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The Tale of the Pilgrim

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They’ll tell you your father was one of the most intelligent, dignified, compassionate, benevolent, wonderful men that ever lived. He restored the true ducal line. He saved Milan from the scourge of the Sforzas and, like Christ with Lazarus, raised it from near-death to become a firm wall against invading armies. He was nice to the peasants and managed the nobles with a light hand, and even made the tradesmen and bankers happy. Maybe he’ll be beautified by the time you read to understand this letter, to go along with his ‘excellently-proportioned face and body,’ as the courtiers used to say. If he has been, I hope you didn’t contribute to the bribes. You’ll have better things to spend money on and you should have learned that, or else Sandro will rise from his tomb, stomp into that over-done reliquary of a bedroom to scold you and then complain about the dirt in his hair. And your father would agree with him. He never could stand to see Sandro upset.

I wouldn’t think either that there would be a point to forcing the Church to recognize your father’s good qualities, although I would find it amusing given how much trouble they made for him. All those damn Popes wanted to save the Italian states from the French or the Holy Roman Emperor, and then they couldn’t stand it when your father actually did it over and over again. And Florence, Rome, Siena—none of them will ever admit that Milan is what allowed them to stay free to bicker and quarrel and fight idiotic wars with your father. It’s a lost cause, reminding them. Don’t bother. Besides, your father knew what he was. When he was alive he didn’t need anyone to tell him he was wonderful, and he won’t need it any more now that he’s dead.

At least, that will be what they tell you, the more sensible ones who actually remember him properly. They won’t be lying, either. He never bothered to ask them. He asked me. I told him he had pretty eyes.

I’m trying to tell the truth here. I did say that. And he did have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen. I’d call them ‘wonderful.’ But the first thing you have to understand is that the truth is like me and not your father. Your father wasn’t perfect—he was a mere man, believe me—but he was good and kind and patient, and he was always trying to make things at least as well as they could be. If it was bent he would straighten it, if it was broken he would fix it or make it anew, and if it was lost he’d come up with something better. He made his road the high one. But the truth isn’t like that. The truth is crooked where it isn’t missing, and always takes the low muddy way, and even when it dresses up, feels so stiff and itchy and trapped in its finery that it’s relieved when it finally tears its lace on something. The truth never knows that it is the truth until it’s too late.

So…there it is, children. But don’t you ever let anyone convince you that I didn’t love your father. Milan, that’s a different story, but there’s another truth for you. Your father was not Milan. Your father was the most damnable man I ever met—yes, including Sandro, but he can rest easy because I had to invent entirely new words for him—and I always loved him. From the moment I saw him. I loved your father.

* * *

The smoky dimness of the air within the tavern prevented anyone from remarking on the newcomers for several minutes after their entry. Glasses continued to clink through the loud, incessant but indecipherable rumble of people’s talk, and beside Robin, Dennis and Cruyff chatted pleasantly about the price of Baltic grain and the damned Guelders pirates on the Zuider Zee.

Robin drank some of his beer, then resettled the ledger on the table before him to give his knees some rest. But in such a position the light of the lantern hanging above him didn’t reach the pages, so he rose to adjust the lantern’s chain. His fingers slipped and the lantern swung sharply, causing Dennis to tell him to have a care. Nodding, Robin hastily steadied the lantern, then peered around it down at the ledger, concerned that he might have splattered hot wax on the pages or worse yet, singed them.

But they seemed whole and so he returned to the matter of shortening the chain. The clink of the links made him frown, and gradually he realized that that was because he was unaccustomed to hearing such a soft sound. He looked up, then down as a shadow wholly encompassed their table. Then up again, at the two men standing before the table. Silence rippled outward from their dark corner.

“Bergkamp. Johan.” Van Basten passed his eyes over Robin as well, but made no further remarks. He had removed his hat but not his cloak, though that was turned back as if he meant to sit whether they’d have him or not.

The other man with him was a small, slight figure, with close-cropped curly hair that was grey speckled with black. He came a little nearer and Robin moved the lantern, casting its weak light over the foreign cut of the man’s clothes. They were much richer than those that any Hollander, even the great lords and merchants, would wear, but were properly somber in hue. The light glittered briefly on the man’s seal ring, so large it seemed to rule his hand rather than adorn it, before his fingers flexed and the ring suddenly twisted out of sight, into his closed fist.

Cruyff put down his tankard and rested his arms on the table, slightly flexed but loose. “Good evening. Good evening to you as well, my lord.”

“There’ll be no titles here,” Van Basten said rather sharply.

“Please, I’m merely enjoying the…the flavor of your city,” his companion said at the same time. More quietly, his slurring lilt smearing Van Basten’s words. He seemed not to notice the flick of a look Van Basten gave him, instead offering his hand. The ring had disappeared from it.

After a cool moment, Cruyff rose and accepted it, and then called for the smaller room in the back as he slid out from behind the table. A lone voice protested that they had a good game going in it but Cruyff never bothered to look. He let the others speak some sense to the fool while he greeted Van Basten’s companion at greater length and with considerable friendliness. As they moved towards the back, he introduced Dennis and Robin, and then showed unusual solicitousness in asking whether the stranger took drink.

Robin broke his quill in his haste to pack up his writing kit, and then suffered a few bruises to the ribs as he hauled up the unwieldy ledger from the table. But he suppressed his grunts of pain and silently moved the ledger’s brutal corners from vulnerable flesh, much more interested in the subtleties of the verbal exchanges before him. They all respected each other, of course, as befitted members of Amsterdam’s small circle of elite merchants: they did business with each other, shared investments, intermarried. But respect could have some difficult shades, much like the relationship between the Low Countries and the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles could call himself ruler, and then try to rule; Van Basten could call himself an Amsterdam merchant, but the fact of the matter was that he had been born in Utrecht and had wedged himself into his current position. His business was respected but he himself could be another matter.

Cruyff went ahead, partnering the stranger while Van Basten drifted warily behind the pair. As they passed into the hall, Robin slipped behind the tavernkeeper’s table and stowed the ledger and writing kit safely beneath the broad wooden top. He stood with a look to the tavernkeeper, who deferentially tugged his forelock, and then turned back to the hall, only to find Dennis walking out.

The other man caught Robin’s eye before coming up to the hall-end of the table, where he began to count out coins for drink and for the benefit of curious eyes. He paused as Robin went to the right of him, then flicked a coin so it spun three times before falling neatly on top of the others. “You should go on ahead,” he said. “It should be interesting.”

“Then where are you going?” Robin muttered. He stepped close to the wall, then peered round the corner. The other three men had already disappeared into the room, but the door was still half-open.

He straightened and looked back, and Dennis was smiling at him, amused. Then Dennis ducked his head, tightening the strings on his moneybag. He shook his head and breathed in deeply, then brought up a hand to cover his mouth as the filthy air brought a heavy cough from him. “I’m not interested in the Mediterranean. The Baltic’s sea enough for me.”

“Dennis, in twenty years you’ve hardly been so far as the piers.” Robin didn’t bother to sound tactful; it was common knowledge how incapacitating Dennis’ seasickness was, and the man himself said it was his price before God for his ability to predict the vagaries of faraway markets. They all roundly mocked him for it, but not a one of them didn’t stand at the docks waiting for their cargos without wishing they had his foresight. “Mediterranean?”

“That man.” Dennis smoothed his cloak over his front, then twisted his arms free of it. “Is Roberto Donadoni, of Milan. He was quite good friends with the old Duke, and even served as a tutor to the Duke’s sons, including the current Duke.”

The tavernkeeper was serving a loud customer at the other end of the table, and the rest of the room seemed to have regained interest in their former activities. Of course Robin didn’t believe a single dice or mug of it, but likely they were all too wary to wander near enough to hear. “Odd that he’s here then, isn’t it? Even if there’s a truce on, it’s not likely that Margaret or Charles would take too kindly—”

“Precisely why I am going home to a nice roast duck, and leaving it to Johan,” Dennis said, smiling again. He glanced at Robin, then put his hand briefly on the table’s corner as he squeezed himself towards the door, head bent low to avoid the rafters. “I don’t know if you know that Marco spent a few years in Milan, when he was younger. It was when he was soldiering, I believe. Good even, Robin.”

For a few minutes after the man’s departure, Robin stood by the tavernkeeper’s table and mulled over Dennis’ warning—at least, he presumed that it had been a warning, oblique as it had been. Dennis had his non-negotiable facets—ships taller than a flat-bottomed barge, for example—but generally he preferred to concede a little in exchange for peace and quiet. That wasn’t to say he wouldn’t contribute generously to certain people and practices the Emperor and his aunt the Regent Margaret might find objectionable, but always without fuss and show. He did not necessarily object to drastic action but he wasn’t much for it, either. Possibly that was his only reason for leaving, since neither Cruyff nor Van Basten were of a similar opinion.

On the other hand, even Robin could see the inherent risk in a Milanese notable traveling secretly through Holland. The previous Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian, had made several attempts to acquire Milan and his grandson seemed to have inherited that longing as well as one for foolish wars. No doubt he’d also inherited a dislike for the Milanese line that had so cleverly played his grandfather off against the French, and thus earned both truce and continued independence. And speaking of such intrigues, one would have to find suspicious Milan’s interest in a part of the Emperor’s domain that was known to be unruly, at best.

“Beer’s up,” said the tavernkeeper. He plunked down several foaming tankards before Robin, who hastily suppressed his start. “You know whether sir wants me to take it in, or…”

“I’ll do it,” Robin replied after a moment. After waiting for the man to give him a tray, he moved the mugs onto it and then lifted them carefully from the table, not wanting their plentiful foam to fall unduly.

He carried them across the room and down the hall, then stopped to kick at the doorway’s frame to give the men inside some warning. Someone pulled open the door a bit and Robin stooped to avoid the low-hanging lintel as he edged inside. It was a small, nearly airless room, with barely room for the table and chairs. Robin had to clench his thighs to keep them from being pinched between table and wall as he set down the tray.

“Thank you,” Johan said, interrupting the conversation that had been flowing around the room. He’d taken up a seat against one of the back corners, facing the door but without being as blocked from it by the table as the other seats.

The other corner held Donadoni, who of the three was the only one who seemed suited to the room, for all that his clothes were orders of magnitude finer than either Johan or Van Basten. Johan’s lanky arms nearly bumped the walls when he folded them back so he could pass Donadoni a tankard, and Van Basten was plainly unhappy about having to take the seat just behind the door. As Robin set out the mugs, Van Basten repeatedly pushed at the door with one arm so its edge threatened to skin Robin’s hip. Robin had some sympathy, having been in that position before, but he caught himself biting the inside of his mouth more than once.

“No bread?” Van Basten swept his tankard off the table and to his mouth, then set it back down with half the contents gone. He touched his fingers to his lips before abruptly jerking them to his chest, from which he plucked a snowy-white handkerchief that he used to wipe the foam off his chin.

Donadoni had picked up his tankard and looked into it, but hadn’t yet drunk from it. He gazed with hooded eyes over its foam to the other man. “I’ve eaten, thank you.”

After a moment, Van Basten snorted from deep in his chest, like a draft-horse. He glanced to Donadoni, then leaned over and flicked at the door so it shut rather heavily. Robin had been searching for an excuse to ask to sit, but he still couldn’t help his start. He clattered the tray against the table, and when he took it up, found a fresh dent in the rim.

“You didn’t bring one for yourself,” Johan observed. When Robin looked up at him, the other man shook his head and gestured towards the one remaining chair. “Well, sit. Likely this won’t take long, and then I can offer a much better meal at my house.”

Of course Robin wasn’t likely to be included in the second half of the offer, and Johan’s turning towards Donadoni confirmed that prediction. The Milanese blinked, bemused and presumably because he’d just explained his lack of hunger. Then he gave an odd little rolling shrug, as if he was of two minds even about that.

“Robin’s from Rotterdam,” Johan continued. “Been a few years since he came here, but he would still know the families there.”

“But I thought the great man was in Leuven now.” Donadoni peered into his tankard again, then raised it to his nose and whiffed at the foam. Then he lowered it and looked round at them, his brows rising slightly. “I don’t have any particular interest in him, as I said.”

Van Basten’s knees set the table to rocking as he restlessly moved his legs. “You never were much of a scholar.”

There was something odd between those two, something half-buried but still very much alive that continually intruded into their dry tones, but for the moment Robin did little except be half-aware of it. He was too preoccupied with the sudden tremor in his nerves. He considered himself a brave man, but he also tried not to be a fool, and even more so when a religious issue might be concerned. “I’m not a scholar either. I never—I’ve no knowledge of such people, other than that I’ve heard their names.”

“We’re not asking about that,” Van Basten said sharply. His heels thudded on the floorboards as he sat up, making the table dance a little. He looked at Donadoni. “Fine timing you always had too, Roby. Or does living with the Pope down the road make you all think heresy’s only another word for a donation to the Church?”

Robin blinked hard, then looked over his shoulder. He started when he found that the door was firmly shut, then composed himself enough for a deep, relieved breath. Somehow he’d expected it to be wide open and waiting.

He turned back around and saw a most uncommon sight: Johan, uncomfortably rolling his shoulders. The other man stared hard at Van Basten, then flicked his eyes to his left as Donadoni leaned forward. “I’d always heard the Dutch were blunt speakers,” Donadoni remarked calmly. “And that Erasmus was still a good Christian, for all his liberal arguments. Pardon me if I’ve been mistaken. I’m not after Erasmus, but after someone who happens to be an admirer of him. My current guess is that he might be after copies of Erasmus’ tracts, and so I presumed that it’d be best to seek him in Amsterdam.”

Even Johan’s brows leaped when Donadoni voiced the name. Johan pursed his lips, then took in a draft of beer, swilling it from one cheek to the other before he finally swallowed it. Then he put down his tankard and circled his hands around it so the tips of his fingers touched, forming a circle. “People are still free to read Erasmus here, but not necessarily encouraged. In all truth, farther north and east might be more friendly to that sort of pursuit right now, but no matter. Likely he thought the same, if he’s not familiar with the Low Countries, and it’ll certainly be far easier for us to take you to him than to Erasmus.”

For the first time Donadoni showed a trace of something besides smooth gentility, snorting and shaking his head as he pushed himself up in his chair. “One would wish. He’s a remarkably resourceful young man, unfortunately.”

“Didn’t take too well to your teaching?” Van Basten asked. His voice was soft but it curled dangerously.

Donadoni kept his shoulder to Van Basten, something few men would have risked, and continued his conversation with Johan. “I am told that you are a trustworthy man and understand discretion,” he said. “This is a simple matter, and yet it isn’t.”

“I’ll honor my pledge to your lord.” Johan drummed his fingers along the table. “But it was given for a personal matter, and I don’t expect to uphold it for anything but the same.”

“Of course. It’s merely that I can’t find a certain man and I’d like your help.” After a moment, Donadoni looked down at his hands. His brows rose, as if he’d forgotten he still had a full tankard of beer in them. Then he sighed and shrugged, and as smoothly as he’d done everything else, he lifted it to his lips and drained it.

Robin had been breathing easier since he’d found out it wouldn’t have anything to do with Luther’s schism, but he couldn’t but cough sharply upon watching this sliver of a man down a pint of strong-bodied Dutch beer in one breath. At least he was in good company, for Johan straightened up sharply as well—oddly enough, Van Basten merely grunted.

Donadoni set down the tankard, wiped his mouth with a handkerchief and then looked back at Johan. “The complications come because of who he is,” he said, sounding quite sober. Regretfully so, even. “However, all I request is that you show me to him. The rest is Milan’s business.”

Johan weighed this briefly. “Who is he?”

“Daniel Maldini,” Donadoni said curtly. He glanced at his mug again, then leaned back to watch them.

For several minutes it was relatively quiet inside the cramped room. The walls and door were all of thick wood, muffling any exchange of noise—hence why Johan used it for delicate business—and so the noise of the common room wasn’t present to intrude on their contemplations.

