All roads lead to Roma. If you wanted to reach the pinnacle of power, you didn't stay in Milano, no matter how influential the Sforza family was. Instead, you went to the center of the world and made sure you came to the attention of the Curia and the Princes of Holy Mother Church.
Guglielmo, called Il Sanguinante, lounged on the sill of a large window in a grand upper hallway of the Papal Palace, cleaning his fingernails with a long, thin-bladed dagger. The air of casual menace was no act, but the relaxation was. Since he and the mercenary band he was lieutenant of had come to Roma as part of the entourage of Giovanni Sforza five years ago in 1493, Guglielmo had been careful to reaffirm his reputation as one of the deadliest members of the band known as the Scourge of Europe. And he was only the second in command.
The company had secured their place in the favor of Pope Alexander VI by guarding his refuge in the Castel Sant' Angelo when the French had entered Roma in 1494. The Papal Guard, traditional protectors of the Holy Father, had been a little unreliable, but mercenaries were loyal to whomever paid them. And Alexander VI had access to a great deal of money.
Still, the Apostolic court had different standards than a mercenary camp, and outright murder was considered gauche. The death of three members of the Papal Guard was not the easiest thing to sweep under the carpet. Certainly the half dozen Guards standing next to the only easy exit were unwilling to let the matter slide.
Guglielmo flicked one last bit of annoyance off a long finger then gazed out the window, absently tossing his dagger into the air and catching it. Down below, St. Peter's Square was full of bustle, though most of the crowd was depressingly monochromatic. Flocks of black-clad priests and nuns, spattered with bloody Cardinals. He glanced down at his own crimson and black attire and smiled. At least he looked good.
"Will, m'lad!" boomed a very familiar voice that was coming down the hallway.
Guglielmo let only his reflection in the glass see his grin, then made sure that the eye roll and sneer were visible as he turned. "I am not one of your barbaric Irish relatives, Angelo. Or have you forgotten how to speak Italian again?" He slid easily off the window sill to his feet.
A big man who habitually wore green and gold for his native land, Angelo dell'Irlanda stood at least half a head taller than everyone around him. He fairly oozed good fellowship and seemed the perfect companion for a visit to a cheerful tavern. People who were meeting him a second time, however, stayed out of reach of those big hands and watched his eyes. Those who stayed with him knew there was no better man to have at your back in a tussle. But once you were one of his, you developed the depressing urge to fling yourself into mad schemes and hopeless battles, just because he asked it of you. Because the odds were good that he'd be leading the charge.
"How did it go?" Guglielmo asked.
Angelo flung his left arm around Guglielmo's shoulders. "The Captain of the Guard is a reasonable man, Guglielmo. I don't understand how you came to believe he was so angry with you. We discussed the matter like rational men, and he's perfectly willing to see it was a case of self-defense. Three against one? Who could possibly believe that you'd start a fight like that?"
They both managed not to snicker.
Guglielmo finally managed a straight face. "What did you do to him?"
"Do to him?" Only Angelo could manage to look so affronted and so wicked. "Why, I only offered to settle it like any gentleman would. He answers for his men, I answer for mine."
Guglielmo stopped and stared at his captain. "You challenged the Captain of the Guard to a duel?" Angelo shrugged. "Did he piss himself?"
"Guglielmo!" Angelo turned so the six Guards down the hall couldn't see his smirk. "He was going to accept, but he remembered an important meeting he needed to attend. I offered to meet him later, but he's such a busy man, he said it would be better just to let the matter slide."
"That's very kind of him." He bit the inside of his cheek to stop the laughter. "So, can we go?
We've got things to do ourselves."
"We can go."
They strolled down the hallway, Angelo's arm still around Guglielmo's shoulders. The six Papal Guards glanced at each other thoughtfully. The two mercenaries pretended not to notice. More fools they, if the Guards hadn't noticed that Guglielmo's sword was on his right hip and that Angelo was not blocking his left arm, his sword arm. It wouldn't be the first time the two mercenaries had to draw steel together.
This time, however, the Guards decided on the better part of valour and let the pair go on their way. Angelo pulled his arm back, and Guglielmo stepped away to a better position for fighting if necessary. They strode down a grand staircase, and the priestly minions to the Papal throne made hurried way for them.
"Was it as simple as you make it out to be?" Guglielmo asked.
"Is it ever?" Angelo glared at him. "What have I told you, boy, about leaving witnesses to your little dances?"
"To make sure there aren't any. But I think the Holy Father might have been a bit annoyed with me if I slit the throat of his son."
Angelo paused. "You didn't tell me Cesare was there." Guglielmo shrugged. "Was he involved?"
"I saw him talking to those three before they came up and got insulting, if that's what you mean."
"You mean--it was self-defense?"
Guglielmo laughed. "Please don't sound so shocked, Angelo. I can occasionally walk down a hallway without killing someone."
Angelo didn't laugh. "Why is Cesare Borgia involved in this?"
"Cesare likes seeing things die. I don't know if he was hoping I'd go down or if he just wanted to watch me butcher those Guards."
"I was handy? He was curious to see if I could do it?"
"You didn't--insult him?"
"Insult the Holy Father's son? Do I look stupid? Leave my hat out of this."
But Angelo ignored the invitation to begin a debate on tastes in clothing. "I've seen him watching you, and it's a very thoughtful look."
Guglielmo tilted his head to give his captain a narrow look. "Are you thinking I propositioned him and he was offended? Or that I refused an invitation to one of his little Greek feasts? Angelo, just because you sometimes find me in bed with someone other than a wench doesn't mean every man in the city is after me. And you're blushing."
"I am not," Angelo snapped, walking faster and not caring that a pair of bejeweled Bishops had to jump out of his way.
Guglielmo was careful to stay far enough back so he'd have to raise his voice. "Besides, I'm too old to suit his tastes." Angelo waved his hands around his ears, as if he could shoo away the words.
Bumpkin, Guglielmo mused fondly. As if Angelo hadn't woken up next to another man himself once or twice. Though that generally involved so much wine that he started singing and babbling in his own uncivilized tongue. Oddly enough, Angelo always refused to translate those babblings the next day.
He considered his purse and wondered if there was enough wine back at their lodgings to get Angelo that drunk again.
After five years in service at the Vatican, Alexander felt he knew his way around the Papal court fairly well. He knew the shortcuts between the ornate chambers, which Monsignors were most likely to turn a blind eye to mischief, and which members of which families it was essential not to annoy. The great Cardinals never paid attention to lowly novices; so long as you bowed appropriately as they passed and let their servants put on airs, they were safely ignored.
Alexander had come from a village near Fiorenza. The dying orders of a Medici matriarch had stated that a dozen peasant lads were to be taken from their lowly estates and sponsored to education and a new life in the arms of Holy Mother Church. Twelve-year-old Alexander, son of a sheepherder, found himself in a world that should have only existed in tales. In the novice's dormitory, he'd wept in confusion and homesickness while the townsmen's sons who had been groomed for this life sneered at him.
Most of his fellows from the villages proved unable to keep up with the lessons or were simply unable to adjust to the opulent and treacherous world of the Vatican. Three had run away and vanished. Five slipped into the position of being servants to the nobler born, and one had been found in far too familiar relations with the wrong man's daughter and then "fell into the Tiber against his will."
Only three of the transplants prospered. Giuseppe fell in with the archivists and now spent happy days among the manuscripts. Luigi revealed an unexpected talent with numbers, which brought him to the attention of the financiers.
Alexander one day found himself in the Pantheon, the immense domed building that dated from the Caesars. He was staring up at the Ocular at the top of the dome, murmuring to himself, "But how does it stay up?" To his embarrassment, a man nearby began to explain it. Three hours later, he was late returning to the novice's dormitory but had agreed to study architecture with Signore Donato Bramante. He and his compatriots were still expected to serve at the various Masses and wherever else the Master of Novices decreed, but Alexander, at last, no longer cursed the day he'd been taken from his familiar world.
He was running down a side corridor in the Papal Palace, hurrying from a class to the Basilica, where he was expected to assist one of the Cardinals with the midday Mass. At seventeen he was getting a little old for altar boy duties, but he kept putting off his ordination as a full priest. He would have to decide soon. Maestro Bramante would take him as a full-time student, but he hated to give up the magic and joy of serving the Mass.
Choices. Five years ago the only choice he saw was following in his father's steps. Now he had too many choi--
He hit something black and red, something that made a loud oofing noise and then threw him to the marble floor.
Alexander blinked and started to roll to his feet. "I'm terribly sorry, I--"
The tip of a sword was pointed at his nose.
Alexander stared at the point for a second, then shifted his gaze up the blade to the long-fingered, beringed hand wrapped around the grip. Past the narrow white ruffle at the wrist, along an arm encased in black velvet with red silk lining the pleats, to another narrow ruffle at the neck. Empty, pale eyes staring back at him. A scar nicking the left eyebrow and another emphasizing the edge of a sharp cheekbone. A thin, tight mouth that was beginning to loosen as confusion and amusement brought life into the eyes.
He took a step back. "You should watch where you're going, little priest." With his sword tip he scooped up his black velvet cap and replaced it on his head.
"I'm--I'm terribly sorry. Are you all right?"
"Just fine." The face tightened again as three members of the Papal Guard ran up.
"Brother, are you all right?" the lead Guard demanded. The other two had their hands on the hilts of their swords as they glared at the man in red and black.
Alexander looked back and forth between the two sides. "I'm fine, thank you." He wasn't sure the Guardsmen heard him. Around him he saw people backing away, but servants wearing various liveries lurked in corners and near doorways.
The man in red and black still had his sword out, pointed down and to one side. Still watching the Guards, he held a hand out to Alexander.
Slowly Alexander accepted the hand. He gasped at the strength that pulled him off the floor, and he stumbled trying to get his footing. The stranger grabbed his arm to steady him. Alexander realized he was between the swords and tried to pull away, but the grip on his arm tightened.
"Gentlemen!" came a loud, oddly accented voice. The stranger laughed very softly.
The man coming down the hallway was dark where the other stranger was fair, garbed in bright gold and green in counter to the red and black. But he also carried a sword, and Alexander didn't think his arrival was going to calm matters.
"Captain Angelo," the lead Guardsman nodded. "Your man here knocked down this novice."
"I'm sure there's some kind of misunderstanding. Isn't there, Guglielmo?" Captain Angelo added with a glare.
Guglielmo managed to erase most of the smirk on his face. "Oh, yes, there is. I was walking along, minding my own business, when all of a sudden this young man barreled into me out of nowhere." He sighed. "I know I should be more trusting, especially here in the Palace, but I thought I was under attack. I'm afraid I reacted automatically. I am sorry I threw you to the floor," he added directly to Alexander. "No hard feelings?"
"Um, none." Alexander tugged against the hold again, but Guglielmo's hand didn't budge.
"Hold still," Guglielmo muttered as Angelo apologized magnificently and insincerely. "Keep your mouth shut and you should get out of this without a scratch."
"Get out of what?"
"Hush, already. If everything goes according to plan, then nobody gets hurt."
Alexander swallowed. "That's the problem. I'm nobody."
Guglielmo did a double take, but the appearance of two more guardsmen down the corridor distracted him. "I do apologize for the inconvenience, Brother Nobody, but we might need to extend our acquaintance a bit longer."
Alexander was completely baffled. Somehow he had precipitated some sort of crisis, but he knew he was irrelevant to how this turned out. He saw Captain Angelo's hand creep toward his sword as the pair of Guardsmen came down the corridor. Their eager smiles made him feel sick.
"By all the saints, signores, have you no shame? Swords drawn in the Apostolic Palace?"
The lead Guardsman took a startled step backwards. Alexander thought he saw the man crossing his fingers against the Evil Eye. "Monsignor Lewes. How did you know . . ."
Henry Giles, Monsignor Lewes, late of Canterbury in England, glared at all of them as he strode up. "Signore," he snapped at Guglielmo, "put up your sword. And let that young man go."
Guglielmo didn't obey until Angelo confirmed the order with a faint nod. Alexander yanked free, rubbing his arm.
Monsignor Lewes shook his head. "Brawling in the hallways, you should all be ashamed." He stepped between the two sides and took hold of Alexander's sleeve. "Stay with me, boy," he murmured. Alexander just nodded. At least Monsignor Lewes didn't have a sword. "Now, what is going on here?"
Alexander jumped in before anyone else. "I was running down the hall--I know I shouldn't, Monsignor, but I was late--I'm even more late, dio, the Master of Novices will have me flogged--"
Lewes patted his arm. "I'll explain what happened, boy. Go on."
"I ran into the--the gentleman here, then I fell down." Alexander looked away from the smirk on Guglielmo's face. "I said I was sorry, and he said there were no hard feelings, and nobody got hurt, and I'm not sure why the Guards are here."
Lewes turned to the Guards. "Yes, sergeant? Why are your men here? And so many of them?"
"Well, Reverend Sir, we saw the scuffle and, considering the people involved . . ." Guglielmo and Angelo smiled identical smiles and ran casual hands over the hilts of their swords.
"Indeed." Lewes glared at all of them again. "Two people have a collision in the heavily-traveled halls of the Vatican, and the Papal Guard hurries to help. That's very gratifying, sergeant, but perhaps not the most efficient use of your time."
The Guardsman took the unsubtle hint. "Of course, Reverend Sir." He gathered his men with a look, and, with a final sneer at Guglielmo and Angelo, headed off.
Angelo gave Lewes a very curious look. "A thousand thanks, Reverend Sir. No offense, but who are you that the Papal Guard turns tail when you snarl?"
Lewes tucked his hands into his wide sleeves. "Why, just another humble servant of our Holy Mother, captain. Nothing more."
"Indeed." He spared another glare for Guglielmo. "Surely, captain, you and your comrade have business elsewhere?"
Guglielmo bristled, but Angelo smacked his arm. "We do, Reverend Sir. Come along, Guglielmo."
Guglielmo turned to follow, but paused to wink at Alexander. "Farewell, Brother Nobody. It's a pity we couldn't extend our acquaintance." Angelo grabbed his sleeve and tugged him along.
Monsignor Lewes let a small smile escape as he watched the pair depart. "It seems you made somewhat of an impression on William the Bloody."
Alexander didn't recognize the English words. "On who?"
"Sorry. Your new friend. Guglielmo il Sanguinante."
"Il San--" Alexander felt his knees wobble a little. "That was Guglielmo il Sanguinante? The soldier?"
"Indeed. And his captain, Angelo dell'Irlanda." Monsignor Lewes took Alexander's arm again. "Brace up, lad, you came out of a scuffle with the Scourge of Europe quite well."
"But what would men like that be doing here?"
Lewes looked very thoughtful. "I don't know. Yet." He patted Alexander on the shoulder. "Now, what's your name, lad?"
"Alexander, Reverend Sir."
"Alexander. A good name. And where were you headed when all this blew up in your face?"
Alexander shook himself. "The Basilica. I'm supposed to help serve Mass with Cardinal Fortezzi. I don't know if I'm going to make it in time now."
"Yes, it would be such a terrible tragedy to keep the good Cardinal waiting." He caught the shocked look Alexander gave him. "I'm sorry, that was terribly rude of me. His Eminence will be waiting, but I'm sure there will be another novice available if necessary. I'll explain to the Master of Novices that none of this was your fault."
They walked down the corridor towards the Basilica, garnering curious looks from observers. Alexander couldn't quite place Monsignor Lewes' position in the Vatican hierarchy, but he had seen the man around the Apostolic offices more than once. He was obviously someone important, with better things to do than shepherd one lowly novice. "Reverend Sir, it's really very kind of you to come with me, but the Master of Novices isn't that bad, really. He'll listen to me."
"I'm sure he will," Monsignor Lewes said placidly. "Still, I want to make sure your story gets a fair hearing. I hate injustice."
Alexander started to answer, but his attention was caught by the signet ring on the Monsignor's left thumb. He couldn't make out the entire seal, but he did recognize the upright sword in the center. His stomach knotted painfully. Kind Monsignor Lewes was affiliated with the Holy Office of the Inquisition.
"Alexander? Are you all right?"
He pulled his eyes away from the ring with a jerk. Lewes frowned at him, then glanced down at his own hand.
"Ah. Yes." Lewes turned the ring so that the seal was hidden beneath his hand. "Things happen, Alexander. Inexplicable things. And people have to try and find the truth of those things. It can be an ugly business. But one should never be afraid of the truth."
There was pain in the mild eyes, but Lewes said nothing. They were silent the rest of the way to the changing rooms near the high altar in the Basilica. The Master of Novices spotted them and began working his way through the swarm of altar boys towards them.
Lewes leaned closer to Alexander. "You have nothing to fear from me, lad. If you ever need help with anything, no matter how bizarre, remember me as a friend."
More convinced than ever that this was the strangest day he had ever lived, Alexander went to find his robes.
The two mercenaries strode along, sneering slightly at the people who were careful to stay out of their way. Even the priests and functionaries around the Apostolic precincts avoided the pair. Once they were clear of the Papal sphere of influence, they shifted from arrogance to watchfulness. In the commoners' sections of Roma, people were more likely to answer offense with blunt violence than with nebulous religious maledictions. It was much homeier and more relaxing than the stifling show of hypocritical asceticism in the Vatican.
Angelo tossed a coin to a vendor in exchange for some meat rolls. He handed one to Guglielmo, who bit in delicately, careful of the hot grease. He shook his head at Angelo's less civilized manners.
"You get spots on that tunic, and Isabetta will have your scalp for a dust cloth."
Angelo paused, almost reached to his head, then sneered. "I can manage Isabetta." He held the sausage-filled roll a little further away from his body.
"Now, you tell me what you were thinking when you grabbed an infant priest for a shield?"
"That he'd make a very good one, and that those big dark eyes of his are just begging to be shocked."
"I know you understand the concept of choosing your fights wisely, but do you think you could give me some warning when you decide to challenge the entire Papal Guard?"
"Oh, it was not the entire Guard! A half dozen men, pffth."
Angelo sighed. "And how do you know the boy has dark eyes?"
Guglielmo hesitated. "Typical local lad. With that coloring he's bound to have dark eyes, too."
"Um hm. Do you remember that girl in Venice?"
"Drusilla," Guglielmo purred.
"You swore that was love at first sight, that her eyes beckoned you to take refuge in their dark, comforting depths."
"I said that?"
"Was I drunk?"
"And you didn't have the simple human decency to forget about it, out of respect for me, who's served you for over a decade?"
Angelo beamed at him. "Not for the forgiveness of all my days in Purgatory."
"Oh, as if you have any chance of Purgatory. Hellbound, you are."
"Not with all the gold I spend on Masses. But we're not discussing my soul, we're focusing on your inability to keep your hands to yourself. I don't recall Drusilla being that smitten with you. I can't imagine why. Grandniece of the Doge, the sons of dukes at her feet. No reason not to look twice at a soldier."
"You're an evil bastard and I hate you."
Angelo put an arm around his shoulders and laid a damp kiss on his forehead. "Of course, you do. But, Will--a noblewoman is one thing. I expected you to at least woo the girl into bed. But a boy studying to be a priest? You'll not be seeing much support from me on this."
"I wasn't asking for any."
Guglielmo walked faster. This was nothing like Drusilla in Venice. She'd definitely been softening her attitude towards the end. Was it his fault that she'd decided it was the wisest course of action to cry rape when her brother found the two of them in her room? How the hell did they think he'd found her room in the first place, after all? Still, leaving town was definitely advisable.
Brother Nobody was just that, nobody. An awkward boy too ungainly to keep his feet. No one had taught him how to move, how to use that big body of his to best effect. He was just another youth trapped in the machinery of Holy Church, destined to a withered life of serving an altar instead of learning how to be a man.
He came to a stop. "Oh, Blessed Mother, no . . ."
He was just stepping to the wall of a nearby building, ready to knock his head against it, when a familiar big hand wrapped around his neck. "None of that now, boy. A few gallons of wine, that's what you need. Maybe a wench or three."
"Blondes. Red heads."
The Crusader's Kiss was an old inn which still had its attached stables, despite the value of land inside Roma and the scarcity of horses on the crowded streets. When the Scourge of Europe was looking for a Roman headquarters, lodging for their horses had been the first consideration. Any moral objections the landlord may have had to becoming permanent host to a gang of soldiers were quickly resolved by the glitter of gold, and he and Captain Angelo quickly came to a mutually beneficial arrangement. A wooden mace carved above the front doorway served as the sign. Passers-by still occasionally came in for drinks and to listen to the tales of warfare, but the primary business was the care and comfort of the mercenaries who currently called the inn home.
"Gianni!" Angelo called as he pulled Guglielmo after him into the inn. "Wine for my besotted friend, here!"
The plump man behind the counter waved. "At once, Captain Angelo."
Angelo dropped Guglielmo into his chair at the long table in the back of the room, then took his own ornately-carved seat at the head. Across from Guglielmo sat a tall, thin, dour man in dark clothes. He was writing in a large book and counting various piles of coins.
"Is it settled?" he asked, not looking up from his work.
"Aye, Thomas, all's well." Angelo accepted a large goblet of wine from Gianni, who placed one in front of Guglielmo.
Thomas Wyndham turned to another section of his ledger. "How much was the fine?"
"No fine. The Captain of the Guard was happy to let the matter go."
"No fine." Thomas considered first Guglielmo, then Angelo. "How many bodies did you two leave behind you?"
"It is not true that we kill someone every time we go out!"
"No, of course not."
"Everything was settled quite diplomatically and at no cost to ourselves." Angelo reached out for the nearest pile of coins.
A dagger appeared from inside Thomas' sleeve, then stabbed into the table between the stack of coins and Angelo's fingers. Thomas jotted a notation in his book. Guglielmo surreptitiously used a convenient cloth to wipe up the wine he'd spilled while fighting back laughter.
"Thomas," Angelo said carefully, "you do remember whose money that is, don't you?"
"Certainly, captain. And I'm sure you remember who manages the money and keeps your accounts straight." He reached to his left to a larger pile of coins, picked up several and handed them to Angelo.
"But it's all the same money."
"No, it is not." Thomas pointed to the pile Angelo had reached for. "This is the rent. That is the men's pay." He pointed to his left. "And that is the quarterly pay from our patron that I am still divvying up between the bills. You'll get your share when I'm done."
Angelo glared at Thomas, who ignored him, then at Guglielmo, who raised his hands. "That's why you hired him, Angelo. Plus he knows all the best weapons smiths."
Angelo muttered a few moments more, then signaled Gianni for more wine as he watched Thomas count coins. "So what are we paying for rent these days?" he finally asked.
Thomas glanced at Guglielmo and winked very briefly. Every quarter it was like this: Angelo would bluster and complain, then he'd get interested in the minutiae of the business. Guglielmo picked up his wine goblet and headed upstairs. On the upper balcony he met Isabetta, Angelo's mistress. She was a tiny blonde who knew more dirty tricks with a dagger than Thomas did.
"If you're here, then Angelo's here," she said when she saw Guglielmo. "Are either of you hurt?"
Guglielmo sighed rather than protesting. "We're fine. He's downstairs watching Thomas count money."
Isabetta grinned. "Ooh, the money. I need a new skirt." She bounced down the stairs and over to Angelo's lap.
Guglielmo tried not to listen to the shrieking giggles when Angelo found her ticklish spot. Perhaps he ought to send a note to Nicoletta, see if she was available. Maybe she could bring some friends.
He froze just before he reached his own room. The shadows at the end of the corridor were moving, then they coalesced into the figure of a hooded woman stepping into view.
"Roxilana, you're not supposed to be here," he said. "You know how Angelo feels about gypsies."
Black hair, black eyes, lithe figure, but he'd as soon lay hand on her as declare the Blessed Virgin a strumpet at high noon in St. Peter's Square. Roxilana raised a graceful finger to her lips. "Our brave captain mislikes mysteries," she whispered. "He distrusts anything he cannot kill. But you love the things that lie behind the images, handsome Guillermo. You want to know why."
He was used to her cryptic words. She had been appearing in his life intermittently for the last seven years, ever since that night in Aragon when he'd let a running girl hide behind a wagon and he'd told the pursuing Spanish Inquisitors that he'd seen a Gypsy girl duck into an alleyway a hundred yards further on. He'd expected the usual tokens of gratitude. Instead of offering herself for his pleasure, though, she'd placed a fingertip on his forehead, smiled, and told him to beware of stone fences before vanishing into the shadows. Two weeks later, in a desperate battle with French forces, he and Angelo had been retreating down a village street. A stone fence had appeared, and Angelo suggested jumping it and circling around to come at the French from behind. At the last minute Guglielmo remembered the girl's warning and pulled Angelo further down the road. Within moments, French reinforcements appeared at that fence. Guglielmo credited better hearing for their escape.
"Why are you here, Roxilana?" he asked calmly. Sometimes she warned him about an upcoming battle, sometimes she only spoke of the commonplace.
Her smile was sly. "Isabetta wanted a love charm. I told her she didn't need one, that her captain was loyal, if not completely faithful."
"I didn't know you knew Isabetta. Angelo won't like that."
"Does Angelo need to know?" Roxilana drifted past him, trailing a hand along his arm. She hesitated, then stared into his eyes. "Poor Guillermo. You are too generous with your heart. He will break it, the lovely boy."
Guglielmo resisted his first reaction. "You'd best go, before anyone else sees you." He nearly snarled at the look of sympathy she gave him before she disappeared.
It was after Vespers when Alexander finally made it back to his dormitory. Thankfully the room was empty and he could take a moment to let his mind slow down. Such a bizarre day. It made one wonder what God was thinking as He ordered the paths of His creatures.
Alexander found himself musing on the different types of fear. When he'd been faced with the sword point of the notorious Il Sanguinante, the fear had been immediate and physical. Still, he'd rather have that feeling back again if forced to choose between the other fears he'd met today.
An Inquisitor knew his name, had shown interest in his life. The Holy Office protected the world against heresy and blasphemy, but their curious eyes were safest when they were far away. Monsignor Lewes had reminded him so much of the priest back home: kind, wise, patient, understanding. The kind of person who would encourage confidences. And who might then turn those confidences against you.
Why had Monsignor Lewes gone to such an effort for him? There were such better targets for an Inquisitor's attentions--
Alexander smacked himself in the mouth. A dozen Our Fathers for disrespect. He was no one to judge a Prince of the Church, a member of the Curia. Cardinal Fortezzi was just, well, odd. And old. Old men were entitled to their oddities.
He had been out of breath but right on time for Mass. The other altar boy was a very young recent arrival who had looked relieved to have an experienced partner. Helping serve Mass in a local village church was much different from assisting on the enormous stage that was St. Peter's Basilica. Alexander had been too busy shepherding the young boy to really pay attention to the celebrant. He'd let the words and the ritual carry him into a rapturous trance where the movements were a well-worn dance dedicated to God.
Until he saw Cardinal Fortezzi slip the consecrated wafer of the Host inside his sleeve instead of breaking it and adding a portion to the chalice. His Eminence continued the ritual as usual, drinking from the cup and continuing with the prayers. When he had purified the chalice with wine and water, he'd handed it to Alexander to be returned to its resting place. Alexander didn't know what expression he'd had on his face, but Cardinal Fortezzi had given him a very intent look.
There had to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for His Eminence's action. Except Alexander knew there was none. For a mad moment he'd even considered finding Monsignor Lewes, but he wanted no more contact with the Inquisition.
"There you are, Sandro!"
Alexander jumped in fear, but relaxed as Giuseppe, one of the last remnants of his old village's human tithe to the Church, dropped onto his own bed next to Alexander's. Giuseppe's hands were dark with ink stains from his work in the archives, but his easy smile said his day had been peaceful.
"You're very nervous," Giuseppe observed. "But with the day you've had, I'm not surprised."
"The day I've had?"
"Condottiere and the Papal Guard and the Inquisition? And you in the middle with a killer's hand around your throat?"
Alexander almost laughed at the eager curiosity on Giuseppe's face. "It wasn't my throat, it was my arm he was holding onto."
"Then he didn't threaten to kill you?"
"Please try not to sound so disappointed."
Giuseppe laughed. "I'm sorry. But it's the most interesting thing to happen around here in weeks. I would have loved to have been there, instead of sorting sheepskins with Master Paolo."
"I would have loved for you to be there, too. Instead of me." He returned Giuseppe's rude gesture with one of his own--after checking to make sure no authority figures were around. "How did you know about the Inquisition?"
"Monsignor Lewes? One of Bishop Rossini's servants saw you and the Monsignor walking along afterwards, and he told us all about it down in the Archives."
"What's he like?" Alexander asked casually.
"Bishop Rossini's servant?"
"Monsignor Lewes, you goat."
Giuseppe flopped back onto his pillow. "I like him. He comes down into the Archives a lot, looking for obscure references. He's always very polite and says 'Thank you', even to the lowly apprentices like me."
"But--he's still an Inquisitor."
"More of a researcher than an actual questioner. But they do say that, in Genoa a couple of years ago, he actually forced a demon to flee from the body of a young girl that was possessed." He sat up again. "Did he really make Angelo dell'Irlanda turn tail and run away?"
"He pointed out that there was surely important business elsewhere that needed dealt with, rather than hanging around the Vatican."
"And dell'Irlanda and Il Sanguinante just went."
Giuseppe leaned forward eagerly. "Tell me everything about them. What kind of swords did they have? Did you see any daggers?"
It was a better topic than strange behavior during High Mass.
Normally only the guards and servants walked the corridors of the Apostolic Palace in the deep watches of the nights. Anyone else encountered when all others were supposed to be asleep were those on business better left unquestioned.
Especially Inquisitors. Monsignor Lewes made no real effort to avoid observers as he walked down the corridor to his private chambers. It was almost amusing, the way people found business elsewhere when he passed by.
Once he was in his rooms, he locked the door with a sigh of relief. The effort of watching everyone was exhausting. Here in his chambers he'd taken steps to make sure he would not be disturbed so that his soul could stretch. He removed his cloak and boots, then went to his private altar and knelt.
The crucifix attached to the wall was very old. Christ was clearly suffering from his tortures, but his face was serene, gazing up to Heaven and accepting the torment as a necessary price. Monsignor Lewes found the piece very comforting.
"Thy shoulders are eternally strong and broad, Lord," he murmured, "but I feel a coward for wanting to lay my burdens on top of Thine. I chose this path, the work is worthy and the need is great. These blasphemies must be stopped. But all eyes follow me in suspicion, and those I can trust are far away. But Thou art always with me. Keep me mindful of Thy blessings and Thy strength. I don't do this work alone."
He crossed himself and rose. Across the room from the altar, he turned his hand so that the seal ring on his left thumb was pressed against a section of wall. "Knock, and the door shall be opened," he said. A small popping sound, and a door appeared in the wall.
