wanted to work in other aspects of his philosophy, but there wasn't room to explain everything without the entire fic turning into an "Introduction to Political Science" seminar. Not that political science and game theory isn't fascinating, but Ezio has Places To Be.
(Machiavelli was brilliant and I have a massive crush on him even though he's five hundred years dead. Read his writings! Fangirl with me! He is so smart and so sad because he just wants to go home and can't and I want to give him a hug…)