“I thought he was negotiating for his brother the Duke in The Hague,” Johan finally said.

“Well, he’s not there now.” More than a trace of irritation had seeped into Donadoni’s voice, though he strove to disguise it by working the planes of his face. “He went out hunting two days ago and didn’t return, though we’ve put out that he’s injured himself and cannot take visitors. Thankfully Margaret’s been preoccupied with the Grand Council in Mechelen, but there is a need for haste in finding him, and for secrecy. I’ve tracked him here, and before he talked about seeing for himself what the disputes over Erasmus and Luther were about.”

Throughout Donadoni’s explanation, Johan nodded gravely at regular intervals, and when Donadoni had apparently finished, Johan put his palms flat on the table and sat up. One hand was slightly tented, as if it grasped something, and when Johan turned towards Donadoni, that hand slid across the table before briefly dipping over the edge. When it returned, it was able to lie flat. “Very well. If he is in Amsterdam, I will find him. However, I’ve never seen him. Can you provide a description?”

“I will be here till he’s found,” Donadoni said politely.

Of course Johan wouldn’t stand for that. His brows lowered as he regarded the other man. “I cannot take you everywhere with me. My wife would hardly stand for it.” Then, before Donadoni could object to the dry joke, Johan began to stand. “Nor would it help in keeping this quiet. Forgive me, but you’re rather memorable compared to the common Dutch man.”

However, Donadoni proved more than able to meet Johan’s stare, and merely raised his own brows. “I have official business here in selecting texts and other goods for the Duchess. It’s publicly known, or will be shortly.” He paused, then seemed about to concede with a slight shrug. “I know well enough that this isn’t my trade but yours, but the fact of the matter is that Daniel wouldn’t be foolish enough to make himself that easy to find. He would have kept his seal ring, and perhaps a…he carries around a small wooden top, with a wolf carved into its side. It’s an old childhood token. But that’s all.”

“You cannot give me at least his height and build?” Johan asked incredulously.

The corners of Donadoni’s mouth twitched, but he failed to smile. Nor did he seem particularly good-humored. “No. He would know how to hide that.”

Johan regarded him, eyes slightly narrowed. Then Johan abruptly twisted, and Robin had to move quickly to allow the other man to pass out before him.

“Very well, I will do what I can,” Johan said flatly. “In a day I will know if what you’ve told me is sufficient. If not, I’ll send Robin to let you know. Good even.”

Donadoni raised his hand as if to reply, but Johan had opened the door and strode out into the hall before the other man could speak. For a moment Donadoni stood as he was, and then he curled back his hand, shaking his head and smiling.

“You’re still charming,” Van Basten drawled.

“You’re still a pig-headed shit, Marco,” Donadoni said easily, with a casualness to him that had been entirely absent before. He smiled again at Van Basten, then made a little motion of his hand towards the door. “No, sir, you are the host and this is your place.”

Van Basten folded his lips under each other, and slid around the table towards Robin to let Donadoni pass in front of him. “You can see yourself back, Roby. You’ve just lost a good dinner from Johan.”

“I’ve eaten already. But thank you for the drink.” It appeared that Donadoni had expected such a reaction, since he hadn’t even paused in his progress towards the door. He nodded towards Robin, then was out in the hall and arranging his cloak over himself before Robin could rouse from his surprise that the other man even recalled Robin was there.

“That little Milanese shit.” Van Basten shut the door, then stepped back as far as the table would permit to glower at it. “He has me pander to mighty tyrant Johan and then doesn’t even have the grace to take advantage of it. Or leave me money to pay his drink.”

Robin cleared his throat, then rubbed at his temple and looked at the floor when Van Basten whirled on him. It hadn’t been so long ago that he still preferred Cruyff, with all his eccentricities, to Van Basten’s soured airs. They’d since come to know each other better due to shared goals, but he rather doubted whether he’d ever feel comfortable around the other man. Still, he was a little older now and he was trying to pick his fights these days. A small room with only one door and no windows wasn’t the place for confronting Van Basten.

“He’s not interested in Erasmus or Luther, or even Charles, since Milan is at peace with the Emperor,” Van Basten said after a long moment. He sounded a little calmer. “I’ve known Roby for years. I don’t know why he can’t keep an eye on the Duke of Milan’s younger brother, but he’s not the man you’d send if you wanted to foment discontent.”

“Pity,” Robin finally ventured. He glanced at the table, absently noting the tankards. Then he shook himself and leaned over to gather them up, and give himself something to occupy his hands. “Anyway, Dennis doesn’t think he’ll have a ship going out at the right time. He also thinks we might want to stop for a little while. Johan’s been coming to the docks more often lately and no one knows why. And you know he’s angling to be nominated as deputy to the States.”

Van Basten expressed his opinion of Dennis’ appraisal with a disgusted grunt, and then threw his shoulder against the door. He reached out and plucked his mug from Robin’s hands, finished the dregs in it, and then handed it back to Robin. “We’ll risk it. Use my ships if we have to. Johan will be busy with Maldini for a few days, at least. He never could resist noble blood.”

Robin pressed his lips together and tightened his grip around the tankards’ handles, then nodded. Personally he also thought it a bad time, and moreover, he would have liked to point out Van Basten didn’t pay him nearly well enough for their business, let alone for little chores like picking up after the other man. But he kept his peace till he was out of the room, and Van Basten just stepping onto the street.

“God’s breath, sir. What’s happened to these handles?” the tavernkeeper asked as he took back the tankards. “They’re all bent. Your fingers aren’t broken, are they?”

“With the cheap pewter you buy? Not likely,” Robin snorted. He took out his money-bag. “So what’s it for the…hmm?”

After the tavernkeeper had taken back his hand from Robin’s bag, he reached under the table and pulled out the ledger and Robin’s writing kit. “’s all right, sir. It’s been seen to. Also, you’re to come to Burgomaster Cruyff’s house at a quarter till the hour promptly.”

“Ah.” It was a surprise that Cruyff would have paid his tab, but Robin already knew it wasn’t likely to be a pleasant one in the long run, and when he had another meeting with Van Basten later. Perhaps that was off now since they’d already spoken—no, that wasn’t Van Basten’s way. Still, he’d have to settle for a note of apology, since Robin would be having dinner with Cruyff, and there was no choice in the matter for any of them.

* * *

I’ve told you before just about everything. Enough for you to guess at what I left out, at least. You weren’t quite ready when I left that your mother would’ve let me give you all the details, and anyway, I don’t know that I would have. Some things you should have to guess at. I shouldn’t always have to be the one who has to tell you everything, because your parents were so worried about bringing you up like a family and not just little dukes, and Sandro was a damn Roman to his dying day—anyway, you’ve got good minds and I know you’ve talked the servants into telling you about things even your mother would blush at.

I’m not saying she isn’t a fine woman. She is. Some days she’s more of a Duke than Paolo was, frankly. I still can’t believe I shut her up in a monastery for four years. But she is a good woman, good in the way that actually matters and isn’t just a pretty stained-glass window for the archbishop to lecture about on Sundays. And for a long time I wasn’t good. I’m still not very much so, though I tried for your father and Sandro. I know I told you I didn’t, and that I was who I was, but I’ve got a few morals and I wasn’t about to tell you everything when your heads weren’t even past my waist. And since I’m being honest, I wasn’t about to tell you about it back when you would have made a fuss and you were too small for me to rightly hit some sense into you. I’d put your parents through enough already, and that might have been one strain too many.

She knew from the beginning. I don’t know about when she found out about your father and Sandro—you’ll have to ask your mother about that—but I’d wager your parents’ marriage wasn’t that old. She was that sort of woman, and then she never…I still don’t understand her, but somehow she never blamed any of us. She thanked me, when I came down from Stockholm. Thanked me for saving their marriage, with what I did, and ever since then she’s loved me like I was a…a brother of hers, I suppose. I’m guessing, since I don’t remember any of my brothers or sisters well enough to know what it would be like to have one. But anyway, she was much better to me than she had to be. And I loved her too. You can tell her when I left, I stood at the gates for the better part of an hour because of her.

I know. I left anyway. But she’ll know what I mean. Maybe she’ll even be able to explain it to you, since that’s something I’ll never be able to do. This explanation is hard enough.

But I was saying, your mother always knew about your father and me. It wasn’t because she was intelligent—she is and I’m never going to miss a chance to tell you that, you terrible little brats—but I made it damn clear to them what I liked about your father.

Yes, his eyes. His eyes were wonderful, but I looked at the rest of him, too, and I don’t have to explain that to you. Or maybe I do…I don’t know if you’ll remember what he was like before he took ill. I thought he always looked better than he should have, given his lungs, but it wasn’t like when we…

I won’t say met. We didn’t meet. I dragged him out of the cathedral and took him prisoner. He had the eyes, and then you know about his hair because you’ve got it yourselves. Thick and soft, and the curls were the right size for my fingers. I don’t think you would have found cheekbones and a jaw as good as his on any of that ancient Roman sculpture-work that Sandro was always mooning over. You wouldn’t have found his eyebrows, I know, because those old dead men loved their straight lines and there was nothing straight about Paolo’s brows. And then your father never was much of a soldier, but out of his fine clothes you might have thought so, since he never let himself go to fat like nearly every other noble who never had to work for a living. He had pretty hands, too.

I’m laying a bet with myself that you’re blushing redder than Sandro when I’ve shown him up right now. Well, I know, I’m sorry, children, but if you’re going to understand what I did, you’ll have to understand at least a little of what I saw when I looked at your father.

Because I was nineteen. When I was young my father had hauled us all over Europe, selling his sword to whoever was around, and when I was just about old enough to start earning money myself, we shipwrecked in Egypt. I was a slave for five years. Then I come to Italy, still too busy crying over the man who’d freed me to really understand what that meant, and in about two days I lose the money he’d left me to get back to Sweden. You can ask your uncle Materazzi about that, by the way. If he’s stopped wincing over it by now.

So for the next two years I worked in Italy till I was half-dead. I hated the damn place. I wanted to go home but I had no money, so I had to kiss the rings of men who weren’t even fit to lick the feet of an ass. I went out there and put my neck on the line for their stupid little fights, day after day. And I became the best sword in Italy.

I’d seen my father lose part of an ear, this toe, that finger. This laugh, that smile. I saw him hacked apart inside long before the Saracens killed him. And you know, when I realized they weren’t going to kill me too, I swore I wouldn’t follow my father’s path. It didn’t earn me any favors with the Saracens, since that’s what they wanted me for: to be a sword for them. And then there I was in God damned Italy, being exactly that. I don’t think you’ve ever seen someone who hated the world and himself like I did.

Then I find your father in a cathedral.

It’s hard to remember now exactly what I thought. Your memory changes over the years. Some things look a little better as you run into worse things. Some things you start forgetting you ever understood, because you understand something different later. But I know I loved him then. It’s just that I didn’t understand what love was. I didn’t even understand what fucking was, to be honest—oh, I knew what went where, of course. But what it should mean, I didn’t know. All I knew was what had happened to me before, and it took me a long time to learn that you don’t do certain things to people you love. I’m a bad student about some things, and some of them I’m not proud to have been such a poor learner.

So you see, when I dragged him out of there, I was trying to tell him he was beautiful. And when I took you all up to the Swiss cantons, when I separated your parents, when I…those first four years with your father. All I was trying to do was tell him I loved him.

* * *

After dinner Cruyff took Robin into a private room and explained the Daniel Maldini matter in a little more detail, at least as Cruyff saw it. While he had initially come to negotiate trading issues, it was widely expected that he also had a marriage in mind. His brother had wed a French princess and had two children by her, but as the Duke was expected to continue the neutrality policy of his father, the natural expectation was that Daniel would look for a bride allied to the Emperor. In fact, sporadic exchanges to that effect had been going on for years, but the old Duke had continually put off settling on exactly which maiden, and so the available candidates had been married off elsewhere one by one.

Thus Daniel had reached a rather advanced age, thirty-one, for one of noble blood to be still uncontracted for. He was known to be rather willful, although unquestionably loyal to his brother. Likewise his brother the Duke was proving every bit as strong-willed and politically agile as their father had been, but was unusually indulgent where Daniel was concerned. There seemed every reason to believe that in order to settle the matter, the Duke had finally consented to let Daniel choose his wife, so long as she would meet the Emperor’s approval.

“However I do wonder if the boy’s taken this opportunity to run away from the whole business,” Cruyff finished. He offered Robin a dry quirk of the mouth before turning away and opening a low cabinet in the corner of the room. The muffled sound of clinking coins interwove with Cruyff’s occasional grunt; Cruyff was far from decrepit, but the occasional rumor of gout or rheumatism was beginning to surface. Then he turned back and passed Robin an impressively heavy sack. “No matter. We’ve no need to inquire about the reason, only to find the man. This should more than last you for a full night’s work, although I don’t expect you to return anything.”

Robin made his lips twitch back in a smile. He understood the implication of generosity that was intended, and he would find good use for his share of the money. But nonetheless he would’ve liked to remind Cruyff that it’d been many years since Dennis had lifted him out of Rotterdam’s canals. These days he wasn’t a ruffian for hire any more than Cruyff, with a rumored fourth of his money going to bribes at The Hague and at Margaret’s court in Mechelen. “Only one night?” he said neutrally.

Cruyff shut and locked the cabinet, then walked over to his desk and pulled out its stool. He picked up a quill and began to sharpen it. “I don’t doubt that Signore Donadoni has held back a few things. I’ve no interest particularly in his or in Milan’s secrets, but my pledge is at stake and I do not wish to see it tarnished by failure. So try, but don’t be surprised when you don’t get anywhere, and tomorrow Donadoni finally tells us the truth. He needs Signore Maldini back more than we do.”

“I’ll come a little after breakfast.” After securing the bag to his belt, Robin made a dutiful obeisance to Cruyff’s back and then left.

* * *

The odd thing is, your father understood. Not at first—at first he was as tied up in his family’s massacre and getting back Milan as I was in…in being somebody who had a big army and a big sword, and who could finally do whatever he wanted to people he absolutely hated. But eventually. Sooner than me. I never asked him about it, but I think he started to change his mind about me when Sandro found us in Ravenna and poked his long nose into our business.

By the way, I’m not particularly concerned about noses. Never have been. I like mine, in that I can’t picture it any other way. Even with Sandro and your father, I could talk and talk about what I liked about them but all I can think of for their noses is that I wouldn’t have wanted different ones on them either. So I’ve never understood all the fuss about that. One of Sandro’s little things, is all I can say.

He had so many of them, and later your father would tell me he’d been even worse as a page to Cardinal Lippi. Sometimes I think that maybe that’s how your father understood, since he was already used to Sandro’s ways. But then I remember that however infuriating that man must have been to your father, he couldn’t have been half as bad as me. It’s not possible, since at the end of the day, Sandro was as hopeless about your father as he was about Sandro. I used to laugh at them because their fights always ended with them bickering about which of them was more sorry, which of them was going to give way first, that sort of nonsense.

I didn’t act like that. It was my way or nothing, and nothing was usually a sword through your throat. Your mother wasn’t being mean to you when she forbade you from going with me for two years after Sandro was already taking you around his men. I’m not a noble knight about fighting. I don’t know what this ‘honor’ and ‘chivalry’ they’re always writing about is, except that it loses battles and I don’t lose battles. That’s why your father wanted me to general for him. That’s how you’ve lived long enough to become men, and how you got your wealth and your rank while people cheered for you in the streets. You better remember that. I maimed and killed and did everything else hurtful that you can think of to men all over Italy to keep you and the rest of Milan safe. Everything you’ve got grew out of bloody grass.

I’m not asking you to act like me. I didn’t do what I did so you had to follow in my path, and your father damn well didn’t do what he did for those first years because he was going to raise you to be thoughtless bastards and tyrants like those cocksucking cardinals’ nephews all over the place. And he didn’t do it because he liked me all that much either.