The small room beyond had not been created by the architects of the Palace. Lewes' predecessors had crafted the space carefully and made sure that its secrets were passed on. Mere suspicion of the room's existence would result in very difficult questions.
Here, though, Lewes could finally relax completely. Old wards guarded the room from detection, and as far as the Monsignor could tell, there was no one else in the Palace who even had the ability to check for such things. In this room and this room alone, Henry Lewes could let his true self loose and let his magic run free.
Practice of the Arts was contrary to church law. He ran the very real risk of the Question himself for simply possessing some of the items in this room. The books alone were a heresy charge apiece. He sat at the small desk and mused nostalgically on his comrades back in England. A small pink crystal sat in a bowl on a nearby shelf, but it wasn't glowing to show that someone wanted to contact him, and homesickness was insufficient reason to use it.
If the situation here continued as he was afraid it would, though, he might have reason to contact England himself. The stars were in a very worrisome configuration, strange omens were whispered of in the back hallways, and occasionally Lewes caught the stench of true, diabolic evil. The Palace was full of the commonplace reek of human evil, of corruption and greed and lust and all the mortal sins. This, though, was truly Other.
He scolded himself for slipping into the error of confusing the authentically demonic with the tales of fallen Lucifer preached by his colleagues. Much of the Biblical story was true, as far as it went, but there was also as much that was the veneer applied by a millennia and a half of folklore, competing philosophies, and the biases of the ones who had control of the pens. Lewes often wanted to laugh at his Inquisitorial brethren, but he was generally too busy choking back tears of rage and frustration.
True demons and monsters stalked the earth, and the Holy Office was persecuting Jews and eccentrics. Not once in his official duties had Lewes seen anyone who was guilty of the evil he knew was in the world. No, those folk were too clever to be caught by the clumsy justice of the Church. Lewes wanted to leave, but he was often the only thing standing between an innocent and the flames. One of those innocents had been a young girl suddenly beset by visions of monsters and who was certain she was called to vanquish the fiends. Her family had given her to the Inquisition after flogging failed to drive the demons from her, but she remained adamant. Lewes remembered very clearly the look on her face when he'd released her from her cell in the middle of the night and he whispered to her that the monsters were real and, yes, she had been Chosen.
He'd saved her. Two others, not yet Chosen but suffering from the dreams, had been judged possessed. Their deaths under the testing were considered proof of their essential righteousness, and the Holy Office had congratulated itself on freeing the girls' souls from torment. Lewes had divested himself of every indication of his Church affiliation and lost himself in a tavern for three days.
No one currently in the custody of the Holy Office was in danger of loss of life, though their persecution smacked more of petty revenge than of the pursuit of righteousness. What worried Lewes were some hints in various prophecies referring to gathering evil. He picked up the small stack of parchments from his worktable.
The top document referred to a young man bearing a conqueror's name and who was known as The One Who Sees. He would appear at the end of the century and be instrumental in binding the forces of Hell. Unfortunately, the prophecy had been written in 1247 and neglected to say which century this seer would appear in. Still, there was the boy he'd met, Alexander. Best to keep an eye on him.
The next prophecy was more immediately worrying. A king among vampires, walking as if by right in the halls of power, with a powerful prince bringing him the tools with which to bring forth the torments of Hell. This prince, it was written, was in full knowledge of the creature he served and saw only the way to his own advancement.
Sacrifices were spoken of, both of innocence and of corruption. Lewes' sources, both written and speaking, were vague on the details, and he was getting the impression that his questions were becoming inconvenient. He'd been in the Jewish quarter tonight, hoping one of the scholars there would have manuscripts with new information, but he'd made the mistake of wearing cleric's garb. He hated the fear he saw in their eyes.
He shuffled his papers together again, too tired to make any more sense of it tonight. A quick but sincere prayer for guidance, and then off to bed for him. He couldn't Watch if he couldn't keep his eyes open.
The hot afternoon sun beat down on the dirty streets of Roma. Vendors loudly offered discounts in an effort to get rid of their day's wares so they could go home to their dinners. The sun cooked the garbage in the street into renewed fragrance, and the constant churning of the foot traffic stirred it all into new combinations.
Horses were generally frowned upon in the crowded streets. Some people, naturally, were always considered to be exceptions: noblemen, important churchmen, and, of course, notorious mercenaries who, it was popularly believed, didn't feel a day was well spent until someone had died at their hands.
Angelo and Guglielmo were both tired after a long day conducting the snap inspections that so endeared them to the various Papal army units that had been put under their command. Still, there were few things they enjoyed more than making officers of the regular army dance to the mercenary tune.
Guglielmo was still shaking his head over the last incident as they rode through the crowd towards the Crusader's Kiss. "I still think you went too far," he said. "No matter if it is true, you shouldn't brag about bedding an officer's sister, especially when that officer is related to the Sforzas."
They reached the inn and dismounted, letting the groom take their horses. Angelo pulled off his cap and ran his fingers through his sweaty hair. "Madonna, I need a bath." He began unlacing the heavy leather jerkin he wore. "That officer wasn't upset about me bedding his sister, Will. He was upset because I said she wasn't very good."
Guglielmo sighed. "One of these days someone is going to slip a dagger between your ribs, and I won't stop them."
Gianni the landlord greeted them at the door with cold, filled goblets. "Master Guglielmo, there's someone from the Vatican here to see you."
Guglielmo looked at Angelo, then back. "To see me?"
"Someone from the Guards?" Angelo asked suspiciously.
"No, captain. A churchman."
Guglielmo shrugged and led the way in. He grinned when he saw who was being interrogated at the big table by Isabetta. "Brother Nobody, how nice to see you. What brings you down to our world?"
Isabetta tsked. "His name is Alexander, not Nobody."
Alexander looked relieved when Isabetta got up from the table. He got up too and nodded awkwardly. "Good afternoon, Signore . . . um . . . "
Guglielmo took over the seat Isabetta had occupied. "No need to stand on manners, brother. I'm Guglielmo, you're Alexander." He found a goblet and the wine pitcher, filled the first from the second, and held it out to Alexander. "What brings you to this part of town, Alexander?"
Alexander hesitated, then took the goblet and resumed his seat. He glanced towards Angelo nervously, then looked away quickly. Guglielmo checked over his shoulder and saw Isabetta giving Angelo a proper welcome home kiss. Alexander took a quick drink of wine. "I was told to bring you a message." He jumped at a sudden shriek from Isabetta, who had just been tossed over Angelo's shoulder as he headed for the stairs.
Guglielmo chuckled and poured his own wine. "Well, he was wanting a bath." Alexander's dazed expression caught his eye. "When's the last time you talked to a girl? Much less a pretty girl?"
The young man blushed and yanked his gaze back from watching Angelo and the wiggling, laughing girl. "Um, a while." He stared at his wine goblet, his lips moving.
Which saint were you supposed to pray to, Guglielmo wondered, in order to resist the natural reactions of a healthy young man? "It's a shame you're stuck up in that monastery with all those shriveled up celibates."
Alexander glared at him. "Celibacy is a sacrifice to God. Women are a distraction from our proper work."
Guglielmo raised his goblet. "Praise be." He drained his goblet, then refilled it and leaned back in his chair to put his feet on the table. "Tell me about this message."
The young man dropped his eyes and fidgeted with his goblet. "The presence of Guglielmo il Sanguinante is requested at the Vatican at his soonest convenience. I'm to guide you."
"What, now? I've been out in the sun all day, I don't want to pull on my fancy clothes and go out again. I want a bath and a girl and more wine." He hid his smile at Alexander's discomfort behind his goblet. "Who sent you, anyway?"
"His Excellency Cesare Borgia."
Slowly Guglielmo pulled his feet down. "Cesare sent you." Alexander nodded uneasily. "And what does His Excellency want with me?"
"I don't know, signore. I was told he needed a messenger, I went to his chambers for instructions, he told me to come here and bring you back for a meeting."
He studied the boy carefully. "He asked for me specifically?" Alexander nodded. "Anyone else?"
"No, signore. His Excellency said you were to come alone."
"Oh, he'd like that, I'm sure." Guglielmo watched Alexander as he thought. "Did he mention our little encounter the other day."
"Stop that. My name's Guglielmo, not signore. Stay here."
He got up and headed for the stairs, hoping Isabetta hadn't gotten too far in her "I'm glad you're home" evening greetings.
He heard splashing and laughter when he reached Angelo's door. Maybe a visit to the Vatican was safer than interrupting the pair inside. But dalliance would have to take second place to the extreme inadvisability of going alone into possibly hostile territory without telling anyone. He reluctantly knocked on the door.
"Go away!" Angelo shouted. "I'm busy."
"Business, captain," Guglielmo called back.
An oath, then a bigger splash, then stomping footsteps coming to the door. Angelo pulled the door open, obviously unconcerned about his lack of wardrobe. Behind him, Isabetta squeaked and sank down to neck level in the big wooden tub that sat in the middle of the room. Guglielmo mentally congratulated her for having organized the bringing up and filling of the tub before her lover returned.
"What?" Angelo snapped.
Now that he could lower his voice, Guglielmo was less formal. "The boy was sent by Cesare Borgia, who wants me, specifically, to go up to the palace. Now. Alone."
Angelo frowned. "That's idiocy."
"I agree. But so is refusing."
"What's he want you for?"
"The boy doesn't know. He's waiting to go back with me."
"Alone, eh?" He glanced back thoughtfully at Isabetta and the tub. Isabetta began to pout.
"You can't go," Guglielmo said, fighting a pleased smile. "Me taking one of the men can be shrugged off as wanting a body guard. Me taking you is a threat."
"And so is summoning you at the end of the day." Angelo thought some more. "You'll take one of the men?"
Guglielmo nodded. "Is Thomas around?"
"He's not much less of a liability. But he is out in the stables. He can help pick someone to go with you."
"I'll check with him." He grinned at Angelo as he turned to go. "If I'm not home by morning, check the Tiber."
"Will . . ." Guglielmo turned around completely. Angelo stood in the doorway to watch him. "Be careful."
Angelo closed the door and Guglielmo strode down the corridor to his room at the other end, yanking his shirt over his head in the interests of time.
"Alessandro!" he yelled when he reached the railing overlooking the main room.
The boy jumped and stared upwards. "Signore?"
"Out in the stable yard is a man named Thomas Wyndham. Find him and tell him I need someone to go up to the palace with me. Oh, and tell him he can't go."
"But--you're supposed to go alone."
He grinned and tossed his shirt in the general direction of a laundry basket standing in the corridor. "You may have noticed that I'm not the kind of man who generally does as he's told."
"Shoo." He began worrying at the knot in the laces that held his hose together. "The longer you take the longer His Excellency has to wait." The laces finally came undone.
Alexander suddenly blushed and scurried for the door. Guglielmo nodded in approval as he pushed down the hose and pulled off his boots before continuing down to his room.
Out in the stable yard, Alexander took a moment to pull himself together. He had truly fallen into a den of iniquity. Loose women and shameless men. He knew things happened up at the Vatican that contradicted everything Father Riccardo at home had told him about how a man of God should behave, but he'd always been able to avoid such things. He hadn't dreamed that obeying His Excellency's orders would give him such a list of things he'd have to tell his confessor.
He knew to avert his eyes from the whores in the streets, but that girl, Isabetta, had seemed so friendly and pleasant that it had taken him several moments to realize how fascinatingly low-cut her bodice was. And he shouldn't have watched the way she and Captain Angelo, well, greeted each other.
Shaking himself, he forced his mind back to his instructions. Find the man Thomas Wyndham, tell him Il Sanguinante needed someone to accompany him to the palace in direct contradiction of the orders His Excellency had sent. Alexander sighed in frustration. Giuseppe didn't have days like this down in the archives.
A group of men sat in the shade of the stables, drinking wine and tossing dice. One of them looked up at Alexander's approach. "Looking for something, little priest?" he asked in a mostly friendly voice.
"Yes, I'm looking for Thomas Wyndham."
The man farthest back in the shadows stepped forward. "I am he. What do you want?"
Alexander fought to keep from fidgeting. This man was making no pretensions to being friendly. "Signore Guglielmo told me--"
"Guglielmo sent you?" Wyndham interrupted.
"Yes, he did." It was getting very hard to be polite with all the stress he was under. "He wanted me to tell you that he's going up to the Palace and he wants someone to go with him. And he told me to tell you that you're not allowed to go."
The other men gasped a little, but Alexander didn't care.
Thomas Wyndham raised an eyebrow. "I beg your pardon? I'm not allowed to go?"
Once upon a time, Alexander might have had the sense to be nervous at the man's tone of voice. "That's what he said. You're not allowed to go. Actually, no one's supposed to go with him. Those were the instructions, he's supposed to go alone."
"Ah. One of those situations." Wyndham looked at the other men. "Well, gentlemen? Who doesn't have plans this evening?"
The men muttered together. "Maurice is drunk. Already? What about Paolo? Out with Jeanne."
Wyndham stood patiently, though one foot did tap occasionally. "Well?"
A dark, scarred man stepped forward. "Looks like it's my turn, Thomas."
"Thank you, Giancarlo." Wyndham looked at Alexander. "Did Guglielmo say how long he'd be?"
"I--he was taking off his clothes right before I came out here." Alexander knew he was blushing badly. "How long does he take to change clothes?"
The man was definitely fighting a grin. "Depends on if he has a better reason to stay out of his clothes than putting on other ones."
The mercenaries snickered, and Alexander wished he hadn't been running late for Maestro Bramante's class when Cesare Borgia's servant had come looking for a messenger. He ran over the parts of a classical Greek entablature in his mind to distract himself.
Guglielmo came out the door, dressed in his black and red finery. His black velvet hat was crooked, he was wiggling his feet to get the boots settled correctly, and his scabbarded sword was tucked under his right arm. "Sandro, tie this." He held out his left arm with the dangling ties for his cuffs.
Fighting a growl, Alexander obeyed. "My name is Alexander."
"I doubt that's what the priest in your home village said at your baptism," Guglielmo grinned. He juggled his sword into his left hand and held out his right arm to be tied.
When did this man stop being a notorious cold-blooded killer and become an obnoxious buffoon? "Are you ready?" He cinched the right-hand knot down as tight as he could.
Guglielmo grinned at Thomas Wyndham. "Am I ready? Who did you find?"
Wyndham quietly retied the right-hand cuff into something looser. "Giancarlo's going with you. Did you want to take horses?"
"Better not. I'd want to take someone to watch the horses as well, and that's pushing the numbers. Besides, I doubt Brother Sandro can ride."
Mustn't hit the dangerous mercenary, mustn't hit the dangerous mercenary. "I can too ride," Alexander said as calmly as he could.
"Plow horses don't count." He patted Alexander's shoulder as he looked Giancarlo over. "You'll do. You have your sword?"
One of the men in the stable tossed out a sheathed long sword and belt. Giancarlo caught it and strapped it onto his back. "Yes."
Guglielmo slid his sword into its spot on his right hip, checked the dagger on his left hip, then tugged back his left sleeve to check the dagger strapped to that wrist. "Let's go then."
The walk back to the Palace was a different thing than the walk down. Alexander was used to being anonymous. One more novice in the streets of Roma drew no attention. A novice in the company of mercenaries, on the other hand, caught eyes and caused whispers. He disliked being noticed. It led to things like Inquisitors knowing his name and swordsmen giving him orders.
A woman yanked her young son back out of the way with a frightened look. Alexander looked at the mercenaries flanking him. Giancarlo seemed to be ignoring everything, making no effort to appear intimidating. Which meant . . .
He turned to his other side. "Stop it."
Guglielmo raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"
"Whatever you're doing that's making everyone look at us like this. Stop it."
"I'm not doing anything, Brother Sandro. I'm just walking along the way I normally do."
"Well, stop it."
Guglielmo laughed as Giancarlo stared at Alexander. "You do know who that is, don't you?" the quiet man said.
Alexander nodded. "Guglielmo il Sanguinante, mercenary, soldier, killer, etc., etc. My life was so much quieter before I ran into him."
Giancarlo looked at Guglielmo, who was still snickering. The laughter faded as half a dozen men with drawn swords stepped out of a narrow alley ahead.
"What interesting timing," Guglielmo said with a hard smile.
Around them, the crowd in the street faded away. Alexander looked around, confused. "What's happening?"
Guglielmo backed up to Alexander's side and put an apparently companionable arm around his shoulders. His left hand rested on the hilt of his sword.
"What we have here, young brother Sandro, is an ambush." He looked behind to make sure no one was sneaking up. "How convenient that just as you're leading us up to the palace, these bravos should appear."
Alexander gaped in surprise. He tried to pull away, but Guglielmo held on easily. "Let go."
"I don't think so."
The men from the alley stepped forward. Guglielmo and Giancarlo drew their swords. Alexander tried one more time to pull free, but Guglielmo pulled him in front into a familiar position.
"What are you doing?" he demanded, anxiously dividing his attention between the mercenary behind him and the approaching swordsmen.
"About to find out if whomever told them to wait for you to lead me into an ambush left any instructions about sparing you."
Guglielmo spared a moment to glance at Alexander. "I'll leave the option open that you're the Judas goat and not Judas himself. Now hold still and don't get in my way."
The men charged Guglielmo. Giancarlo intercepted from the side, distracting one pair and leaving four for Guglielmo. Alexander would have shrieked if he could have gotten breath. Swearing, Guglielmo shoved him towards a wall, freeing himself to move.
"It doesn't look like they have orders to spare you," Guglielmo called to Alexander as he skewered the first man in the throat. He pulled the dagger from inside his left sleeve and used it to parry another incoming blade.
Alexander pressed himself back against the chipped plaster wall and stared in horror at the carnage. He wanted to cross himself when the first man fell to the street, choking on his own blood, but his hand wouldn't move. Giancarlo disposed of one of his opponents with a neat heart thrust. The other man who was attacking Giancarlo suddenly turned and ran. The mercenary immediately went to help Guglielmo. With a bloodthirsty grin, Guglielmo made room for his comrade, but he kept most of the fighting for himself.
"So that's why they call him Il Sanguinante," Alexander whispered to himself. When pressed, Guglielmo was a quick, efficient fighter. Given the chance, though, he went for crippling, messy wounds. He laughed as he fought, even when the blow was against him. A sword point snagged one of his black sleeves. With an intricately blasphemous oath, he gutted the man who had torn the cloth.
"Do you know how much I'm going to have to beg Isabetta to fix that?" he yelled. He turned and sliced the elbow tendons in the sword arm of his last opponent. "And then I'm going to have to make sure she doesn't embroider love knots and roses on the damned thing as well!" He slammed the sole of his boot into the face of the last man, knocking him back and letting Giancarlo finish him.
Alexander finally felt his breath flow normally again. He crossed himself, whispering prayers for the dead and dying. He stepped forward, then saw movement from the corner of his eye. The attacker who had run from Giancarlo was sneaking towards him, a dagger in his hand.
Il Sanguinante looked up from his inspection of his sleeve and flung the dagger in his right hand into the attacker's throat. Blood sputtered from the wound, and the man dropped, gurgling. Alexander, both hands shoved against his mouth, stared into the man's eyes until they froze and gazed at nothing.
Guglielmo appeared at Alexander's shoulder, shaking him and pulling him back. "None of your concern anymore, little priest. Well, except the obvious." Alexander was shaking too hard to make any movement towards a blessing.
Giancarlo came up and stared at the body. "He came back?"
"Apparently so." Guglielmo studied Alexander for several moments, then shook his shoulder again but more gently. "Brother Sandro, we're expected."
"What?" Alexander said, blinking.
"At the Palace. We're supposed to be at a meeting."
"But--you're still going?" He looked around at the bodies. "After this?"
Guglielmo raised an eyebrow at Giancarlo, who only sighed and shook his head. "Of course, I'm still going. Is there a reason I shouldn't?"
"I--but--they just tried to kill you!"
Guglielmo's smile suddenly changed from mocking to amused. "People try to do that all the time, Sandro. That's my job." He reached down and pulled his dagger from his victim's throat.
Alexander watched him clean the dagger. "You're left-handed."
"So?" Guglielmo dug some blood out from a crevice between the blade and the cross guard, then slid the dagger back into its sheath.
"My grandmother said left-handed people were the spawn of the devil."
The mocking smile came back. "We are."
Alexander crossed himself again, then saw his hands were shaking. Giancarlo frowned and took Alexander's arm to drag him down the street away from the bodies.
"Some people may be used to being up to their ankles in blood," Giancarlo told Guglielmo, "but most of the people in the world are nice folks who don't deal with bodies every day. Let's get the boy away from this."
Guglielmo checked his boots for blood, then followed, looking just a little chagrined.
Alexander had recovered his composure by the time they reached St. Peter's Square. At least, he looked like he had. Inside he still heard the gasps of dying men and the sound of bodies falling to the ground. And Guglielmo said that was his job, to have people trying to kill him. Alexander knew he lived a sheltered life within the precincts of the church, but he hadn't realized just how isolated he was.
The sun was casting long shadows off the dome of the old church. The Basilica was over a thousand years old, but talk had being going around for years now on how best to renovate the venerable structure. Maestro Bramante doodled plans for grand domes and great pillars on stray bits of parchment while muttering things about da Vinci and Michelangelo. As he led his companions through the twisting corridors, Alexander fretted about the Maestro's reaction to his being absent from classes, whether he was off on legitimate business or not.
Giancarlo nudged Guglielmo. "By the way, where are we going?"
"Cesare Borgia wants to talk to me about something."
"Do you know what His Eminence wants?"
"Oh, he's not a Cardinal any longer. He's renounced the cloth and is gathering more earthly power."
"Can he do that?"
Guglielmo smiled. "His father's the Pope. He can do what he wants."
Cesare Borgia's chambers were in the newest portion of the Vatican complex, several corridors away from the Papal apartments, though rumors spoke of secret passages that allowed rapid communication between father and son. Two fully armed members of the Papal Guard stood outside the door. Alexander swallowed hard in order to speak.
"I've brought Maestro Guglielmo il Sanguinante to see His Excellency."
The right-hand guard gave him a contemptuous look as the left-hand man considered the mercenaries.
"That is not Guglielmo il Sanguinante," he said, nodding at Giancarlo.
Guglielmo sighed in perfect boredom. "His Excellency is waiting to see me. Perhaps you could leave it to him to decide who he wants admitted to his presence. If we're intruding, maybe he'll let you two take care of punishing us. Or we can just leave, I can go do what I was going to do this evening, and when he asks why I didn't show up for this meeting, I'll tell him that his two guards wouldn't let me in." He shrugged and turned to go.
"You can't do that!" Alexander protested. "His Excellency is waiting for you!"
Guglielmo shrugged. "If I can't get in, I can't get in. Don't worry, brother, you did your part. It's not your fault His Excellency's guards are so zealous in their work." He smiled at the fidgeting guards. "His Excellency will know the appropriate rewards."
The two guards looked at each other anxiously, then at Giancarlo. The one shrugged at the other, who nodded.
"Your pardon, Maestro," the first one said. "Of course you would have an attendant." He looked at Alexander. "Take them in."
Alexander hesitated. "I was just told to bring Maestro Guglielmo. I've brought him." He did not want to come any more to the attention of Cesare Borgia. Far, far better to remain an anonymous messenger boy.
The guards were out of patience. "Take them in, boy. You're expected."
Guglielmo tapped Alexander's shoulder. "Yes, brother, let's go. It seems we are expected."
Alexander gave him a confused look. The mercenary's face was bare of expression except for the typical mocking smile. The hand was heavy on his shoulder, and Alexander sighed in resignation. The second guard opened the door behind him, and there were no more options.
The room beyond was gloomy, lit only by a candelabra on a side table and the small lamp hanging over the altar at the east end of the room. The smells of rich food and incense hung in the air.
Guglielmo took his hand off Alexander's shoulder and walked cautiously into the room. Giancarlo stayed by the door. Alexander, unsure of what he was supposed to do now, stayed close to Giancarlo.
At the far end of the room, another lamp was slowly turned up. Behind the desk, the elegantly garbed Cesare Borgia considered the arrivals. He was only a few years older than Alexander, but his reputation was that of a much older man. As he leaned back in his chair, he ran a finger along the dark narrow beard that edged his jaw.
Guglielmo immediately bowed, but he kept his eyes on his host.
"Thank you for coming, Maestro Guglielmo," Cesare said in a faintly bored voice. He glanced at Giancarlo but said nothing on that matter.
"Your Excellency is to--" Guglielmo jerked his head towards a shadowed corner of the room. His left hand twitched.
"I asked His Eminence to join us," Cesare said in the same flat tone.
Out of the shadows stepped the elderly Cardinal Fortezzi. "God bless you, my son." He held out his right hand with a benevolent smile. Guglielmo didn't hesitate to go to him to kneel and kiss the Cardinal's ring.
Alexander hesitated, but when Giancarlo didn't move he stayed still as well.
Guglielmo rose and backed away just slow enough to still look normal. "How may I be of service, Your Excellency?" he asked Cesare.
"I will be hosting a gathering on the feast of St. Benedict. I would like you to be present to make sure we are not disturbed."
Guglielmo frowned very slightly. "You want me to provide security for your party?"
The hand resting on the desktop twitched. "A small, quiet gathering in the evening. You are known for your discretion."
"All the men in our company are discreet. Captain Angelo would have it no other way. And they would come cheaper."
The hand twitched again. "His Holiness hired your company to serve him."
Guglielmo nodded. "It is an honor to serve the Holy Father."
"It is a wise man who knows his true master," Cardinal Fortezzi said from his corner.
"Indeed, Your Eminence," Guglielmo said. "I serve Angelo dell'Irlanda. He has hired our company to the personal service of His Holiness the Pope."
Alexander was holding his breath. Beside him, he saw Giancarlo's hand creep towards his sword. Desperately Alexander focused his thoughts on whether he'd get any supper tonight in the refectory or if he'd have to go to Brother Sylvinius and look pathetic again.
Slowly Cesare sat back in his chair, folding his hands together. "If I were to engage your services for the evening of St. Benedict's, would you be available?"
Guglielmo nodded. "Barring any request from His Holiness, of course."
"As to the fee--"
Cesare waved a hand. "My chamberlain deals with such things."
"Of course." From the look on Guglielmo's face, the Borgia chamberlain would be receiving quite a bill.
Alexander was just breathing a very silent, very sincere prayer of thanksgiving when he heard faint laughter. Just a breath of a cruel chuckle. He looked cautiously at Cardinal Fortezzi, but His Eminence did not looked amused at anything. The laugh came again, from the other end of the room, where no light reached.
He was just about to nudge Giancarlo when he heard his name. He looked up to find Guglielmo studying him. "Pa--pardon?"
Guglielmo's smile was mocking again. "You've been volunteered to be my guide again, Brother Alexander, for St. Benedict's."
Blessed Mother, he wanted no more part of these people and their double meanings. But he was sworn. He bowed to Cesare. "As you wish, Your Excellency.
Cardinal Fortezzi smiled again. "The Chapel of St. Augustine of the Waters, my son. Be there by midnight."
Alexander frowned. "That's near the old walls, isn't it, Your Eminence?"
He started to say more, but he noticed how Guglielmo was frowning at him. Confused, he stayed silent.
Cesare nodded briefly. "Until St. Benedict's, then. Your Eminence, will you stay?"
"Of course, my son."
Guglielmo bowed, then backed towards the door. He snagged Alexander's arm in passing and pulled him after. Giancarlo covered the rear.
They barely paused for an exchange of incivilities with the guards outside, though Guglielmo did let go of Alexander's arm.
"What's the quickest way out of here, brother?" he asked.
"Um, this way."
Alexander led them around two corners, into a side corridor that led to one of the servants stairs. Guglielmo paused and listened, then pushed open the door of a nearby room. He gestured everyone into the small sitting room.
"Watch the door," he told Giancarlo, who nodded. Guglielmo led Alexander over to a pair of chairs. "Who was that old man?" he asked tensely.
"Cardinal Fortezzi? He's--Cardinal Fortezzi."
"Why doesn't he like you?"
"He kept looking at you, and they were very unfriendly looks."
Alexander slowly sat down, remembering the hard, suspicious stare he'd received from the Cardinal when Alexander saw him steal the consecrated Host.
"Well? What did you do? Steal his special sacramental wine? Flirt with his mistress?"
"No ..." But what did a mercenary know of the sanctity of the Mass? Besides, Cardinal Fortezzi was a Prince of the Church. There could be things going on that Alexander had no idea of. Surely nothing that needed to be shared outside Holy Mother Church. "Why were you making such a fuss about doing this?"
Guglielmo leaned against a table and spread his arms. "I am Guglielmo il Sanguinante, lieutenant and second in command of the Scourge of Europe. I have altered the course of wars. I do not play doorman at parties."
Alexander's confusion faded to the more accustomed irritation. "Then why did you agree to do it?"
Guglielmo sighed and dropped his arms. "We're in a bit of a grey area on that. The company is on personal hire to the Pope himself. Everyone knows he dotes on his children, and if Cesare were to ask, His Holiness would probably tell me to do whatever Cesare says. But I am not going to let Cesare skip those steps and let him pretend that he has the right to order me around. Cesare does have a lot of power, though, so I can't just refuse him. I'd better plan on being sick on St. Benedict's day."
"There's been typhus seen near the river," Giancarlo offered from by the door.
"Thank you, Giancarlo, I'll keep that in mind."
Alexander was thinking hard. "If it's so unheard of for someone like you to do this sort of thing, why ask?"
"To prove he can," Guglielmo shrugged. "I'm more curious as to why the Cardinal's involved. Does he have a reputation for the sorts of things Cesare indulges in? I won't name them, out of respect for your virgin ears."
Maybe he should have been offended, but Alexander was grateful to be spared a litany of vice. He'd heard whispered stories of Cesare Borgia, and he preferred to keep them whispers.
"His Eminence is, well--no, they don't tell us not to be alone with him or anything like that. He's just--strange."
To his relief, Guglielmo accepted the explanation. "Excessive devotions, hm? Exploring the edges of orthodoxy?" He stared pacing around the room. "I wonder what he and Cesare have in common. Sandro, what is the significance of St. Benedict?"
"My name is Alexander." He put his head in his hands and closed his eyes. "Please, shouldn't you be going?"
There were several moments silence, then a touch on his knee made him look up. Guglielmo was crouched in front of him, looking serious.
"Alexander, do you know anything about defending yourself?"
"Defending myself from what?"
Guglielmo closed his eyes and sighed. "From people trying to kill you."
"Nobody's trying--" He remembered faces: Cardinal Fortezzi watching him, that anonymous ambusher in the street, Cesare Borgia. "Giancarlo was surprised that man in the street came back."
"They don't, normally, that sort. Unless there's a job they have to finish. He wasn't trying to sneak up on me, he was trying to sneak up on you."
Alexander shook his head, unable to speak.
"Someone wants you dead, Alexander. I think you know why, and it's not my business. But I would rather you didn't get your throat cut."
"Why would you rather?"
The cool eyes studied him intently for several moments, then Guglielmo's sardonic smile was back. "Well, there aren't enough beautiful young men in the world. I can't let one simply get murdered."
"Buffoon," Alexander muttered.
"Anyway, do you know how to defend yourself? Use a knife to get yourself out of a tight spot?"
"No. Churchmen aren't supposed to use weapons."
"Not even as a youngster back home? You didn't learn any rough and tumble?"
"I threw an occasional rock at an occasional dog. Sorry."
"What are they teaching youngsters these days?" Guglielmo muttered. "I'd give you a dagger now, but anyone after you would just take it from you in a squabble. Can you get away in the evenings?"
"Why would I want to?"
Guglielmo looked like he was clinging to patience the way martyrs clung to their faith in the presence of lions. "So you can come down to the inn so I can teach you how not to get gutted in some corner somewhere."
"I'm--fairly certain that wouldn't be allowed."
"Well, you're not going to ask permission, now, are you?"
Alexander shook his head, but more to reject the entire chaotic world that was trying to suck him in than the offer to teach him self-defense. If this was fate, he wanted no more to do with it. What he wanted most at this very moment was a chance to sneak into one of the chapels and send a fervent prayer to Heaven that no more strange things happen to him.
Guglielmo waited a few more moments, then sighed and stood. "We've got six days until St. Benedict's Day. You know where you can find me. Please try not to get killed between now and then." He nodded at Giancarlo, and the two mercenaries slipped out the door and away.
Alexander listened until their faint footsteps faded away. It was peaceful here in this room all by himself. If he never left here, perhaps no one would ask him to do anything out of the ordinary ever again. He suspected, though, that the Lord intended to use him as the seed sown in the field, some to fall on the rocky ground and some to fall on the fertile ground, and now Alexander was to find out how to thrive and grow.
He got to his feet, ready to go back to what passed for normal in his world and more than willing to wait till the feast day before worrying further about odd occurrences. Why was Guglielmo concerned about St. Benedict? It was probably just the nearest convenient feast day for this gathering. Benedict wasn't the most festive saint, in any case. His spheres of influence were the dying and defense against the darker arts of witchcraft and the like.
Alexander murmured a prayer to St. Benedict on general principle. His grandfather had given many a lecture on the signs of witchcraft and devil worship, terrifying the young Alessandro into nightmares about hell creatures creeping through the windows at night. Father Ricardo always made sure to lock the sacred Hosts securely in their tabernacle after every service, because the wicked were always looking for a chance to steal one of the wafers for their . . .
"No," Alexander whispered. "Holy Mother, St. Benedict, no. He's a Cardinal, a Prince of the Church."
He sat back down, shaking at the possibilities. What could he do? His only ally was a mercenary fighter with no influence in the church. This was something for the Inquisition to deal with. He wanted nothing more to do with the Holy Office, they already knew his name. It was frightening, the idea of seeking them out.
But he was already frightened.
The Pieta was so new that there was still marble dust in some of the crevices. It was displayed in one of the main halls of the Palace, where everyone could see and discuss. The artist had become so incensed, though, that people didn't believe he'd created the sculpture that he'd come in one night and carved his name in the sash that crossed the Madonna's bosom.
There was no way that a mere novice was going to get close enough to Michelangelo's new work to get a good look. From his place on the far side of the room, though, Alexander had a perfect view of the Madonna's bowed head as she gazed sorrowfully down at the body of her Son. He whispered yet another prayer to the Holy Mother for courage.
It hadn't taken long to discover where he could find Monsignor Lewes and have it look accidental. Giuseppe in the Archives had been more than happy to discuss the upcoming meeting between the Inquisitor and two visiting churchmen from Rouen. If only the Monsignor was still willing to spend time on a mere novice.
A door opened, and Lewes came through, chatting with two elderly men in church robes. As he talked, he scanned the room. He hesitated very briefly when he spotted Alexander, then continued his conversation. The small group drifted across the hall, still talking amiably. Monsignor Lewes bade farewell to the visitors, then he glanced at Alexander. Reluctantly, Alexander met his eyes, and he followed when the Inquisitor nodded towards the corridor leading away.
Monsignor Lewes led the way to a side chamber and locked the door behind them. Alexander stood in the middle of the room, trying not to look at anything.
"What's happened?" Msgr. Lewes asked quietly. He smiled sadly as Alexander fidgeted. "My son, I know you wouldn't have come looking for a member of the Inquisition if you didn't have to."
"I--" Alexander broke off and stared at his hands. "Who will you tell, if I tell you?"
After a moment, Msgr. Lewes drew off his Inquisitorial signet ring and quietly laid it on a nearby table. "Alexander, I swear to you, I'll repeat nothing of what you tell me. Unless I absolutely have to."
Alexander stared at the signet ring, then at the man. He looked so calm, so compassionate. And he was sworn to hunt the enemies of the Church. Alexander was no fool. He knew that the definition of "enemy" could be very fluid. He wanted to trust this quiet man, but there were so many hidden traps around him these days.
Msgr. Lewes looked frustrated. "I protect the innocent, Alexander. That's what the Holy Office is supposed to do. Only the evil doers should fear us. But if it's important enough for you to come looking for me, then I need to know."
Alexander nodded. "I know. It's--just . . . if he knew . . ."
Lewes stepped closer. "Who is it you're afraid of, lad?"
Intrigue was already swirling its murky waters around him. He couldn't ignore the only spar he had to cling to. "Cardinal Fortezzi."
Lewes' eyes went thoughtful. "I see." He didn't sound surprised. "What's he done?"
Alexander closed his eyes. The telling was easier that way. "During the Mass I helped him celebrate, he took the Host he'd consecrated and slipped it into his sleeve instead of using it in the Mass." When the Monsignor didn't say anything, Alexander opened his eyes. Lewes was rubbing his chin and staring at the carpet. "Reverend Sir?"
"You assisted at Mass with Cardinal Fortezzi several days ago. Why tell me now?"
Taking a deep breath, Alexander told the Monsignor about taking Guglielmo il Sanguinante to meet with Cesare Borgia and Cardinal Fortezzi. His account was fairly incoherent, and Msgr. Lewes had to ask several questions about "Then what?" and "Who said that?" before he had a clear picture.
"Guglielmo il Sanguinante as a doorman for a party?" Lewes finally said. "That makes no sense."
"Is His Excellency trying to get revenge for something? Is that why he's making Guglielmo do this?"
Lewes gave Alexander a small, approving smile. "You're catching on to this sort of thing. I do know that Cesare apparently has some sort of grudge against Il Sanguinante, but I'm not sure why. Though you seem to have better relations with mercenaries than I. Did Il Sanguinante give any reason?"
Alexander ignored the remark about how well he knew soldiers. "He seemed to think it was just some sort of excuse for His Excellency to flaunt his power."
Lewes nodded. "Cesare's guests would be impressed that he could order someone the likes of the second in command of the Scourge of Europe to guard his party. I'm still troubled by Fortezzi's involvement." He studied Alexander for several moments. "My son, I think you're in danger."
"That's what Guglielmo said," Alexander sighed.
"I would take his professional word for it. Did he say why?"
"He didn't like the way His Eminence kept giving me unfriendly looks."
"He suspects the Cardinal of setting those men on you in the street." Lewes sighed and reached through a slit in the side of his robes. He pulled out a dagger in a plain leather sheath. "Take this."
Alexander drew back. "Churchmen are forbidden to use weapons that can draw blood!"
"A ban that is observed much more in the breech than in true practice. Alexander, God does not expect you to take the lesson of the lamb laying down with the lion quite so literally that you don't defend yourself." He held the dagger out.
"I--don't know how to use a dagger. I never had a reason to learn."
"The wars didn't come near your village when you were young?"
"Not that close."
Lewes sighed. "Someone who had a peaceful life. Why is it the truly innocent souls who come to these passes?"
Alexander hung his head at his ineptness. "Guglielmo offered to teach me, but that's impossible."
"Why? That's a very good idea."
"But--I can't go down there! It's a haven of iniquity, sin run rampant!"
Lewes fought back his laughter, but he couldn't help the stifled grin. "Young ladies with not much on?"
"And men! None of them has any shame!"
The Monsignor let one chuckle escape, then put his hands on Alexander's shoulders. "If your soul and mind are pure, then the sins of others cannot touch you. Truly, my son, take advantage of Il Sanguinante's offer. Praise God he was moved to make it, you may not have a fiendishly skilled fighter at your beck and call the next time someone tries to kill you."
Alexander blinked in horror. "Next time . . ."
"It could happen. You have a suspicion about what Cardinal Fortezzi plans. You saw him take the Host."
"But no one would believe me. My word against a Cardinal's?"
"I believe you," Lewes said quietly. "And for some men, the threat is enough. They survive by removing all threats."
Alexander took yet another deep breath. "Why did you believe me? You weren't surprised."
Silently Monsignor Lewes went to pick up his Inquisitorial signet ring. He slid it back onto his finger. "I told you before, Alexander. Things happen, evil things. Someone has to be prepared to deal with them. I'm sorry you've had to see some of that evil."
Alexander shook his head. "It's so hard to think of people I've met as being . . . evil. And I keep wondering who that was in the shadows, laughing like that."
Lewes went still. "Laughing? Where? When?"
"During the meeting with His Excellency and His Eminence. Didn't I tell you?"
"You must have missed that part."
"Oh. The room was very dark. I couldn't see the corners. Any number of people could have been hiding in there. They were talking, and I kept hearing this very quiet, cold, awful laughter from the darkness. It was horrible."
"This was in Cesare's office? While he and Fortezzi were there?" Alexander nodded. "Blessed Mother." He took hold of Alexander's shoulder. "Do you have a crucifix, one you can wear?"
Alexander touched his throat. "Yes, I do."
"Good. Don't take that off for anything. Do you have a larger one, that you can carry about with you?"
"Get one. When you go down to Il Sanguinante's inn for lessons, be sure to get back to the palace before dark. Try not to be alone."
"Reverend Sir," Alexander finally managed to interrupt, "I told you, I can't go down there. The Master of Novices would never approve."
Lewes waved a hand. "If anyone asks, tell them you're running errands for me. The office does have its privileges. We just need to get past St. Benedict's Day, then we can work everything out." He met Alexander's eyes squarely. "Something is going on, my son. Something bad."
"But--I'm just a novice. I'm not a fighter, I'm not an Inquisitor. I just want to learn about buildings."
The Monsignor's smile was sad. "I wanted to illuminate manuscripts. But God rules our choices, not us. Like many before you, my son, you've been pulled into the heart of darkness, and now you must prepare to survive it."
A mercenary had to train every day that he could. There was always another fighter out there, wanting to make a name and looking for a target. It was just the way of things: you fought until someone better came along. And that someone always did.
Guglielmo had been out all day, drilling the troops at the northern camp. The age-old restrictions against bringing troops into the Eternal City still held in many cases, so the bodies of armed men in the Papal units were barracked in camps outside the walls. Guglielmo had shown the most basic of sword moves to a depressing number of recruits.
"No more sense of a sword than of a sharp stick," he complained as he thrust his sword into the heart of the straw dummy in the inn's stable yard. "They must be pulling farm boys straight out of the fields. Give them pitch forks, now, then they might be a threat."
"That's certainly true," Angelo said. He tugged the dummy on its wheeled base to Guglielmo's left, forcing the other man to turn as he lunged. In the shade of the stables, the rest of the men watched. "Farmers are wickedly dangerous."
Guglielmo grinned and skewered the dummy's heart again. "You'd think they thought we had designs on their sons and daughters and livestock and such."
"If you've started taking up with the sheep, now, lad, I don't want to hear about it." Angelo shoved the dummy towards Guglielmo and pulled his own sword to charge. Guglielmo laughed, jumped out of the way of the dummy, and set himself to meet the attack.
"Excuse me!" yelled a voice from the door into the inn. Isabetta stood there, her hands on her hips. Angelo skidded to a halt just shy of Guglielmo, and they lowered their swords. "Will has a visitor."
Angelo gave Guglielmo a surprised look. "You're getting popular."
Guglielmo had his own reasons to suspect his popularity. "Who is it, bella?"
Isabetta just smiled and stepped to one side. Behind her, Alexander glowered. He wore plain workman's clothes instead of the robes of a novice.
"Brother Sandro," Guglielmo grinned, then the smile dropped away. "What brings you down here again?"
"I--" Alexander paused and looked around at all the eager attention.
Guglielmo nodded, then glanced at Angelo. Angelo went to a pile of equipment and traded his sword for a blunted version, then turned to his men.
"Get off your asses and out here into the sun!" he yelled. "Bear pit! Who wants to try me first?"
The men swore for effect but gathered their own practice equipment and got in line.
Isabetta shook her head. "There'll be cracked heads and blood before they're done with this. I'd better check the bandages." Sighing, she went inside.
Alexander watched in puzzlement. "What are they doing?"
Guglielmo watched Thomas Wyndham square off against Angelo. "Bear pit. Angelo fights until someone knocks him down, then that man takes Angelo's place and Angelo gets in line. It'll go until they're too tired and hurting to go on." He turned back to Alexander. "What's happened? Why are you here?"
Alexander looked at the ground, then up at Guglielmo. "I'm supposed to ask you to help me learn to defend myself."
Guglielmo frowned. "Who says you're supposed to? Who have you been talking to that you've brought my name into it?"
Alexander looked uncertain, so Guglielmo tugged him over to a bench in the shade and made him sit down. Alexander watched Thomas Wyndham pick himself up from where Angelo's blow had sent him, then one of the anonymous men took up his position in front of the mercenary captain, who grinned as he charged. Alexander sighed and let his shoulders slump.
"I might as well tell you. I went and asked for advice from someone. Monsignor Lewes from the Holy Office."
"The Holy--" Guglielmo drew back. "You told the Inquisition about me?"
Alexander shivered at the cold tone of voice. "Monsignor Lewes already knows about you," he said quickly. "He's the man who broke up that fight you were trying to start when you were using me as a human shield. The first time. He's the one who told me your name."
"There in the Palace with the Papal Guard? He's an Inquisitor?" Guglielmo shook his head. "He doesn't look it. Most of that sort have very squinty, suspicious eyes." He focused on Alexander. "What did you tell him?"
"Everything. The meeting we had with His Excellency and the Cardinal, them wanting you for security for the gathering they're planning, everything. He thought it was odd that they'd involve you, too."
Guglielmo sat down. "I suppose that's reassuring. So he thinks you're in danger, too? Why?"
Alexander took a long, deep breath. "I--know some things about Cardinal Fortezzi that His Eminence would rather I didn't know. Msgr. Lewes is concerned about that. Those men that jumped us when I was taking you to the meeting--a Cardinal wouldn't hire men like that, would he?"
"Why not? Cardinals are politicians as much as anyone else. Politicians always have lots of little plots that need tending, and sometimes you need to clear inconvenient people out of the way. Somehow Cardinal Fortezzi finds you inconvenient." He looked at Alexander. "Is what you know worth killing over?"
"Nothing is worth killing over."
Guglielmo laughed, but it was a sad sound. "If that were true, I'd still be in Siena, probably running the printing shop by now. There's always something worth killing over, especially if you can get someone else to do the deed. This thing with the Cardinal--it would wreck his career,
Alexander swallowed hard. "The Inquisition would be very interested in it."
Guglielmo nodded. "Don't eat or drink anything you don't know exactly where it came from. Poison is easy to get and very popular with people who like handling matters quietly. Now, if he decides he doesn't care how quietly things are handled, you need to know how to defend yourself. Let's see what you know."
What Alexander knew was how to fall down. As a boy, rough housing wasn't a matter of much subtlety: someone grabbed you, you tried to wriggle free, flailing around until they let go or you got a lucky shot in. Then someone ran home with a bloody nose, and you all got scolded for wasting time when all that energy could be used more profitably. By the time Alexander had been selected to go to Roma, he and his friends were being put to work in the fields and shops, and the rough housing days were over.
The holds Guglielmo was demonstrating, on the other hand, were much more deliberate than those used by boys. For the sixth time, Alexander hit the ground, his feet kicked out from under him, and he was on his back, helpless to a sword or knife thrust. He was already bruised from hard jabs into his throat and kidneys as the mercenary demonstrated the preferred methods of being set upon by someone jumping out of hiding.
He refused to open his eyes, knowing Guglielmo would only be staring down at him again, a look of frustration on his face. The sounds of the other mercenaries fighting had stopped, so they were probably watching all this too.
"I think it'll be simpler for all concerned if I just let them kill me," he muttered.
The disgusted noise was familiar now. "If that's all the fight you're going to put up, then maybe it would be."
Alexander heard footsteps crunching away across the dirt. Someone made some remark on the far side of the courtyard, and the others laughed. Five years of careful training in the proper behavior of a servant to Holy Mother Church fell away, and he picked up the small stone he felt under his right hand. He raised up and threw the stone with a snarl. It bounced off the back off Guglielmo's head with an audible thwack.
"Ow!" he yelled, and Il Sanguinante reached up and pulled his hand away bloody.
Everyone in the courtyard, from Angelo to the stableboy, froze in shock.
I am going to die, Alexander realized with utter clarity. "I do heartily repent of all my sins," he whispered quickly. "Ave, Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum--"
"Yes!" Guglielmo yelled. "About time! Now we can get somewhere." Grinning, he strode back to Alexander and held out a hand to help him up.
Alexander stared at the blood-streaked fingers. "I'm sor--"
"No, don't go all sheep-hearted on me again!" Guglielmo reached down and hauled Alexander up by his shirt. "That was the first sign I've seen that you cared about what was happening."
"You're not angry?"
Guglielmo carefully poked at the back of his head. "Well, I generally prefer not to bleed, but I think this is a positive sign." He gave Alexander another grin. "Very well thrown, too."
Alexander shook his head. "Anger is one of the seven deadly sins. I lost my temper and hurt you. I'm sorry."
Guglielmo sighed. "Sandro, you are too good to live. And someone is counting on that." He put his hands around Alexander's face and stared into his eyes. "There is someone who wants to kill you. It's supposed to make you angry!"
"It makes me afraid," Alexander whispered.
The mercenary leaned in closer. "Me, too," he said softly. "But I know how to use it. That's what I'm trying to teach you, but I had to know that you could act through the fear instead of just freezing like a rabbit waiting for the wolf." He shook Alexander's head gently and stepped back. "So now we start again."
As Alexander sighed wearily, Angelo walked up. "Will, he's exhausted. And he's going to be black and blue in the morning. You can't teach him everything in one night."
"I haven't taught him anything yet!"
Alexander was too tired to watch his words. "They can kill me tonight, I don't mind." He barely winced at the glare he got.
"He's not yours to worry about, Will," Angelo said firmly. Guglielmo sighed and turned away. Angelo smiled, then looked at Alexander. "Can you make it back to the Palace all right, brother?"
Alexander nodded nervously. "I just need to be back before dark. You, um, you don't mind my coming down, do you, Captain?"
"Not at all. It's good for his patience, teaching, and the Madonna knows he could use some work on that." He grinned over his shoulder at the rude noise from Guglielmo. "It's a rare opportunity for you, in any case. Not many can say they've had private tutoring from the likes of Il Sanguinante."
Guglielmo turned around. "Was that a compliment?"
"Might have been."
Alexander cleared his throat. "Anyway, thank you, Captain, and thank you, Guglielmo. I'll--come back tomorrow, if it's all right?"
Angelo shrugged. "We'll be here." With a last smile, he headed back to the gathered men.
Guglielmo came up and looked Alexander over, frowning. "You are going to be bruised. Get a hot bath when you get back, it'll keep your muscles from stiffening. And watch yourself. I'm not going through all this just so you can get ambushed."
"You're going through?" Alexander protested. Guglielmo reached up to the back of his head, and Alexander blushed. "Yes, that. It won't happen again."
"No, it's not. I'm not turning my back on you when you've got something to throw handy." Guglielmo patted his shoulder and let his hand lay for a few moments. "Come see me tomorrow, we'll work on you actually getting free next time."
Alexander nodded. The approval in the mercenary's smile told him there might be some hope for him at this sort of thing, and the firm squeeze of his shoulder reassured him. "Good night, Guglielmo."
He grinned at the use of his preferred name and left.
After several moments, Angelo wandered back to Guglielmo's side. "I suppose it's too late to tell you to mind your heart."
Guglielmo was rubbing his fingers together, as if to memorize the way something felt. "Yes, it is. Do you think anyone would mind very much if I paid a visit to Cardinal Fortezzi and showed him the error of his ways in persecuting that boy?"
"No murdering Cardinals."
"Wouldn't be the first one."
"No. They squeak and thrash around, and someone always makes a fuss. So, no."
Guglielmo sighed. "It was so much simpler before we were respectable."
"Aye," Angelo nodded sadly. "We'll not see those days again."
Four days until the feast of St. Benedict. Alexander went to the Master of Novices and hesitantly told him that Monsignor Lewes of the Holy Office had requested his help in various matters for the next several days. The Master gave him a look that wavered between leering and uneasy. "We are all here to serve," he finally said gruffly, and waved Alexander off.
Alexander wasn't going to skip his classes with Maestro Bramante, no matter what Inquisitors and mercenaries might say. The small Vatican suite the Maestro was using wasn't in the palace itself but was easily reached by the side corridors known to the servants and novices. Bramante was bustling around his piles of parchments and models, muttering to himself.
"Sandro," he said, scratching at his balding head, "where are my sketches on domes? I thought they were with the plans of Santa Marie delle Grazie."
"You rearranged those last week, maestro. You put all the general studies in the big portfolio over there."
Bramante threw up his hands. "Madonna, you're right. Papers, they will drive me mad yet." He went to the portfolio and began paging through the sheets of drawings and plans. "Bah, not the right ones, where are--oh, of course." He glared at a blank wall. "There's nothing for it, then. I have to go back to Milano."
Alexander felt his stomach drop. "Maestro?"
"Sandro, sit." Bramante gestured at a stool. Alexander obeyed, trying not to look too anxious. "It's time I was back in Milano, lad. My studio's there, and Il Sforza has been patient, but he is my patron, and I owe him service. You're a good student, lad. I want you to come with me, be a student full-time."
He managed not to fall off the stool. "Go to Milano? Leave? Leave Roma?" He swallowed hard. "Leave the church?"
Bramante perched on the edge of the worktable. "Sandro, do you really intend to be a priest?" he asked kindly.
He was gasping for air, but nothing was reaching his brain. Leave the arms that had sheltered him, leave the mysteries that brought him joy? Leaving his home village and his family hadn't wrenched at his guts as badly as the thought of leaving the Church behind. He'd known he'd have to decide soon but there had always seemed to be so much time.
"You're not right for this place, lad," Bramante went on. "The church is more than the altar. There are more hours of the day spent plotting and maneuvering than there are spent celebrating Mass." He patted Alexander's shoulder. "And if you do want to, you can be a priest in Milano as easily as you can in Roma. Probably easier." He leaned forward to grin and whisper. "God does live in other cities than this one, you know, despite what they tell you."
Alexander managed to find his feet and stand up. "Maestro, I--"
"Go, lad. I know you need to think. I won't be ready to go before St. Benedict's Day, though I'd like your help packing, if you can."
He found his way out of the suite and into the maze of corridors and rooms. He stumbled across a Lady Chapel where Mass was being celebrated. The officiant's Latin had a strong peasant accent, and Alexander settled to his knees in a back row, remembering home.
Father Ricardo had spoken of God and the saints as if they were old friends he was expecting to show up for supper. The Stations of the Cross were the tale of suffering in the family, and you wept at the Holy Mother's grief and her Son's suffering. Alexander knew he could be that kind of priest, but--
He lowered his head away from the gaze of Jesus on His cross. He was not the kind of man who could joyfully spend his life tending the cares of a congregation. The world held thousands of fascinating things he wanted to explore. Bramante's lessons spoke of ancient people, intricate sciences, creations waiting in the shadows to be born. He wanted to explore them all, not be distracted by the cares of other people.
Most of the priests in the Vatican focused on work other than tending congregations. If he wanted to be an architect in service to the Holy See, no one would think anything of it. He could even join one of the monastic orders and spend his days in study.
The joys of the cloister paled, though, in the memory of Guglielmo trying to teach him to fight. He was shocked by the shamelessness he'd seen, but the mercenaries seemed so straightforward and honest compared to the people he lived with in the Vatican. Guglielmo was no stranger to intrigue, but he obviously preferred a more honest world that let him hit things.
So many things to see in the world. Maestro Bramante had spoken of the buildings Alexander should see if he wanted to learn architecture. Milano was full of the maestro's own work he could study. He wanted to go, he wanted to see things. As the maestro had said, if he wanted to be a priest, he could be a priest in Milano as easily as in Roma.
The wafer melting on his tongue as he took Communion, though, reminded him of the nearer future. The plots of the Vatican still held him in their grip. If he survived St. Benedict's, maybe then those plans he dared to have could come true.
Having none of his usual duties, Alexander felt lost. He didn't like not having anything to do. He sat in the empty dormitory having a strenuous debate with himself, then put on his plain, non-clerical clothes and left. He told himself he wasn't in a hurry to get to the Crusader's Kiss. It was just a case of taking advantage of the freedom he'd been granted.
He wandered the markets in the city for a while, looking at the buildings and seeing where the ancient structures had been incorporated into the modern buildings. He recognized blocks from an Imperial temple making up the facade of a butcher's shop. A knifemaker had the graceful hand of an ancient statue propped up on his counter, holding a long dagger in its marble grip. Alexander munched on a honey-rich pastry and wondered if it was the hand of an emperor or a pagan god. Roma's history was strewn casually around the city. The people of the Eternal City had no awe for their ancestors' leavings, using whatever bits they could find wherever needed.
He was studying the Ionic columns built into the corners of an apartment building when he realized a girl was trying to get his attention.
"I've got a room inside, if you're interested," she grinned. Her dark hair glinted red in the sunlight, and the neckline of her green dress seemed to be having trouble staying up on her shoulders.
"Interested in what?" He started blushing even before she laughed.
She strolled closer, skirts swaying gracefully. "If you don't know, I would certainly be happy to show you. Half-price, because you're so handsome."
The Master of Novices had never told them how to fend off prostitutes. Especially pretty ones his own age who smiled at him. "I--I have to be somewhere . . ."
She lightly touched the back of his hand. "Someplace nicer than I can show you?"
He had to look down to make sure his skin wasn't burning where she'd touched him. "I'm sorry, I really have to--" He turned as fast as he could without tripping over his feet and did his best not to run.
"Come back when you don't have anywhere else to be!" she called after him, still laughing.
He stopped several blocks away. By all the saints, he understood why it was a sin. He could barely think with that girl smiling at him and--and touching him. He'd wanted to--
As fast as he could, he said the prayer the Master of Novices had taught them to distract themselves from carnal thoughts. Focus on your duty to God, on the sacrifice that a life of service required, a sacrifice that only the strongest and most worthy could give. Our Saviour is building mansions for us in the house of the Lord. Keep your mind on that, not on whores and the way their hair falls around their shoulders and lays across the curve of their--
Alexander shook himself hard, then started towards the Crusaders Kiss. When prayer failed in fending off difficult thoughts, the Master of Novices recommended physical exertion. Lots of physical exertion.
The girl Isabetta was coming down the stairs in the inn when Alexander entered. "Hello, Brother Sandro," she said cheerfully.
"Um, hello." He tried not to look at her too closely, still uneasy after his encounter with the prostitute. She just smiled at him and went on with her work, putting her basket on the big table and pulling out various bits of clothing.
"They are so hard on their clothes," she muttered, examining shoulder seams and knees. Alexander recognized the black velvet doublet Guglielmo had worn during the meeting with Cesare Borgia. Isabetta tsked over the sword cut in the sleeve. "That'll need to be mended before it goes to the launderers."
"He said he was afraid you'd embroider love knots and roses on it," Alexander found himself saying.
Isabetta laughed. "Oh, not roses. Forget-me-nots, to match his eyes." She stuck her fingers through the slit and shook her head. "I need to find him a woman of his own to do this sort of thing. I have enough to do looking after Angelo." She laid aside the doublet and two shirts, then carried the basket to a door at the back of the room. Picking up a smaller, more ornate basket, she gathered up the mending and nodded towards the door to the stableyard. "Guglielmo's out here. Aren't you a little early, though?"
Alexander couldn't help but follow. "I've been let off my other duties, I thought I'd come down early." She reminded him so much of his mother--if his mother wore her hair wantonly loose and her bodices low and didn't mind repairing the damage caused in street brawls. She was young enough that Alexander felt he should be giving her lectures on not throwing her life away, but she had the air of a well-contented woman who didn't need lectures.
Isabetta sat down on the bench near the wall and began pulling thread and needles from her workbasket. "He's over there."
On the other side of the yard, the stableboy sat on an upturned barrel. Several feet in front of him stood Guglielmo, sword in his right hand and pointing down, watching intently. He was shirtless and sweating in the afternoon heat. As Alexander watched, the stableboy suddenly threw something small and glittering towards the mercenary. Guglielmo lunged towards the object, stabbing it and knocking it out of the air. Before he could completely return to position, the stableboy threw another object. Guglielmo nearly touched it, but it fell behind him.
"Three!" the stableboy cheered.
Guglielmo swore and shrugged. "Three." He settled his feet and nodded. The stableboy immediately threw, and Guglielmo hit it cleanly.
Alexander looked at Isabetta. "What are they doing?"
"Every one that Will misses, Manolo gets to keep."
Alexander looked closer and saw that the items being thrown were small gold coins. "But Guglielmo's left-handed."
Isabetta squinted at the needle she was threading. "And what if his left arm gets wounded in a fight?"
Guglielmo stood motionless, waiting, all his attention focused on the stableboy. Manolo's hand twitched, and the muscles in Guglielmo's swordarm bunched, then relaxed when the coin wasn't thrown. Twice more Manolo pretended to throw, but Guglielmo never brought up his sword. The next toss was real, and the sword tip hit the coin with a pretty chime. Just as quickly, Guglielmo settled back into position, motionless and ready.
Alexander watched, amazed. So much speed and precision, coiled up and waiting like one of those clockwork mechanisms Maestro Bramante described. Or, Alexander revised, seeing the faint smile on Guglielmo's face, like the cat staring at the fallen baby bird, deciding on the moment of attack.
Guglielmo lunged and knocked another coin out of the air. Alexander saw a long scar on the man's ribs. Other scars marred his skin. Alexander's experience of the human body was limited to the classical statues displayed around the Vatican and the soft, pale shapes of his fellow novices seen in the baths. Watching Guglielmo was like seeing one of those cold marble statues move, but with sweat and scars to prove he was no statue.