When he came to visit me in Sweden and he told me he’d missed me, I didn’t believe a word of it. I don’t see how I could have. Your father isn’t actually that good an actor, under his pretty voice and clever words, and I didn’t let him talk that much for four years. I’ve never been that taken with talk. I looked at how he looked at me, the few times he could bring himself to, and how he held himself around me. And I did listen to him when he talked in his sleep. He did that a good deal for somebody who was so concerned with secrecy. And in all of it there was nothing about me for him to miss, I thought.

I know, I came back. But it wasn’t for him or for Sandro, or even for your uncle Henrik. It was for me. I’d thought I’d finished with Italy but I hadn’t, and I’m not the sort of man who will let a mistake like that ruin the rest of his life out of stupid pride—and you’re not the sort of people who would be foolish enough to think less of me for admitting to a mistake, with who raised you. I went back to do things properly.

And your damn father kept telling me that he had missed me, and that he was happy I’d come back, and all sorts of nonsense. He wasted so much time on that—we didn’t see each other too often, you remember. If you don’t, then put this down and think a moment about when I was in Milan, and when your father was, and about when we were both there, whether I got up from dinner at the same time as him or as Sandro. I reckoned it once and for four years I had your father with me every day, and then for fourteen I saw him just about as many days. Then most of those days we had to discuss strategy, or we had some fancy dinner, or we were arguing with Sandro. Or you were being utter brats and making us chase you through the halls.

I remember one day when somehow none of that was in the way. We went hunting, that was why, because none of those lackeys or hangers-on could half-ride, let alone keep up with me. I didn’t want to hunt. I wanted to get out of the city and breathe some air that didn’t have a servant or a courtier also breathing in it, just waiting for me to drop a juicy piece of gossip for their little dinner parties. I’d just wrapped up another campaign in the mountains and I told myself those idiot nobles could amuse themselves taking credit for the animals their servants killed. That summer had thrown up enough dead bodies for me to not care whether or not they thought I was weak-stomached for avoiding the slaughter. I knew damn well what my stomach was like, and they’d all swear off anything but bread and water if they tried my work for half a day.

Your father went after me, and finally I stopped by some creek to give his poor horse a rest. He got off and wanted to know what was wrong so he could fix it, and I just wanted to have some peace and quiet. That was all. What was wrong wasn’t anything he could fix and wasn’t anything I hadn’t known I’d have to do when I came back. But he would keep asking. That was how he was.

We were in the south corner of that old villa he bought later, the one with the pond where we skipped stones. You wonder why he liked that place so much, even though it was small and drafty and out of the way, and eventually he had two or three bigger, better, more fashionable villas. It was because sometimes the only way to shut up your father was to back him up against something. That day it was a tree, with the leaves half-changed for fall. They kept falling on us, and I don’t think I pulled two leaves that were the same color from his hair.

If you ask your mother about this, she’ll know about it but I think she’ll still purse her lips as she does when she’s disapproving. We stayed out there a long time, long enough for some idiot to send a message to her saying they’d lost the Duke—it was not on purpose, I will swear to that. When I was traveling down from Sweden one thing I told myself was that I would not treat your parents or Sandro as I had before. That was part of the mistake, after all. But it was…it was a good day. There was nothing special about it. But it was warm enough to lie down afterward on the bare ground under the tree and think about napping, and your father didn’t make a fuss about his fancy clothes, which was something I always liked about him, by the way. He just laid down and put his head on my shoulder, and he fell asleep.

I didn’t. Too much of my life fighting, and I could never fall asleep in that sort of place, where anyone could sneak up on me. I didn’t even have my sword, only a couple daggers and a silly bow with arrows meant for birds, not men. But your father did, and I doubt he ever thought about it but I’ve seen him fall asleep in more ways than anyone else on this earth, I’d say. And I thought for a moment, looking at him, that he truly had missed me. That somehow he’d seen through all the stupid and ignorant things I’d done, and known what I had really meant to do.

I forgot about it on the way back, since he found out about how long I’d let him sleep and was annoyed about some meeting he’d missed, and then we met your mother readying a search party for us. Have I mentioned often enough that I deeply respect your mother? To be honest, fear might be a better description sometimes, and any man who considers that to be the sign of a coward can argue that with the sharp end of my sword. And lose.

But once you begin thinking a certain way, it’s easier to think that way again, and eventually I learned to believe your father when he said he was happy with me, when he said I made him happy. It might seem obvious to you but I still hadn’t reached thirty then. I know you won’t see the point in my mentioning my age so often, but you will when you’ve grown up a bit and been able to look back and see that you’ve grown up. It takes much, much longer than you think when you’re twenty-three and have already made the Pope beg for your mercy, have won and then given up one of the richest duchies in the world, and have seen the most beautiful eyes in the world regret your leaving.

* * *

In the morning Robin presented himself at Cruyff’s front gate and informed the man that he’d turned up not the slightest sign of the errant Milanese nobleman. Cruyff’s prediction aside, Robin had still made a considerable effort and had finished with only a few coins of the bag that Cruyff had given him. Nor had he gone home yet, but had proceeded directly to Cruyff’s house from his last worthless informant.

Cruyff didn’t keep Robin, but instead merely nodded and sent Robin out with a curt thanks. It didn’t appear that the man wanted Robin any longer for whatever he had in mind, and as he headed back to his lodgings, Robin was admittedly irritated at Cruyff for that. He had tried, and anyway, if Cruyff had known with such certainty that it’d be a failure from the beginning, then he had no reason to be faulting Robin’s work.

The sky was quite light with dawn by the time Robin stepped through his front door, but the positioning of his house didn’t permit its windows to catch the outside light till the day was well advanced so inside it was still dark. But he was accustomed to finding his way around by memory, and so experienced no difficulty as he scraped the mud off his boots, hung up his cloak and hat, and secured his cash in a secure place. He had managed to eat during the night, so he passed back through the kitchen without pause and headed to his bedroom at the top of the stairs.

It was pitch-black in the narrow, steep stairwell and twice Robin stubbed his foot on the steps. For a moment he considered going back down and getting a lantern from the kitchen, but finally decided against it. Or rather his finances decided against it; he would be all right when his latest cargo finally came in, but till then he rather regretted not saving more from Cruyff’s payment. If the man wouldn’t credit Robin for genuine effort, then the fact that Robin’s pride had been satisfied was poor comfort in more than one way.

He did have a lantern upstairs, but after moving it near the tinderbox, he left it unlit while he stripped down to his undershirt. His clothes smelled terribly fishy from an unpleasant accident he’d had while speaking with the men unloading barrels of salt cod, and he wasn’t very optimistic that a good washing would save them. But he’d leave that for the afternoon. For the moment he had nothing to do and he intended to at least have a good rest before he set about rectifying that.

Robin turned around and felt along the sideboard till his hand lapped over the tinderbox. He thumbed open the latch and took out the flint, then lit the lantern. Then he put away the flint and shut the box. After he’d put that back on its shelf, he took up the lantern and turned around. His hand went to his waist, then pressed hard against his hip as he breathed in very slowly and deeply.

Van Basten levered himself off Robin’s bed with a grunt. “God’s knees, but for a moment I thought you were going to undress for us, Robin. Calm down and have a seat.”

“I’ll stand,” Robin said after a moment.

He looked meaningfully across the room, where Donadoni was occupying the single chair Robin had up here. Of course he had a few more downstairs, but he wasn’t about to turn his back, much less leave the room, on these two men before he found out what they were doing in his house.

“Sit,” Van Basten said, without grunting. He nodded at the bed.

“The idea is not to offend most of the people in Holland, and end up with a private war on my hands,” Donadoni remarked dryly, looking at Van Basten.

Still, the man didn’t rise from his chair and Van Basten didn’t look as if he would forgive Robin for not doing as he was told. It had been a long, tiresome night and Robin was tempted to challenge Van Basten anyway, but finally his commonsense overruled his aggravation. He sat on the bed and put his clenched fists behind him so the sheets would disguise him. “Good morning. I’m sorry I can’t offer you any refreshments, since I didn’t realize I’d—”

“When Cruyff’s as overbearing as he is, and I could look wherever you’d look? You should have thought a bit harder before you sat down with us, and let him make a fool of you.” Van Basten walked over to the window and undid the latch, then slipped a finger under the shutter. He peered outside, then pushed the shutter shut again and leaned against the wall, crossing his arms. “No matter. Roby’s already eaten.”

Donadoni favored Van Basten with a short but sharp look and only then did Robin understand that Van Basten had just attempted a joke. It didn’t seem as if Van Basten cared that it had failed miserably.

“I earned a bit for sitting down at that table that I wouldn’t otherwise have,” Robin said after a moment. “One man’s fool’s errand is another man’s breakfast.”

That garnered him a lowering of brows from Van Basten, but surprisingly enough, Donadoni permitted a chuckle to escape him. Then he sat forward, grasping his knees and stretching his arms, and looked Robin in the eye. “You seem bright enough,” he said. “You’ve gathered by now that finding Daniel Maldini isn’t quite as easy as looking into a few brothels and taverns. I’ll also admit that I didn’t provide you with very useful information and I’m sorry if that made for a bad night for you.”

For all the man’s awkward, hesitating Dutch, it was a neat little apology and at least half-meant. Robin found himself shrugging before he’d quite worked his way through the other man’s words. He changed the angle of his arms so he was tugging down his sleeves instead. “I said the pay wasn’t bad.”

“It’ll be better,” Donadoni said, over Van Basten’s nascent objection. He reached into his cloak and took out a bag that was smaller than that which Cruyff had passed Robin, but to Robin’s practiced eye the lumps in it were shaped differently. “I do want you to find Daniel. But it’s a complicated matter.”

“I suppose, if you’re willing to waste a day when likely the lady’s waiting anxiously enough.” Then Robin started, catching a glimpse of quick movement in the corner.

Donadoni looked sharply over, then began to raise a hand. When Van Basten abruptly retreated, grinning with rather too much teeth showing, Donadoni put down his hand and frowned so his brows pushed up a ridge of flesh between them. He wasn’t at all a fleshy man and the rest of his skin stretched drum-tight over the bones of his face.

“Oh, he thinks it’s about Daniel’s engagement. Or Johan does, more like.” Van Basten glanced at Robin for confirmation, then settled back against the wall. He shook his head, then wiped at his nose, still smiling. “Well, that would be Johan, thinking so high. It should suit you, though. He’s not likely to be looking where we will, with that on his mind.”

“Who did you think the lady was? Or should it be ‘whose lady’?” Donadoni asked. His brows rose and an odd trace of offense found its way into his voice. When Van Basten merely looked at him, Donadoni’s nostrils flared with an indignant snort. He muttered something under his breath that wasn’t Dutch save for the several ‘Marcos’ before he slewed back round in his chair to regard Robin. “You needn’t concern yourself with any of Signore Maldini’s private matters.”

Robin put up his hands with the palms facing out. He didn’t attempt to look innocent because he was, in fact, innocent and had only spoke from carelessness born of exhaustion and confusion, and he knew his face showed such emotions well enough without any additional artifice. “I most assuredly had no such intention, sir—er, my lord. I only was…well, we do speak bluntly here, and it does seem odd that you’ve let a whole day and night go by when you keep speaking of hurry.”

“I don’t much like it either, but I had no choice. Anyhow, you can free yourself about such worries, as I’ll be concerned about the timing.” After a sidelong flick of the eyes to Van Basten, Donadoni drew himself up with a long breath and fixed his gaze on Robin. “You understand I’m not interested in allowing Cruyff to have a hand in this.”

“No,” Robin said. He put up his hand to catch Donadoni’s attention before the other man could grow distracted in irritation. “Yes, I understand you don’t want me to report what I do for you to him. But if you don’t want him to know at all, then why did you go to him in the first place?”

From the corner came a harsh clearing of throat, and then a double-thump of boot-heels against the floor. “Better to not ask questions, Robin.”

“Well, if he’s uncertain about it, then I’d rather he ask and have his peace of mind than go and do something foolish while still wondering about it,” Donadoni said, looking off to the side. His brows rose, then lowered and he turned back to the accompaniment of a pointed exhale. He didn’t seem much bothered by it. “Because I do want him to know I’m looking for Daniel. I can’t hide myself very well here, and he’d find that much out anyway. And there is a small chance he might come across Daniel first, so I’d rather he already have in mind that someone sees the value in Daniel coming safely home. It’s fine if Cruyff knows about that. What I’d rather him not know about is who you’ll be looking for.”

Robin made a low noise of surprise. “Not Daniel Maldini?”

“Oh, no, it’s still Daniel. But for various reasons I think the easiest and likeliest way to find Daniel is to find someone else who I believe is in Amsterdam.” A faint shadow crossed Donadoni’s brow and his voice drifted off into silence. He moved back his shoulders, looking at the floor, then put back an arm and scraped at the side of his neck. His lips worked into and out of a grimace, and finally he looked back up at Robin. “I do not think I need to tell you why I’d rather Cruyff didn’t know Zlatan was in Holland.”

It was an unusual name even for a foreigner, Robin thought as his mind raced to sort through all the latest gossip. Then he frowned and shifted on the bed, abandoning that tack as another thought occurred to him. A bit late, but it was so farfetched—and dated as well—that he didn’t feel ashamed at his slowness. “Zlatan as in Il Mago? The old general?”

“He’d be around fifty now. I’m a little older,” Donadoni said dryly, as if he’d prefer not to be defending the absent man. He rubbed at his neck again, then put his arm down so its elbow was resting on his knee. “I can’t offer you much of a description of him, except that you should ignore anything you’ve read in pamphlets, heard as gossip. It’s been two years since I last saw him and he’s the reason why I don’t believe providing you with a description of Daniel would be useful.”

“He can’t have changed everything,” Van Basten suddenly interrupted. “His height, for one.”

“You’re a little less tall now, I’ve noticed.” Donadoni nodded to Van Basten, as if the other man wasn’t stiffening in offense, then smacked his hands against his knees and rose. He came across the room to stand before Robin, with one hand slightly out. “Well? Marco’s vouched for your trustworthiness, and he can do the same for my word, which I’ll give to guarantee that you’ll only profit by this business. Will you?”

At the moment Robin had little more than he’d had before to use in what had become an infinitely more complicated and politically dangerous search. The bag of money was still on the table and he knew better to get up and go over to examine it. Moreover, he knew very well that such cash would be worthless if the Regents’ men had even a hint that he knew the location of a man who’d repeatedly made Emperor Maximilian’s armies look incompetent and worse. Such things weren’t forgiven by the Imperial line, even a generation later.

But Robin hesitated only a moment before putting out his hand and grasping Donadoni’s. As far as matters that would get him in trouble with the Holy Roman Emperor went, he was already branded too many times over for others for this to make much of a difference. And even if they’d been in Italy for the Italians, who were no friends of Holland either, Zlatan’s victories had earned him the covert admiration of many here.

And admittedly Robin’s curiosity was too piqued, with last night’s fruitless search and Cruyff’s lack of belief in him and this intriguing visit in his home, for him to turn his back on the matter. He shook Donadoni’s hand—the man had a good grip and thick calluses for a southern nobleman—and after they’d exchanged a few more particulars, saw the man out the door and down to a nearby bridge, under which a boat was waiting. It was still dark enough so that with the aid of his cloak, Donadoni stood a good chance of sneaking back to his rooms unnoticed.

Van Basten had remained upstairs, and when Robin came back, he found the other man had taken some liberties with Robin’s pens and a sheet of paper. He crossed behind Van Basten, who only turned one shoulder at the creaking floorboards, and hefted up the moneybag Donadoni had left. Then he shook out a coin into his palm, and for a moment he stood in quiet contemplation of it. It wasn’t often that a gold florin found its way to even Amsterdam, let alone in such a pristine state, with its edges unclipped and the stamp on it as sharp and clear as the day it was minted.