Isabetta chuckled, making Alexander jump. "He is very good," she said. Her head was bowed over her mending, but she wore one of those secretive female smiles that made Alexander nervous.
When the exercise was done, Manolo ran around the stableyard picking up coins as Guglielmo put his sword away. Manolo handed him a pouch holding the coins.
"Let's see, that was two," Guglielmo said as he reached into the pouch.
"Three!" Manolo stuck his hand out.
Guglielmo stared at him, and Manolo stared back. Laughing, Guglielmo dropped three coins into his hand, then added another. Manolo started to protest, but shut his mouth at Guglielmo's raised eyebrow. He wrapped his fist around the coins and ran off into the stables.
Guglielmo glanced up at the sun, then strolled over to the shady part of the stableyard. "Sneaked out early, did you, Sandro?" There was a water bucket at the end of the bench; he drank a dipperful noisily, then poured a second over his head and body.
Alexander blinked at him a moment. "No, I have permission to be here."
Isabetta poked Guglielmo in the arm with her needle.
"God's teeth, woman! What was that for?" He clutched his arm and glared at her.
"Don't be such a baby and go drip somewhere else. I'm trying to work here." She brushed water off the black velvet. "And since it's your doublet I'm working on, you should be nice to me." She spread the garment out in her lap. "It's terribly plain. Roses would match the red, but forget-me-nots would match your eyes."
"Fiendish woman." However, Guglielmo did step away before shaking the water out of his hair.
"And put this on." Isabetta tossed him one of the linen shirts she was working on. He gave her a puzzled look, and she tilted her head at Alexander. Guglielmo quickly nodded and pulled the shirt over his head.
"So, Sandro," he said from inside the shirt, "how do you feel after yesterday?"
"I'm fine. Nothing's very sore. I took a hot bath like you said."
Guglielmo tugged the shirt down over his head, grinning and wiggling until he got the cloth free from his wet skin. "I'd take you to the local baths, but you don't need that much of an education that quickly." Isabetta poked him with her foot but didn't look up from her mending. "In any case, we need to get to work. Today I'm going to show you how to get away from all those things I did to you yesterday."
Alexander's world view was feeling a little battered. It wasn't enough that people were trying to kill him, now he had other people flaunting themselves at him, without even knowing they were doing it. He kept thinking he should be scandalized that Guglielmo would be wandering half-dressed around Isabetta, with neither of them caring, but he remembered being young and not too concerned if the girls of the village caught a glimpse of him and his friends swimming naked in the river. The girls had gone swimming themselves, and he and his friends had tried to get their own glimpses. Father Ricardo had caught them and scolded them, but he'd been fighting a smile the whole time.
He knew Isabetta had given Guglielmo the shirt in order to spare the feelings of an innocent novice of the church. Part of him was grateful for the consideration, but part of him was feeling self-conscious at having it be an issue. He doubted someone like Monsignor Lewes worried about such things while going about his Inquisitorial work, and he'd heard enough rumors to know that the rules about modesty were taken with different degrees of seriousness by other churchmen.
He was still rattled by the encounter with the prostitute, that was all. He'd tire himself out working with Guglielmo, and he'd stop thinking about people's skins and the curves of their bodies. He followed Guglielmo out into the middle of the stableyard.
"Where is everyone?" he asked. Hopefully he wouldn't embarrass himself so badly if he didn't have an audience of mercenaries watching every move.
"The men have the day off while Angelo and Thomas are up at the Palace talking to His Holiness' Chamberlain about that innocent clerical error that happened to short us a few hundred ducats in pay."
Isabetta snorted in a very unladylike manner over her needlework. "Innocent."
"Now, now, bella," Guglielmo grinned. "I'm sure after Thomas clearly explains everything they'll see exactly where the accountants made the error."
Alexander tried not to smile. "And Captain Angelo?"
"Merely there to show that it's a straightforward business meeting."
Isabetta snorted again.
"In any case," Guglielmo said, "we're here to work." He took hold of Alexander's shoulders and maneuvered him to a spot in the middle of the stableyard. "So, you're walking down the street or a corridor, and someone comes up behind you and does this." He threw his left arm around Alexander's neck and pulled back. "What do you do?"
Startled, Alexander grabbed at the arm around his throat. He remembered this from the day before, being manhandled and made to feel clumsy. He tugged at the arm, but Guglielmo was stronger than he, and he didn't have much leverage, being pulled back against the mercenary the way he was.
"No," Guglielmo said. "Don't grab the arm around your throat. What that arm's doing doesn't matter, because there's another arm headed for your kidneys with a knife in its hand." He poked Alexander lightly in the ribs to prove his point, then let go.
Alexander rubbed his neck. "So what do I do?"
"You drop." Guglielmo looked him up and down. "You're going to be Angelo's size by the time you're done growing, I imagine. I don't know many people who could hold up that much weight with one arm."
"But--you said there'd be a knife headed for my kidneys. What about the knife?"
"Move fast enough, and it should only hit the shoulder blade or arm." Guglielmo grinned at Alexander's expression. "We're trying to keep you alive here, little brother Nobody. I'm afraid I can't promise you'll stay unhurt."
He had Alexander try the grip on him, so he could demonstrate the move. Alexander suspected he was just getting some odd amusement by proving he was sneakier and more agile than a church novice.
"The key is to react as quickly as you can," Guglielmo explained after a few more demonstrations and practices. "Once someone has grabbed you, he's not going to hesitate. A professional will want to get the job over just as quickly as possible."
Alexander sat on the ground, panting. He was getting the hang of slipping out of Guglielmo's grip, but only because he knew it was coming. "Don't you have to assume you're going to get ambushed every minute, though? A lot of times when I'm going through the corridors, I'm thinking about Maestro Bramante's lessons or which Mass I'm going to be helping celebrate."
Guglielmo nodded solemnly. "That's one of the things I'm trying to teach you, anticipating threats. Think about your lessons during class. When you're moving through crowds of people, be it on the street or among your fellow churchmen, watch for the ones who are watching you."
"An assassin couldn't get into the church buildings, though, could he? Surely I'm safe in the Vatican."
The grim look on Guglielmo's face shook him. "That's where you're most vulnerable, where you're most comfortable. The last time someone seriously tried to kill me was outside my own room here in the inn."
Alexander blinked in shock. "Who . . ."
"A new recruit who thought that his promotion would be quicker if he made a spot to be promoted into." A cold smile appeared on Il Sanguinante's face. "I promoted him to his heavenly reward, instead." The frightening look of an easy killer dropped away, and Guglielmo patted Alexander's shoulder. "But all I want you to do is be able to get away. Now, let's try it some more."
For the next two hours they worked on avoiding knives coming from the back, from the front, and what to do if the attacker didn't let go when he dropped but followed him down. The first time Guglielmo tried that, landing on top of him, Alexander had let instincts rule inclination and drove his elbow back hard into the mercenary's ribs.
With a curse and a laugh, Guglielmo rolled away. "That works! Whatever gets the attacker away from you."
Alexander scrambled up. "Are you all--" A slender arm wrapped around his throat before he had gotten completely to his feet. Automatically he dropped, adding the shoulder roll Guglielmo said would throw the attacker off balance--though it had yet to work against Guglielmo himself. With a squeak, Isabetta stumbled over him and fell into Guglielmo, who caught her as well as he could.
Alexander gasped in horror. "Madonna, I'm sor--"
"Stop apologizing!" Guglielmo snapped. "That's what you were supposed to do! Though you should have given her the elbow as well."
"I can't hit a woman!"
Guglielmo dropped his head into his hand. Isabetta jumped to her feet and glared at him, her fists on her hips. "A woman can sneak up and kill somebody just as well as a man!"
Alexander, still on his knees, gaped at her. A throat was cleared behind him.
"So, I take it everything is going well?" Captain Angelo asked politely. Beside him, Thomas Wyndham watched with something close to amusement.
Isabetta pointed at Alexander. "Tell him a woman can be as much of a threat as a man can!"
Angelo rubbed his left side. "Oh, yes, women are sneaky and dangerous and you should be careful when they're standing behind you."
"That's not what I meant!"
She huffed and turned back to Alexander. "Anyone can stick a knife into somebody, it's easy. Unless you hit a rib," she added thoughtfully.
Alexander gaped at her. "But you're so tiny and pretty!"
Guglielmo snickered and Angelo covered his mouth. Thomas pointedly watched a bird sailing by overhead. Isabetta glared at all of them, then she went over and grabbed Alexander's head. "You are very silly and we are trying to keep you from getting killed." She kissed his forehead. "And you're staying for supper. After you clean up a little" She turned with a swish of skirts and went back into the inn, gathering up her mending basket as she went.
"But I'm supposed to be back before dark," Alexander said, blinking.
Angelo held up a hand. "You're welcome to tell her you're not staying. I'm not going to do it."
Guglielmo got to his feet, then smacked Alexander in the shoulder. "Come on, Brother Nobody. Let's sluice some of this dust off ourselves. I'll make sure you get back in one piece."
Most of the men found other places to be for supper, but there were a few strangers at the big table. They glanced at Alexander curiously but ignored him. He tried very carefully not to listen to their conversation, especially the discussion of taverns and wenches and the costs of . . . things. He sat next to Isabetta at the foot of the table, and she distracted him from distressing things by asking him where he had come from and how many people were in his family and other homey things. Guglielmo, up at the other end at Angelo's right hand, glanced down occasionally and grinned.
After supper, Guglielmo took Alexander back out into the stableyard to look over some knives. He ignored Alexander's protests about using weapons, handing over small daggers for hiding under sleeves and long main gauches that nearly qualified as short swords in their own right. Everyone wandered out, preferring the last light of day to the interior of the inn.
"We're not trying to equip you for duels," Guglielmo said, taking away a blade that Alexander had nearly gutted himself with twice. "A lot of assassins don't have the nerve to face someone who can fight back. If you have time to show some teeth of your own, anyone attacking you will probably decide it's not worth the chance of them bleeding as well."
Alexander picked up another dagger, a plain blade with an unadorned wooden hilt. "I don't know if I can try to hurt someone with something like this."
"Feel free to hit them with your rosary, if you like. A good sturdy crucifix of lead or something at the end would leave quite a dent."
Over at a table near the inn doors, one of the men who had decided to stay in that evening leaned towards his neighbor. "It's rather endearing, the care he's taking to make sure his . . . friend can protect himself," he said with a smirk. The other man gave him an uncomfortable look and didn't laugh. Alexander frowned and glanced at Guglielmo, who was studying the first man with a very calm expression. Angelo, sitting next to Isabetta on the bench, was also studying the man, sipping from his goblet thoughtfully.
Alexander noticed the shadows. "I need to get back soon. Monsignor Lewes seemed quite upset at the idea of me being out after dark."
Guglielmo nodded. "We're losing the light anyway. I'll see you up there, just to be sure."
"You don't have to--" Alexander stopped talking at the look he got. "All right."
As Guglielmo fetched his sword, Alexander went over to Isabetta. "I'm sorry I tossed you like that," he said nervously, watching Angelo.
Isabetta grinned at him. "You did exactly what Guglielmo taught you to do, so stop feeling sorry about it."
Angelo gave her a scolding look. "Are you waylaying defenseless young men again, m'love?"
She smacked him in the shoulder, which he didn't seem to notice. "He's not defenseless. And I was not waylaying, I was helping with the teaching."
The man who had made the comment before snickered into his mug. "Not that Il Sanguinante is likely to share, anyway."
His neighbor looked nervous, glancing at Angelo, who had stopped drinking and was staring into his goblet, then over his shoulder at Guglielmo, who had paused in buckling on his sword to listen. "Tonio," he muttered, "be quiet." Tonio just snickered again.
Alexander, confused, saw Angelo look towards Guglielmo, then take another drink as he patted Isabetta's knee. Guglielmo tightened a buckle, then walked over. He glanced briefly at Angelo, then at Alexander. "Ready to go, Sandro?"
"Um, yes, I am."
"I'll just be a moment." He turned and strolled towards the table. Tonio blinked at him, then fought down another smirk. A dagger appeared in Guglielmo's right hand, then it was buried in Tonio's belly. Guglielmo twisted his wrist, then stepped back. Gasping, Tonio fumbled at the dagger hilt sticking out of him. "Pull that out," Guglielmo said quietly, "and you'll bleed to death quickly."
Alexander fought for air. "Wha--what if he doesn't pull it out?"
"Then he bleeds to death slowly."
Everyone looked at Angelo, who merely studied the inside of his goblet. "I wonder if we have any of that northern pale wine about the place. Isabetta, come help me look." He got to his feet and went inside. Isabetta followed, looking a little pale but not very horrified.
Alexander stared at Tonio, who was patting at the seeping red stain on his tunic and making disbelieving noises. Guglielmo tugged him around and pulled him towards the gate. None of the other men in the stableyard had said a word.
"Why--did you do that?" Alexander finally managed to say as they reached the street.
"It's best to nip that sort of thing in the bud," Guglielmo said calmly.
"What sort of thing?"
The mercenary gave him a considering look, then smiled a little sadly. "Disrespect. They should leave you alone now."
"But--I don't understand . . ."
Guglielmo patted his arm. "You don't need to, Alexander. You don't need to."
That night, Alexander did not sleep.
A man had been killed right in front of him. He wondered how long it had taken the man to die. The skirmish in the street was one thing, Guglielmo was fighting for his life. But this . . . The man, Tonio, had said something Alexander still didn't quite understand, and Guglielmo had simply walked over and shoved a knife in his belly. And no one had tried to stop him. Angelo even seemed to know what was about to happen and had just sat there sipping his wine. Lovely Isabetta hadn't protested.
And then Guglielmo had walked with him through the streets up to the side gate of the Vatican complex, not saying a word but looking at Alexander several times as if he wanted to say something. As if he expected Alexander to simply understand that casual murder was something that happened.
And in Guglielmo's world, it was.
Alexander was starting to like them. Domestic Isabetta bustling around with her mending and her sneak attacks. Brash, handsome, generous Guglielmo. Jovial Angelo, quiet Thomas, even-tempered Giancarlo--
They were killers. The deaths of others was their stock in trade. And they looked at Alexander is if he were the one with the defective worldview.
Sitting on his bed, wrapped in his blanket against the chill that came from his soul, Alexander looked at the sleeping novices in the dormitory around him. One candle burned near the privy cabinet in the corner. Some of the younger novices still whimpered with homesickness in their sleep. Alexander envied them.
He pulled the blanket closer around him, ducking his head underneath to muffle his voice as his fingers found the next bead of his rosary. He prayed for the Holy Mother to free him from this maze of terror and confusion, to make St. Benedict's day arrive and pass quickly. To show him how to cope with people who he could care about and who he feared so much.
Sleep was taking its time making an appearance in other parts of the city.
"He won't be back," Guglielmo said, staring at the mug of wine in front of him.
Angelo refilled Isabetta's goblet and his own mug, then leaned back in his chair at the head of the big table. The only light in the room was the small lamp on the table next to the wine jug. "He might."
Guglielmo shook his head. "You didn't see the look on his face. The one that said he remembered what I am."
"And that is?" Isabetta asked softly.
"A killer." He smiled faintly as the other two fidgeted. "A very good one who doesn't regret what he is. Or, who didn't before tonight."
Isabetta touched his hand. "Not someone who an honest priest would normally be with."
Guglielmo ran his fingers through his hair. "He told me himself that there was nothing worth killing for. I laughed at him."
"Everyone here knows Tonio had it coming," Angelo said. "It was hardly the first time he'd gotten publically obnoxious."
"I should have waited. It would have kept." Guglielmo drank off half the wine. "But, no, I had to make a production out of skewering him in front of a baby priest who was starting to think of me as--" He drained the rest of the wine instead of finishing.
Angelo reached over and stroked Isabetta's arm. "You wanted to show him you were willing to defend his honor. Anyone else would have been impressed."
"I should have waited. Made sure he got home, then come back and settled matters. Called Tonio out and done it cleanly."
Isabetta rose from her seat and went around to Guglielmo. "But you didn't." She leaned down to kiss the top of his head. "You are who you are. And Alexander is who Alexander is. He might forgive you yet. That's rather his job." She gave Angelo a kiss as well. "Don't be too much longer," she said, then headed upstairs.
Angelo refilled Guglielmo's mug again and sighed.
"If you give me some pox-rotten Celtic metaphor or parable," Guglielmo growled, "I'll have your hair for boot rags."
Angelo shrugged. "No, I just have wine. I'll listen to whatever you want to talk about, even if it's just drunken babbling. I've a small cask of that Spanish sherry as well, if you simply want to get so drunk you forget about it."
"I won't be forgetting the look in his eyes anytime soon."
"Then just drink until it doesn't hurt anymore."
"That'll be a while."
After morning Mass, Alexander went straight to Maestro Bramante's chambers, where he spent several hours helping to arrange the papers and instruments and books into some sort of order for shipping. This was made no easier by the Maestro's habit of lecturing as he moved around the room and of pulling out the very papers that had just been packed to illustrate his point. Alexander spent most of his time following behind and putting things back the way they were.
They took their midday meal up to the roofs of the Palace, where Bramante chewed on sausage and cheese while pointing out architectural features of the Eternal City. His broad gestures took in the Coliseum across the river and the walls around the Vatican and where the roads had reached out to the far corners of the Roman Empire.
Alexander drank it all in, following Bramante's sweeping motions out to the horizon and back into time. The Maestro talked of the Greeks and the Caesars and the Franks and all the peoples who had gone before and whose thoughts and strivings toward heaven had created the great buildings, and how everything that was built today rested on everything that had gone on before.
They went back down to the workroom so that Bramante could show Alexander sketches of the great cathedral of Chartres and explain the mathematics of pier and buttress and vaulting. That went on until Buonarotti, the sculptor who had done the new Pieta, arrived with wine and food and gossip. Alexander retreated to a corner next to Bramante's traveling book cases and worked on fitting the Maestro's library into too little space while he listened.
"When you get to Milano," Buonarotti said as the sun sank low over the city, "make sure you see the fresco at Grazie."
Bramante laughed. "Leonardo actually finished something? Amazing."
"It is amazing. Brilliant It's also already flaking off. If you want your boy there to see it, you'd best hurry. Maybe he'll be inspired and find his calling and he can start making something of himself."
Alexander, his attention mostly on the fading light and imagining the shadows growing across a stableyard, jumped and stared. "Excuse me?"
"Relax, Sandro," Bramante said with a smile. "You haven't done anything wrong. Michelangelo has views."
"When I was his age I was already producing sculptures on commission!"
"You're also a mad genius who's been studying these things all your life. And you're not that much older than he is. Sandro has the makings of a very good churchman, if the lures of the mundane world don't prove too much for him and turn him into a builder." Bramante glanced out the window that Alexander had been staring at. "What are you watching, lad?"
"I'm--not, really, Maestro. I'm just thinking."
Bramante nodded and turned back to his excitable guest. Alexander listened a while longer to the news of which families were still securely in control of their cities and where rich patrons could be found, then went back to his thoughts. He hadn't strictly promised that he'd be at the inn every afternoon, but he wondered if Guglielmo was angry with him and why that idea upset him so.
An Archbishop's maid was found killed near the laundry courtyard that morning. The whispers were of an animal attack. Some of the more noble churchmen kept hunting dogs, and not all of them were kept in proper kennels.
Monsignor Lewes made a point of seeing the girl's body before it was taken away. The whisperers lowered their voices in the presence of an Inquisitor, but the tale spread quickly of how he'd examined the poor thing's throat, then sighed deeply as he made the sign of the Cross over the body.
When Lewes returned to his chamber, he secured the locks, both physical and magical, before adding to the report he was preparing for the Council.
"There is a vampire at large in the Vatican itself. Granted, holiness is not very thick on the ground here, but the traditional wards against the undead are about in abundance. I suspect this king of vampires that the prophecy spoke of. I have my suspicions about who the prince is who is assisting him, but I won't put them on paper."
Lewes laid down his pen. It would be weeks before this report reached England, and he feared time was growing short. There was little useful advice his comrades could give him, in any case.
Cardinal Fortezzi was up to something. The theft of the Communion wafer was only the latest incident. There had been rumors of His Eminence seeking out strange knowledge, consulting with uncertain informants. The whispers said he sought a way to live forever. Lewes was dreadfully afraid he'd found a way to do it.
The upcoming St. Benedict's Day festivities His Eminence and Cesare Borgia were planning filled him with dread. He was reluctant to seek out Alexander in the Palace, not knowing whose eyes might be watching. There was someone else, though, deeply involved in this matter who might bear talking to.
The Monsignor left the Palace by the normal routes, making no effort to disguise himself or his movements. Once he was out of sight of the walls, though, he wandered into narrower streets until he drifted into a nondescript apartment building. A room at the back allowed him to transform from a respected churchman into an anonymous merchant. He waited for several minutes to allow casual observers to forget about him, and a small magical spell of obscurity baffled any observers who weren't casual.
The Crusader's Kiss was an easy inn to find. The place was quiet when Monsignor Lewes walked in. A boy scrubbed a big table with admirable diligence, but the man behind the counter seemed nervous as he wiped mugs.
"Good day, signore," Lewes said politely. "I'm looking for Maestro Guglielmo il Sanguinante. Is he here?"
The man looked around furtively. "Um, yes, sir, he is, but--now might not be the best of times--"
The side door that led out to the stableyard banged open, slamming against and knocking over a heavy chair. The boy dived under the table as Il Sanguinante strode in. He didn't look around the room, but Lewes hesitated before calling out to him.
"Wine in my room," Il Sanguinante snapped to the room at large.
"Yes, sir," the man behind the counter said quickly. He looked at Lewes uncertainly.
Lewes raised a reassuring hand. "Maestro?"
Il Sanguinante stopped at the foot of the stairs, then turned his head partway. "What?"
"I need to speak with you, if I may."
A door behind the counter opened, and a small blonde woman stepped out. She studied Lewes for a moment, then looked towards Il Sanguinante, who had turned to face Lewes.
"And what is it that you believe I'll be interested in?" he said, smiling just a little. He began walking slowly towards Lewes.
"Guglielmo," the woman behind the counter said.
Il Sanguinante paused. "Yes, Isabetta?"
"Please . . ."
"Please, what, Isabetta?"
She made a noise of frustration. "Do not take this out on us, Guglielmo. Especially not on strangers."
Lewes fought taking a step back at the cold look Il Sanguinante turned on her. "Angelo enjoys having you fuss at him, Isabetta," he said. "I do not."
Reluctantly, Lewes cleared his throat. Il Sanguinante's head snapped around; Isabetta stepped forward, as if to distract him before he acted. "It's all right, signorina," Lewes said.
The calculating threat in Il Sanguinante's eyes changed, and he tilted his head quizzically. "Is your name Lewes?"
"Yes, it is--oh, yes, that day with the Guards in the hallway. Yes, that was me."
Il Sanguinante considered Lewes' clothes, then frowned. "What's happened?"
"Nothing's happened, yet. But I need to speak with you."
He looked at the man behind the counter. "Wine in the stableyard, instead, Gianni."
"At once, Maestro."
Isabetta came around the corner. "Will?"
"It's all right, I'm not taking him out to murder him." He started towards the door, then paused and leaned down to kiss her forehead. "He knows Sandro," he added.
"Oh!" Isabetta smiled at Lewes. "How is he? He's not in trouble for coming to see us, is he?"
"Not at all, he's fine. Excuse me."
Lewes followed Il Sanguinante out into the stableyard and a table in the shade. The boy who had dived under the table came out soon after, carefully carrying a tray with a jug and a pair of goblets. He jostled the jug as he sat the tray down, and Il Sanguinante reached out to steady it. The boy cringed.
"Thank you, Manolo," Il Sanguinante said gently. The boy grinned and ran back inside.
Lewes accepted a goblet of wine. "I gather our Alexander has been making friends down here."
"Sandro lets Isabetta order him around. She likes that." Il Sanguinante sipped his wine and studied Lewes. "So you're an Inquisitor."
"Not in these clothes, I'm not."
"But when you're in your priestly garb again, you'll remember everything that happened while you were in disguise."
"Not necessarily. Maestro, I'm not here for the Inquisition. I'm here because the St. Benedict's gathering has me very worried."
"That? For what it's worth, I have no intention of showing up for that."
Il Sanguinante blinked at him. "No, I mustn't. I intend to be very ill the day after tomorrow." He shrugged and grinned. "And if Isabetta tells Angelo the way I was behaving today, I may well be dead the day after tomorrow. Either way, I won't be attending Cesare's little gathering."
"That's all very well for you, Maestro, but Alexander doesn't have your options. Who do you think will have to tell them that you're too ill--or dead--to be there?"
"Tell him to be sick. There's typhus near the river."
"I did not send him down here for you to teach him to defend himself, just so that you can abandon him at the last minute."
Il Sanguinante glared into his goblet. "He came twice. He wasn't here yesterday, and--" He glanced at the sun "--I'm not expecting him tonight."
"Well, where is he then?"
"How should I know? I'm a soldier, you're the shepherds of the flock."
"Damn it." Lewes refilled his goblet and drained half of it. "He doesn't understand what's going on. If I thought he'd do it, I'd have sent him to stay down here under your protection."
"All the saints forfend," Il Sanguinante muttered. "Lead us not into temptation."
Lewes studied him suspiciously. "What did you do that made him stop coming down?"
"What did I--" He sighed. "I killed a man in front of him."
Lewes blinked. "What, those men who ambushed you on the way to the Palace?"
"Why do I get the idea that you know more about what's going on than I do?"
"That's my job. The ambush happened before he came down here. What man?"
Il Sanguinante leaned back in his chair and glanced down at the ground. "One of the men here made a few remarks he had no business making. I--showed him the error of his ways."
"What sort of remarks?"
That coolly assessing look was back in his eyes. "The sort of remarks that could be taken to mean that I have the sort of affection for Sandro that the church officially frowns upon."
"If I did, would I admit it to an Inquisitor?"
"And is that why Alexander is avoiding you?"
A dagger appeared in Il Sanguinante's left hand, a dagger he proceeded to toss casually into the air. "Sandro is avoiding me because he innocently believes that nothing is worth killing over. I didn't explain to him that if you let one mouth run on about things it shouldn't, others will soon follow. My only mistake was in not waiting till Sandro was gone before teaching Tonio a lesson."
"His innocent beliefs are something I'd like to see preserved," Lewes said mildly.
"He is perfectly safe with me."
Lewes nodded. "Then do you mind putting the dagger away?"
Il Sanguinante smiled faintly, tossed the dagger one more time, and let it fall point first into the table. "If you want him to continue learning how to defend himself, then you're going to have to find him and tell him. I can't go up there, not unless you want a lot of talk about it."
"You're right. I'll find him, make sure he's all right. And you have to go to that gathering. I think Alexander will be in a great deal of danger if you don't."
"What does that gathering have to do with Sandro?"
Lewes leaned back in his chair and studied the other man very closely. "You've seen a few strange things in your life, I imagine."
"What do you know of magic?"
Il Sanguinante ran a finger along the curved crossguard of the dagger stuck into the table in front of. "Enough to remind myself yet again that you are an Inquisitor."
Lewes thumped the table with his fist. "Maestro, that is not the point. The Holy Office has nothing to do with what I am so worried about. My--brothers in the Holy Office are more concerned with Jews and old women than the real evil that walks the night. There are forces in the world that too many in the church blind themselves to. I don't care if you believe God has three persons or one or whether there is a God of light and a God of darkness. I have seen real, physical evil, and none of it appears in the Malleus Maleficarum."
Il Sanguinante continued to fondle the dagger. "How many of your brothers have heard that speech, Monsignor?"
"None of them," Lewes said, meeting his eyes squarely. "I wouldn't be the first Inquisitor to suddenly find himself suspect."
After a moment, Il Sanguinante nodded. "So you believe that this thing on St. Benedict's is--what?"
Lewes glanced around the stableyard and lowered his voice. "His Eminence has shown odd--interests. I have some knowledge that suggests something is being planned. A sacrifice."
"A sacrifice to what?"
"Something to which sacrifices should not be made."
"And what is to be sacrificed?"
"It's a sacrifice of innocence."
Lewes caught his breath as the knowledge flowed into Il Sanguinante's eyes. The knowledge was followed by rage, quickly tempered with the cold detachment of one for whom the deaths of others was no hardship.
"And Sandro being ill and absent won't prevent this?"
"I suspect that His Eminence will take steps to ensure Alexander's presence. It may even be known that he's come here."
"He's not the only innocent in this city."
Lewes told himself not to be horrified at the casual proposal. "But it's much easier to acquire someone who is sworn to obey a Prince of the Church, especially one with dangerous knowledge."
Il Sanguinante yanked the dagger out of the table. "You're not telling me something. The best way to foil this is to grab Sandro and take him away from here. If you suspect some dark ritual is in the offing, tell your brother Inquisitors, have them act."
"Against Cesare Borgia? Do you think the Holy Father will entertain any suggestion that his favored son is involved with the dark arts?"
"Cesare will find himself stabbed in the throat sooner or later. If you're so worried about Sandro,
why are you telling me to make sure he goes to this meeting?"
"If they think you are cooperating, then they won't think of something else to do. They've chosen that night for a reason. If you're forewarned, you can go there, see what's happening, take Alexander out of there, and it will be too late for them to do anything else."
"And we're on the run for the rest of our lives because Cesare Borgia and a Cardinal knows we've witnessed them attempting black magic."
"I'll be able to help you at that point. But if I take any actions before the fact, then it's a simple matter of changing their plans. There are some things that even the Holy Office won't be able to ignore."
Il Sanguinante got up to pace. "The word of a soldier and a novice against Cesare's and a Cardinal's? There is still something you're not telling me."
"You want to protect Alexander, correct?" Lewes waited for the grudging nod. "And he will do what he is sworn to do, regardless if it scares him or not. And he is sworn to obey His Eminence's orders to be there on the night of St. Benedict's."
"Get him drunk," Il Sanguinante said. "Drug him, kidnap him. He can't obey if we don't let him."
"And will he forgive you for that?"
Il Sanguinante swore under his breath. "I'm fairly sure you're not supposed to be encouraging me to care what happens to Alexander like that."
"Like what?" Lewes said innocently.
He swore again. "I can't help him if he won't let me. And at the moment I'm not sure he's willing to."
"I'll find him, talk to him." He stood. "Try not to die before St. Benedict's." Il Sanguinante sneered at him, and Lewes let himself out of the stableyard.
Lewes reassured himself that he hadn't actually lied to the mercenary. He hadn't denied there were more elements involved than Cesare Borgia and Cardinal Fortezzi, he just hadn't gone into detail. Lewes tried not to think about who might still be alive or undamned the morning after St. Benedict's. There were larger matters involved than the fate of individuals. Immense evil was within reach, and Lewes' oaths put everything subordinate to the destruction of that evil. He didn't have to like it, he only had to obey.
As he had yesterday, Alexander went to Bramante's rooms as soon as he could. Bramante didn't question it, just set him to organizing more papers. There were diagrams on some of the sheets that intrigued Alexander, and his questions soon led to a lesson in mathematics and physics.
"I should introduce you to da Vinci," Bramante said after the questions became more complex. "I know how to build things so they stay up, but he says he knows how to make things fly. He loves having new people to talk to. I think he's still in Milano, I'll take you to meet him when we get there."
Alexander wondered when it had become understood that he was leaving Roma. The excitement of learning had somehow become strong enough to hide his dread of giving up the daily rounds of the church. He could serve God anywhere, and there was so much more of the world to see.
Around mid-afternoon, Bramante looked around the room and nodded. "That should be everything. I'll spend the next couple of days saying farewell to various people, then I'll be ready to go." He looked at Alexander. "And you?"
Alexander shrugged. "I have nothing to pack. I'm supposed to be somewhere the night of St. Benedict's, but other than that I'm free."
Bramante smiled. "Freedom is a very good thing."
They were distracted by a brief knock on the open door. A man wearing the colors of Cesare Borgia's household stood in the doorway. "I'm looking for the novice Alexander," he said.
One of the first lessons Alexander had received when he came to the Vatican was how to identify the servants and members of the major households. He hadn't expected the very sight of one of Cesare's servants to make his spine quiver.
Bramante glanced at him and frowned very slightly. "Alexander is my student," he told the servant with just enough impatience to show that a renowned artist did not have to give ground to anyone's servant. "Why are you looking for him?"
The servant inclined his head a few degrees. "Your pardon, Maestro Bramante. His Excellency has requested the service of Alexander at supper this evening. He's to come with me."
A small noise of protest escaped Alexander's best efforts. Bramante glanced at him again. "He's just finishing helping me with some boxes. We'll just be a few moments."
The servant started to protest, then maintained silence as Bramante towed Alexander to the far side of the room.
"I'm guessing you're not looking forward to serving at His Excellency's table," he said softly as he rearranged some ropes on a box. Alexander could only shake his head. "Even more of a reason for you to leave Roma?"
"Unfortunately, only the Holy Father would be able to intervene. I'm afraid you'll have to go with him and do your best."
Miserable, Alexander nodded.
"I expect him back at work here bright and early tomorrow," Bramante said as he followed Alexander to the door of the chamber. "Don't keep him up till all hours."
"We shall do our best, maestro." The servant bowed and turned to go, not bothering to check to see if Alexander was following.
"Go on, boy," Bramante said, loud enough for the servant to hear, but he gave a nod of reassurance. Alexander nodded back and hurried to catch up.
The servant said nothing as they walked from the comfortable but plain building where Bramante was housed, to the newly redecorated wing where the Borgia households lived in splendor. They bypassed the state chambers for the kitchens, where Rodolfo, Cesare's chamberlain, was waiting.
Rodolfo dismissed the servant and studied Alexander. "Are those your best robes?" he asked.
"All my robes are like these. Though these are the cleanest."
He sniffed. "They would be. His Excellency dines in three hours. The chamber there has a place where you can wash and clothes more suitable for a nobleman's presence."
Alexander started to protest that these robes were perfectly acceptable for serving Mass, and how was Cesare Borgia's table better than that? A cunning mental voice that sounded oddly like Guglielmo's told him to be quiet, do the job, and just get out as quickly as possible. Oh, and be careful of people standing behind him.
The waiting clothes were of a finer linen than he was used to, and he nearly decided to refuse outright when he saw the red-gold bull of the Borgia coat of arms embroidered on the left front. He belonged to Holy Mother Church, if he belonged to anyone; he had neither the right nor the inclination to show any other colors.
Rip it off and burn it later, said that conniving voice in his head again. The heart of the Borgia stronghold was not the place to raise protests. He went back into the kitchen, where he stood to one side and stayed out of the way of busy cooks and assistants. Across the room, Rodolfo looked around impatiently, then waved for Alexander to join him.
He nodded grudgingly at Alexander's new clothes. "Have you ever served at a nobleman's table, boy?"
The conniving voice was drowned out by his own. "I've served at the Lord's table." Self-preservation was a half second behind, but he fought off the urge to cringe and beg pardon.
A woman kneading dough at a nearby table muffled a snicker. The disapproving line of Rodolfo's mouth twitched just a little. "Yes. You'll find this less exalted, but more complicated."
The next three hours were spent learning the basics of serving food and wine to an exalted nobleman. Alexander focused on the lessons with the same diligence he'd spent on learning the parts of a classical column. Twice he heard someone in the room whisper, "And then he said, 'I've served at the Lord's table,'" and then people would laugh very quietly. He was afraid he was being mocked, until one of the bakers handed him one of the rolls fresh from the oven and Rodolfo only said, "Don't leave crumbs on yourself."
A bell rang, and everyone hurried to finish their tasks. Rodolfo led Alexander over to a man ladling vegetables into a ceramic dish. "I need to see to His Excellency. Come with Bernardo when he's ready, and we'll begin."
A few minutes later, Bernardo was finished, and Alexander followed him up flights of stairs and through hidden servants' passageways to Cesare Borgia's suite. His sense of uncertain confidence changed completely to anxiety when Cesare looked up from the table where he sat alone and looked at Alexander thoughtfully. It was the faint smile that made Alexander want to run away and let the fates do with him as they would.
Rodolfo handed him a gold plate with a serving of vegetables and nudged him towards the table. He focused on his hurried lessons and went to the table, keeping his eyes down and remembering to bow when he reached Cesare's side. Cesare gestured slightly, and Alexander placed the dish on the table in front of him. Rodolfo appeared to arrange the napkin and to set the gold knife and fork with the carved gemstone handles at a more convenient location.
Cesare raised a finger just before Alexander retreated to pour the wine. "Cardinal Fortezzi speaks highly of you," he said quietly.
Alexander wound his fingers together tightly. "Th--thank you, Your Excellency." Cesare nodded, and Alexander hurried to the wine jug on the sideboard. He didn't spill any, but only by chanting the Our Father under his breath.
He continued to keep his mind on prayers through the rest of the meal. From the kitchen came several courses, which Cesare silently ate. His attention seemed to be on some inner world, except for a few times where he studied Alexander for several moments.
Finally, Rodolfo approached the table with a basin of warm water and a linen cloth, which he used to wash Cesare's hands. Alexander retreated to the servants' door, wondering if he dared to sigh in relief. Not just yet. Rodolfo leaned closer at a gesture, and Alexander heard Cesare say, "The boy could be trained to be useful."
"Yes, my lord."
Alexander debated bolting again, but instead he followed Rodolfo out of the room and back down to the kitchens. Rodolfo gave him a considering look, but the head cook distracted him with some discrepancy between the kitchen inventory and the actual pantry contents. One of the servants came over with a food-laden plate.
"Here," he grinned. "If you worked, you eat. We don't let people starve in this kitchen."
Alexander ate in peace, answering innocuous questions about the village he grew up in. He finally caught himself picking at the Borgia emblem on his robes and decided to change back into his own clothes.
Rodolfo caught up with him just before he could make his escape from the kitchen. "His Excellency believes you would be a useful addition to his household, Alexander. Congratulations. Let me show you--"
"I'm leaving Roma with Maestro Bramante."
Rodolfo blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
Alexander clung to the thought like he held to his belief that Christ would save him from damnation. "I'm Maestro Bramante's student. We leave Roma for Milano after the feast of St. Benedict."
"I'm sure Maestro Bramante will release you--"
"No, you don't understand." It was Guglielmo's voice in the back of his head again, telling him to be blunt and assertive. "I want to leave Roma with Bramante. I'm looking forward to it."
Rodolfo looked completely baffled. "But he is an architect, a builder. Here you have the opportunity to serve one of the most important men in Europe."
He was tempted to say that the idea of serving Cesare Borgia horrified him, but the troublesome voice advised prudence, for a change. "I have studied with the Maestro for several years now. He's teaching me his art. The only service I would give that up for is the Lord's service."
"Well." Rodolfo shook his head. "If that is the case, then, that is the case. When His Excellency inquires, I will tell him you preferred stone and mortar to glory."
Alexander thought a moment, then nodded. "Yes, I do. But thank you." Rodolfo shrugged and nodded, then turned back to his work. Alexander returned the farewell wave of one of the cook's assistants, then slipped out the kitchen door.
He remembered the way well enough to run. It was getting late in the evening; traffic in the hallways was light and unlikely to care enough about a hurrying novice to stop him. He slowed to a walk once he reached the familiar hallways of the church wing. Should he find Maestro Bramante and reassure him that all was well? Perhaps something more innocuous, like one of the illicit dice games the novices sometimes got up to in the dormitory in the evening.
"Alexander, a moment."
He turned to see Cardinal Fortezzi shuffle out of a dark side corridor. Too late to pretend he hadn't heard the summons. The Cardinal held out his hand, and Alexander knelt on the marble floor to take his hand and kiss the ring. The thin fingers clamped onto his. Fighting a gasp of pain, he looked up at the Cardinal.
"The lamb has been walking among the lions." Fortezzi gazed down, his smile lacking even the sardonic humor Cesare had. "You must learn to abjure corruption, my son."
"I do my best, Your Eminence." He winced as Fortezzi tightened his grip.
"And what did Cesare want with you, my son? He is not the proper companion for a righteous young man."
"I served him supper, Your Eminence. I don't know why he asked for me."
Fortezzi leaned down. Alexander forced himself not to cringe back, despite the predatory look on the Cardinal's face.
"You are young, Alexander," he said in a voice of kindly cruelty. "You do not have the wisdom yet to guard yourself properly. You must learn the dangers your soul lies near."
Footsteps hurried down the corridor. "Your Eminence, I'm so pleased I found you."
Alexander looked over and barely managed not to gasp in relief at the sight of Monsignor Lewes.
Fortezzi straightened, but did not relax his grip on Alexander's hand. Lewes stopped next to them and looked with mild curiosity from Alexander to the Cardinal.
"Has the boy displeased you, Your Eminence?" he asked.
Fortezzi studied him for several moments, then slowly uncurled his fingers from around Alexander's. "I have been telling him to be mindful of the company he keeps, Monsignor. Not all who he encounters in the halls of the Vatican are fit company for an untutored young man."
"Indeed not, Your Eminence."
Lewes bent his knee enough to kiss Fortezzi's ring, though he didn't touch the Cardinal's hand. A swift warning glance made Alexander scramble to his feet and move away. He tucked his hands into his sleeves and bowed his head in the best humble novice posture.
"We must be vigilant, Monsignor," Fortezzi said, still staring at Lewes. "Evil prowls even in the heart of Mother Church."
"I am utterly convinced of that, Your Eminence," Lewes replied, meeting Fortezzi's gaze. "My every effort is dedicated to ridding the Bride of Christ of the pernicious influences that would taint her."
Fortezzi pulled in on himself and nodded. "An important job, my son. Eternal vigilance. None knows the hour when we shall be called to account." He moved slowly off, mumbling to himself.
Alexander watched him go, but he didn't straighten or pull his suddenly freezing hands out of his sleeves. He started when Lewes appeared at his side, still staring off after Fortezzi.
"Alexander, do you need anything from the dormitory?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Good." Lewes took his arm and tugged him down the side corridor.
"How did you find me?"
"After chatting with Il Sanguinante and discovering you were not expected for your lesson, I checked with the Master of Novices, who told me you'd been spending your time with Maestro Bramante. When I finally tracked Bramante down, he told me you'd been summoned to serve at the Borgia table. I've just come from the servants, who said you'd refused a place in Cesare's household and left. This was the most direct route." He studied Alexander more closely. "You're shivering, boy. What did Fortezzi say to you?"
Alexander shook his head. "He told me to abjure corruption. He said I had no idea of the danger my soul was in."
Lewes sniffed. "Kind of him to warn you."
They went down a flight of steps to one of the outside doors. Alexander hesitated. "Where are we going?"
"Someplace I should have taken you when I first realized how serious this situation is, to stay with Il Sanguinante and that band of cutthroats." He gave a brief laugh. "You'll be safer there than in the precincts of the church, God help you." Lewes eased back the doorbolt and looked outside cautiously.
Alexander started to protest, but the reasons suddenly weren't there. His soul still cringed at the memory of Guglielmo cold-bloodedly knifing an unsuspecting man, but somehow that seemed . . . smaller than the unspoken peril he had felt around him this evening.
Lewes tugged on his sleeve, pulling him out of the door. "What's wrong?"
Alexander barely noticed the night and its torch-lined shadows here outside the confines of the Vatican buildings. "Murder is a grave sin, isn't it?"
"One of the gravest."
"Then why does Guglielmo frighten me so much less than His Excellency or Cardinal Fortezzi?"
Lewes studied him for a moment, a smile that held no humor on his face. "Because Il Sanguinante's murders are committed in plain view, with no attempt to hide what he's doing or why. His Eminence and His Excellency work in the shadows, while presenting innocent faces to the light of day."
"A remorseless killer is more honest than a Prince of the Church?"
Lewes patted his shoulder, but didn't answer. Alexander knew he didn't need to.
The men were, unsurprisingly, still a little nervous after the knifing of Tonio, so Guglielmo sat in a far corner of the tavern while he tended his weapons, behind one of the big tables. Not that the table would stop him if he felt the need to move quickly, but it never paid to ignore the proprieties.
His dagger had disappeared with Tonio. He'd spent hours in the markets looking for a replacement and finally found a lovely long-bladed dagger with a rosewood and ebony handle and silver fittings. And a terrible edge. He'd spent an hour with the whetstone on the thing already and was just now getting to the point where he could sharpen it instead of taking out nicks. He shifted the small oil lamp on the table closer to check the edge for any spots he'd missed.
On the other side of the room, Angelo was losing badly to Giancarlo at dice. Isabetta leaned on Angelo's shoulder, all but asleep. At another table, Thomas was patiently explaining the rules of chess to Gianni the innkeeper's sixteen-year-old daughter, Caterina. Behind the counter, Gianni sliced meat and watched every move Thomas made. Caterina also paid close attention to Thomas, running her hair ribbons through her fingers as she listened.
A knock on the outer door caused everyone to look up from what they were doing. Behind the counter, Gianni wiped his hands and started around.
Angelo got to his feet. "I'll go."
Gianni looked relieved. "Grazie, captain."
Enemies generally weren't polite enough to knock, but it wasn't unheard of for an unsuspecting person to open a door and meet an attack. Guglielmo didn't put down the whetstone, but he reached over and shifted his newly-sharpened sword to a position on the table where he could grab it quickly before going back to his work.
Angelo's body blocked any view of whomever he was talking to outside. After a moment, he looked over his shoulder, caught Guglielmo's eye, and gestured with his head. A half-step to the right showed the reason for the summons: Monsignor Lewes and Alexander, who looked like he was about to drop.
Guglielmo tried to make rolling on one hip across the table look like merely the most convenient way around the obstacle, but Isabetta's knowing smile made him think it didn't work. At least Caterina squeaked in a satisfyingly frightened way.
"I hope it won't be an imposition, his staying here," Monsignor Lewes said to Angelo as he urged Alexander into the inn. Angelo closed and barred the door behind them. "Things are a bit strange at the Vatican just now."
"Stay here?" Guglielmo said, joining them. "What's happened?" At the sound of his voice, Alexander looked up. Guglielmo told himself that it wasn't relief in the boy's eyes at sight of him.
Lewes glanced at the roomful of curious observers. "Being specifically ordered to serve at a Borgia dinner table can be a bit nerve wracking, especially when followed by an admonition to avoid corruption, delivered personally by a Cardinal."
"What?" Guglielmo looked at Alexander. "Are you all right?"
The relief was more obvious in Alexander's tired smile and voice. "Yes, I'm all right."
Angelo looked thoughtfully from Lewes to Guglielmo to Alexander. "I have no objection if the boy stays, but I don't think there are any spare rooms, are there?" He turned to look at Isabetta,
who shook her head.
"I don't want to put anyone out," Alexander protested. "Let me just curl up in a corner somewhere. Back in my village I'd sleep in the stable sometimes. Do you have room out there?"
Isabetta looked him over and frowned. "You're shivering. You're not sleeping out in the night air."
"I'm not sharing a room with anyone," Guglielmo found himself saying. "Put him up there." Angelo, Isabetta, and Lewes all gave him suspicious looks, and the sudden silence behind him let him know that everyone else in the room was paying attention they didn't have the right to. A pointed look to the men made them concentrate on their own business again.
"I'm not putting you out of your room," Alexander said firmly. "Besides, I've never slept in a room all by myself, I don't think I'd be able to sleep without hearing someone snore."
"I don't snore," Guglielmo protested. Angelo bit back a laugh. "In any case, there's a perfectly comfortable chair up there, you wouldn't be putting me out."
"I can sleep in a chair," Alexander said agreeably.
Lewes cleared his throat. "Signorina," he said to Isabetta, "would you be so kind as to show Alexander to wherever would be a good place for him to stay? I need to speak to Maestro Guglielmo."
Isabetta lifted her chin and looked as though she was about to protest her delegation to servant, then she frowned. "You were here this afternoon, weren't you."
"Ah. Yes, signorina, that was me."
She considered the church robes he now wore, then shrugged slightly. "Come along, Sandro. We're not as grand as the Vatican, but we have our comforts."
Alexander glanced at Guglielmo before following her. "I was serious, I won't put Guglielmo out."
"I promise, you're perfectly welcome to hunch yourself up in that old chair of his."
Lewes waited till they were out of earshot. "Where can we speak privately?" he asked Guglielmo.
"The courtyard again. There shouldn't be many mosquitos around this time of night."
Guglielmo wasn't surprised when Angelo casually followed along, but Lewes hesitated. Angel smiled at him. "I already know my lieutenant is involved in some plot involving the Borgias and a Cardinal. I'd rather like to know what's going on now."
"It's a sensitive matter--"
Guglielmo shrugged. "He might as well come along. I'll only tell him later, anyway."
Lewes acquiesced. Angelo stayed quiet while Alexander's adventures with the Borgia household and Cardinal Fortezzi were summarized.
"It sounds like they don't trust each other," Guglielmo said, "ever for all that they're working together on whatever it is. Cesare's trying to get Sandro under his control, and His Eminence is warning him to watch his company. Why is Sandro such a commodity?"
"He's certainly integral to whatever they're planning for St. Benedict's," Lewes said. "I wonder if their both planning the same thing?"
"Do you think he'd be less valuable to them if he was a bit less innocent?" Angelo offered. Guglielmo was impressed that Angelo didn't even give a flicker of a look towards him.
Lewes glared at Angelo. "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that. In any case, I imagine Alexander is far less innocent of various matters than he was when this all started. They'd do better to just leave him alone."
Angelo studied Guglielmo. "And what's your part in all this, Will? I don't think it's just to guard whatever's going on."
"I don't know what they have planned, but I say that my part is to keep them from hurting Sandro."
Lewes looked up to check what stars were visible. "That's why I brought him here, because I knew he'd be safe. I need to get back. What do you plan to do about St. Benedict's?"
Guglielmo grinned. "I still plan to be ill. I imagine Sandro could also become deathly sick."
Lewes shook his head. "I don't think it will be that easy, but decisions will depend on how Cesare and the Cardinal react. I'll leave you gentlemen to it, though, until we find out otherwise."
As Angel let Lewes out the front door, Isabetta came to Guglielmo's side. "I've put him in your room, but he's still determined to sleep in that horrible chair of yours. I did, however, convince him to rest for a bit in your bed until you came up and threw him out."
Guglielmo gaped at her. "He's young and beautiful and trusting. And you put him in my bed? You are not a good woman, Isabetta."
She made a show of thinking. "You know, I think you may have something there."
Guglielmo gave her one last glare, then went to collect his weapons from the table in the corner. The new dagger still needed a decent edge, so he sat down to finish work. His years of soldiering wouldn't allow him to have a weapon in his possession that wasn't fit for use. Plus, sharpening it gave everyone the impression that he wasn't thinking about what waited in his bed.
The sensible part of him was laughing. Sandro, he was willing to bet, didn't even understand why Tonio was killed. To him, carnal matters were what Angelo and Isabetta got up to, or the temptations he whispered to his confessor about pretty girls he saw in the street. He probably had no idea that a man might look on another man and be . . . interested. In his world of country villages and sheltered priesthood, such things would not be mentioned.
In Guglielmo's world, though, things happened that didn't make sense to other people. After fighting off a score of Frenchmen and thinking they'd seen each other go down in that second wave, Guglielmo and Angelo had been too grateful to be alive and reunited to worry about propriety. Brothers in arms, depending on each other for their very lives, were bound by different rules. In the war camp that night, while the rest of the men sought out whores, they'd sought out each other. They never spoke of it, and if Isabetta knew, she was too much a soldier's woman to hold things that happened in wartime against a man. And if Guglielmo occasionally found the charms of a young man more appealing than those of a flirtatious wench, the respect of the company and his reputation as a fighter kept the wisest mouths shut.
The tone of the whetstone on sharpened steel finally penetrated Guglielmo's mind. If he kept up, he'd sharpen his new dagger to nothingness. He wiped the blade with oiled cloth to remove any stray filings and looked around the room. The only ones left were Thomas, still delicately seducing the not unwilling Caterina over the chessboard, and Gianni behind his counter, obviously wondering how to intervene. Guglielmo stretched loudly enough to attract attention.
"Dio, it's late," he said. "Didn't the captain say we were supposed to go out tomorrow and inspect the bridges, Thomas?"
Thomas glared at him. "I thought it was the gates."
"Whatever. Something that's going to have us in the saddle before the sun has cleared St. Peter's."
Gianni came around the counter. "Caterina, your mother expects you to help with the baking in the morning. Say good night and get to bed."
Caterina pouted, but she gave Thomas her most charming smile and thanked him for the lesson. "I hope we have time for another soon."
"So do I." Thomas waited until Gianni herded Caterina through the door behind the bar, into the family's section of the inn, then glared at Guglielmo. "Of course, you're probably in a hurry to get to your bed."
They'd known each other too long for Guglielmo to take too much offense. "If Gianni poisons your wine some evening, you've only yourself to blame."
Thomas glanced towards the door behind the counter and managed not to smirk. "I was only teaching her chess."
Guglielmo couldn't help snickering. "Thomas, not even you are that subtle." He stood and draped his various weapons on himself. "And odds are I'm sleeping in my chair tonight, so, no, I'm in not in any hurry."
"And no one has ever accused you of subtlety." Thomas packed up the board and chess pieces. "Though you do occasionally show surprising sense."
"I think I'll take that as a compliment."
"If you like."
They bade each other good night at the top of the stairs, and Guglielmo slipped quietly into his room. He paused next to the door to let his eyes adjust to the light of the single candle in the lantern next to the bed. There were church robes draped over the arm of his old high-backed chair, and soft boots on the floor. By the breathing, Sandro was asleep, a quiet lump under the blankets on the bed.
Guglielmo carefully hung his sword and dagger on the pegs in the wall, then pulled off his shirt. He undid his hose, let them drop, and was just untying the cord that held his drawers closed when he heard the blankets move.
"There you are," said Sandro's sleepy voice. "I should let you have your bed."
"You're supposed to be asleep," Guglielmo said. He forced himself not to turn around, not to find out if the face looked as warm and sweet as the voice sounded.
"Supposed to sleep in the chair so that I don't put you out."
"You are not sleeping in the chair, you're going to stay where you are and get a decent night's sleep." Guglielmo turned and glared and regretted it. Alexander's dark hair was mussed and hanging over his eyes. He'd loosened the drawstring on the neck of his shirt, and the opening had slid over his left shoulder. He was blinking like a stubborn, tired child, but Guglielmo's gut felt things differently. "I'm taking the chair," he said gruffly.
Alexander glared, then took a deep breath. "Fine. I refuse to put you out of your own bed, you're insisting on sleeping in the chair. I guess it's the floor for me, then." He threw back the blankets.
"Guglielmo, really, it's hardly the first time. I slept on the floor a lot when my little brother and sisters reached the wiggly stage."
Alexander laughed. "Small cottage, five children, two beds, and my father only shared his bed with my mother. It wasn't so bad when the little ones were really little, they were nice to snuggle against, but there's only so much giggling and whispering and 'Sandro, Ana pinched me' I can take before I go see if the cows are better company."
The image of young Sandro and the little ones was much more calming to Guglielmo's nerves. "You were the oldest?"
"Second oldest. My brother Torio found . . . other places to sleep," Alexander grinned. "Last I heard, he and Margaretta have two children of their own." He nodded decisively and stood up. "So, there's your bed. I'll sleep on the floor--though I wouldn't mind the loan of a cushion or something."
Guglielmo blessed the shadows and the fact that Alexander's shirt was thigh length. Perhaps it was time to let slip to Angelo that Isabetta had intentionally ruined that old fur cloak of his that he'd brought from Ireland and which shed like a nervous lapdog. She definitely needed to pay for this. And she was a convenient excuse.
"Isabetta would have my head if I let you sleep on the floor or the chair. So get back in there and go to sleep."
Alexander crossed his arms. "There's only one way to settle this, isn't there. We're going to have to share the bed."
Guglielmo muttered a prayer to St. Michael, patron of soldiers. He was trying to do the honorable thing, here, and heaven could at least cooperate by not tipping temptation in his way.
Still, it made sense. God knew there were many times he hadn't been picky about who--or what--shared his bunk. In the cold of winter and on mountain campaigns, bundling up together was only common sense.
Arguing about it was only going to make Alexander suspicious. He wasn't going to be the one to make the boy self-conscious.
"Don't hog the covers, then," he muttered. He debated putting his shirt back on, but the night was too warm.
Alexander grinned in triumph. "I won't."
Fortunately, Guglielmo's love of comforts meant there was no bickering over pillows as they climbed into bed. Guglielmo rolled onto his side away from Alexander who was snuggling down into the feather mattress.
"You do plan to settle down soon, don't you?" Guglielmo was going to have a difficult enough time getting to sleep without this lovely boy wriggling and making happy noises behind him.
Alexander went still. "I'm sorry. It's just that this bed is so much more comfortable than the one in the novice's dormitory." He yawned. "Thank you."
"Go to sleep, Sandro. Blow out the candle."
The hillside above Alexander's village was covered in rocks and brush, but the sheep had few problems finding things to graze on. Alexander watched from the high pile of rocks that had been assembled by the generations of sheep herders before him.
Watching the sheep in the hills hadn't been his job for years. By now, Vittorio's oldest should be big enough to do this. What had seemed like drudgery as a boy, though, was now a chance for some peace and quiet.
He lounged back against the rocks, idly scratching the sheepdog's ears. The cicadas sounded as sleepy as he felt. The olive tree behind him broke the sunlight into gold coins that wandered over the ground as the breeze nudged the branches back and forth. Out in the sunlight, the sheep dozed on their feet or folded themselves into the shadows of rocks.
Movement up the slope caught his eye. Wolves, picking their cautious way from rock to rock. Beside him, the dog growled, but the wolves kept coming. Alexander picked up a small rock from the pile next to him, but he knew it wouldn't be enough against a determined wolf.
He rested his hand on the dog's back, then looked down. In place of the shaggy mongrel was another wolf. A long tongue came out to clean some dried blood off its muzzle. It looked up at him, pale eyes watchful, then it turned its attention back to the rest of the wolves.
There was no place to retreat from either danger. The approaching wolves spared hardly a glance for the oblivious sheep. Every vulpine eye was on Alexander, and the stalkers were beginning to sink down into the creeping slouches that signaled they were about to attack--
He opened his eyes to thick darkness, the sound of his own frantic breathing, and hands on his shoulders.
"Sandro, wake up!"
The name was that of his childhood, but the voice had no place in that past. He struggled in confusion.
The voice swore and the hands let go. Alexander felt someone crawl over him, then heard more swearing and things moving around. A light appeared, a small flame on a candle. Alexander's mind cleared, and he recognized Guglielmo, closing a tinder box and setting the candle back in the lantern.
Guglielmo stared down at Alexander. "You ride the nightmare often, boy?"
Alexander shook his head. "I don't think I've ever had reason. I hope I didn't wake anybody."
"Other than me?"
Guglielmo waved that off and went over to the table by the shuttered window. He poured a cupful of wine from the jug, drained most of it, refilled it and brought it back. Alexander sat up and took it silently.
"So what was the dream?" Guglielmo asked as he went back to the other side of the bed and crawled under the covers again.
Alexander stared into the wine. "Wolves. I was surrounded by wolves. And they were about to attack."
Guglielmo snorted as he settled his shoulders comfortably into the feather mattress. "They'll have to get past me first, Sandro."
"You were one of them," Alexander said softly. "I turned around to find my sheepdog to help me, but behind me was a pale-eyed wolf with a blood-stained muzzle."
Guglielmo studied the ceiling and its moving shadows. "Was it going to attack you, too?"
"It--watched the other wolves. But it was still a wolf."
"There are worse things to have at your back."
Alexander bowed his head. "The world has become too strange. The ones who should be shepherds are my enemies, and the wolves are my friends. I miss the world I knew."
A hand suddenly rested on his back. "Welcome to manhood," Guglielmo said wearily. "We all lose the innocent world we knew. You've managed to keep yours longer than most." He patted Alexander's shoulder firmly. "Go back to sleep."
Alexander finished the wine and put the cup on the bedside table. "Shall I blow out the candle?"
"Leave it. If you wake up again, it'll help to see where you're at."
"I don't mind--"
Guglielmo sighed. "Sandro, more than one man you've met here has a candle burning in his room right now, so that when he wakes up in the middle of the night he knows this is where he is and not where he fears to be."
Alexander slid under the covers, pulling them up over his shoulder. He rolled onto his side facing Guglielmo, whose eyes were closed. "Do you know what Cesare and the Cardinal are up to?"
Guglielmo opened one eye, then rolled over to face Alexander. "I don't know much."
"I don't know anything. Other than the two of them keep asking me questions that seem to mean something, but I have no idea what."
After a moment, Guglielmo nodded. "Monsignor Lewes thinks your Cardinal is dabbling in dark powers of some sort. He thinks Fortezzi and Cesare are up to something that the Inquisition should know about, but he doesn't want to tell his brothers just yet because there won't be any proof. Something is planned for St. Benedict's, something they want us both there for."
"That's the gathering they want me to take you to, to guard?" Alexander swallowed hard. "The thing I know about Cardinal Fortezzi? I saw him steal a consecrated wafer during Mass. He knows I saw him. And there's no reason why he should take such a thing."
"Why would he steal one? He's a priest, surely he can make as many as he wants."
"Consecrated at the High Altar of St. Peter's Basilica during a Mass witnessed by hundreds of people. Maybe it means more that way."