“This is what you should look for,” Van Basten said. Then he rose from Robin’s desk, allowing Robin to see the rough sketch he’d made.

It showed nothing more than a nose, which was quite distinctive, especially if Van Basten had drawn it to size. But it wouldn’t necessarily be unique, with the constant flow and ebb of ships from all countries from Amsterdam’s piers, and Robin could hardly go about searching a whole city for a nose.

He started to ask after the rest of the face, but Van Basten merely presented a shoulder. The other man bent over the desk again and Robin bit back his protest, thinking Van Basten was adding to the sketch, but Van Basten straightened again too quickly. Then he turned and, before Robin could stop him, had strode across the room to light a corner of the sketch at the lantern. The paper went up in a flash.

Van Basten at least took a care to keep the cinders from setting the rest of the room afire, and then disposed of the ashes by way of the window. He stood there for a few moments longer, watching the sun rise through narrowed eyes. “And he’s taller than you by a few inches. Past six feet Roby stops noticing any differences in that, is more his problem. He’s tall, and whatever else he might look like now, he’ll still talk as if he told God how to make the world.”

“You really think he can keep himself that well-hidden? Or that he is here?” Robin finally asked. “With what he’s done, and how well he’s known…he’d never need to buy his own drink in half the city, and never lack for enemies in the other half.”

“That’s why Cruyff is not to know, nor anyone else. We’ve enough problems of our own and we know better than to do as our overlords and import problems from elsewhere to solve them,” Van Basten said curtly. He looked at Robin, then snorted as he turned about and passed rudely by Robin on his way to the door. “Zlatan is here, I don’t doubt—the man would come to the worst place for him. But finding him is a different matter, so I wish you luck. I’ll see you when the shipment’s ready.”

Robin started, then took a step after the other man. “So you’ve found a—”

But the sound of Van Basten’s heavy steps was already fading. A faint slamming of the front door settled it, and after a moment Robin allowed himself a growl as he slid the florin back into its bag. He went downstairs to latch the door and to secure the bag, and then he came back up for a few hours’ sleep. Only honest tradesmen went about at this time of morning, so it’d make no sense to go about this errand till later.

* * *

It was soon enough, for all that I took so long. After that we had one year before your father picked up his cough. Your mother likes to blame it on having to burn the fields that one year to starve out the French army, because your father said if his city was going to suffer that winter then he’d make no less a sacrifice. He insisted that you and your mother still eat properly, by the way, and still sent Sandro and me the best foods he could find while we were out campaigning. Sandro always insisted it was because your father went to Rome and didn’t listen to him about not touching the city water, or not breathing the air, or something of that nature. It changed every time Sandro decided to rant about it. For a man who thought Rome was the best city in the world, Sandro spent a good deal of his time explaining how filthy and dangerous it was.

They’re both wrong, in my opinion. I don’t know how your father became ill and I’ll not pretend that I do, but I know that it wasn’t because your mother let him be heroic that winter, or because Sandro was an awful guide to Rome. Whatever it was, it happened because your father got it into his head that he wasn’t only going to secure Milan for you, but was going to secure Milan for all time. And somehow this involved uniting Italy. All of Italy, for the ages and not merely for some temporary league while the Venetians finished negotiating behind everyone’s backs. Your father could have absolutely no sense sometimes. Still beautiful, but I have never wanted so much to kill someone to save them from their own foolishness.

I didn’t, of course. I stood around and watched with everyone else while he let Italy kill him. It wasn’t the cough. The cough was just something for the doctors to mutter about and wave their hands over and try to persuade your mother that the right remedy for it was the most expensive damn poison they could think of. Doctors are just another kind of flea, in my opinion. They don’t know anything and then they expect to get paid when their ignorance kills you.

Philippe wasn’t a doctor. He was a good Swiss pikeman who knew his way around a herbal garden, and who could sew up a wound as fast as I’ve ever seen. Always looked more terrified about it than the screaming bastard getting sewn up, but he could do neat little stitches, as good as a lady’s. He was more than half in love with your mother. That’s why he left afterward. He really loved her, but he liked your father too so he didn’t ever do anything. He was as honorable as those idiotic poets like to claim their lords are, and he gave your father a few extra years and when those years ran out, he helped make it an easy death. He and I never got along that well, but that was the only time I was glad to see Inzaghi bring back a surprise, when that man tracked Philippe down in Spain. So leave Philippe alone and don’t blame him either. He’s never going to get over your mother, so it’d just be cruel and you were taught better.

I don’t blame myself for it. If you had that idea in your head, you can take it out right now and blush that you were ever so brainless. I haven’t lived as long as I have without knowing what a fight I can’t win looks like, and I never was so stupid as to confuse loving your father with making a fool of myself over him. I know damn well he would have caught that cold even if I’d been in Milan instead of on the border killing the French for him. Maybe it wouldn’t have been a cold, but it would have been something and it still would have turned out the same. He had it in his head that he was going to change the world and your father could be as stubborn as any mule when he felt like it. He only acted more nicely than Sandro.

And also he told me so, at the end. Your mother won’t talk about those few days—I think she still feels ashamed that she wasn’t at his bedside for it, and it’s the only thing I find silly about her. She tended him as best he could, and her absence wasn’t her fault. It didn’t take Philippe to tell us that being around your father too much might result in more than one death, and you children still needed her. Your damn city still needed her. Christian, you were still bringing your new wife back from the border, and Daniel was south with Sandro learning to lead an army. Daniel wasn’t even shaving regularly yet. Who else was left?

She said me as well, only less nicely. I forgave her because it was only a few hours before the funeral, and up till then she’d been nothing but the perfect widow, nobly shouldering on till her sons could hurry home. She needed to scream at someone.

But no, not me. I was only thirty-five, but I was already almost too old for the kind of war people were waging then. In my day I was the best at war and part of that was because I did things no one else would think of, much less dare to, but it wasn’t my day anymore. Milan had other generals, who’d learned from what I had done and who fought the way that they needed to fight in order to win. And I was tired of the blood and the corpses and the death. They like to call me a braggart but honestly, all I do is recognize what I am and what I am not, and not pretend that I don’t know how good or bad that I am. And I knew I couldn’t do what you have to do as a good general for much longer. So why insist that I still have top place, and block the way for younger men who might do it better? I’ve never been in love with Milan but I fought damn hard for it and I didn’t see the sense in letting all that go to waste just to comfort my pride.

Besides, it was an ugly, slow death that your father had. You didn’t see half of it—he wouldn’t allow it, and you were both away, I think, because he knew it was coming and he wanted to spare you that. It was the same for Sandro and your mother. They would have stayed—he knew they would have, but he cared enough about them that he wanted it to be easy for them. He wasn’t about to win that argument with me, with what I’ve seen and done and cleaned off my sword. He didn’t try, to be honest. He only looked at me, and then nodded as he turned away his head.

That was when I was certain he was dying. Your father was an intelligent man. He didn’t like wasting effort on hopeless fights either. So if I’m going to blame anyone, it would be him for not seeing that a united Italy was such a fight.

But I can’t blame him. So I don’t blame anyone.

* * *

Robin woke a little after midday, somewhat later than he’d intended, and hurried through his usual ablutions in order to make up the time. He left his house without eating, but rectified that at the first tavern he visited, where he also received the latest gossip and general information about the morning’s shipping. It was one of his favorite haunts as well as a good place to learn the news, so he lingered a while, renewing acquaintances and finalizing a small business deal with a fellow trader. Daily life didn’t wait for the nobles and patricians to work through their problems, after all.

After his meal, he went to the docks to see if Van Basten had done anything about that shipment. It appeared not, but to be thorough Robin searched Van Basten’s warehouses till he found the man’s general manager. According to Edwin, Van Basten had arranged for an extra barge to go up the Zuider Zee, but it wouldn’t be docked till the morning and Van Basten hadn’t specified when it was leaving or what it would be carrying. Edwin didn’t seem much happier telling Robin about it than Robin was to hear it, and justifiably enough, in Robin’s opinion: Van der Sar had worked with Van Basten since Van Basten had come up from Utrecht, one of the few who’d chance working with a strange merchant back then. He should know what Van Basten was doing, even the backhanded deals.

He also didn’t know whereabouts Van Basten currently was, except that Van Basten would indeed be back in the evening as he’d hinted to Robin. It was far from ideal, but Robin couldn’t very well do anything till at least the barge was in port, so Robin had to leave it at that.

Some more ordinary matters took up most of Robin’s afternoon, but he did ask around the sailors if they had had any odd sorts, a loner or an eccentric or both, who ever asked about the news from the south. He had the idea that whatever reason Zlatan had for leaving Milan, the man would still want to know what was going on there. If Zlatan had truly wanted to be a hermit, then he wouldn’t be living in Amsterdam but would have at least moved inland.

Most of the sailors’ stories Robin immediately dismissed, since he wasn’t looking for beggars or the insane—he was making another assumption, but it didn’t seem sensible to him that a man who could disappear so easily as Zlatan apparently had would have become either. On the contrary, being reduced to the poorhouse or the madhouse seemed a prime way to be discovered by someone looking for a reward from the Emperor. But one sailor on his way out nonchalantly told another that they’d have to watch their docking ropes or else that bastard fisherman would cut them again, and for some reason that caught Robin’s attention.

He called them back and asked them what they had meant, and they told him of a strange lone fisherman who didn’t have a boat or use nets, but who simply cast a line from various unused piers. A mere hobbyist, albeit one who was willing to revenge himself if a passing boat failed to call out a warning and ran over his line. According to the sailors, he was tall even among the Dutch and spoke with an odd accent, although neither of them could agree on exactly what it was. The first one thought it was from somewhere on the Baltic while the second insisted that it was more English.

As far as Robin knew, Zlatan had never been to England or would have any reason to learn English, but it wasn’t unusual for a Dutchman to learn a few words, given that the wool trade bound the Low Countries so closely to England. Anyone who stayed long enough in Amsterdam might do the same.

So Robin asked after the man’s looks, and received wildly conflicting answers again. He made himself keep his temper and continued to question the sailors, and gradually it became apparent that neither of the pair had actually had a good look at the man. He only came in the very early morning or very late at night, and the nature of their encounter had been such that the sailors were clearly more concerned with making out their loss of dignity to be less than it had been than with giving accurate descriptions. But the other small fishermen, the sailors said, should know about him. He supposedly lived down in that area.

Robin thanked the men and sent them on their way, and then busied himself with getting his office’s affairs to a place where he could leave them for the day. Once done, he gathered up cloak and hat and stopped briefly in Dennis’ office. The other man was out, but Robin left him a note with a plausible excuse and a promise to make up the hours on the morrow. Then Robin betook himself to the fishermen’s huts on the very edge of the city, where the sandbars and soft ground made the waters impassible to anything but light skiffs.

He was fairly well-known among their people, who were inclined to be a bit friendlier to him than the common Amsterdammer, since he’d initially begun dealing with fish in Rotterdam before moving north. He knew their ways and language, and in his first days in Amsterdam, he’d often fished for the only food he’d have all day down by their houses. But when he asked about the tall, irritable fisher who fancied himself good enough to work the busy piers with only a rod, they were silent to a man.

By then it was growing late and Robin needed to head back to town in order to be in time to speak with Van Basten, but he kept at it a little longer. For his dinner he bought a piece of a fish that three men were roasting over a fire on the beach, and stood by them spitting out the bones, and eventually one of them volunteered that the old Swede minded his business so they minded theirs. That nearly convinced Robin that he had been distracted into taking a blind channel, since Zlatan wasn’t a Swede. He’d never heard the man described as such, and he’d done some trading with the Swedish and he knew Zlatan wasn’t a Swedish name.

Disappointed, Robin thanked the men and prepared to finish his dinner and leave. One of the others looked relieved and remarked that he was glad Robin would leave well enough alone, since times were uncertain enough without one’s going to look for trouble. He emphasized his words by making the sign of the cross with one hand, and his gesture was more meaningful than devout. Another man looked as if he might disagree with that, but kept his peace and merely said that the Swede was much less trouble than Guelders or the northernmost provinces, for all that he’d cut a wooden sword for one of the boys and put foolish notions into their heads.

At that Robin thought again, and finally he asked where the Swede might be found, thinking that it might be a waste of time but that he should still see the man for himself before he dismissed the possibility. The men fell silent again, so Robin dropped Cruyff’s name and then mentioned money. Fishermen were tight-knit, canny folk made hard and suspicious by their long, rough work and normally they would be inclined to see the flash of coins as the mark of an informer’s trap. But like most everyone else in the city, they adored Cruyff and so one man finally grunted out vague directions while drawing a map in the sand with his toe.

They would take no more than a coin each, and when Robin left them they barely returned his farewell. He initially started back towards the city, but after mulling over the fishermen’s behavior, he turned about and headed towards the house they claimed was the Swede’s.

It was set farther back than the others, atop a low bluff so it had the best view of the area. After a moment’s pause, Robin set his shoulders and strode straight towards the front door; the scrubby grass and low shrubs offered no cover whatsoever so there was no point in disguising his approach. He noted that the house wasn’t much bigger than the huts closer to the water, but it did look newer, its wood less weathered and greyed by the elements, and when he was closer he found to his surprise that it had a tiled roof. The tiles were plain and colored the same as the cheaper roofs of the other houses. It also used glass for the windows, so whoever lived here, they clearly were of a different financial stratum than the poor fishermen.

The windows were all dark and shuttered. Robin stood before the door, listening, but could detect no movement inside. When he finally knocked at the door, he could hear the sound echo throughout the house.

He waited about a minute, then knocked again. When he received no answer to that, he walked slowly about the house, trying shutters and peering through cracks till he finally found a loose shutter. After prying it open, he looked long and hard through the glass before deciding that no one was home. He bent and took a dagger from his boot, then carefully worked it around the weathered frame of the window till he could lever out the bottom portion.

After setting that against the outside wall, Robin wriggled through the window and found himself in a neat little kitchen. The hearth was swept clean and unburnt logs had been laid in it, so he couldn’t tell how long it’d been since it had been used. The furniture was cheap, crude stuff but it would do what it was meant to do, and the workmanship was solid. There was nothing left to provide any hint as to the owner’s identity.

The living room was much the same, and the bedroom that took up the single upstairs room—little more than an attic—was equally as bare. Everything was as if prepared for a guest, but the guest hadn’t come.

Robin went back down to the living room and stood in the middle of it. He watched his misty breath pull up from his mouth and fade away, then crossed his arms over his chest. He kicked one heel into the floor and that was it; destroying the place would do no good, and if the owner had left for some other reason than Robin, as was likely since there’d been absolutely no time for word to get back about Robin’s searching, it wouldn’t be wise to alert him that there were more people after him. Of course Robin wasn’t any less frustrated.

He turned to go, then stopped. After waiting a moment for that glimpse to vanish, Robin turned back when it didn’t and stooped down to pick up the glinting thing. He shook it into the hollow of his hand, then moved back into the kitchen so he could get what little light there was from the window on it.

It was a spike off a boot-spur. Plain metal, no hint of any gold or silver or fancy working. The ground here wasn’t good for riding or for keeping a horse, and given the state of the place, Robin did not think the one responsible for the spike would be wearing spurs without a need for them.

When he went back outside, he found no horse tracks but that was unsurprising, given the softness of the ground and the frequent rains. Nor was he particularly disappointed. He was no tracker but in a crowded place like Amsterdam, there were only so many places one could keep a horse. He’d look into it after he met with Van Basten about that damned shipment.

* * *

He had to sit up all the time at the end if he wanted a breath, otherwise he was likely to choke to death on his own blood. I was helping him with that, trying to pile up the pillows behind him so he could read some document, but for some reason it was impossible to get a good angle no matter how I did the pillows and moved the lantern. In the end I got onto the bed and put my arm around his back while he leaned on my side, and that seemed to do it. He read his document and made his corrections and dragged a signature across the bottom, at any rate.