Guglielmo shook his head. "Whatever it is, it's nothing good." He thought a moment, then met Alexander's eyes. "Sandro, you should leave the city. Leave Roma. Let me get you out of here before St. Benedict's."
Alexander blinked. "I can't leave. I mean--I'm going to leave, I'm going to Milan with Maestro Bramante, after St. Benedict's."
"You can't stay, you can't go to that meeting. God knows what they're planning. It's not safe."
"I'm beginning to understand that." He hesitated, thinking it would be nice to disappear, just avoid whatever fate he was being rushed to. Then he shook his head. "No, fate has pushed me around too much. I'm going with Maestro Bramante. Somehow I'm just going to have to survive whatever's going to happen." He glared at Guglielmo and was surprised to see him smiling. "What?"
Guglielmo leaned forward and swiftly kissed his forehead. "It's nice to see that something can rile you."
Alexander scrubbed at his forehead. "You kiss like my mother." He thought he saw a grin on Guglielmo's face, but it swiftly changed to an angelically innocent smile. "And that's even more disturbing."
Guglielmo laughed and tugged on Alexander's hair. "Go back to sleep, Brother Nobody. You're starting to not make any sense."
Alexander shoved his pillow to a more comfortable position under his head. All his humor was gone, though, when he looked at Guglielmo. "What are we going to do on St. Benedict's Day?"
The pale eyes in the candlelight looked like the wolf's eyes in his dream. "We don't let them do whatever they think they're going to do to us." Guglielmo pulled the covers over their shoulders. "Remember, having a wolf at your back is a good thing."
Alexander nodded and closed his eyes. He felt light fingertips on his cheek, but he just nodded and let sleep take him.
Alexander slowly came awake to the feel of something very lightly brushing his face. Blasted flies. They got in everywhere in the summer.
Wrongness slowly seeped into his brain. The bed was too soft. He couldn't hear the other novices. Very faintly, the sound of bells came to him. Bells that were too far away.
He pushed himself up and stared around. A room much smaller than the dormitory, wooden walls, sunlight poking past the edges of a shuttered window. The bright blue and red carpet on the floor was far more elegant than anything that would be in the novices' quarters. The sword and dagger hanging on the wall, of all things, looked familiar, and he remembered where he was.
"Good morning," said an amused voice next to him.
Alexander didn't turn to look at Guglielmo. "Good morning." On the table in front of the shuttered window, a thin beam of sunlight sparked off the gold pitcher and wash basin. Alexander recognized the Moorish patterns engraved in the gold from some of Maestro Bramante's books. "Maestro Bramante! He doesn't know what happened, he'll be worried. And I missed Lauds." He collapsed back on the bed. "And I stayed out all night. They'll expel me for that."
Guglielmo propped his head up on one hand. "I thought you were leaving anyway."
"I am. I mean--yes, I'm going to Milano, but--"
"Choosing to leave is different from being made to leave."
Guglielmo lightly stroked Alexander's hair. "I doubt anyone will care."
"I care." He closed his eyes. "Everything's changing so fast. And I'm not in control of any of it." He leaned into Guglielmo's hand as the touch became firmer.
"Control is good," Guglielmo said softly. "But a man needs to be able to adjust when circumstances change. One part of your life is over, another's about to begin. You'll be all right."
Alexander smiled and opened his eyes. "Thank you." The sunbeam that was reflecting off the pitcher was caught in Guglielmo's hair, lighting strands of gold and straw and amber. Alexander remembered thinking of Guglielmo as a statue, but marble didn't have eyes the color of the sky on a summer morning. Marble didn't smile, either, as gentle fingers trailed over the bones of his face. And a statue's lips wouldn't be so soft when leaning down into a kiss.
It was a brief touch. Alexander blinked as Guglielmo pulled away. "What . . ."
The smile twisted a little, and Guglielmo brushed a finger across Alexander's lips. "Nothing." He started to pull away, then stopped when Alexander reached up to touch his face.
Guglielmo turned his head to kiss Alexander's fingers. "Because you're beautiful."
Alexander shook his head. "No. I'm not beautiful. Cathedrals are. Or you."
The smile came back. "I think you need a few more lessons in beauty."
He leaned down again, and Alexander wondered if this was sin as their lips touched again. Guglielmo's fingers traced down his chin and throat, making him catch his breath. This had to be sin, because he so much wanted to feel more. No one made sins of things people didn't want to do. Before his conscience could decide for certain, though, he had run his own fingers along Guglielmo's sharp cheekbone, making him smile and settle his body against Alexander's. When Alexander felt the tip of Guglielmo's tongue against his lips, he opened his mouth a little to see what would happen next.
There was a loud pounding on the door. "If I have to be up, so do you!" came Thomas Wyndham's voice.
Alexander started and pulled back. Guglielmo dropped his head on Alexander's shoulder,
After a moment, Guglielmo lifted his head and smiled at Alexander. "Pardon me while I go kill him, all right?"
"Relax, I'm joking." Guglielmo glared at the door. "Probably."
Alexander stared at him in horror. "You wouldn't."
Guglielmo ran his fingers through Alexander's hair. "No, I wouldn't. Despite his poor timing, Thomas is a friend of mine."
Alexander swallowed. "I'm guessing that man in the stableyard wasn't a friend of yours."
Guglielmo dropped his eyes and sighed. "I'm sorry you saw that."
"But you're not sorry you did it."
With a frustrated noise, Guglielmo pushed away and got out of bed. "Don't try to reform me, all right?" He went over to the clothes press at the other end of the room, reached in and pulled out a shirt. "It never works."
Slowly, Alexander sat up, but he tried not to watch Guglielmo get dressed. He stared at the carved foot of the bed instead and wondered what people were thinking about him this morning. He hoped Giuseppe wouldn't be too worried, and he reminded himself to make sure a message was sent to Maestro Bramante.
Abruptly he realized he was running his fingers along his lips, unconsciously reliving the feel of Guglielmo's mouth against his own. The rest of his body was reacting the way the Master of Novices said was natural for a young man his age but which his oaths said he was to ignore. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Guglielmo pulling on a pair of leather trews and tying them with rough motions. Alexander looked away quickly, wondering how much worse it was to think these kinds of thoughts about a man instead of a woman.
Guglielmo shoved his feet into his boots, then strode over to take his sword and dagger off the wall. He went to the door, paused, then turned to look at Alexander. "I know it goes against everything you've been taught," he said softly, "but I don't regret a thing. Least of all anything to do with you."
He went out, and a few moments later, Alexander heard raised voices. A bellow that sounded like Captain Angelo cut through the voices, and there was silence.
Alexander looked around the room and considered the phrase "den of iniquity." He and Giuseppe had always wondered what those were, and they pictured dark rooms with strange smells and sounds. Rather like the taverns their fathers would disappear into after a day's work and which their mothers would send them to to fetch their fathers home when it was time for supper. This was just a room with very few comforts, nothing like luxurious chambers he saw up at the Vatican. Guglielmo's private place, where he thought Alexander would be safe.
He caught himself touching his lips again and yanked his hand down. The sense of sin was on him, but for all his training, what upset him most was the look on Guglielmo's face as he left. Alexander tried to cast his memories of Guglielmo touching him into the form of evil, but he kept remembering that small, sweet smile. Those eyes looking at him and being delighted with what they saw.
He pulled his knees up and rested his head. A confessor would help him sort these things out, clear his mind. Father Rodolfo heard the novices' confessions, and he was well versed on the sins of young men trying to fit themselves into the church. Alexander remembered when Sebastiano of Genoa had confessed the thoughts he'd been having about Xavier from Parma. Sebastiano had been flogged, then worn sackcloth for a year as penance. Xavier had denied knowing anything about the matter and had finally left rather than face the disbelief. There had been many sermons and whispers about unnatural attractions--but Alexander remembered a dark afternoon in October, when he'd seen Xavier and Sebastiano in a shadowed corridor, simply looking at each other and barely touching fingers. They'd looked happy, and Alexander had quickly passed on by.
Lounging in Guglielmo's bed was no way to resolve this. He got up and went to the window, opening it enough to let more light in. He then found his rosary amidst his clothes on the chair and knelt on the hard, bare boards of the floor for morning prayers, hoping that the saints and apostles and the Holy Virgin Mother might have clearer words for him.
A dozen Aves later, there was a gentle knock on the door. "Sandro? Are you up?" Isabetta called through the door.
Alexander finished the prayer quickly before answering. "Yes, signorina."
"They've all left, so you can come down and get breakfast without a mob in your way. And my name is Isabetta."
He couldn't help smiling. "Yes, Isabetta."
"And there are some clothes in a basket out here if you want something clean."
"Yes, mother." He heard her "humph" and walk away. He finished the decade of beads on his rosary, then got ready to face the world.
A girl and an older woman were busy picking up dishes in the common room when Alexander went down, dressed in the plain shirt and breeches. The woman gave him a thoughtful look, then nudged the girl and nodded in his direction. He blushed at the blatant consideration, but managed not to laugh when the girl gave the woman an irritated look and went on with her work.
"There you are," Isabetta said from the counter. Platters and pots of food stood in a line, and she was wiping up several spills on the counter. "Honestly, you'd think those men had never heard of eating with something other than their fingers. You, at least, are probably better trained."
"I can eat without dropping things on myself."
"Which puts you a step up from most of the company." She nodded at the other women. "This is Lucia and Caterina, our landlady and her daughter."
Alexander nodded politely, and Lucia become more blatant in her observations. "Don't they feed you up at the Vatican?"
"Um, yes, signora."
Lucia hmphed, and Isabetta nudged Alexander towards a table. "Sit, I'll bring you some breakfast."
He tried to protest that he was supposed to be the one doing the serving, but he recognized a stronger will than his.
The food was certainly better than what the novices received. Porridge that was warm and tasted of spices, sausages, and bread that was still warm enough to melt the fresh butter. Alexander turned down the offer of a third helping.
"Can I help you with anything?" he asked as Isabetta swept his dishes up.
"Thank you, but no. Men don't know how to clean."
"Who do you think does this sort of thing at the Vatican?"
She stared at him. "I thought that's what the nuns were for."
He laughed. "Only some of them. Mostly it's men doing the cleaning."
Lucia snorted. "I'd like to see that."
Caterina poked her. "Mother."
"Ha. I bet they say it's a great service to God, cleaning up after all the Cardinals and Bishops and priests." She went to an open window and snapped her cloth to toss the crumbs outside. "A chamber pot smells as bad, no matter how holy the bottom that sits on it."
Isabetta muffled most of her snicker and patted Alexander's shoulder. "Lucia, you're shocking the boy."
Lucia gave him another once-over. "He looks like he could use some shocking."
Caterina blushed and headed for the door behind the counter. "I'm sure that laundry needs looked at, excuse me." Lucia cackled and followed her daughter with a pile of dishes. Isabetta sat on the bench across from Alexander. "I'm sorry about that. She's like that with everyone. She's the only one I know of who can make Angelo blush."
"That's all right. She reminds me of my aunts."
She patted his hand. "Still, you've been out of the world, and she shouldn't tease you like that."
Alexander started to answer, but the words caught in his mind. Out of the world. He'd been cloistered from the larger world for five years, but that was over.
"Sandro?" Isabetta asked. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," he said, feeling a little dazed. "I'm leaving the church."
"Oh, dear." Isabetta glanced towards the rooms upstairs and bit her lip. "Why are you leaving the church? Has--something happened?"
He nodded. "I'm going to Milano with Maestro Bramante. I'm going to be his student."
Her shoulders slumped. "Oh, thank God."
"I'm just starting to realize what that means, though. I don't know how to be anything other than part of Holy Mother Church."
Isabetta studied him for a few moments, then quietly took the last dishes out through the door the other women had gone through.
Alexander found himself shivering just a little. He'd thought leaving his home village to come to Roma when he was twelve had been the most frightening thing he could possibly experience, but even then he'd been excited by the adventure. Now, though, the track of his life was taking a hard angle off the sedate path he'd been settling in to. He'd imagined that studying with Maestro Bramante would be like his days at the Vatican, but with more lessons and fewer religious duties. There would be more lessons, but the entire framework of his life would be different. He wouldn't be eating in the refectory with the other novices, he wouldn't be traveling through corridors filled with grave and cunning churchmen. Life would be more like what he'd seen here at the inn; the people he was going to meet would see him as just another young man in training with a master, not someone who was defined by the robe he wore and the vows he'd taken.
He knew how to be a novice in service to God. He didn't know how to be a man in the mundane world. The cheerful blasphemies he heard on the street horrified him, the short-sightedness of people ignoring the fate of their souls baffled him. And when his protective church robes were taken from him, leaving him looking like any other man, he would have no shield against the speculative looks from the women he met. More than that, he'd be expected to look back.
He shook his head. In the space of a few hours, the reactions that were normal but to be repressed were changed to urges to be explored. He had no idea how to change the training of years--at least not without looking like an idiot.
A small voice in the back of his mind whispered, "Guglielmo didn't seem to think you were acting like an idiot."
He tried to chase that voice away from his thoughts. What he and Guglielmo had done was sinful, even if he was no longer bound to the Church. It made no difference that lying next to Guglielmo was the safest he'd felt in a very long time or that touching him had been so natural as to require no thought at all. Guglielmo's untroubled appreciation surely had to be error.
The teachings were clear. If Alexander was now free to contemplate the ways of flesh, then his mind should be full of images of someone like lovely, bashful Caterina, who was no hardship at all to contemplate. And he would have to stop touching his lips thoughtfully and remembering the warm body that settled against his own.
Busy hands would distract him from improper thoughts. He went to the door behind the counter and knocked. Lucia opened the door and smiled broadly at him. "And what can I do for you, young man?"
Before Alexander could answer, Isabetta smacked Lucia in the arm and took her place in the doorway. "Was there something you needed?"
"I need something to do. I can't just sit around doing nothing. Oh, and I need to tell Maestro Bramante that I'm all right."
Isabetta nodded. "I'm sure we can send someone up with a message."
"I could go myself--"
"No," she said firmly. "Angelo told me Lewes was firm on that, you're not going anywhere." She held up a finger as he started to protest. "Come with me."
She led the way out to the stableyard. Most of the horses were gone, and the ones left were peering lazily over the railings between the stalls. "Manolo!"
The stableboy poked his head around the hindquarters of a large dapple grey. "Yes, Isabetta?"
"Have you gotten yourself all over muck yet? I need to send you on an errand."
Sighing, Manolo came out of the stables. "This isn't another trip to the ribbon seller, is it?"
Isabetta looked him over critically. "No, I need you to take a message to the Vatican."
Manolo's eyes went big. "All sorts of stuff to snitch up there."
"What?" Alexander protested.
"He's joking," Isabetta said quickly. "You're joking," she added firmly, glaring at Manolo, who grinned. "Alexander, what's the easiest way to find your Maestro Bramante?"
Reluctantly, Alexander gave the boy instructions on how to get to the gate nearest Bramante's lodgings, what to tell the guards, and what to tell Bramante. "And if you steal anything from him,
I'll thump you."
"You're supposed to be a priest," Manolo protested. "You're not allowed to thump anybody."
"Shows what you know about priests."
"If you get caught stealing," Isabetta said, "I'll make sure it's Angelo who goes to get you from the guards."
Manolo swallowed quickly and nodded. "So if I'm going up there, I'm not going to get in trouble for not finishing the stalls, right?"
"I can finish that," Alexander volunteered. Isabetta and Manolo gave him near identical disbelieving looks. "I can! I did it all the time back in my village."
Manolo shrugged. "Just don't complain when you have blisters by noon. I'll show you where everything is."
An hour later, the stalls had been cleaned and Alexander was remembering the many things he didn't miss about life in his village. He'd managed to avoid blisters, but his shoulders and back were feeling the strain. Still, it was refreshingly mindless work. Perhaps the celebratory chants of the Easter liturgy were not the most appropriate things to be whistling while cleaning out stables, but the horses seemed to enjoy it. They'd made their curiosity about the new person in their midst abundantly clear, snuffling his hair when he was close enough and watching him over the partitions.
He went up the line, doling out feed according to Manolo's suspiciously detailed instructions and making sure the water in the buckets was clean, then he found the combs and brushes. The well-tended horses didn't need much grooming, but it was a wonderfully peaceful task that could take hours if he wanted.
The large dapple grey all but fell asleep as Alexander patiently untangled its mane and combed out the straw. He continued talking anyway.
"One thing people don't realize is that a perfectly straight column doesn't look like it's straight. It needs to bulge out a little in the middle to look right." He looked up at a chuckle.
Captain Angelo leaned against one of the supports of the stable roof. "I don't think Lugh cares very much for architecture." He patted the horse's rump as he came into the stall. The horse twitched an ear but didn't shift from its loose-hipped slouch. "Lazy bastard. Where's Manolo?"
"Isabetta sent him to Maestro Bramante with a message from me that I'm all right. I hope that's all right--"
Angelo waved a hand. "Isabetta can send him off wherever she likes. I just care about the horses being seen to. Hand me the brush."
Alexander continued combing out the mane while Angelo brushed the horse's rump and down the legs. Alexander wondered if he should say anything, but the captain seemed content to work on the horse in silence.
"I've known Guglielmo a long time," Angelo finally said as he examined Lugh's hooves. "He's a . . "
Alexander peered under the horse's belly when Angelo went quiet. "Sir?"
Angelo laughed briefly. "I was going to say he's a good man, but I think he'd hurt me if I did. And there are several thousand people who would definitely disagree. What he is, though, is honorable and faithful and a good man to have at your back in a tight spot." He got to his feet and handed the brush over Lugh to Alexander. "I've never known him to break his word or let harm come to someone under his protection."
Alexander took the brush and quickly turned to put it in the bag with the other grooming equipment. He knew he was blushing, and he couldn't bring himself to meet the captain's eyes. Were Guglielmo's--inclinations so well known that Angelo could assume--had Isabetta been thinking . . . The bag of brushes slipped from his hands to thump into the straw.
"Sandro?" Angelo stared at him, then ducked under the horse's head to get closer. "Sandro, what's wrong?"
"That's what he meant," Alexander whispered. "Tonio. When he talked about Guglielmo--looking after me. That's why Guglielmo killed him. Because of me."
Angelo sighed. "Despite what people say, Will doesn't kill everybody who annoys him. There isn't time for him to kill all the people who annoy him." He shook Alexander's shoulder gently. "Sandro, you were just the latest excuse Tonio found for making trouble."
"He was just saying what everyone was thinking, wasn't he."
"You can't help what people think. But you can make sure they keep it to themselves."
"It's not a very long distance between thinking and whispering." Alexander remembered Xavier and Sebastiano, and the way the novices whispered to each other in the dormitory after lights-out and in the lavatorium.
"It is in my company," Angelo said decisively. "I can't control what they think, more's the pity, but I can control what they say and do, and if they can't keep their thoughts from getting in the way then they'd best find another company."
He patted Alexander's shoulder again, then stopped to pick up the bag he'd dropped.
Alexander wondered if it would just be simpler to let Cesare Borgia and Cardinal Fortezzi carry through with their plot, no matter how it involved him, than to try and deal with all this confusion. "People will gossip where you can't hear them. They'll whisper together, and they'll make signs against evil--"
"Evil?" Angelo stared at him. "Who said anything about evil?"
"The church says--"
Angelo snorted. "Just because something's against church law doesn't make it evil."
Alexander's jaw dropped.
"Usury is against church law, but that doesn't stop everyone from doing it. Priests are supposed to live lives of simplicity and humility." He grinned at Alexander. "You've lived in the Vatican. How simple and humble are things up there?" His smile faded as he looked away. "Evil is declaring a truce to let the women and children escape from a besieged town, then gathering them up and slaughtering them in front of their husbands and fathers on the walls. Evil is telling your men you're going for reinforcements, then leaving them to die behind you while you make your escape."
"What about besieging the town in the first place?" Alexander whispered.
"War's an evil so large it births its own laws, and you can only do the best you can inside it. It's big enough there's room to do good."
"You said Guglielmo wasn't a good man."
Part of Angelo's grin came back. "He isn't. That doesn't make him evil, though. Just makes him a man."
Manolo sauntered into the courtyard, whistling until he saw Angelo standing in the stable. "Captain! Isabetta said I could go and let him look after the horses--"
Angelo waved his hand. "Sandro already told me, it's all right. How'd it go?"
"Signore Bramante found and message delivered, no thanks to the snooty servants up there who think their marble floors are too good for a bit of honest horse shit."
"What did he say?" Alexander asked as he worked his way past Lugh.
Manolo started patting himself. "He gave me a message to bring back, where did I put it--"
Angelo leaned against a column. "Manolo."
"Oh, here it is." He pulled a folded piece of parchment from his belt and handed it to Alexander. "Nice man, your master. He gave me a coin to bring that back to you."
Alexander nodded and read the note. Bramante was getting everything packed up to leave as soon as possible, but he didn't expect to leave any sooner than two days from now. Bramante advised laying low, then meeting up with him at the port to catch the boat north. More details to follow.
Two days. St. Benedict's feast day was tomorrow. He looked over at Angelo. "Have you been told what's going on?"
"I have." Angelo looked pointedly at Manolo.
Manolo was already moving towards the door to the inn. "I'll just check to see if lunch is ready yet."
Angelo watched him go and smiled. "Smart boy. He'll go far--unless he goes to a gallows first." He walked closer to Alexander so they could keep their voices down. "So, yes, I know about Borgia and the Cardinal and all that."
"The gathering they're having, the one I'm supposed to take Guglielmo to, it's tomorrow night."
"I don't know what to do about it."
Angelo blinked. "You're not going to do anything about it. You and Guglielmo are going to stay right here, and they can just sit around and wonder where you are."
"Except--I'm bound to obey them."
"No, you're not."
"I'm a novice of the Church."
"But you're leaving."
"I know. That's the thing. Being out all night would get me expelled, the same with leaving Roma with the Maestro. But that expulsion isn't official until the Master of Novices says so. Until then, officially I am still a part of the Church and officially I'm still bound to obey."
Angelo thought a moment. "Sandro, that's stupid. You either want to consider yourself bound or you don't. Which is it?"
Alexander started to answer, then had to think. "I want to be bound to the Church I thought I knew. Not the one it's turning out to be."
"Then do it."
"Be bound to the Church you believe in, not to the men who corrupt it."
Alexander frowned. "Telling the difference between the parts won't be easy."
"There you're on your own." Angelo went over to the nearby horse trough, ran his hand through the water, then flicked his fingers at Alexander. "There. I baptize you as part of this company. Gives you somewhere to belong until you figure out where you want to be bound to. Have Bramante throw some water on you later if you like. Or, you can stay here," he grinned. "You wouldn't be the first renegade churchman I've hired."
"I am not a renegade!"
Angelo blinked, then a cold voice said, "What are you doing to him, Angelo?" Guglielmo stood in the doorway to the inn, glaring at his captain.
Alexander swallowed hard at the look on Guglielmo's face, but Angelo only smiled. "Just teasing him, Will, but it's not a subject he likes teased on. So I'll let it be. Come tell me what you found."
Before Angelo could pull him back into the inn, Guglielmo looked at Alexander. "You're all right?"
Alexander couldn't help smiling. "I'm fine." Guglielmo still looked doubtful, but he followed Angelo inside.
Manolo appeared in the stableyard door, leading two horses. "Lunch is ready," he told Alexander. "Might as well get yours while it's hot, I've got to see to these two before I get to eat."
"Give me one of them."
Manolo stared at him for a moment, then handed over the reins to a stubborn copy of Lugh. "This is Guglielmo's horse, Nebbia. Maybe he'll behave with you since you smell more like Guglielmo than I do."
Stomach clenching, Alexander stared at the boy, but Manolo was busy with the other horse, a quiet chestnut. Well, he had spent the night in Guglielmo's room, so it was a valid conclusion. Nebbia was sniffing his arm and looking slightly perplexed. Alexander rubbed the horse's nose and tugged on the reins. "Which stall?"
"The empty one next to Lugh. They gossip together as much as Guglielmo and Angelo do."
They worked in silence, then went in to eat. Isabetta looked them over, sniffed at them pointedly, then smiled and nodded them towards the table. The only seats available were at the end of the table; at the head, Guglielmo and Angelo talked as they ate, discussing the gates of Roma and how they were guarded. Thomas and a few of the other members of the company that Alexander didn't know filled out the rest of the table. There were a few thoughtful glances between Guglielmo and Alexander, but no one said anything and Alexander paid attention to the bowl of stew Isabetta put in front of him.
Isabetta tried to take him away after the meal to work on his clothes, but Guglielmo intervened, telling her self-defense was more important than clothes. Alexander was pulled out to the courtyard while she was still trying to think of a good reply.
No one else was in the courtyard. Guglielmo took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Alexander caught himself watching Guglielmo's profile and remembering how the thin skin over the cheekbone had felt under his fingers. He hadn't thought of what he would say when they were alone again. All the confusion came back, and he looked at the ground rather than at the other man.
"What did Angelo want?" Guglielmo finally said.
"He said you weren't a good man."
"What! The bastard!"
Alexander fought a laugh. "Well, he said you'd hurt him if he said you were good."
"Bastard again." Guglielmo glared at the inn door. "What else did he say?"
"That you were honorable and faithful and never let anything happen to someone under your protection." He smiled at the pleased look that passed swiftly over Guglielmo's face. The look changed to guarded as Guglielmo studied him for a few moments.
"You ought to learn some more about how to defend yourself," he said quietly, "but if you don't want me to do it, you don't have to explain."
He was expecting denunciations, Alexander realized. He knew Alexander had had all morning to think about what happened, and he expected a litany of accusations and disgust. He said what first came to mind. "I want you to keep teaching me." Father Ricardo back home had said most people had to work at being evil; if you stayed mindful of God, your own soul's first instinct was your best guide.
Guglielmo tried to look unconcerned, but his shoulders loosened and the smile came easier. "Thank you."
Alexander studied him, a mercenary soldier who lived perfectly unconcerned with everything society fretted about. He was no one a decent person should do any more than shake their head over. But what Alexander felt most when he thought of Guglielmo was safe. "When did I start trusting you so much?"
"When the people you were trusting changed on you." Guglielmo's smile changed somehow, and Alexander felt his toes twitch. "I may not be the most respectable man in the world, but I've never lied to you." Alexander blinked at him for several moments, then Guglielmo chuckled. "Come on, boy. Stop looking at me like that and let's get to work."
Guglielmo found a good, basic dagger for Alexander and spent an hour showing him how to not hurt himself with it. He didn't try to teach fighting techniques, reinforcing Alexander's own belief that the best response to possible attack was to fend it off until he could run away.
"Even kitten claws draw blood," Guglielmo said as he watched Alexander practice drawing the dagger from its sheath on his belt.
Alexander studied the weapon in his hand. "So one of my first acts on leaving church service is to start carrying weapons against my fellow man."
"Everyone else is," Guglielmo said, not unkindly. "And more than one of your fellow churchmen have surprises under their robes." He patted Alexander's shoulder. "Trying to live an ideal in the real world only kills the idealists."
"Alive cynic. Put it down now, I want to show you ways to get past a sword."
Guglielmo knew he hadn't shown Alexander nearly enough to help him in a real fight, but that wasn't the point. Handling the weapons and seeing their strengths and weaknesses would keep him from panicking if confronted by one, and someone who isn't panicking survives much better than a person who freezes at a threat.
They finished the afternoon by reviewing escapes from holds. If Alexander suspected Guglielmo was taking the opportunity to enjoy the touch of their bodies together, he gave no sign. He did tense up at odd times, though, generally after spending several moments with Guglielmo wrapped around him. Maybe he realized he shouldn't relax so trustingly into the hold as the other man showed him the weak spots of a grip on the wrist or an arm around the shoulders that pulled him back hard against the attacker.
Finally they sat on the ground in the growing shade, cooling off and catching their breaths. Angelo and several members of the company had come out to drill with swords and each other. A few of them paid more attention to Alexander than he was comfortable with, but on the whole they ignored him.
Angelo eventually called a halt to his sparring with Thomas and staggered into the shade near Guglielmo and Alexander.
"You're pulling up on your left again," Guglielmo observed.
"I know. Sandro, you're closest, some water, please." Angelo groaned and pulled his shirt over his head. "Madonna, I'm getting too old for this." He took the mug Alexander handed him and drank messily, letting the water run down his chest.
"Would you like some more, Captain?" Alexander asked.
"God, yes, thank you. Are you sure we can't talk you out of becoming an architect?"
"I'm sure," Alexander grinned, heading back to the water barrel.
Guglielmo blinked at Angelo. "You're trying to talk him into--what, actually?"
"Oh, I just told him he could stay here if he couldn't find anyplace else to belong." He kicked Guglielmo's leg gently. "Don't look like that, he didn't take me up on it." Angelo toweled himself off with his shirt as he accepted the water. "I've gotten through battles without sweating as much as I do at drills. You're no better, Will. Let's take an expedition down to the bath house before Isabetta tells us she won't let the stinking pack of us anywhere near supper."
"Again," Guglielmo added, getting to his feet. "Lead and we'll follow, my captain."
Alexander clutched the water cup to him. "Um, you're going to the public baths?"
Angelo took the cup from him and tossed it to Giancarlo, over at the water barrel. "We stink. You stink, too. We're going to the baths."
"But--the public baths are vile hives of wickedness and licentious evil."
"What's your point?" He laughed at Alexander's look of horror. "We won't let the whores hurt you, lad."
Guglielmo glared at his captain. "You don't have to go if you don't want to, Sandro. Though it would be the simplest way to get all the dirt and sweat off you."
Alexander took a deep breath. "We were always told that decent folk didn't go to the public baths."
Angelo shrugged. "They don't. But we're not decent folk." He strode to the inn door and bellowed for Isabetta.
Guglielmo patted Alexander's shoulder. "Stay close to me, watch your back, and you'll be fine. Think of it as an education in the secular world you've been isolated from for so long."
Alexander sighed. "I'm fairly sure I shouldn't be getting such a broad education."
Angelo stayed close to Alexander during the visit to the bath house. Some of the men offered to chip in on a whore to congratulate Alexander on leaving the church; before Guglielmo could move in for a rescue, Angelo gave him a warning look and told the men to leave Alexander alone. Guglielmo saw some of the cruder ones getting quiet hints from Thomas and Giancarlo, and he followed the completely flummoxed Alexander into the bathing rooms to protect him from the wandering whores and con men.
It was a cleaner and quieter--though no better behaved--group of mercenaries that returned to the inn an hour later. Roberti was from Milano, and he was telling Alexander where the best taverns were and which sections of the city were notorious for trying to separate a young man from his money or his life. Guglielmo made no attempt to interfere. Alexander was blushing again, but the information would come in useful when he left Roma.
In two days.
He tried not to think about what might have happened if Thomas hadn't interrupted them that morning. Would Alexander have been horrified beyond recovery, or would his skittishness been burned out by pleasure? Guglielmo had kept telling himself to stop, that a boy less than a day from giving up his religious vows couldn't possibly realize what was going on. But Alexander had never hesitated, never showed fear or disgust, just responded.
Maybe it had just been curiosity on his part. The pleasures of the body were a novelty to him, and Guglielmo was convenient. But that didn't explain the way Alexander had looked at him and touched his face.
And he was still leaving in two days. He was giving up his life in the church to learn his chosen art from a master, not to dally with a soldier.
Roxilana had warned him, the boy would break his heart, and she was never wrong.
Isabetta was waiting at the inn door. "You and your baths," she said to Angelo, trying to frown.
"Me and my baths," Angelo agreed, sweeping her up in his arms to kiss her. "Feed us, woman."
Guglielmo looked away, fighting the jealousy that always gnawed at him. He lingered outside as the others shoved genially past each other to get inside to the food and wine. The shadows on the street were growing, and shops closed up and down the street as people sought their homes and their own suppers. He reminded himself that he'd chosen his life with open eyes, that the quiet life of a printer would have driven him mad. Still . . .
"Guglielmo? What are you doing out here?"
He didn't turn to look at Alexander standing in the doorway. "Just looking at the street. I'll be right in."
As she helped served dinner, Gianni's daughter Caterina made of point of smiling at Alexander and brushing up against him as she moved around the table. She glanced at Thomas to see his reaction, but Thomas was apparently too busy talking to Giancarlo about the horses to notice. When her back was turned, though, Guglielmo saw Giancarlo grin at Thomas, who only smiled faintly.
Alexander looked between Caterina and Thomas a few times, then leaned towards Guglielmo. "Is she flirting with me or Thomas?"
"You can tell when a girl is flirting with you, can you?"
"I haven't been in cloistered orders." Alexander fidgeted. "The Master of Novices gave us lectures on how to tell if a woman is trying to lead you into temptation. Don't you dare laugh."
"Sorry." Guglielmo grabbed a pear to muffle himself with. "She's flirting with Thomas, but I doubt she'd mind if you returned the favor."
"But would Thomas mind?"
"Thomas knows what she's up to, but he's not going to dance to her tune."
Caterina came by to refill goblets, and she gave Alexander a good view of her bodice, if he cared to take it. He looked away quickly and grabbed some bread from the basket in the middle of the table.
Thomas waved his empty goblet at Caterina. "Sandro, do you play chess?"
"What? Um, no, I don't."
"Pity. It's so hard to find people to play with. Would you like to learn?"
The look of hurt on Caterina's face made Guglielmo blink. The girl didn't think she was falling in love with Thomas, did she? Mercenaries were stupid people to fall in love with, what with their wandering ways and tendency to die on battlefields for money.
He grabbed his goblet and drank it dry. A wise mercenary avoided romantic tangles, enjoying favors when they were offered or paid for, then walking away with no regrets. That's what a wise man did. Everyone Guglielmo had ever known, though, agreed that he and wisdom would always be strangers.
Alexander hesitated before answering Thomas. "I'm terrible at games like that, sorry. But thank you."
Thomas nodded, then looked up at Caterina. "Do you have time for a lesson later?" The girl nearly stammered as she told him she did.
Guglielmo found himself wanting to hit Thomas. He regretted not hitting him that morning like he should have.
He saw Alexander fighting a yawn. "You're not tired already, are you?"
"I don't usually work so hard as I did today. And the novices' baths are usually cold," he added with a grin. "It tends to keep you awake." He covered his mouth as he yawned again.
"You might as well go to bed then, you're going to work harder tomorrow."
He saw the uncertainty in Alexander's face and looked away, letting the boy make what conclusions he wanted. There still wasn't anywhere else he could sleep, and Guglielmo wasn't going to give the others the satisfaction of acting like there was something going on worth gossiping about.
Alexander nodded. The others were getting up and moving around, so no one paid him much attention when he stood. Guglielmo stayed where he was and occupied himself with peeling an orange instead of watching Alexander go upstairs. As he slowly ate the sections of fruit, he watched Caterina hurry through the supper cleanup, argue briefly with her mother, then take a deep breath before going over to where Thomas was setting up his chess set with Giancarlo. Thomas smiled at her and nodded to the bench next to him. She settled herself demurely and paid close attention as Thomas and Giancarlo began to play.
Licking his fingers clean, Guglielmo got up and headed for the door out into the stableyard. He took his sword from the peg by the door and buckled it on.
He was halfway to the street door when the voice caught up with him. "Where are you going, Will?"
He didn't turn. "Surely there's something in this city tonight that needs killing."
Angelo strolled up beside him. "There's bound to be someone out there thinking the same thing of you."
Guglielmo slowly smiled. "I hope I meet him."
There was silence, then Angelo turned back towards the inn. "Try not to die."
"Don't I always?"
Angelo paused at the door and looked back. "No." He went in, and Guglielmo went out.
The moon was several hours past the spires of St. Peters when Guglielmo let himself back into the inn. He made sure to latch the door securely behind him. He started towards the stairs as silently as he could, but a low-burning lantern on the table told him not to bother.
"Go to bed already, I'm home."
Angelo got up from his chair and stretched. "I don't sleep well if I don't know my men are safe. You know that." He looked Guglielmo over critically. "How many? And is any of that yours?"
Guglielmo picked at the blood on his sleeves. "None of it's mine. Only fools about tonight."
"An even dozen." He couldn't help smiling slightly. "Il Sanguinante went for a stroll."
Angelo leaned over to blow out the lantern. "Did it help?" he asked into the darkness.
"I'll be able to sleep now." He knew his way to the stairs without light. "And no one will be pounding on the door in the morning demanding justice."
"But I imagine the city will still be whispering your name."
"By dawn they'll be saying it was thirty men, a few women, a dozen children and a dog. But it was only a dozen men. And most of them started it."
Angelo was silent as they went up the stairs. "And when Sandro sees that shirt and asks what happened?" he asked when they got to the top.
"I'll tell him I didn't get my name by being clumsy while shaving. Good night, Angelo."
"Good night, Will."
Guglielmo waited till Angelo's door had opened and closed before he went in to his own room. The mostly-spent candle lantern showed the lump in his bed; Alexander's breathing was slow and untroubled. Guglielmo pulled off his shirt and, after a moment, bundled it tightly and dropped it outside his door. Alexander didn't stir as he undressed. For a moment, he actually considered the chair, but he wanted to stretch out and get some real sleep. Alexander hadn't taken the chair, either, which meant he was ignoring everything that had happened or the idea of more didn't disturb him. Guglielmo was too tired to decide which.
When he eased under the covers, Alexander twitched and murmured. Guglielmo very gently stroked his hair. "Go to sleep, pretty one," he whispered. Alexander sighed and settled. Guglielmo let his fingers play in the dark hair for a few moments more, then he rolled over to put his back to the sleeping boy. The soft breathing behind him balanced the remembered cries of pain from the men he'd killed in the night, and he drifted off to sleep.
Guglielmo was alone when he woke. The covers that he always kicked off himself in the night had been carefully rearranged, but Alexander wasn't in the room. Which was sadly comforting, since Guglielmo had been fretting over what to do in the morning.
He got dressed and went downstairs to see if there was any breakfast left. He found Angelo and Thomas looking over some papers as Alexander counted several coins. Isabetta sat next to Alexander, finishing her own breakfast.
"Back wages?" Guglielmo said to Angelo, nodding at Alexander.
Angelo shook his head. "Not from me, at any rate."
Alexander dropped the coins into a pouch. "Maestro Bramante sent it down this morning. I'm to buy some things for the trip."
"And so I'm taking him shopping," Isabetta said brightly.
Guglielmo paused in scooping up some porridge. "Run, lad," he told Alexander. "Now, before it's too late."
Alexander looked stricken. Isabetta patted his arm. "Ignore him. I promise that shopping won't hurt. I'm just going to help you find some clothes that actually fit."
Angelo looked up from the letter he was reading. "Take someone with you."
"We're just going to the clothier's street, nothing's going to happen."
"Isabetta!" Her mouth tightened, but she said nothing. "I'll not be having another Venice," he added more softly.
She smiled and got up to give him a kiss. "All right, then."
Alexander looked curiously at Guglielmo as he sat down. He grimaced. "Some of the fine ladies of the town objected to a mercenary's woman thinking she was good enough to shop in the same streets as they did."
"I'll take Giancarlo," Isabetta said. "He doesn't make such a fuss about being bored."
"You took an hour to pick out a fan!" Angelo protested.
"It needed to be right." She gave him another kiss, then turned to Alexander. "I'm ready when you are, Sandro."
Alexander stood and brushed off some of the last crumbs. "I'm ready."
"Excellent. We want to get there early for the best things."
Guglielmo focused on his breakfast as Isabetta towed Alexander off. Thomas and Angelo resumed their conversation about weaponsmiths and armorers and the price of feed for the horses. Guglielmo eventually allowed himself to be pulled in.
Some time later, Angelo picked up a piece of paper and looked thoughtfully at Guglielmo, who glared back. "What?"
"I need someone to go to Fiorenza. With Savonarola dead, the Medici want their city back." Angelo waved the paper. "A Medici agent is wondering if we're available to help them. Before I say yes or no, I want to know how hard Fiorenza will fight to keep them out."
"I hate politics," Guglielmo grumbled. "Send Thomas."
"You're my second in command, you can give them an answer they'll have to listen to. Besides, I'm thinking you might like a distraction in the next day or so."
Guglielmo fingered the edge of the table, where it showed the hackmarks of his other bouts of frustration. He should have brought his dagger down with him. "I'm fine," he finally muttered.
Thomas made a show of tidying up his papers. "It might not be a bad idea for you to be out of the Borgia view for a while, either. Assuming you ignore the request to attend that gathering tonight."
Guglielmo glared at him, too, but Thomas ignored him. And he had a point, dammit. They both did. Sandro was leaving, and he couldn't very well go chasing after him to Milano. He'd just met the boy a couple of weeks ago, after all. He should focus on his responsibilities to the company.
He nodded at the letter in Angelo's hand. "Does that actually come out and say it's the Medici who are thinking of hiring us?"
"Yes, it does. It's signed by Pietro de Medici's chamberlain, with the Medici seal."
"Such eagerness is worth several hundred ducats all by itself," Thomas observed.
Caterina came out of the kitchen as they debated possibilities. She blushed and smiled at sight of Thomas, then she looked around the room. "Did Isabetta go upstairs?"
"She hasn't come back yet," Angelo said. He looked thoughtful. "How long has she been gone, anyway?"
"The bread's had a chance to rise twice and be put in the oven," Caterina said. "She said she'd be back to help."
Guglielmo looked outside to check the position of the sun. "It's been over two hours." He turned and stared at Angelo.
"She's gotten distracted while shopping before," Thomas offered.
Angelo looked back at Guglielmo, tapping his fingers on the table. "She said she'd be back."
Guglielmo turned and ran up the stairs.
"Get mine!" Angelo yelled after him.
He ducked into his room to grab his weapons, then into Angelo and Isabetta's room to get Angelo's sword. He tossed it down to Angelo as he hurried back down the stairs. "Where on the clothier's street would they have gone?"
"God knows." Before Angelo could buckle his sword belt, Thomas knocked his hands out of the way and untwisted the leather to make the belt lie flat. "We'll just start with the closest end and work our way down."
Angelo told Thomas to give Isabetta and the others a good scolding if they returned first, then he and Guglielmo left the inn.
The clothiers' part of the market was not far away. Guglielmo and Angelo scanned the crowds for any sign of Isabetta, Alexander, and Giancarlo. Guglielmo nudged Angelo and pointed out a section of the street that specialized in basic men's clothing. Alexander was not likely to give in to Isabetta's suggestions of velvet and silk.
Giancarlo pushed through the crowd. Dried blood streaked his face. "Over here," he said, ignoring questions.
In the rear section of a shirt makers' shop, Isabetta slumped in a chair, holding a wet cloth to her head. Angelo shoved past the shopkeeper to drop to his knees beside her. She burst into tears when she saw him.
"I'm sorry . . ."
"Hush." He gently touched the bruise on the side of her face, then pulled her into his arms.
Guglielmo looked around the shop one more time, then turned to Giancarlo and raised an eyebrow.
"They took him," Giancarlo said. "There were four of them. I don't know who they were, they just appeared. One of them knocked down Isabetta, and when Sandro tried to help her, they grabbed him. He nearly got away twice, but they wrestled him down." He shrugged and sighed. "I couldn't stop them."
Guglielmo nodded and walked out to the street. Between the buildings he could see the dome of St. Peter's. He was distracted by Angelo coming out of the shop, carrying Isabetta, who held a package close.
"His clothes," she whispered. "We were just about to head back. As hard as it was to get him to pick anything, I'm not going to let him lose them."
"You hush," Angelo told her. "Let's just get you home, then we can figure out what to do." He started to go, then saw the Guglielmo was staring at St. Peter's again. "Come on, Will"
"Yes," Guglielmo said softly. "I need to get ready. I'm expected at the palace."
The stacks of paper that flowed into the Inquisitorial offices all told the same story, and the members of the Holy Office nodded gravely to each other, speaking solemnly of the evil afoot in the world. Monsignor Lewes sat at a table in the back of the room, apparently in prayer but actually clasping his hands tightly to keep from murdering his comrades.
They were debating the signs by which one could recognize a sorcerer. Considering they spent nearly every day in the presence of one, Lewes wasn't too concerned that they were likely to come up with a valid test. Not to say, of course, that their attempts wouldn't wreak havoc on the lives of blameless men through Christendom.
He opened his eyes and peered through his laced fingers at the pages on the table. Other bodies had been found in the area, all victims of vicious assaults or animal attacks. Perhaps there was an entire nest of vampires lurking around the Vatican. Perhaps the king of vampires spoken of in the prophecy had his own court.
Lewes regretted not asking for someone to come from England to support him. Or even for the Slayer herself to come to Roma. But she was busy in Asia Minor, where the final fall of the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople had released forces that had been bound for centuries.
Such a large world full of darkness to defend with a few wise men and one girl. The Plague Years had been a near thing. They'd been fighting disease on one side while on the other side they were beating back the monsters who were certain the reign of man was dying. At one point the Slayer's powers had passed to a girl barely four years old because so many Potentials had fallen to the plague. Lewes supposed they were lucky the Slayer hadn't been living somewhere in that new land Cristoforo Colombo had stumbled on.
He mused for several moments where Slayers came from and why, then shook himself. He was just trying to distract himself from thinking about that night. He'd found no other references to what the sacrifice of innocence and corruption was supposed to accomplish. Why would a vampire care? The Arab scholar Hajji Ibrahim al-Jazeer told of conversations with a vampire who, for whatever reasons, chose to speak with al-Jazeer instead of kill him. Commentaries on the works suggested that the vampire had been the scholar's own daughter, whom he'd eventually had to destroy when he couldn't find a way to save her.
The vampire had spoken of the taste of blood, of how emotions changed the bouquet. In one horrific passage, she described the bright fire of holy men, the freshness of virgins, the rich strength of young warriors, and the smoky dreams to be found in the veins of opium eaters.
The taste of corruption and of innocence was surely not so rare that a powerful vampire could be swayed to do the bidding of humans. Some element was missing.
Lewes amused himself for a moment with the idea of inviting some of his brother Inquisitors along that night to see the face of true evil. Not that they were the sort to believe the evidence of their own eyes if it contradicted established doctrine. After this was settled, he was going to request leave to go home. He was tired of lies and ignorance.
A clerk appeared at his side. "Monsignor, there's a--person here to see you."
Lewes managed not to smile. Some of the priests were from very good families, and they were dreadful snobs. "A--person, Father Marco?"
"A--soldier. He says he needs to speak to you of St. Benedict."
"How is he dressed?"
"Red and black or gold and green?"
"Black, Reverend Sir, with just a bit of red on the edges." The snobbery faded a bit into worry. "He doesn't seem quite--safe."
Lewes hesitated when he saw Il Sanguinante standing in the outer reception room. The mercenary was apparently studying the fresco on the wall of Lucifer's fall from Heaven, but his motionlessness was ominous.. He wasn't wearing his elegant velvet; his black doublet was of some heavier cloth and cut oddly. Lewes realized Il Sanguinante was wearing armor under the doublet.
He nodded dismissal at Father Marco, then approached the soldier. "What's happened?" he asked softly.
Il Sanguinante didn't look at him. "They've taken Sandro. Do you have any idea where they might have taken him, or would it be simpler to find Cesare Borgia and beat it out of him?"
Lewes stared at him, then tugged on his arm. "Come with me."
Several corridors away from the chambers of the Inquisitors, Lewes pulled Il Sanguinante into a small sitting room. "Tell me what's happened." Il Sanguinante paced as he spoke, fidgeting with the hilt of his sword. Lewes found himself chewing on his thumb knuckle by the end of it. "What is Captain Angelo doing?"
"Sitting at Isabetta's bedside, sharpening his sword."
Lewes sighed in quiet relief. "I'm surprised he's not hunting revenge with you."
Il Sanguinante's smile was cruel. "There's some question that if they're so eager to have Sandro at their little meeting that they're willing to kidnap him, they might decide to make sure of my presence as well. Angelo and the men are sitting around the inn waiting for someone to be stupid enough to try to come after me."
"Surely people saw you come up here."
"I'm perfectly willing to kill them wherever they appear."
Lewes folded his hands together inside his sleeves. "That would attract a great deal of attention and would get you no further in finding Alexander." Il Sanguinante nodded reluctantly. "In any case, we don't know who decided to make sure of Alexander. The simplest thing to do would be to wait till the time of this ritual they want to do. They have to have Alexander there, and you can act then."
The cold-eyed look made Lewes flinch. "Leave him to whatever passes for their mercy until then."
"We don't know they'll hurt him--"
"We don't know that they won't. Do you know where this Chapel of St. Augustine of the Waters is? Sandro seemed to know, and I want to get there early. I don't want him anywhere near whatever they're thinking of sacrificing him to."
Lewes studied him for several moments. "I don't know offhand, I'll have to check the records. Maestro Guglielmo, I like the boy, I don't like the idea of harm coming to him. But we can't tear the Vatican apart looking for him. There are powerful people involved, and I doubt they'd quibble about removing you if caused too much trouble. You can't help Alexander if you let either Cesare Borgia or Cardinal Fortezzi know you're on to them."
Il Sanguinante started pacing again. "The boy doesn't deserve this. He just wants to live his life in peace. They've got no right to drag him into whatever scheme they're concocting."
"None of the innocent people of the world deserve being victims of monsters. All we can do is fight where we can, as best we can." He dared to go closer and pat the anxious man on the arm. "Perhaps it would be best if you went back to the inn, waited till it was closer to midnight before we go in search of him."
Il Sanguinante shook his head. "He's here somewhere. This is the place of power for both of them, they've got him tucked away somewhere they consider safe. I want to be close."
"All right. Then why don't you go to Signore Bramante's chambers, let him know that Alexander will need to be gotten out of the city quickly and quietly once this is over. Bramante's no fool, he knows how to do things without attracting attention."
He hesitated, then Il Sanguinante nodded. "That's an idea. How do I find him?"
Lewes gave careful instructions, grateful to find something to occupy a man clearly anxious for violence to break out. He led Il Sanguinante to one of the side corridors that would take him towards the guest wings and watched carefully till the mercenary was out of sight. Then he sighed in relief.
Things were looking like they'd work out better than he'd hoped. He had been worrying about how to get Alexander away from the obviously protective Il Sanguinante. If a sacrifice of innocence was going to lure an ancient and powerful vampire within reach of possible destruction, then the innocent one had better be where that vampire could find it.
An hour went by before Guglielmo found Bramante's chambers, and even then he had to be told the directions by a passing servant. Apparently men who weren't wearing clerical garb were uncommon enough in the Vatican corridors that they were asked their business if they looked lost.
The man inside the room was muttering to himself as he wandered among the rope-tied boxes. "Where did I put the--no, don't open that, you'll just have to tie it up again."
He had the big, scarred hands of someone used to making stone obey him. Guglielmo knew better than to antagonize such people. Swinging a hammer made a man strong, whether he was a blacksmith or a sculptor. And being pummeled by a sculptor was better than your face appearing in someone's latest satirical drawing.
"Signore Bramante?" he said politely.
"Yes?" Bramante focused, then frowned. He stepped back with apparently casualness, then Guglielmo saw the crowbar on the box behind him.
Guglielmo took his hand off his sword. "I'm a friend of Sandro's, may I talk to you?"
The hand stopped its drift towards the crowbar. "Alexander?" Bramante scanned Guglielmo's appearance again. "Are you one of those folk he's been staying with?"
"Yes, I am."
"Well, you're a more presentable messenger than that boy yesterday. It's a pity Buonarotti isn't here, he collects faces. So what brings you up here? Did Alexander run out of money already?"
Guglielmo wasn't sure what he should tell Sandro's teacher. "When will you be ready to leave the city?"
Bramante gestured at the half-empty room and the boxes. "These are the last of the things to go to the boat. We leave in the morning. But I told the boy all that in the note with the money I sent this morning." He frowned at Guglielmo. "What's happened to Alexander?"
Guglielmo decided to stay with the essentials. "He's in trouble, but I'm going to get him out of it. But he'll need to get out of the city as soon as possible."
Bramante swore. "He's just a naive boy, how did he get caught up in something that's forcing him to leave town?" He studied Guglielmo closely. "Do I need to know the details?"
"It probably would be better if you didn't."
"So I just need to do what I'm already doing."
"Essentially, yes." Guglielmo frowned. He was wasting time here when he could be trying to locate Sandro. "I'm sorry to take up your time, Signore. If it's any comfort, all Sandro's been talking about is about going to Milano with you and learning how to build things."
Bramante smiled. "He's a bright lad, he should do very well. Is there anything else I can do to help?"
"I don't suppose you know where the chapel of St. Augustine of the Waters is, do you?"
"Oh, yes. There's an old water gate in the southern part of the old Vatican walls, with some bits of an Imperial temple nearby. One of the lesser St. Augustines consecrated it about 700 years ago. Why?"
Guglielmo blinked. "You know where it is?"
"Certainly. I've been down there several times sketching the old columns and carvings. At least ten yards of the architrave survives, it's quite beautiful."
"So it's not someplace you'd have to dig through old records to locate."
Bramante laughed. "Not hardly. Ask any of the servants or the guards. Someone's always strolling around down there with their sweetheart. It's one of those overgrown and picturesque spots, though it is supposed to be haunted. Why did you think it was hard to find?"
Too worried to think straight, he'd been brushed off and sent on a mission that wasn't necessary. Now that Guglielmo thought about it, the directions to Bramante's rooms had been vague. "How odd that Monsignor Lewes didn't know where it is," he mused, smiling just a little "Thank you,
signore, you've been a great deal of help." He hesitated at the look on the artist's face.
"Lewes?" Bramante said softly. "With the Holy Office?" Guglielmo nodded. "Close the door."
Guglielmo obeyed; Bramante sat on one of the boxes and gestured Guglielmo towards another box. Bramante thought for several moments, then leaned forward.
"I don't know if there's any truth to any of this. I got it from da Vinci, a friend of mine, who's so brilliant he may very well be mad. da Vinci is curious about everything, including things he has no business being curious about. And his silly backwards writing won't save him if they seize his notebooks."
Guglielmo shifted impatiently. "Signore, your point?"
"Sorry." Bramante took a deep breath. "da Vinci was here in Roma a few months ago. We were looking at some of the paintings in the palace, and I noticed him watching someone. It was Monsignor Lewes. When I asked da Vinci what was so interesting about the man, he said, 'The Inquisitor who is not an Inquisitor. He hunts much darker things.' He didn't say anything else."
"Darker things. What did he mean?"
"As I said, da Vinci may be mad. But people have said that about him before. He's spoken about--monsters. I've seen sketches of his that show what can only be horrific creatures of Hell. But these sketches are as detailed and prosaic as anything he's ever done of a siege engine or the human hand."
"As if they were a real thing he'd seen and studied," Guglielmo said softly.
"Yes." Bramante looked away briefly. "I've seen things. You have, too, probably. Things we don't admit to seeing. da Vinci said there were men who fought the monsters. They stay in the shadows, because people don't want to admit that the horrors in our imaginations are real."
"And Lewes is supposed to be one of them? An Inquisitor?"
"Lewes has a reputation for unorthodoxy. He's said to consort with Jews and Arabs, and no witch has ever been found guilty in a case where he's been involved. He's discovered any number of crimes and venalities, but the works of the Devil are very thin on the ground where he is."
Guglielmo stared at the floor, thinking. Lewes was remarkably unconcerned about the more obvious transgressions he'd come across. Guglielmo's confession of his attraction to Alexander would have inspired any average Inquisitor to heights of holy zeal. Lewes was obviously on the trail of something else.
"Something to which sacrifice should not be made," he whispered. "Dio." He shivered. Bad enough thinking of some ritual from the mind of twisted men. To think of Alexander being offered up to something that should only live in the whispers of old men and the ravings of madwomen . . .
He got to his feet and headed for the door. "Grazie, signore, you've been a great deal of help. What's the name of the boat you're taking tomorrow?"
"La Farfalla. Is there nothing else I can do?"
Guglielmo paused at the door. "Be waiting at the dock when I bring Sandro to you in the morning."
Monsignor Lewes knelt before the crucifix on the wall of his chambers. It would be nightfall soon, and the hunt would begin in earnest.
"Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio; contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesid--"
Someone knocked on his door. Lewes debated ignoring it, but he had many informants who might be checking in with him today. Sighing and promising many Novenas of contrition, he went to the door. "May I--"
Guglielmo il Sanguinante shoved him hard in the chest, knocking him back into the room. The mercenary strode in, closed the door, and leaned back against it. He smiled.
"Now that I know how to find St. Augustine of the Waters," he said calmly, "give me two reasons why I shouldn't just kill you now."
Lewes stared at him. "I can shout and have a guard here in moments."
Il Sanguinante slowly drew his sword. "If you were going to do that, you'd have already done it. Two reasons, Monsignor. Two reasons why I shouldn't kill you and go save Alexander myself."
"You can't think to deal with this yourself, you have no idea what's waiting out there!"
The mercenary nodded. "One reason. And another? Because I haven't survived as long as I have without being able to cope with the unexpected."
"You don't know how to fight it."
"That's part of your first reason. Try again."
Lewes fought to stay calm. Il Sanguinante moved towards him, killing-edged sword held easily in an experienced hand. Somehow the man had found out he was being manipulated. His single-minded devotion to saving Alexander had no patience with a careful hunt. He was a blunt man with simple reactions to things he perceived as threats and barriers.
"Alexander will be upset if you kill someone else he knows."
Il Sanguinante's left eye twitched. "He barely knew Tonio. He doesn't have to find out about you."
"But if he did . . ."
The sword slowly slid back into the scabbard. Lewes breathed as quiet a sigh of relief as he was capable of.
The look Il Sanguinante gave him was still unfriendly. "I'm going to ask you again. What's going on? Tell me the truth this time."
Lewes studied him for a moment. "An ancient vampire is somewhere in the Vatican. Either Cesare Borgia or Cardinal Fortezzi or both of them are cooperating with it. I suspect this ritual tonight will involve giving Alexander to this vampire in return for something, though I don't know what."
Il Sanguinante gazed off for several seconds, then focused back on Lewes. "Do you know how to kill vampires?"
"You--you believe me?"
The scarred eyebrow rose. "Is there a reason I shouldn't? Are you lying to me?"
"No, but--I expected you to say I was mad."
Il Sanguinante smiled slightly. "If you're mad, then there's nothing supernatural involved. That doesn't change the fact that someone has kidnapped Sandro and has to die for it. If you're not mad, though, I want to know how to deal with it. So. How do you kill them?"
They hadn't even bothered to tie his hands. They'd have tied Guglielmo's hands. Guglielmo would probably have been able to get away and kept Isabetta from getting hurt.
Alexander walked another circuit of the small stone room. He'd been gagged and blindfolded as soon as the attackers had pulled him off the main street, so he didn't know where he'd been brought. There was a tiny window with iron crossbars high up in the wall, but there was no way to climb up to look out. The only furniture in the room was a bedframe with a bare lattice of ropes and the kneeling bench before the crucifix on the wall. Alexander wondered if this was a monk's cell of some sort, but the only bells he heard tolling the hours were far away.
When the men had appeared out of the crowd, he'd been certain it was another ambush like the one for Guglielmo. No weapons had appeared, though, even when Isabetta pulled a stiletto out of her sleeve and slashed one of the men who had grabbed him.
He dropped to his knees at the kneeling bench and rested his head on his clenched hands. She'd gone down so hard, when the man behind her had clubbed the side of her head with a huge fist. The lovely, laughing face streaked with blood. Because she'd tried to protect him.
The heavy lock on the door clanked. As the door opened, Alexander scrambled to his feet and went to the far wall.
Cardinal Fortezzi hobbled in, balancing on a cane, followed by two of the men who had taken Alexander off the street. The Cardinal looked around for Alexander and smiled when he spotted him.
"A chair, please," he told one of the men, who left the room and came back with a chair for the Cardinal to sit on. He settled slowly and carefully. "There now. Come here, boy."
When Alexander hesitated, Fortezzi gestured the two men to stand by the door. Alexander slowly walked to the Cardinal, who held out his ring hand; automatically, Alexander knelt to kiss the ring. Fortezzi kept hold of his hand, though without the crushing grip of before.
"I hope you weren't frightened too badly," he said. "I have no idea how you fell in with such terrible company, but I'm sure we rescued you in time."
Alexander thought of protesting, but something in Fortezzi's eyes told him to be very careful. "Your Eminence, Isabetta--is she all right?"
Fortezzi looked perplexed and glanced at the men at the door. "The woman he was with, Your Eminence," one of them explained.
"Ah. The soldier's whore." Fortezzi patted Alexander's hand. "You have a generous heart to be concerned for her, but she's no one for you to be worried about. An innocent lad such as yourself should stay far away from that sort." He frowned. "The Devil delights in setting snares for inexperienced souls. Are you all right, my son? Are you free of the Devil's taint?"
Fortezzi sighed and let go of his hand, then made the sign of the Cross. "I will hear your Confession, my son." Alexander glanced at the men by the door. "Ignore them. Proceed."
He licked his lips, then crossed himself and bowed his head. "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been four days since my last confession. I accuse myself of the following sins." He swallowed hard. "I have committed the sin of lasciviousness, well, several times, I have committed the sin of sloth, and . . ."
Fortezzi looked up from his clasped hands. "And?"
Alexander risked a glare at the men by the door. "I am guilty of anger against the men who hurt Isabetta."
The Cardinal smiled just a little. "As I said, you have a kind soul. However . . . lasciviousness is a grave matter. Was the sin a matter of thought or deed?"