It tired him out to the point that his lips were turning blue, but I had to take the quill from him to keep him from going onto the next document. I told him he could take a damned nap first, and do those afterward. It wasn’t as if the merchants would disappear in the meantime.

He laughed. I wished I hadn’t made him laugh, because it hurt him, and I think I said something about that because he stopped laughing and looked up at me, and said he couldn’t choose when it hurt anymore but he could choose why, so not to worry about it.

I don’t know why then of all times, but I lost my temper. I told him he was a fool to lie down and be so calm about it, and that he was deliberately ignoring what was happening. That he was delusional, insane, an idiot—all sorts of things. If he’d been well—no, if he’d been well he still wouldn’t have hit me. He was older by then, older and wiser, and he’d come to know me. He still would have sat there and listened with that thoughtful look on his face, and when I ran out of breath he still would have told me the same thing.

The kind of man your father is, Paolo always preferred to let things speak for themselves rather than talk about them if he didn’t have to. So that was why that was the first time he ever told me he loved me.

We sat there for a while. His breathing got worse, and I shifted my shoulder so he could put his head on it. I don’t think I should have gotten a doctor; I don’t think it would have changed anything, and getting up then would have hurt him, too. I’ve seen enough dying men to know.

I told him at some point that I hadn’t known what to do, that I had only been nineteen and I’d never even lain with someone I’d liked before that. There’d been a whore or two, when I first came to Italy, but only because I’d had no money and we were sharing beds, and when the girl rolled from Marco or whoever to me, I didn’t even know what to say to her. When I had the money, I hadn’t wanted the whores—I’d already seen how in warfare they distracted at best, were spies and assassins at worst. And I knew myself how it was for them. Now that I didn’t have to touch that, I didn’t want to.

But I’d done that anyway to your father, because that was all I knew to do. I’d had to learn to do something else, to do as a lover would—and he apologized to me. He said he was sorry he hadn’t understood sooner, that he’d been thinking so much about what he had to be, thinking that that was all he could be, that he didn’t begin to see till he noticed how I was watching Sandro and him. He said he wished he had understood sooner so he could have shown me before I’d left, so maybe I wouldn’t have had to leave at all, and there would have been two more years. Your father. It’s been over a decade now and I still shake my head over him.

But he said with how it had turned out, he couldn’t be that upset after all. He would rather have had it as it’d happened than have never met me at all, and I think I lost my temper a bit again. I will admit I don’t remember too clearly that part. I was upset, and you don’t memorize things when you’re upset.

I remember that he told me he knew who I was, and what I had done, and he had hoped he’d live long enough for me to truly know that too. That he said to watch over you children and Adriana, and to be careful with Sandro. And that he apologized for making me stay in Milan, because he knew—and I remember I told him to shut up because it didn’t matter, I’d forgiven him years ago.

He put his head back on my shoulder, and I pressed my face into his hair, and when I lifted my head the rattle was in his throat.

I told your mother, first of all, and I think she wanted to hit me. Then she wanted to die, and then she pulled back her shoulders and went to give the necessary orders. Dukes are dukes even when they’re dead, and the stupid rituals that we had to do…I know everyone said I was extraordinarily helpful, even with washing and dressing the body when the servants balked because of your father’s illness. I wasn’t helpful. I didn’t see the point in any of it. When you die, you die and your body is nothing more than a body. But if it had to be done, then it should be done properly and the only way to be certain of that is to do it yourself.

If it matters, I don’t know why I’ve never shown a single trace of the disease that rotted out your father’s lungs. I spent enough time with him, and to be honest I think it was more about putting out a challenge to whatever made him ill than being brave or compassionate—do you understand? I loved your father, and I did everything that I could possibly do to ensure that it would never work with us, but it did. He made it do so, and then he died of a God damn cough, because Italy is full of selfish, cunning fools that are much more like me than like him. He died. I lived. The world is unfair, children. All you can do is what you can do, and then you learn to bear the rest. That’s why I’m not arrogant—I simply won’t waste time, knowing what I know. And for all our mistakes, your father was never, ever a waste of time to me.

* * *

It was well after sundown when Robin reached Van Basten’s dockside office and most people had been at home for at least an hour, or at their local tavern if home was too unbearable. But Van Basten was known for keeping extraordinarily late hours, and in fact more than one merchant in town would acknowledge that the man’s dedication to his work was the only reason he was deemed respectable. Nor did Van Basten miss meetings he’d arranged for himself, and so Robin was more than a little surprised to see that the windows were dark.

He went into the alley beside the building and was reassured to find that one of the upper windows showed a glimmer of light. Robin went back to the front door and banged the knocker against the door three times, equally spacing out each blow. He stepped back and listened closely, then was reaching for the knocker again when he heard a muffled thump. It was followed by several more thumps and then a man’s voice that was too indistinct to make out anything but the exasperation in it. A moment later the door swung open and Van Basten shone a lantern into Robin’s eyes, half-blinding Robin.

“Bit late,” Van Basten finally said. He moved back and let Robin in, then shut and locked the door. The bolts on it were massive and it took some time.

“Because I was waiting on your step,” Robin muttered under his breath. His eyes were still dazzled and he rubbed at them as he wandered down the hall. When he could see more of the room than he could white stars, he stopped and loosened his cloak. It was unusually hot inside, as if Van Basten had braziers lit as well as the huge fire Robin could hear crackling away somewhere.

He turned around and Van Basten looked at him, then strode into the next room. The man was oddly dressed for the hour, with the ties of his clothes haphazardly flapping about as if he’d thrown them on mere moments before. When Robin followed Van Basten, he noticed that the man’s trousers were bunched unevenly up over his boots instead of being tucked smoothly into their tops, and that there were what looked like scratches on the back of Van Basten’s neck. Four little lines, all parallel to each other, red and raw.

Robin blinked a few times, then shook his head as Van Basten addressed him. The man was married and from all accounts was faithful to the woman, but anything of that nature was between him and his wife. Although it might explain his temperament lately, Robin did allow himself to think. “I did talk to Edwin, since I’d like to know when I have to move it. Secrecy can’t be done at the last possible moment.”

“You still couldn’t find a better place to ask than my warehouse? I’ve got half the biggest gossips in Amsterdam working for me, and I should know,” Van Basten replied sharply.

He was only saying it for the sake of being sharp, and Robin could recognize that well enough, but it was still just as well that Van Basten didn’t say more. While Van Basten hung the lantern over a work-desk, Robin shut the shutters over the windows and reminded himself that petty arguments would only reflect badly on all of them. Then Van Basten opened up the top of the desk and took out a large roll of paper, which he spread out over the desk after he’d closed its top. The paper was a map of the Zuider Zee, with channels and tolls marked on it.

“It’s about as small a barge as you can find, and it’ll be work to have it all fit, but that may be well enough. The larger channels aren’t much faster these days, between Guelders and the tolls.” Van Basten produced a piece of chalk and began to mark out a possible route. “And it only needs two men to handle it, so that will cut down on the number of people we have to worry about. Wesley is going for me, and the bargeman is the navigator. Bergkamp’s recommended him before, so I suppose he’s trustworthy.”

“You think it’s wise to send Wesley?” Robin asked. He came up to the far side of the desk, craning his head to watch the curve emerging from the tip of the chalk. But it stopped moving and he looked up, then shook his head. “No, I’m not questioning him. But he’ll be close to Guelders’ lands and all he has to do to let them know where he hails from is to open his mouth.”

For a moment Van Basten stared at him, flat and hard, and Robin was reminded of the fact that Van Basten hadn’t been eased into the iron-knit Amsterdam circle by one of the established members, as Dennis had done for Robin. Instead the man had traded and bought his way in, and he’d managed it because he’d brought back a fortune from Italy, all supposedly derived from soldiers’ booty. Now Van Basten was grudgingly accepted because he conducted himself as a pillar of rectitude despite his temper, but at times Robin could still see what sort of man those Italians must have seen.

“It’s a good point but I have no one else free, much less a northerner,” Van Basten said. He paused, then cocked his head. “Van der Vaart is doing little since he earned me that fine from the tax collector, but I would call that no one.”

Personally Robin thought Van der Vaart did have his uses, and was far from the most foolish man Van Basten had ever employed, but in this case he couldn’t disagree. Rafael was hardly the man to send when the task required a certain willingness to avoid attention and submit to a degree of humiliation.

“You’re not bad at disguising your accent, but likely you’re not about to volunteer,” Van Basten added.

Robin pursed his lips, then scratched at his ear so he would have time for a calming breath. “Not if I’m to go about town finding a Milanese nobleman or a legendary mercenary general for your friend. Hard to do that if I’m on a barge to Friesland.”

Van Basten began to nod, but then grimaced. He looked at the map, then raised his chalk over it again. “You should refer to Roby as Signore Donadoni, if you’ve any manners.”

“Not as if you’ve got enough to lecture him about that,” came a voice from the doorway.

They both started, and then Van Basten jerked forward as if he meant to lunge for the door. But he never would have made it before Robin could turn and he seemed to know that; he stopped himself, looking down, and then exhaled deeply as he abruptly twisted away.

Donadoni walked into the room, carrying a book that he seemed very intent on since he didn’t lift his head from it. He was as disheveled as Van Basten, although where Van Basten had on linen and broadcloth, Donadoni had silk and velvet that shimmered in the dim light. Robin rarely saw such stuff and found himself following one glimmer as it moved down Donadoni’s sleeve. It took his eye to the book, and then he recognized that and stiffened.

“Interesting what you keep under the mattress, Marco. But no wonder the bed was so damn lumpy. You could have torn up a floorboard or two, and saved our old backs,” Donadoni remarked casually. He licked his finger, then used it to turn the page.

“I thought you were leaving,” Van Basten eventually said. He sounded half-strangled.

After turning another page, Donadoni abruptly shut the book. The sharp clap of it ricocheted through the room so Robin flinched, attracting Donadoni’s eye. But only for a moment: Donadoni’s real target was clearly Van Basten. He tucked the book under his arm as he turned towards Van Basten. “Well, I thought about it, but then I wondered why you were jumping about it.”

“Because this is not Italy and—and—” Van Basten’s hiss quickly sputtered out. He remained leaning forward for a moment, then spun back to the table and began to roll up the map. He paused uncharacteristically to run one hand through his hair.

“Lovely to see that you’re still so blood and guts and daring,” Donadoni dryly said. Despite his tone, he seemed less amused than irritated, or possibly even angry, as he regarded Van Basten. Then he closed his eyes, sighed, and twisted around to open his eyes and look at Robin. “Well, how goes it?”

Robin stammered nonsensically for a moment, then managed to gain control of his tongue. “Zlatan?”

Donadoni grimaced as Van Basten had when Robin had referred to Donadoni as his friend. “Of course.”

“I think I’ve found his house, down by the fishermen’s huts. But it was empty, as if he’d left at least a day ago,” Robin said without thinking. He immediately regretted giving up that information so easily, but once he’d begun the telling he couldn’t very well stop. It was hardly going to pass the sharp gleam in Donadoni’s eye. “I did find part of a spur. I was thinking Signore Maldini must have kept his horse—”

“No, he’ll have changed it by now, but he would have a horse if he’s still wearing his spurs. And Zlatan was always a horseman. Fishing, though…I wouldn’t have thought…” But after a moment, Donadoni merely shrugged. “But does this advance the search?”

“It may. If you think they’ll still be in the city. There aren’t many places where you can keep a horse in Amsterdam, not after you take out the ones where people are likely to pick out them out. Before I was looking for a lone man—two men will be more memorable, especially with their accents.” To Robin’s ear that came out a little better, less like a breathless girl relating who was winking at her in church. He stood back from the table as Van Basten lifted its top. “Does your lord speak Dutch well?”

“No,” Donadoni said curtly. He nodded to himself, then turned dismissively away. “Very well. Keep me informed.”

Then he came up to the end of the desk just as Van Basten was lowering the top. Van Basten glanced up, then started as if he’d forgotten Donadoni was there. One side of Donadoni’s mouth twisted as he looked Van Basten in the eye and laid the book down on the desk.

“No, this isn’t Italy. It could not matter less to me what religious issues you have here, so long as Daniel returns safely to his mother and brother—to someone from Italy, it all looks like another schism and the world hasn’t ended yet from one of those. And I do remember that you left, Marco.” Donadoni turned on his heel and left the room without another word.

Robin looked after him for a good while, then looked sharply back at Van Basten when the shock had dulled enough for him to remember the other man’s presence. Despite the amount of time that had passed, Van Basten’s expression was surprisingly revealing—although it took a moment for Robin to understand what it revealed, given that Van Basten wasn’t prone to regret.

But then Van Basten shook himself and Robin redirected his glance downwards at the table, aware that the other man wouldn’t appreciate being observed in a moment of weakness. They stood there for several minutes before Van Basten finally grunted and turned away. He dropped the chalk in its box before wiping its traces off his hand with a corner of his shirt.

“Tomorrow night at quarter after midnight. The usual place. I won’t be there but Wesley will,” Van Basten said. He continued to twist his shirt about his hand. Then he suddenly looked up, pinning Robin with his stare. His eyes looked like the sky just before a storm, glassy-hard. “You heard no conversation between me and Signore Donadoni.”

“All right, I’ll have it ready. But I’ll not wait more than ten minutes at the pier, so the boat had better be ready.” Robin nodded at the other man, then took a step back. Then another, and when Van Basten said nothing and did nothing, Robin turned around and saw himself out.

* * *

Sandro didn’t take your father’s death very well. I tried to explain it to you back then, but I think you’ll understand better now that you’re older. My explanation wasn’t very good anyway—he certainly didn’t take to it. We tried not to let it show in public, for your and your mother’s sake and to avoid any idiots getting the idea that they could foment a revolt with one of us at its head. I still don’t understand politics—everyone was forever thinking I was ripe for it whenever Sandro and I had the least little disagreement. I went on joint campaigns with the man. If I could still sit down to dinner with him after those, then I don’t think I’d be willing to overthrow him or your father.

So no, I never thought about that. I thought about leaving, especially after Sandro wouldn’t sit down to dinner with me anymore, but never about taking over Milan. I keep saying I don’t want the city, and perhaps by now people will believe it.

And Sandro never wavered either. It’s a bit of a joke, now that I think about it. Before your father died, Sandro was even more disgusted than I was about your father’s idea of a unified Italy. But afterward, he wouldn’t hear a word against it. He never made half as much headway with it as your father did—well, he was not your father and it was not his sort of cause—but he all but built a memorial to it for your father. The only reason he didn’t was that your mother finally made him see reason. And so instead there’s that nice stone crest in front of the palace, dedicated to our victories in keeping the French out of Italy.

I can laugh now, but I do remember how ugly it got. I know you took my side a few times. I don’t know if you still resent Sandro for that but if you do, you shouldn’t. He never meant it as cruelty or arrogance, or anything but plain grief. He wasn’t your father and he couldn’t suppress what he felt simply because that was the reasonable thing to do, and he wasn’t me. He wasn’t as used to grief as I am. That was what he could never understand, his whole life. He never understood like your father understood. But for the third time, he wasn’t your father and I didn’t love him as your father. I loved him for what he was. And he did forgive me. For him, that amounted to about the same.

When he came back, he wanted to see the body in private before the funeral began. It was winter, but if it’d been high summer and your father stinking and bloated, I don’t think Sandro would have noticed. He never got near enough to really see it. Only the drapes and the gilt, maybe the rings on Paolo’s hands. But Sandro collapsed about two steps into the room, and Adriana had to carry him into a private room because the court was coming. That was when she screamed at me, because I helped them but I wasn’t crying or wailing. And then she began crying, and I had to leave them there and go see that the funeral was beginning properly. You hear plenty and see more as a condottiere when a great man falls, and all the rats come out—it might only have been your father’s body left, but I wasn’t about to see those bastard nobles tear the rings and chains off it.

That was what Sandro couldn’t understand, why I didn’t cry. He thought that I wasn’t truly mourning, and your father wasn’t around any more to explain things to him. He thought that deep down, I didn’t care about your father.

If he wanted proof to the contrary, he could have stopped and thought about the fact that I was letting him say that to my face without hitting him. He could have stopped and thought about how I was still staying with him, with you and your mother. I’ve learned to live through misery, not to wallow in it, and your father’s death didn’t change that. But Sandro wasn’t the kind to stop and think, not when he was grieving so much. You know, half the reason I did stay around so long and suffer him was because your mother and I were afraid he’d do something foolish in his grief.

But in a way I can understand how he’d think that about me. I did leave for two years to live in Stockholm, and you children know I did but I don’t think you truly experienced my absence. You were too young. When I say that I left with no intention of ever coming back, you don’t believe me because you can’t honestly imagine what that would be like. But Sandro knew what it had been like, and then I don’t think he ever thought through why I did return. I wouldn’t say he couldn’t bring himself to it—he could be remarkably blind sometimes but in this case I think it was more that he never had the time to think about it. I saw him less than your father, since during the campaign season Paolo could come to us but I couldn’t very well leave my army to see anyone, and the same for Sandro.

So I think he was remembering that, and believing that all those years later I’d not changed. He was wrong, and it still infuriates me that that man was so damned dense. He could be such a pigheaded snob, and right up till the end he never did give me half the credit I’d earned. As if talking your father into a tryst on some cardinal’s bed really showed that he knew much about it—he learned faster than me, true, but he had had the chance to learn and he had had people to tell him how it should be done. Everything I’ve ever learned, I’ve learned on my own, by looking or taking apart or just stumbling through till I’ve figured it out.

Once in a while I wonder if your mother ever spoke to him about it. I never did. I didn’t, because looking him in the eye and not hitting him while he was refusing to eat with me and spewing that nonsense was almost too much for me to do. And then I couldn’t speak to him about it, because…because it was never the right time. You don’t talk about death and grief when you’re trying to start anew. It’d be like praying to the devil for a blessing before you start building a cathedral to God.

No, it wasn’t superstition. You know I never held with that, with everything that I’ve ever seen coming down to men and nothing but men. We all knew about the political necessity of appearing to keep a united front, but deep down it had nothing to do with that either. Neither Sandro nor I have ever been very political, and you know that. It was that he was looking at me and trying not to be happy, because he thought I didn’t want to see him happy. Sandro could be such a fool sometimes.

What happened was: I loved him, but even I could only stand so much of his railing and so I had to leave the city. There’s another truth for you: he never asked me to go. He never would have, because I was all he had left and as angry as he was, as grief-stricken as he was, he still loved me. So in all honesty, it was a cruel thing I did by going. He could have used me still. But I’m no saint. I may have slowed and mellowed a little as I’ve grown older, but I didn’t have the patience for him. He was unbearable and I knew if I stayed I would be the one doing something foolish, and I wasn’t about to submit to that.

I spent two years fighting Milan’s wars without ever coming back to Milan, and Milan was the most tolerable part of Italy for me. And I didn’t have the stomach for it anymore. I wasn’t about to lose, of course, but you can win and win and still wake up in the morning feeling that you’ve lost, and that was what those two years were like. Sometimes, to be honest, I would have to tell myself that I owed at least the time I’d spent in Sweden in order to get out of bed.

That was a lie, of course. I still had Sandro. I wasn’t yet to the point where I was doing nothing more than discharging old debts. And you can call me a fool for thinking that, and not understanding beforehand what would happen when I left Sandro to himself, and I would say that you were right. I should have foreseen it. But even if I had, I don’t know that I would have done anything different, or that I could have done anything different. I loved Sandro as much as I loved your father, but your father never hurt me the way that Sandro did, when he said that I didn’t miss Paolo as much as I should have. If Sandro had to forgive me, then I had to forgive him, and forgiveness is hard. Nearly as hard as the hurt.

In a way, it might have been easier that I left when I did. I lost two years with Sandro but if I’d stayed I would have lost more than years. My leaving forced him to stop mourning, and he had to do that before he could get on with his life. And how much it hurt when I came back and found out he was getting married—that hurt was barely anything by comparison.

* * *

Well before dawn Robin was out of house and about town, visiting one by one the likely hostels and inns. Though he didn’t bother looking at the horses, but instead went straight to the innkeepers and maids and kitchen-boys, asking them about recent arrivals.

The first few he tried offered up nothing more than a few provincials who were unlucky enough to have done something to arouse a city-dweller’s contempt. But Robin was patient and very soon he began to receive more promising information. Amsterdam had more places for travelers to stay than one man could reasonably check within a single day, but as with nearly every other profession, the innkeepers formed their own tight circles. All Robin had to do was be pleasant and inquire often enough to be noticed, and soon he was being passed the news from inns on the other side of the city.

By midday he had two or three prospective places to check more closely. One of them was near the docks and he went there first, since he thought it also wise to stop by his office and see that things were running smoothly. As it turned out, a bookkeeping problem kept him at his office a little longer than he would have liked and he reached the inn after they’d finished serving the midday meal. He’d been counting on filling his stomach there so as to save time for his other stops.

The innkeeper’s wife told him she was sorry, but upon further judicious pressing—and a fortuitous growl of the stomach—she admitted she might be able to find something in the kitchen. She left with a lingering look over her shoulder that stirred both feelings of satisfaction and concern in Robin, since he had a passing acquaintance with her husband. Robin didn’t doubt that he could have the better of the man, if it came to that, but he would rather it didn’t for a variety of reasons, and so he made certain to pay the woman full price and go to the other side of the room to eat.

Unfortunately that did make it difficult to ask questions about the lodgers, since the most likely one to know would have been the innkeeper’s wife. But Robin did manage to draw aside three of the men passing through the common room and query them. A pair of men, one quite tall and the other a bit shorter, had come last night, but they’d turned away when they’d heard the price of a room, or seen the stables, or been caught winking at the innkeeper’s wife. At any rate, if they hadn’t left, the innkeeper had seemed likely to throw them out. No word on where they might have tried their luck next.

It was disappointing, but it did supply evidence that Maldini and Zlatan were still in Amsterdam, and moreover, were doing exactly what Robin had guessed that they might. So Robin finished his meal and then swung out onto the street to continue trying his luck.

An hour later he finally found it. The innkeeper admitted to having let a room and a stall in the stable to two men who fit the general description Robin gave him, and then also noted without prompting that they’d both had odd accents. The one had been Italian, but the other one the innkeeper couldn’t even describe, and over the years he’d let rooms to sailors and merchants from countries all over the world.

After breakfast the two men had left, but their belongings were still at the inn and so was their horse. Robin began to ask if a coin might allow him into their room, and not clumsily, but the innkeeper reacted so badly that Robin thought the man must have recently suffered a raid by the tax assessors or the Regent’s men. It took quite a bit of time to calm the innkeeper and partly allay his suspicions, and even then, he stood at the door to see that Robin did go out.

He was clearly a dedicated and honest man, but he lacked something in intelligence. In this neighborhood, as in countless others all over Amsterdam, the buildings were crowded closely together with narrow alleys separating them. It wasn’t difficult to turn down the next street and then thread a way through the maze of alleys back to the inn. Even more fortunate was the fact that the inn’s stables had a back entrance, probably to facilitate removal of manure.

The lone stable-boy watching the horses proved much more amenable to a small bribe and readily told Robin all about the two foreigners as he showed Robin where their horse was stabled. Unfortunately he had more enthusiasm than sense, and revealed nothing that Robin hadn’t heard from the innkeeper. He was easy to persuade to leave Robin alone in the stable for a few minutes.

It wasn’t much of a horse. Native breed, small and of poor quality, but that would be exactly the type of mount one would have to take if in a hurry. The halter on it was crude as well and Robin had to admit that Donadoni was right about Daniel Maldini knowing how to disguise himself. Not many nobles would have even thought of giving up their gilded and embossed harnesses, let alone have traded them for cord and a few strips of greasy leather.

Robin stepped back from the stall, then glanced about for the stable-boy and saw no one. He paused, then sighed and told himself that was to be expected, and he was careless for not having asked the boy when he had him whether the men had said anything about returning. It didn’t matter very much; Donadoni had only wanted a location and hadn’t wanted anyone brought to him, so Robin needed only send a message to the man.

Of course there was a chance that this inn wasn’t the one, and that Robin had merely chased down another false trail. If that was so, then he could simply apologize to Donadoni and offer to continue. He couldn’t see how the man could take offense, given that he and Van Basten provided Robin with almost no way to confirm the identity of Daniel Maldini or Zlatan upon sight.

Well. Donadoni had mentioned a seal-ring and a wooden toy, but trying to find either would require Robin to stay and wait for the men to return. Robin would like very much to show to the others that he did know his business and wasn’t another useless thug who only served to act as a drain for coins. But Cruyff wasn’t to know, and from the little he’d seen of them, Robin doubted that either Van Basten or Donadoni would be particularly impressed with him. It should satisfy him that he knew how skilled he was, and his pride shouldn’t depend on the opinion of others.

He was twisting himself up in his own head, Robin finally admitted. He looked round the stalls again, then sighed and headed out the back entrance. It was well into the afternoon and he still had to arrange for Van Basten’s shipment to be delivered, and he—

As he walked out the door, he glimpsed a blurry movement from the corner of his eye. Robin twisted away, but too late. The side of his head burst into pain that spread blackly over his vision, overwhelming the world.

* * *

I like Gabriella. I knew of her before, because of her family, and we might have met at some formal dinner at some point. She seemed familiar when Sandro finally introduced her to me, and sometimes I’d catch her frowning at me, as if she suffered from the same nagging feeling. But I do like her. She’s got a brain and a spine, and if she ever had the need for it, I don’t doubt that she would make a great general. And she adored Sandro. I think he and their children were the only thing in her life that she was ever not pragmatic about.

She asked me right away about Sandro, the first time we were alone. She’s a very direct woman—your mother preferred to let me know that she knew, with a nod or a look, and only asked questions when she wasn’t certain. Then, after I’d told her, she stood back and looked up at me, and said that I seemed as she had thought, and so she thought she could be reasonable with me if I was only the same with her. And that was how it was between us. I never had any problem with Gabriella.

I would like to say that I never blamed her either, but I was upset when I first heard about the marriage and I blamed everything connected to it, including her. And Sandro. I will call him a coward here, for letting me hear about it only because Adriana knew not to let me walk into the city not knowing about it and wrote me a letter. I’ll call him a coward, and then I’ll forgive him because I know why he did it.

Your mother timed the letter so that it reached me while I was still on the road. She didn’t time the storms, much as I would love to credit her with that, but they came when they were needed, and wiped out the roads so I had to sit in a moldy little inn and think. And remember, and come to understand that no matter what the reason, I had left Sandro and he had found his own way, and I couldn’t begrudge him that. It’s how I’ve always lived my life, after all.

He came to meet me at the city gates. I still remember the look on his face, because it was the second and last time I’d ever seen it on him. The first time, it was only a little after we’d met, and I’d just made him think I was going to cut your father in two with my sword.

I nearly had to carry him through all the ceremonies that someone deemed necessary for welcoming me back. He was so stiff and curt that some lackey kept having to turn his horse for him, and by the time we reached the ducal palace, the rumors were already flying that he was displeased about my return, that he was going to have me assassinated that night…courtiers are, on the whole, utter idiots. You remember that.

After dinner I made an excuse about needing to check on my horse and went out. I took a walk. And I’ll call myself a coward here, because I knew we were to talk and I already knew what I was going to say, but I wanted to wait a little longer before Sandro told me I’d have to sleep in my own suite. I’d had separate rooms since three months after I came back from Sweden, but in all those years I’d used my chambers once, and even then Sandro had come to share it because his own room was being redecorated.

Sandro followed me, and we came upon each other in some abandoned garden. I remember there was still a marble birdbath but its basin was cracked open, and part of the garden had been planted with vegetables.

At first he didn’t make any sense. He spoke so softly I nearly had to put my ear to his mouth to hear him, and then he would stop and start constantly, so even when I could hear, I couldn’t understand him. Then he grew louder, asking why I still looked so calm and why I didn’t care, and I had had two years to think it over but it still hurt. I tried to hit him but he ducked it, and then I pushed him up against the wall and I was going to hit him again, but I saw that he was crying.

He told me he couldn’t live like that. He couldn’t sit and wait, now that Paolo was gone and I’d never been around very much. I had had to be gone that often, and I still had to be, and he knew that but he couldn’t last any longer. With Paolo alive, he at least had known he would always come back to someone but he couldn’t say that about me, not with the way we still had to fight wars.

All I asked was whether she gave him something to return to. And he started to answer, and the way his face changed, he didn’t need to finish it. But he’d stopped because he’d noticed I still wasn’t upset, and he had misunderstood that again. He was going to shout at me, but then I told him that when I’d been in Stockholm, I’d had a mistress.

Helena was from a noble family and was married, but her husband was so old he couldn’t do for her in the least. She never pretended that it was more than what it was, and…I won’t say much more than that I was fond of her. There’s little to say anyway: when I met her, I’d already met your father and Sandro. And as far as I know, she’s still in Sweden and I don’t care to make any trouble for her. I did tell her I was going and she didn’t make a fuss about it, so I doubt she misses me. I don’t regret her but I can’t say that I miss her.

And I won’t apologize for her either. I know you might feel that I need to, because I wasn’t faithful—but I am not a noble or a good man, and I have never been married either. I will love your father and Sandro till the day I die, but I haven’t always had them. I don’t have them now and during those two years in Sweden I didn’t have them, and I wanted company. I am no martyr and I don’t choose to live in misery if I have such a choice. I know that I’ll never see the same quality of happiness as I did with your father and with Sandro, but I think I can be content, and even a little happy once in a while.

Your father would have understood, I think. And Sandro…he raised his hand to hit me, and then he put it down because he did understand. That much at least, he could understand because he’d only a moment before been telling me the same. He put his hand on my arm, and then he leaned forward and I caught him so he could weep into my shoulder. I think that was when he forgave me. If not then, then directly after.

You should know I acted as witness to his wedding of my own free will. You already know that I kept sharing his chambers, whenever I was in Milan. Even when he’d finally taken a house of his own, he always came and stayed at the palace with me. Of course that wasn’t very often, since he tried to stay close to Milan after Gabriella fell pregnant, and so I had to take the longer, more distant campaigns. We never asked as much of Gabriella as I did of your mother, but Gabriella took it as well as your mother did, although her manner was different.

She did make him happy. And they had beautiful children that you had better not lead astray now that I can’t keep an eye on you all. It sometimes strikes me as amusing that I’ve found loving all you brats so much easier and simpler than loving your fathers.

I don’t know if Sandro left a letter like this for his children. If he didn’t, then you make certain that they know he loved them, and he wouldn’t have left them if he could have helped it. And tell them that—that if I could have exchanged myself for him, I would have. But it was his choice and not mine.

I’ve thought again and again whether it could have gone differently. If I had waited for more cannon, if Sandro had listened to the doctors and given orders from the back instead of being strapped onto his horse. If I’d taken the flank instead of the middle. There are a thousand ifs, because it was a battle and in war nothing is certain till death rises over you.

And here’s what I think. I think that it could have gone differently, but the choices would have been to see Francis crush us, or to lose Sandro. And if it’d been the first, then Sandro would have continued to fight till he died or till the French left, and so the choice is really whether Sandro would have died later or died then, which is not a choice for anyone but him. So no, it couldn’t have gone differently. Sandro knew what he was going to do, and he knew what he risked. He didn’t want to take the risk, no sane man does, but in the end he decided to take it, and so I cannot argue with him.

He died when he wanted to. You can tell them that, too.

* * *

Robin awoke shortly thereafter with nothing worse than an aching head, much to his surprise. Nor was he restrained in any way, save that the cot on which he’d been laid was pushed far too close to the wall, and so his feet struck painfully hard against the wall when he tried to stretch his cramped legs. Someone else was in the room and they hissed at the loud noise, then moved lightly across the floorboards.

After a wary moment, Robin pushed himself over onto his stomach and lifted his head from the musty-smelling sheets. It was dark, but a dim light was coming from his back, and as he began to sit up a yellow flare made him blink hard. Almost immediately it settled into the weak flame of a cheap lantern that sat on a table before a very tall man.

He had his back to Robin as he put away the flint. To avoid knocking his head into the ceiling he had to bend till it was nearly level with his breast, and even then his shoulders menaced the rafters. His hair was long but tied back in a tangled tail, and had broad grey streaks twisting in its brown. “How’s your head?” he asked, lowering the lid of the tinderbox.

It was suddenly clear why every single person to whom Robin had spoken had had a different opinion on the origin of the man’s accent. While it wasn’t thick enough to make him difficult to understand, it was honestly unidentifiable, with a single word hinting at half a dozen lands. The closest Robin had come to something like it was the accent of an old sailor who’d claimed to have been Spanish originally, but who had sailed several times around Africa. He’d liked to describe himself as remembering a different country with every word. But even he wasn’t quite like this man: with the old sailor Robin had been able to pick out the slip from one place to another, but here the accent was consistent, the echoes of each place blending smoothly with the rest.

“I’ll live,” Robin said after a long moment. He swung his legs down over the side of the bed, then felt at his belt and boots.

“He didn’t take anything. He won’t even thinking of it—doesn’t need to, doesn’t want to. Nobleman.” The man turned around and passed Robin to go to the window, where he unbarred the shutters and pried them open, grimacing at the creak of the hinges. He was lean, perhaps even sinewy beneath his loose clothing, and despite his height he walked as quietly as a cat. Long strands of brown and grey hung in his eyes and curled over his prominent nose, which sat upon his face as a prow did on a ship. “I think I know you. You smuggle religious tracts in your spare time, when you’re not trailing Cruyff and looking to keep him happy.”

Robin instinctively began to voice a denial, but something about the way the man jerked back his shoulders made him fold up his mouth and dig his nails into his palms. He looked quickly round again—they were somewhere inside the inn, most likely—and then stood up. “Well, what of it? I hear you come to fish from the main piers, as if that’s what they’re for.”

The man half-turned from the waist up, leaving one hand on the sill. He looked at Robin and by some trick of the light, his eyes seemed to glow like coals from behind their ratty veil of hair. But then he threw back his head so it fully caught the light, which glinted off brown eyes and startlingly white teeth. “That is what they’re for. You don’t think they’re for your damned ships, do you?” he said, laughing. He pushed on his hand and straightened against the window, then cocked his head. “God’s balls, but I hate waiting.”

Before Robin could move or reply, the man ducked his head through the window and then twisted the rest of his body through it as easily as an eel would twine between river rocks.

Robin started, then leaped forward only to barely catch himself against the sill. His head and nearly all of his torso had gone out the window and he teetered dangerously on his hands as his eyes searched the dark alley below. Something moved and Robin hissed under his breath. He opened his mouth, then shut it and gritted his teeth as he hauled himself out the window.

A little span of roof under it provided him with somewhere to put his foot, but the tiles were slick and almost before he was fully outside, his boot was sliding on them. He swayed wildly before gasping in a breath and committing himself to a fast glide down the roof to the gutter, and then a jump in the air just as the tiles ran out.

The ground below wasn’t unreasonably far but it was hard-packed by constant traffic and made for a rough landing, even though Robin let himself fall into a crouch and then rolled partly onto his hip to soften the impact. For a few moments he couldn’t continue, but only breathed hard and kept his teeth locked against the painful throbbing in his ankles.

Thankfully the pain faded quickly: Robin hadn’t sustained any serious injuries. He cautiously stood up, then spun about as he spotted the silhouette of the other man.

“You’re quick,” the man said, faintly approving. “I thought you’d go out the door.”

“And start over? I’ve had…had a lot of trouble already over you.” Robin stood up, then bent over while pressing his arm hard over his belly. His breathing wasn’t steadying as soon as he would have liked, but he still lifted his chin to meet the other man’s eyes. “Zlatan.”

The man was silent for a moment. Then he jerked backwards and Robin took a quick step forward, thinking that he was about to turn and run. But the man merely laughed again, settling himself on his trailing foot. He shook his head and turned, then looked over his shoulder till Robin took another step to bring them level. Then he began to walk, with a peculiarly lopsided gait that seemed slower and easier than it actually was. “Ah, yes, I am. I’m flattered—I didn’t think you were looking for me.”

“Well, I’m not,” Robin said slowly. He gave his belly a last press with his hand, then let his arm swing freely as he looked down the alley. Then he glanced back at Zlatan, whose unconcerned lope conflicted with the keen, cool interest in his eyes. “I was looking for Daniel. Daniel Maldini.”

Zlatan’s stride didn’t alter, though he did twist about to gaze forward. He nodded, then sighed and brushed at the hair in his face. The gesture did little to improve that. “Just as well he was the one who hit you, then.” The corner of his mouth twitched despite his not looking directly at Robin. “Be a little appreciative. Being hit by someone of his rank’s a high honor in most courts.”

“Holland doesn’t have a ducal court,” Robin said. “Not as those other places do.”

“But you’ve got an Emperor.” After a quick look at Robin, Zlatan turned down a side-alley, and then turned again.

It wasn’t so dark out that other people weren’t still to be heard tramping the streets, but it appeared Zlatan wished to stay away from such areas. He didn’t carry any visible weapons, and at most he could have had a dagger or two hidden under his clothes. His height and reach would offer substantial advantages, as would his experience, but Robin wasn’t entirely unlearned himself and Zlatan hadn’t taken away his daggers. And as dim as the light had been, both in the room and here on the street, Zlatan couldn’t disguise the signs of age. He was at least twenty years older, his skin lying worn and thin over the bones of his face.

“Then again, if you’re smuggling religious matter, I’d say you didn’t much care for him. Odd that you’re so often with Cruyff—I thought he preferred the imperial bridle,” Zlatan added after a few minutes.

“Cruyff is like any other Hollander and good businessman, and prefers whatever will bring prosperity to our land. He was a radical when he was young, but the times have caught up to him now.” Robin edged his hand down his leg, then brought it back when he would have had to stoop to reach any further. Instead of slipping out a knife, he hooked his hand over the back of his neck and studied Zlatan’s face as carefully as he could in the low light. “At the moment the chances are better if we press our case through traditional channels rather than rebel, and he can do a great deal there. He’s already been successful several times over in changing the way we’re taxed for the Emperor.”

Zlatan nodded thoughtfully, then tipped his head to the side. “Ah, doesn’t sound as if you’re too convinced. I wouldn’t be, but then, I’ve beaten enough imperial armies to know.”

“But you did that years ago, and in Italy. You don’t know Holland. You don’t know how it is here, so I wouldn’t assume—”

They began to turn another corner, but a wagon half-full of hay blocked part of the alley so Robin began to step wide of it. He’d thought Zlatan would do the same, but without the slightest bit of warning, Zlatan cut short his turn and stooped to snatch something up from beneath the wagon. In the same motion he twisted back and then he had a pitchfork at Robin’s throat.

“No, actually I’d rate your chances as better. Keeping the Germans out of Italy can’t be done with an army, unless you can start growing soldiers like wheat. There are too many mountain passes, even in winter. Here you don’t have the army, but the land helps, with all the marshes and bad rivers. You’d fight like rats, all nips and darting away, but you could do it.” The pitchfork didn’t waver in Zlatan’s grip, nor did his gaze on Robin. His mouth was curled in a taunting smile, but his eyes were strangely disinterested—disdainful, even.

He looked at Robin a moment later, and then as smoothly and quickly as he’d lifted the pitchfork, he tossed it over his shoulder. It landed almost soundlessly on the hay. The loudest noise in the alley was Robin’s breath as he exhaled.

“But you’re right about one thing. I don’t care. This isn’t my land and it’s not my fight,” Zlatan added. He glanced around him—a little pointedly to Robin—before leaning back against the wagon, and then he grimaced, reaching to press at his back. The pain apparently was fleeting, since he looked back up almost in the same breath. “So who’s looking for Daniel? He wouldn’t tell me.”

Robin caught his hand creeping over his collar onto his throat and forced it down. The pitchfork tines had not in fact touched him and he was losing his composure over very little. “Where is Daniel?”

In lieu of a reply Zlatan’s eyes narrowed. For several minutes he regarded Robin without moving or speaking. Somewhere nearby a woman suddenly shouted, harsh and reprimanding, and Robin started but Zlatan didn’t.

“Someone sent you. But if you were still following orders you’d be halfway to them now, or calling for help. You wouldn’t be taking a walk with me,” Zlatan finally said.

“A walk? Is that what we’re doing?” Robin asked archly.

But Zlatan neither replied to that nor even looked as if he wanted to, and against his silent immobility the challenge in Robin’s words rang thinly. His manner grated on Robin, and partly because it seemed so out of keeping with what he was: an old soldier, whose years at war should have taught him sobriety. Or perhaps Robin was merely thinking of all the old veterans he’d met—and he had never seen squarely with any of them, with their overcautiousness and inability to move past their wars to the new ones.

“I don’t take orders except that I need the money, and that—” Better not to talk any more of religious tracts, or even of Van Basten, Robin belatedly decided. For all that Zlatan seemed not to care, he’d still not guaranteed that he’d not reveal Robin to the authorities. “I want to know what it is that’s caused all this trouble. Or who it is, if it’s like that. It’s not something I’m often told.”

“And yet it’s something you often take the blame for, is it? And you’re tired now of it, all of a sudden. You’re a little young to be so frustrated, but I can understand.” Zlatan grinned, his lips stretching back from his teeth. In the dark, with the deep shadows that gouged out his cheeks and eyes, he almost looked like a skull, and then he looked years younger with that glint in his eye. “Who’s looking for Daniel?”

Robin exhaled sharply, and then again to take the edge off his temper. He looked away from the man’s mocking grin, then passed one hand over the top of his head, digging his nails into the hairline just as he ran out of scalp. He grimaced at the little pricks of pain. “Why wouldn’t Daniel tell you who?”

He didn’t expect to receive an answer, and for a few moments Zlatan merely stared at him as the man had done previously. But then Zlatan shifted against the wagon, something like a grimace and a snarl crossing his face. “Because he knows damn well I’d take him right back to them, if they’re from Milan,” Zlatan abruptly said. He looked at Robin, then shrugged helplessly. “He’s older than you but it’s like he never learned anything, and I can’t fault the teachers.”

“Because you were one of them?” Robin guessed. But the way Zlatan’s face closed told him that that had been a mistake; he suppressed his wince and absently crossed his arm over his chest to clasp his opposite arm. “Cruyff. Marco van Basten. Roberto Donadoni, who asked the first two.”

“Roby?” Zlatan said. He blinked a few times, then let a smile twitch at his mouth. There was humor to it, but it wasn’t quite good humor. “I thought he swore not to touch anything from the Low Countries for the rest of his life. Ah, well. Good luck with keeping him and Marco friendly.”

Robin nearly asked the man what it was that lay between—or linked—Van Basten and Donadoni, but he refrained because he suspected it might provoke another tense silence from the other man. Instead he stood and waited as the humor faded from Zlatan’s face. Zlatan seemed about to address him and Robin straightened, but at the last moment Zlatan turned away, looking down the alley. He muttered something to himself, his eyes flicking heavenward. It didn’t seem likely that it’d been a prayer.

“Daniel’s looking for me.” Zlatan pushed himself off the wagon and took an absentminded step forward. Now he was looking at the ground, with his hands coming to rest on his hips. “I told him I’d wait till he came back, and I think he would’ve by now. You should know how to smuggle people, shouldn’t you?”

“I’m not sneaking the brother of the Duke of Milan—”

“If that’s what I meant I would have waited for him,” Zlatan said sharply. He looked up at Robin, then away in nearly the same instant. He put his hand to his back again as if it ached. “I know you don’t like taking orders but I’d wager money makes them a little easier, at your age. I’ve the money.”

For a few minutes Robin didn’t reply. Then he started out of thought and barely a moment later the church bells began to toll the time. He listened intently to them, but found no relief yet—if he hurried he might just make it, but only if he left now. “Where? Anyway, I can’t do it tonight. I have to leave now if I’m to even get…”

“You have something going out tonight?” Zlatan turned sharply back and with one stride put himself nearly up to Robin. “It’ll be fine. Even if it’s to Italy, I can find my own way as soon as I’m out of Amsterdam.”

“It’s being done with…with others,” Robin awkwardly said. Now that he had the shipment on his mind, he couldn’t seem to construct a thought about anything else. He stepped away from Zlatan, then pressed the heel of his hand to his temple to try and clear his head. “Well, I usually go with them till they’ve left the city, because I know the markers…but you…”

“I can do that. There are better fishing places than the city piers, but sometimes I still want to irritate people.” That white grin flashed again, like the blade of a knife. “It’s a failing of mine. But I know the ways well enough, and I want to leave safely as much as you’d like your boat to stay afloat.”

Robin hesitated a moment longer, then nodded. “But we have to leave now. You can’t go back for anything.”

“I don’t need to. Daniel can have it all—I left him a letter,” Zlatan said. He moved away to allow Robin to lead, then fell behind Robin. “I’ll write down where you can find enough money before I go.”

“You can keep that, or leave it to whoever you please. I’ve been paid twice over for you, and then the shipment’s already been paid for as well,” Robin said stiffly. Then he thought perhaps he was being a bit curt—and to be honest, they were nearing some barrels and Robin could see various tools lying about and on them—and coughed under his breath. “I’ve more that concerns me than gold.”

Zlatan looked at him, then ran one hand through his hair. None of the strands stayed where he pushed them and they fell back almost immediately; they couldn’t completely hide the his nose, but they did a good deal to make it harder to remember. The line of his profile seemed different, and then it would change again as he moved his head.

“I left Milan two years ago, directly after the Duke’s second son was christened. Left from the christening, in fact. Daniel didn’t understand and came to see me so he would.” Then Zlatan expectantly cocked his head.

“It’s not about his marriage contract, or Erasmus?” Robin asked.

“Oh, that I can’t say. Those are Daniel’s private affairs and I don’t know about them. But I know why he wanted to see me, and that’s why,” Zlatan replied. He shrugged, looking hard at Robin. Then he laughed again, but quietly and half into his hand as he rubbed the side of his jaw. “You don’t like me. But you’re going to help me. You’d get better treatment from Donadoni and Daniel if you took me to them. Or from the Regent.”

Robin started to answer him sharply, but heard someone approaching and quieted himself. He swerved into the shadows only to find that Zlatan was already there, and stooping so the hang of his cloak gave off the impression of far greater bulk than the man had. It looked surprisingly natural.

“You don’t know for certain that they would. Treat me better,” Robin said when they were alone in the alley again. When Zlatan raised a brow, Robin met the man’s gaze squarely. “You don’t. And I don’t like you, but you’ve been direct with me and sometimes that’s worth more than money. Some things are.”

“Ah.” Zlatan straightened, then rubbed at one shoulder and his back for a few minutes. “Still, best you tell them I forced you to it. You’ll not want to be giving up on your Holland yet, and damn well not for someone like me.”

Robin pressed his lips together, then saw the sense in the other man’s words and nodded tightly. Then he directed them down another alley and out onto a street, where he quickened the pace.

* * *

Gabriella wanted to know how it happened and I wrote her a letter, but I doubt she’s shown it to you and it seems fairer to leave that to Sandro’s children and give you your own.

I know you think I’ve told you, but I didn’t. I told you how the battle went, is all. Because the truth is that I don’t know how it happened, because I wasn’t there. I was on the other side of the fighting and the news didn’t reach me till a half-hour after the end. They say it was because Sandro’s boots stuck on his stirrups and kept him in the saddle, and so even the men around him didn’t realize till it was too late.

One of the doctors said it would have been a quick death, since one of the arteries had been severed. He wasn’t Philippe but I believed him, and don’t think he said that merely because I might have killed him for saying anything else. He likely was thinking of that but when I looked myself…and I’ve seen enough men die, I think.

They’d already closed his eyes. Pushed shut his mouth too, maybe. I couldn’t find anyone who’d admit to knowing what his face looked like when they finally got him off his horse. So when I reached Sandro he was already a corpse, and there was nothing left of the man. It wasn’t ridden with disease but I still washed and dressed it myself because it was so savaged, and I wanted to be certain that when Gabriella and Adriana saw it, they’d not suffer that much more. Some of the ways I’ve seen bodies brought back to families…I wanted to be certain and the only way was to do it myself. When I was done, the body looked like it was sleeping. Like the night before, except I had a corpse before me and not a living man.

I watched your father die, and I didn’t watch Sandro die. I still don’t have a preference. They were both equally bad.

But Sandro’s death wasn’t why I left. That’s what you’ll think and I can understand it, but you’ll be wrong. I stayed two more years, and it wasn’t merely to see Christian’s second son born and to know for certain that your father’s death and Sandro’s death hadn’t been in vain. I will admit that that was a part of why I stayed, but it had nothing to do with why I left. And it wasn’t to make up the two years I spent in Stockholm. Sometimes I do wish I hadn’t gone there but I did and that cannot be changed, so I don’t understand how it could be made up. I’ve never tried to make them up because it can’t be done.

I don’t want to die in Milan. That’s why I left.

Once I told your father, and Sandro, that it wouldn’t work if I came to Milan. That no matter what they promised they’d ask things of me that I didn’t want to do, that I hated to do. That I wouldn’t make it easy for them either, because I didn’t know what I was seeing when I first saw your father but I was already nineteen and it seems so young when you are that age, but later you see how it’s too late. Because I’d be the same with other things, and I was. Because your father and Sandro, they both believed in beautiful things. They died for such. And I know what beauty is when I see it but sometimes I don’t know to call it that, and sometimes even when I do know, I can’t bring myself to believe in it. It wouldn’t work, I told them.

But it did. I don’t know how—your father and Sandro brought me the worst moments of my life and the best, and in between we somehow came to terms with each other. And I have spoken all through this letter about how much I hated Italy and how Milan was barely tolerable, and that’s all true. But I hope you see now that I have loved as well as hated, and I couldn’t have done without either. It wouldn’t have worked without either.

Milan, and everything in and bound to it, was as close to beauty as I will ever know. I want to leave it that way. I know you’ll look after it as it should be looked after—I know that you’ll miss me, but you don’t need me. And I don’t need Milan now, so I want to leave it to peace.

I will not die in peace. I do not intend to involve myself in any more armies. I don’t think I need to say this to you but I will anyway: I will never give my services to your enemies. But I am who I am, and I will not die content like your father, and I will not die with foresight and sobriety like Sandro. I will not seek death, but I will not have to. I’ll die by some accident, when I don’t mean to, for some useless little thing like the way someone talks back to me, the way someone looks at me. I’ll make a mess of it and I don’t want that in Milan.

I hope you understand now. If you don’t, love me anyway. But I hope you understand.

Live well, children.

* * *

They were a few minutes late and Sneijder nearly leaped out of the barge when he saw them approaching. Then he spent more time hissing in Robin’s ear than helping to load the shipment and then to cover it up with innocuous cargo, and so it was fortunate in respect to the shipment that Zlatan had come. Without his aid in loading the barge would have been late to depart as well.

After they’d tied the tarps over the top, Robin looked about them and then asked where the second man was. Sneijder told him that he hadn’t been able to come to town in time and would meet them further up the coast. The man’s expertise with the Zuider Zee wasn’t needed till then anyway, but before the guides had always left from Amsterdam with everything else and Robin felt uneasy about the change. It was true that that made it easier to effect his own alteration in the plan—the barge was packed tight and Zlatan was hardly a small man—but it still seemed strange.

In the end he climbed into the barge with the other two men, despite Zlatan’s insistence that he knew the buoy system. Three men had been supposed to leave and that at least wouldn’t change, and Robin could see for himself that the guide had been honestly delayed.

They pushed off from the pier and silently made their way out of the city, a task made harder by Sneijder’s incessant questions about Zlatan. He might have a legitimate concern but he should have known that Robin wouldn’t come along if Robin had intended a trap, and he also should have waited to confront Robin till they’d safely navigated the sandbars if he valued his own life. The water was little more than a hand’s-span below the top of the boat, they were so heavily loaded.

Zlatan at least held his peace. He climbed into the bow to take charge of the sail and showed himself quite handy with it. Hunched so the hump of cargo almost hid him from view, he let out the lines and took them in without needing a single word. He almost wasn’t there, and Robin had to confess that that was a unexpected and pleasant surprise.

When they finally struck deeper waters, Robin passed the tiller to Wesley for a few minutes and climbed forward to have a better view of the harbor. At this hour it wasn’t likely that ships would be arriving, but it had been known to happen and he preferred to have a sight of them before they saw him, in that case.

He’d braced himself against the cargo and was about to look up when something dark moved at the corner of his eye. In the same moment Zlatan abruptly leaped onto the pile of cargo. He made a horrendously loud noise and then he nearly sank the barge, as it bobbed so low that water splashed over Robin’s legs. Behind Robin, Sneijder cursed violently at Zlatan but Zlatan continued moving, scrabbling the rest of the way over the cargo till he’d come to squat beside Robin. He slapped his hands a few times against the sides of the barge, then threw up his head to glower at Robin. “God’s balls, don’t you have anything?”

Robin looked at him, openmouthed. Then he twisted around and saw what Zlatan had seen: a sloop arrowing swiftly towards them across the harbor. Two sloops. Each was cutting in from a different direction, and would catch them between in a matter of minutes. Customs men, and not the ones he and Van Basten had bribed.

Sneijder saw them as well and briefly changed the target of his cursing before falling silent. They all knew the heavily-laden barge had no chance to outmaneuver the sloops, and they were too far from land to swim to safety.

“The one on the left will come first, and there’ll be about two minutes,” Zlatan muttered. When Robin looked at him, the man didn’t seem to be addressing anyone, but instead was bent nearly double as he examined something on the bottom of the barge.

“You’re not even looking at them,” Sneijder snapped. Then he looked at Robin, the knowledge of their approaching fate settling uneasily in his eyes. He took a ragged breath, then set his shoulders just as Zlatan stretched forward and got a hand under Sneijder’s foot.

Zlatan easily flipped Sneijder over the side and into the water. Left to swing freely, the tiller banked hard and Robin was thrown off balance. He fell against the side of the barge and his hands smashed against some ropes, which he tried to seize at the same moment Zlatan grabbed his ankle. Robin kicked out but struck only air, and then he was flying through the air.

The water was bitterly cold, and slapped the breath from him. Then, before that shock had worn off, he was brutally jerked upwards; his right hand had caught in the ropes and they were keeping him attached to the boat, but they weren’t short enough to pull him free of the surface. He thrashed wildly, then felt his free hand punch into the air. Suddenly Robin knew which way was up and he clawed in that direction till his head burst into the air and he could take great, gasping breaths.

There was shouting. The barge wrenched about again as the wind made free with the unsecured sail and Robin went slack with the pain in his trapped arm. That saved him, since his limp body offered no resistance to the second lurch, and when the third one sent the barge towards him, his arm wasn’t dislocated. It still hurt but he was able to hook both hands over the edge of the barge, and then to pull himself up.

He saw that the first sloop had reached them. Zlatan was no longer in the barge, but a hand flopped aimlessly over the rail of the sloop, and further down at its bow, a struggle was going on. All Robin could make of it was dark bodies and the occasional silver flash.

Robin gritted his teeth, then forced his rapidly weakening muscles to haul him up into the barge. He fell to the floor and shivered violently. His hand somehow came free of the ropes, and then he was able to grope his way around and tie down the sail. Then he lifted his head just as the barge and sloop bumped together, and while the impact was still jarring through him, he jumped for the sloop. It wasn’t much bigger than the barge, although it sat higher in the water and the strength it took Robin to catch the rail and hang on nearly did him in.

He breathed. Something flashed, and he thought it was coming towards him and fear surged warmly through him, giving him the energy to heave himself over and then scramble for a marlinspike that was rolling down the deck towards him. Then the sloop bucked violently, throwing him towards the bow.

It shook apart some of the shadows there, and one man fell at Robin’s feet. He had a sword and he slashed at Robin, who avoided it more out of luck than skill, but whose downward stab was very much deliberate. The marlinspike crunched through one of the man’s eyes, sending a spray of blood into Robin’s face that felt scalding hot against his chilled skin. The sword clattered against the deck. Robin pounced upon it, then staggered back to his feet just as a second man fell half against the railing. Half his face was slashed away, and the other half was lifeless.

The third man remained crouched over at the bow, but stumbled over onto his hip at Robin’s step. It was Zlatan, and he had one arm pressed to his stomach. Its hand seemed to be tucked into the darkness of his sash, but then Robin remembered that Zlatan hadn’t been wearing any such article of clothing. A few drops splattered onto the deck and Robin cursed, dropping to his knees.

“Don’t fall over, you idiot,” Zlatan hissed. “Give me your sword.”

Robin had been about to throw that aside and reach for the other man, but at that he hesitated. He didn’t understand and in his confusion he looked up, only to flinch and gasp at how close the second sloop was.

“Give me your sword!” Zlatan snapped at him. “They can have my body. It’s only a body. But not—”

“Zlatan? Zlatan!” shouted someone from the second sloop.

Zlatan stiffened, and as white as his face went, Robin thought the man had no need of a sword. But then Zlatan sighed and sank back against the deck—he had a little life left in him. He even chuckled.

The second sloop pulled alongside and someone jumped across to them; Robin swung up his sword, then nearly sprained his wrist to keep from spearing Van Basten. The other man looked at him, disbelieving, before giving Robin a curt shake of the head and turning around. He was thrown a rope and he began to tie that to the rail as a second man leaped over.

This one Robin didn’t know, but from the way Zlatan smiled at them, it seemed that he knew the man. The stranger cried out and knelt by him, back to Robin—all he saw was hands moving gingerly over Zlatan, very smooth and delicate but either tanned or naturally olive-complected. Zlatan grunted, then spoke in…in Italian, and the man replied in a choked voice. Once Zlatan tried to move his arm and the other man moved so it fell naturally over his shoulder.

“Watch your step,” Van Basten said above Robin. He was speaking to Donadoni, who’d just come over rather ungracefully.

Donadoni ignored Van Basten and went near the two in the bow, his brow furrowed as he listened to their conversation. The boat had steadied so Robin risked getting to his feet, and to the side he saw the men still on the other sloop hauling Sneijder out of the water.

“You…did you have me followed?” Robin asked.

Van Basten was watching Zlatan and…Daniel, Robin supposed, and he looked oddly somber. For a moment he didn’t seem to have heard, but then he twitched his shoulder. His head slowly turned and he gazed upon Robin as if he didn’t know Robin. “Oh. Yes. I knew you’d do the job but I’m not so contented as Johan, that I can let smart young men like you run around and think they’ll never dare cause trouble for me.”

“I had no intention,” Robin started heatedly. Then he looked about himself, and saw how ridiculous a denial would be. Silence was hard on his pride but to be honest, his pride seemed out of place at the moment.

A loud, wet cough made them both look towards the bow. Daniel had Zlatan’s head on his knee now, and even Robin could understand his whispered, sobbing Italian as it consisted of one commonplace word: he was saying ‘farewell’ over and over again. Zlatan’s face was hidden but his bloody hand tapped at Daniel’s hip, and it seemed deliberate—deliberate and affectionate. Then he sagged back, and Daniel sucked in his breath.

It was silent for a long moment. Though he’d known very little of the man, Robin couldn’t quite bring himself to admit that Zlatan was—

“Paolo?” Zlatan suddenly rasped, voice terrifically strong. From somewhere he found the strength to force Daniel back so he could sit up. He stared at Daniel, past Daniel as his eyes, sightlessly wide, wandered insensibly. He smiled, and said something in Italian that Robin couldn’t understand, except that there was another name, ‘Sandro,’ and then he gasped once.

When his body went slack this time, there was no doubt that he was dead. They were all silent save for Daniel, who was crying loudly and unashamedly as he lowered the body back to the deck.

Eventually Donadoni came over to them. He looked old and worn and thin, as if the stiff breeze might blow him over the rail at any moment. “We’ll see to the customs men and the sloops. Thank you, Marco. Van Persie.”

Robin blinked, surprised at the thanks and at the remembering of his name. Van Basten shrugged, then ran his hand over his bare head as he turned to look at the barge, which much to Robin’s surprise looked untouched. “Get out of my city without making more trouble and that’ll be enough,” Van Basten said. He looked round, then jerked his chin at Sneijder. “We’ve dry clothes for you. Well?”

After a moment, Sneijder suppressed the irritation he was obviously feeling and nodded. “I can still go.”

He went across the sloop and leaped back into the barge while Van Basten watched him. Then Van Basten gestured for Robin to come to the rail with him, and Robin was doing so when Donadoni cleared his throat. Brows raised, Van Basten turned around.

“You’d still be welcome in Milan, you know,” Donadoni said. His expression was unreadable. “I could reconcile myself to it.”

Van Basten stood and stared, and slowly the side of his mouth quirked up. He looked down at the deck, then back at Donadoni, and for once he seemed genuinely amused. “I know, Roby. But I have my own table to tend to. I don’t need to serve at another’s.”

Donadoni had either expected that or had remarkably good control of himself, for his expression went unaltered. He merely nodded once, then turned and went to bend down over Daniel. One of his men tossed Sneijder a bundle of clothes before coming to help Donadoni and Daniel with Zlatan’s body.

“Damn pilot, I hope he burns in Hell. I’ll be sure to mention this to Dennis when I’ve returned, if you’ve neglected to,” Van Basten said abruptly. Then he put his hand over the rail and was nearly into the barge, which Sneijder had brought alongside the sloop, before Robin began to raise an objection. Even then he only slowed his movements. “Someone has to go with Wesley. I can pilot and I already cleared my business for the week because I was under the impression that this would take longer. Tell Edwin I’m sorry, and he’ll make certain you do all right and that no one thinks it’s strange. Except for Johan, but let him be suspicious. It’s not doing him much good these days.”

“Pardon?” Robin finally managed. “Wait, you’d like me to take over your business?”

Van Basten got his feet into the barge but kept hold of the sloop’s rope so he could look up at Robin. His brow was furrowed in irritation. “Well, it won’t run itself, and I’m not blind. I know you’re capable. See to it till I’ve come back.”

Robin stood at the rail for a moment longer, then threw up his arm to get Van Basten’s attention. “What if I don’t wish to by then? It’s a long trip.”

“Oh, you will. You’re good but not that good, Robin. When I get back you’ll be begging for me to take it from you,” Van Basten snorted. He planted his palm flat against the sloop’s side, then pushed hard to send the barge drifting away. When it was clear, he let Sneijder have the tiller while he untied the sail.

They moved slowly but steadily, and a good wind had risen. After a moment, Robin raised his hand. Sneijder saw it and ignored it, and Van Basten had his back to it, but nevertheless it felt appropriate to Robin. Only then did he step back from the rail, and turn towards Amsterdam.

* * *

Brother, Mother,

I’m bringing him home.