Guilt clutched at his lungs. He and Christ knew what he had done. To his own confessor and in a proper setting he would have reluctantly told all. But nothing about this was proper, and he doubted that Fortezzi's concern for the state of his soul was purely pastoral.
He took another deep breath and glanced at the crucifix on the wall. "Thought, Your Eminence."
Fortezzi tsked in disgust. "Yes, they dragged you to that sink of evil last night, where brazen strumpets and all manner of sin lie in wait. It would take a saintly young man to turn his eyes and mind away from such things."
"I'm not a saint, Your Eminence."
Fortezzi patted his bowed head. "Fortunately God does not require us to be, just as near as we can manage. Grave sins, my son, but simply mended. A dozen Pater Nosters and a dozen Aves, to be said as soon as possible." He raised in hand and made the sign of the cross. "I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Go in peace, my son."
"Thanks be to God," Alexander murmured. He settled back on his heel and risked looking directly at the Cardinal. "Your Eminence, what's going to happen?"
The Cardinal gave him the closest thing he'd seen to a pleasant smile. "Tonight we will go to St. Augustine of the Waters, and there we will meet our destinies."
Alexander had not become more fond of destinies in the past few days. "And then what?"
"And then, my son, we shall be exalted." He patted Alexander's head and rose carefully to his feet. "Are you hungry? I'll have something sent to you." Still smiling with what passed, for him, for benevolence, he nodded at the kneeling bench. "See to your prayers, my son." He hobbled out, the two men going with him. The lock clunked behind them.
Slowly, Alexander got to his feet, then went to the kneeling bench. Settling to his knees, he stared at the crucifix.
"I lied in Holy Confession, Heavenly Father," he whispered. "But it was no proper Confession, what would he have done if I'd told the truth?" He rested his head on his hands. "It was sin, and I should have confessed. But he can't have me kidnapped and expect me to obey him--can he? Surely he's not fit to hear Confession."
He paused, horrified at what he'd just said. All his life he'd been told that the elders of the church were to be trusted and obeyed without question, that God worked through these, His servants. But for every saint he'd met--and there had been a few--he'd seen a dozen men whose minds were on their own advantage. He longed to be free of this confusion and find a place where he could know the truth of his faith again.
He whispered into his clasped hands, his words for himself and for God's ears. "I let a man touch me. I touched him. The only guilt I feel is because I know I'm supposed to. I would have let him do more. I felt safe with him, and, Lord, please let him find me soon." He began the prayers the Cardinal had set him, keeping no count and resting his mind in the familiar rhythms.
It was well past Compline. Guglielmo sat in a corner of Monsignor Lewes's chamber, sipping from a single goblet of wine and watching the candle clock on the other side of the room. Lewes had spent an hour trying to make conversation, then retreated to another room, locking the door behind him and leaving Guglielmo to his vigil.
There was little chance of finding Alexander before the appointed time. He would have to wait till all paths joined at midnight. Then would begin the killing time.
A peg fell out of the side of the burning candle, tumbling to join four others in the dish below. The door to Lewes' private chamber opened; Lewes came out, a bulky satchel over his shoulder,
and he closed the door securely behind him.
"Is it time?" Guglielmo asked.
They went through back corridors to a door that led out of the palace. Guglielmo scanned the stars and the moonlit skyline to orient himself to the city. Lewes led the way into narrow black pathways between the buildings. Light from windows came intermittently, and Guglielmo found himself hurrying to keep up with Lewes.
They crept through a courtyard, avoiding the torches at the gate, where guards kept watch. Guglielmo recognized the building as the ambassadors' lodgings, which were towards the north end of the Vatican complex. He put on a burst of speed to catch up with Lewes, who had just disappeared into the shadows at the far side of the courtyard.
Lewes wasn't there.
Guglielmo went still in the shadows, listening for footsteps and scanning the darkness for movement. Silence.
He nodded slowly. For some reason, Lewes wanted to make sure that Guglielmo didn't get to the chapel in time. Apparently the Monsignor expected him to wander around lost after having been taken in the opposite direction from where they should have gone. Too bad Lewes didn't realize that a successful soldier always knew the lay of the field of battle, and there were few places in Roma that Guglielmo couldn't find his way around. He even knew that the kitchens of the various Vatican residences butted up against each other in a maze of workyards and storerooms.
He jogged slowly along the dark passageway between the residence and the stable block until he found the small courtyard the tradesmen used. From here he could cut through the kitchen and laundry areas of three different palaces. The black he was wearing would help him with the shadows of various corridors. Any Guardsmen who got in his way tonight would be added to his body count.
If he got to St. Augustine of the Waters before Lewes, he might just laugh at the man instead of gutting him. Maybe.
This time they tied his hands.
It was three men, this time, three of the ones who had taken Alexander off the street. One of them showed fresh bruises and glared at Alexander as they pulled him out of his cell.
The hallway outside the room was also built of stone. Alexander's lessons told him the building was old, built somewhere in that lean time when the Popes lived in Avignon and Roma was a dying city. Bramante would likely be able to look at the pointed stone archways and vaulting and be able to say within ten years when the place was built. Alexander knew that the only church buildings this old survived at the south end of the Vatican complex. Near St. Augustine of the Waters.
The men gripped his arms tightly as they pulled him through the old corridors. He heard voices somewhere near chanting one of the Vigil offices.
"They're early," he commented. "Or are we running late?"
"Shut up, you," the bruised one snarled. "You just have to be there, they didn't say you had to be in good shape."
"Stop it," one of the others said.
"Matteo's dead because of this--"
"Matteo was stupid. Just the two of you against a bunch of mercenaries who were waiting for trouble? You should have run when you saw the trap."
"If we'd had more men . . ."
"We were told to stay here," the last one said. "Leave it, already."
Alexander kept his mouth shut and tried not to smile at the idea of these men running into an annoyed Angelo and all the others.
They met no one as they left the building. A tangled garden lay outside; the men led Alexander between hedges and overgrown flowering bushes. He saw enough of the surrounding buildings to confirm they were in the southern part of the Vatican.
The men went quiet as they came upon the edge of the Imperial ruins. Faint light came from between the stones of the tumbled walls of the chapel. Alexander looked around, hoping Guglielmo was lurking nearby. He got a poke in the kidneys for his efforts at delay.
The Chapel of St. Augustine of the Waters had been clumsily built from the remains of a graceful Roman temple to Juno. Weather and time had eroded most of the carvings from the old altar;
chisels had finished the job, replacing the bunches of grapes and the resting sheep with images of the Cross and Christ Triumphant.
A black cloth was draped over the altar. Two candles in gold holders burned at either end; before the altar stood Cardinal Fortezzi in full regalia, holding silver goblet in his upraised hands. Standing in the shadows of a crumbling pillar was Cesare Borgia, still and silent.
Alexander, still trying to resist as much as he could without getting hit, kicked a rock that bounced across the floor and off the altar. Fortezzi glanced over his shoulder and put down the goblet.
"Welcome, Alexander," he smiled. "Join me."
The shove in his back overrode Alexander's protest. Fortezzi caught his arms as he stumbled forward and drew him close.
Alexander stared at the altar. A communion wafer lay in a silver dish. A long-bladed dagger lay next to it.
"Your Eminence, what are you doing?" he whispered.
"I told you, my son. It is our destiny." He looked at the men holding Alexander. "Two of you go outside, watch for trouble." He focused on Alexander. "My son, can I count on your co-operation?"
"Co-operation in what?"
"The attainment of power and immortality, my son. Power and immortality."
Alexander stared at Fortezzi. The Cardinal looked near-beatified with anticipation. He glanced over at Cesare Borgia.
"Your Excellency, what's going on?"
"It is not for you to question, boy," Cesare said calmly.
Fortezzi picked up the dagger. "Alexander, I don't want to invoke your vow of obedience, but I will."
Alexander studied the items on the altar and remembered what Guglielmo had said about dark rituals. Faith and oaths said he should accept that the Cardinal was acting for the best. Blind obedience was a refuge where he wouldn't have to think any more.
But he knew the things he knew, and everything in his soul cried out in protest.
"No," he whispered.
Fortezzi stared at him. "What?"
"No, Your Eminence. I will not co-operate. I don't know what you're doing here, but it's wrong."
Fortezzi took Alexander's bound hands in his. "My son, I know it's difficult to understand, but there's nothing to worry you. It's merely a sacrifice. Why, we deal with the sacrifice of blood and flesh every day during Holy Mass."
"Blasphemy!" Alexander yanked his hands back. "If what you're doing is so holy, why aren't you doing it in a proper chapel, at a proper altar? Christ made His sacrifice on the Cross so that no one would ever have to make sacrifice again! You profane and mock the Holy Church with every breath you take!"
Fortezzi lost his paternal smile. "As you will, boy. Your co-operation would only have made things run a little smoother." He nodded, and the man behind him grabbed Alexander's arms. Fortezzi picked up the goblet and the knife. "Hold his arm out."
Alexander used all the tricks Guglielmo had shown him, but he couldn't wiggle free. The guard pushed his arm out. Fortezzi pushed the sleeve up, then sliced the inside of Alexander's arm, the goblet held ready to catch the blood.
"Don't struggle so, my son," Fortezzi said as Alexander fought to get free. He calmly moved the goblet so as not to miss any of the blood dripping off Alexander's arm. "You'll lose too much blood, which we'll need for later." The goblet was half full when the flow stopped, and Fortezzi turned back to the altar.
Alexander looked at Cesare. "Your Excellency, please! What he's doing isn't right!"
Cesare studied him for a moment, then turned his attention back to the altar.
"Don't make us gag you," Fortezzi said over his shoulder. He spread his arms and closed his eyes. "Hear me, Master, King of your Kind! I summon you, with a sacrifice of innocence and corruption, that you might hear our plea." He picked up the communion wafer and crumbled it into the goblet.
Alexander turned his head, not wanting to see any more. He saw Cesare Borgia watching the Cardinal avidly, and he closed his eyes.
Something poked him in the back, and the man behind him gasped. The arms holding him loosened; he wriggled free and turned. An inch of steel stuck out of the man's chest, then disappeared with a wet sound as blood spread across his shirt. He fell, revealing Guglielmo,
sword still raised.
"Guglielmo," Alexander whispered. The mercenary's black tunic was sliced in several places, showing studded leather underneath.
"Hands," Guglielmo ordered, and Alexander numbly held out his arms. Guglielmo delicately slid his sword between the wrists and sliced the rope.
"Fortezzi!" Cesare shouted. He drew his own sword and stepped forward. Fortezzi broke off his chant and turned.
Guglielmo pushed Alexander to the side and easily blocked Cesare's blow. "You're not a bad swordsman, Cesare--for a nobleman," he sneered. "But you know you can't beat me." Cesare attacked again, and Guglielmo knocked the blade aside.
"Guards!" Fortezzi yelled.
Guglielmo laughed. "Please, you think I'd be in here if I'd left those two alive behind me?" He smacked the other blade down hard before slicing across Cesare's wrist. Cesare dropped his sword, clutching at his bleeding wrist as he stared at Guglielmo in horror.
"You cut me . . ."
"That's your problem, Cesare, you never worry about your own blood being shed. You're too busy wanting to see other people shed theirs." Guglielmo backed up to Alexander. "How bad is it?" he asked, nodding at Alexander's arm.
Guglielmo grinned. "Sorry I'm late, but my guide turned out to be unreliable. Let's get out of here."
Fortezzi stepped forward. "You cannot leave, I forbid it."
Alexander moved closer to Guglielmo. "I don't think you have the right to forbid us to do anything, Cardinal." He shook his head, looking at the altar. "What were you trying to do,
"He was summoning me," said a new voice from the doorway.
Fortezzi dropped to his knees. "Master . . ."
"Blessed Mother," Guglielmo whispered.
Alexander stared at the figure. Black robes of leather and heavy cloth draped a tall, human-shaped frame, but the head was hairless and had pointed ears. Sharp teeth were framed in a mocking smile, and the face was deathly pale.
The creature sniffed audibly, and he focused more closely on Alexander. "You would be the sacrifice of innocence, I imagine. From the way you smell, you're going to taste delicious."
Fortezzi raised clasped hands to the creature. "Master, thy sacrifices are before thee, innocence and corruption. Take them, and if they please thee, please grant my prayer."
Alexander gaped at the Cardinal. "Are you praying to this? Your Eminence!"
The creature stepped towards Alexander. Guglielmo shoved Alexander behind him, then thrust his sword into the creature's chest. He twisted the blade and yanked it back, trailing blood. The creature staggered and put his hand to the wound. But he did not fall. He stared at his bloody hand for a moment, then looked at Guglielmo.
"I'm afraid that's not going to work, friend, but excellent aim. Right through the heart. Oh, sorry--ow."
Guglielmo gaped at him. "What are you?" he whispered.
"I'm a vampire. You may call me Master."
"I have only one master, and you are not he."
Alexander grabbed Guglielmo's free arm and felt the mercenary trembling despite his bravado. "Leave it, Guglielmo. Swords won't stop that."
The Master smiled at Alexander. "Innocent and brave, too. If you're not careful, boy, they'll make a saint out of you." He glanced from Alexander to Guglielmo and back, then smiled wickedly. "Or not. Tsk, boy, this isn't old Greece." He looked at the others. "So the boy is my sacrifice of innocence. Which of you is the sacrifice of corruption?"
Fortezzi, still on his knees, nodded at Guglielmo. "The craven who sought to harm thee, Master. He and the boy are thy sacrifices."
"Him?" The Master looked Guglielmo up and down. Guglielmo raised his sword. "I've seen more corruption in a virgin in a nunnery."
"Now wait a minute," Guglielmo protested.
Alexander poked him in the arm. "Be quiet, Guglielmo."
The Master grinned. "The pair of them, now, watching each other in torment, that would be delicious. But corruption? Not him."
Fortezzi bowed his head. "By thy will, Master. I thought that might be the case, so I made sure there was another." He gestured to Cesare, who was pressed into a corner, holding his wrist and gaping at everything.
"Fortezzi!" Cesare gasped. Guglielmo chuckled very softly.
The Master smiled. "Oh, yes, he would do nicely--if there weren't someone here even more ripe with the juices of corruption." He turned his sharp smile on the Cardinal, who merely bowed his head.
"I seek not to be sacrifice, Master, but servant. Hear the boon I beg of thee--make me like unto thy mighty self. I grow infirm, but I would stave off death. Grant me the gift of thine immortality, and I shall serve thee in whatever way thou sees fit."
"What?" Alexander gasped. "Your Eminence--" Guglielmo put a hand over his mouth. The Master took a step closer to Fortezzi; Guglielmo pulled Alexander further back, and the Master smiled at them.
"Soon enough, my sacrificial lambs." He gazed down on the kneeling Cardinal. "Serve me? In whatever way I see fit?"
"Look at me." Fortezzi raised his head and looked into the alien face. "You would give up your soul, the daylight, for this?"
"Oh, yes, Master," Fortezzi said rapturously. "To defeat death, to wield power over mortals, to command these small creatures to obey my whim--I would give up my soul gladly."
"What is he talking about?" Alexander whispered to Guglielmo.
"I don't know. But he's distracted, let's--"
The Master raised a finger, though he didn't look at Guglielmo. "Not that distracted, my brave warrior. Take one step towards that doorway, and I'll break both your legs before letting you enjoy the sight of my dining on your . . . friend."
Guglielmo glanced toward the doorway into the chapel. Alexander shook his head at him.
The Master reached down to touch Fortezzi's face. "I think you would suit very well, Your Eminence. I've eaten many princes, but never a Prince of the Church."
"This is my body and my blood, which is given up for thee."
Alexander jerked at the blasphemy. The Master glanced up, then hissed and turned towards the doorway. The heavy thunk of a crossbow firing came from outside. The Master slapped the bolt from the air; it buried itself in Fortezzi's shoulder. The Cardinal cried out and fell.
Just outside the doorway, half-lit by the candles on the altar, Monsignor Lewes worked the cocking lever of the heavy crossbow in his left hand. The job was made more awkward by the cross he held in his right hand. A crossbow bolt was clenched in his teeth. The Master stepped towards him, and Lewes thrust the cross out. The Master turned his face away.
Lewes quickly dropped the crossbow bolt into the firing groove and raised it one-handed as he held out the cross again.
"You can't aim that with one hand," the Master sneered. "And if you lower that cross to aim properly, I'll be on you and ripping your throat out." He took a deep breath. "Oh, so you're the Watcher. I knew I smelled one around here."
Lewes braced the crossbow closer to his body and didn't answer. The Master moved to the side,
forcing Lewes to turn.
"Go ahead, shoot. You know you'll miss me. Maybe I'll send this shot into the popinjay hiding in the corner."
Cesare gasped and reached for his dagger. "Lewes, destroy this creature!"
The Master smiled. "Oh, he doesn't take orders from you, Your Excellency. He'd let me devour everyone in this room if it would serve his purpose."
"I would not!" Lewes protested. "I'm sworn to destroy creatures like you!"
Guglielmo snorted. "Is that why you did everything in your power to keep me from getting here?"
Alexander stared at him, then looked at Lewes. "I don't understand."
"You don't have to understand, Alexander," Lewes said, watching the Master. "We must destroy this monster. Come take this cross."
Alexander started to move forward.
"I wouldn't, boy," the Master said. "You're pretty enough I might decide to keep you around afterwards, but not if you annoy me."
"I have been ordered around by everyone I know for the past few days, "Alexander snapped back,
"and I'm tired of it! I am not about to accept being ordered around by some inhuman monster that's threatening to kill me!"
The Master laughed. "Oh, you will be fun. But first . . ."
He flickered, and Lewes screamed. The Master had crushed both of Lewes' hands, snapping the crossbow stock in the process. The crossbow fired, sending the bolt into the floor, and the cross fell from Lewes' useless fingers. Slowly the Master wrapped one hand around Lewes' neck and pulled him close.
Alexander stooped, picked up the cross, and swung it at the vampire. The Master took the blow on his shoulder, hissing, then he knocked the cross out of Alexander's hands and grabbed the front of his shirt.
"Wait your turn, boy," he snarled into Alexander's face. He shoved the boy back into Guglielmo, knocking them both to the ground. He turned his attention back to Lewes, who battered at the Master's hold with his broken hands. "It's not Slayer, but Watcher will do." He forced Lewes' chin over, then bent down to sink his fangs into the throat.
"Dio," Guglielmo whispered. Wet noises drowned out Lewes' whimpers, then the whimpers stopped.
The Master raised his head. Blood dripped from his chin onto the torn flesh of Lewes' throat. Alexander whimpered, but he fought Guglielmo's attempt to shield him.
"We have to do something."
"For Lewes? It's too late."
The Master ripped off a piece of the Monsignor's tunic to wipe his face, then dropped the body to the floor. "Oh, I'll get fat off such plenty." His yellow eyes gleamed as looked from Alexander and Guglielmo to Cesare, still backed into his corner. "Now, who's next?"
"Master . . ."
Fortezzi had dragged himself to the altar and leaned against it, his robes glistening red. The crossbow bolt still stuck out of his shoulder.
The Master went to him and knelt at his side. "Oh, dear. Best hurry about this, then." He picked up the dying Cardinal and laid him on the altar. The goblet fell, spilling the mixture of blood and wafer across the cloth. The Master dipped a finger in the liquid and sniffed it. "Lovely." He licked the finger clean. "Though I'd like to have sampled it before the communion wafer was added." He smiled over his shoulder at Alexander. "Soon enough."
When the Master turned back to Fortezzi, Guglielmo eased to his feet and picked up his sword. He had to nudge Alexander twice before he could tear his eyes away from the altar. Very slowly, Alexander reached for the cross he'd dropped.
The Master smiled down at Fortezzi. "Not long now, my son." He tore the robes away from the Cardinal's neck and leaned down.
Alexander looked away at the new sounds of slurping. He saw Cesare watching, horror and fascination in equal parts on his face. Guglielmo touched Alexander's shoulder, then nodded towards the open doorway.
Fortezzi was gasping thinly, his hands twitching. "There, there," the Master told him. "Just a moment." He picked up the dagger that had cut Alexander and sliced open his wrist. He lifted Fortezzi's shoulders and set his wrist against the silently working mouth. "Drink deep, my boy. Learn to laugh at death. That's it." He bowed his head as Fortezzi drew greedily on the wound.
Cesare shook himself suddenly and looked around the room. His eyes narrowed when he saw Guglielmo and Alexander backing towards the doorway. "Your sacrifice is escaping," he called.
"Bastard!" Guglielmo snarled. The Master looked up, Fortezzi still clinging to his wrist.
Alexander swallowed hard. As he watched, the Cardinal's hands fell to his sides and his breath wheezed out of failing lungs. His blood-streaked mouth hung open; his eyes went blank. Alexander raised a shaking hand to cross himself.
Slowly, the Master straightened. He patted Fortezzi's head, then pulled out the crossbow bolt and threw it to one side. Then he turned to look at Alexander. "Come to me, boy," he said, smiling and holding out his hand. "And put down that heavy cross."
Peace settled over Alexander's mind. He let the piece of wood in his hand drop, and all the fear melted as he stepped forward.
Hands grabbed him and yanked him back. He heard shouting and thought he was supposed to understand what was being said.
"Bring your friend with you," his Master said, still smiling.
Alexander took hold of one of the arms holding him, trying to pull the man behind him with him. He was spun around and shaken. He gaped at the handsome man in confusion. Again, the things shouted at him made no sense. Then his head rocked to the side.
"God's blood, Sandro, snap out of it!"
He couldn't speak for the pain in his head, but he glared at Guglielmo as hard as he could. Guglielmo pulled him into a hard hug.
"Madonna, Sandro, I'm sorry, but--no, don't look at him!" A hand on his head kept Alexander from doing much more than seeing the Master out of the corner of his eye.
"Well played, my wily friend," but the vampire's voice was anything but pleased. "Come here. Bring the boy."
Guglielmo bared his teeth. "Not in this or any other hell, monster." He pushed Alexander behind him, pulled his dagger and raised his sword. "You want us, come and take us."
The Master started to step forward, but he sagged slightly. "Ah, but creation does make one tired. You're very strong, condottiere. I could use you."
"I know who I serve. It's not you. And you're not laying hands on Sandro."
"Do you really think you could stop me?"
Guglielmo didn't answer. The Master chuckled, then there was a blur. Alexander felt a hand on his arm as Guglielmo's sword flickered around. Guglielmo grunted in pain and was suddenly nursing a bleeding arm--but so was the Master, who was back next to the altar, holding a hand over his bleeding forearm and looking at Guglielmo in disbelief.
"You couldn't possibly have seen me. How did you get a blade on me so fast?"
Guglielmo sneered. "I didn't need to know where you moving, I just needed to know where you were going to end up."
"Bravo, maestro." Not all the blood on the Master's hand was his own. He licked his claws clean. "You're nearly as fast as a Slayer. Are you sure I can't interest you in living forever?"
Guglielmo twitched. "No one lives forever."
The Master chuckled. "Well, forever is hard to define. It's said that even I will die finally eventually. But I remember the walls of Troy and great Babylon and the cry that went up when Atlantis fell. I have walked the streets of eternal Roma since before that rabble rouser Paul appeared."
Guglielmo chuckled. "It sounds dull. My wits are in my swordarm. All I want out of life is a good glass of wine in the evening and companions to drink it with."
Alexander tried to check Guglielmo's wounded arm, but Guglielmo brushed him off. He looked around the room to see if there was anything he could use as a weapon in his own defense instead of hiding behind Guglielmo, and he glanced at Cesare to see if he was likely to be of any help in fighting off this creature. The Borgia prince was staring at the Master and looked as though the tale of years was anything but dull.
"And you, my fine nobleman?" The Master had apparently seen Cesare's interest as well. "Do you find the idea of seeing the ages pass and being the master of those around you to be dull?"
"No," Cesare said softly. "It sounds wonderful. The world is full of glory and splendour. I would like to see it all."
The Master's chuckle was frightening. "I can give it to you. All you need to do is ask."
Calculation replaced wonder on Cesare's face. "And what would I owe you for this gift?"
"Why, nothing at all."
"Fortezzi said he would serve you, and you accepted. I serve the Borgias, and no other."
The Master lost his smile. "You can join me--or you can become fodder. One or the other."
Cesare stared back, apparently as immune to compulsion as Guglielmo was. Alexander wondered why he had been unable to resist. "I choose neither," Cesare said flatly.
Guglielmo gave a faint laugh of what almost sounded like admiration. "You were never a coward, Your Excellency." Cesare glanced at him and nodded very slightly.
The Master sneered at all of them. Alexander ducked behind Guglielmo, wishing he was daring enough to challenge that creature to its face. He looked around the room, searching for the cross he'd dropped--and he saw Fortezzi's fingers twitch.
Guglielmo glanced around at Alexander's gasp of horror. "What's wrong?"
"Fortezzi . . . moved."
"He's dead, he can't--"
The Cardinal's hands jerked.
The Master turned around. "What, already?"
"The dead don't rise," Alexander whispered. "The trumpet hasn't sounded, Christ hasn't returned. The dead can't rise."
"Poor boy," the Master laughed. "This has nothing to do with your sacrificed carpenter--though come to think of it, he rose from the dead after sharing his blood with his followers. But we won't go into that, will we." He leaned over Fortezzi's body. "Back so soon, my boy?"
Alexander shook his head. "But--how?"
"I'm a vampire, lad, I told you. How do you think it's happening? As I did so long ago, your Cardinal Fortezzi is about to rise, one of the undead."
Cesare took a disbelieving step forward. "This is the immortality he sought?"
The Master grinned at him. "He's going to be hungry when he finishes waking. Which of you wishes to be his first meal?"
Alexander saw Guglielmo look at Cesare, just as Cesare glanced thoughtfully at him and Guglielmo. Before either could move, the Master swore and jerked the pectoral cross off Fortezzi's chest. A faint wisp of smoke rose from the spot where the cross rested.
Alexander ran to the body of Monsignor Lewes. He crossed himself very quickly, then reached for the satchel Lewes had carried. The Monsignor had known what he was facing, and the Master had seen him as a serious threat. What had a man familiar with monsters brought with him to a fight?
The bag was wet. Inside, there were two ceramic flasks, one broken by the fall. Alexander pulled out the second and saw the seal that marked containers of holy water. Also in the bag were several wooden stakes and a small, ornate cross. He pulled out the cross and turned.
"A cross and holy water won't make you a Watcher, boy," the Master sneered.
"I don't know what a Watcher is," Alexander said. He took a couple of brave steps closer. "But I do know unholy things when I see them."
The cross' carved surface held several drops of water. With a deep breath, Alexander flicked the cross hard towards the Master, sending a small shower of holy water over him. The Master snarled when the drops hit, rubbing his sleeve over his hands and face. Some of the drops landed on Fortezzi's face, sizzling. The Master rushed to Fortezzi and used his bare hands to brush the holy water away. Fortezzi's head shifted, and a faint whimpering could be heard.
"Easy, childe," the Master soothed. He bared his fangs at Alexander, who pulled the cork out of the flask with his teeth. "You'll die in pieces, boy."
Guglielmo took several steps away from Alexander, his blades ready. "You'd leave your creation helpless to get to Sandro?"
Cesare cleared his throat. "What makes you think a sword would do any more damage than before?" He tossed over the bloody crossbow bolt the Master had pulled from Fortezzi. Guglielmo caught it in his dagger hand. "The legends say wood to the heart kills them. Lewes apparently agreed."
Guglielmo gave Cesare a suspicious look, but he sheathed his dagger to get a better grip on the bolt.
Alexander slid another step away from Guglielmo, carefully angling away from the Master and towards Fortezzi, who was moving his hands more noticeably. The Master watched Alexander, then spun as Guglielmo made a move of his own.
"Clever humans," the Master sneered. He scooped Fortezzi's body up in his arms. "But one thing I always have on my side is time." He took an audible deep breath. "I know your scents now. I'll find you another time." He smiled with all his teeth at Alexander. "Will you still be as deliciously innocent when I do, I wonder?"
With that he turned and carried the feebly stirring Fortezzi out through a crumbling wall to one side of the altar.
Guglielmo grabbed Alexander's arm and dragged him towards the main door.
"We have to go after him!" Alexander protested.
"No, we don't," Guglielmo snapped. "We have to leave."
"But it's over!" Alexander stumbled as he kept himself from tripping over Monsignor Lewes' body. "And the Monsignor, we can't just leave him--"
"We can and we will."
"Guglielmo!" He looked towards Cesare, thinking to invoke His Excellency's sense of what was proper. Cesare was considering Lewes' body with a cold, thoughtful expression, and the eyes that came up to meet Alexander's were the calculating things that had studied him through a tense, interminable dinner.
Guglielmo tugged. "We're going, now."
Cesare shifted his gaze to Guglielmo, and he smiled very faintly. "Guards!" he yelled at the top of his voice. "Murder! Guards!"
"Move!" Guglielmo shoved Alexander out the door.
Guglielmo led the way through a thin spot between some bushes, then through a tangle of vines and ancient marble. Cesare called again for guards, and footsteps came running from two directions. Guglielmo pulled to a halt among some pine trees, putting a finger over Alexander's lips. Shouts came from the scene of the carnage, and Guglielmo took Alexander's hand to lead him along a narrow pathway between a building and a dry streambed.
"Why are we running?" Alexander managed to whisper. "We didn't do anything wrong."
Guglielmo checked quickly around the corner of the building before answering. "There is a dead Inquisitor on the ground back there, and a Prince of the Church has gone missing. What do you think is going to be believed, us saying that some monster killed Lewes and Fortezzi or Cesare Borgia saying that a mercenary and a boy who's abandoned the church were up to no good?"
"I haven't abandoned--"
Guglielmo took hold of Alexander's hair and pulled him close to kiss his forehead. "It's not a question of truth, Sandro. Who do you think will be believed?"
Alexander tried to answer for the truth, but Lewes, their only ally, was dead. "What do we do?"
Guglielmo led the way to the walls bordering the Vatican's territory. The dry streambed passed through a rusting iron grill in the wall. There was a gap between the bottom of the grill and the ground itself. Guglielmo paused to listen, then pushed Alexander towards the gap. Alexander was grateful for his recent physical training as he wriggled through the small opening. The more slender Guglielmo eeled through without any visible effort.
Before Alexander could run towards the dark streets, Guglielmo pulled him into the shadows at the base of the wall. An upraised finger kept him from asking questions. After a moment, Guglielmo took his arm and they walked quietly away.
"I thought we were running," Alexander asked as softly as he could.
"Running men attract attention. Walking men who look like they're just going about their business are left alone."
"Are we going back to the inn?"
Guglielmo stopped walking. In the dim light of a torch at the corner, Alexander saw something he'd never thought to see on Guglielmo's face: indecision.
"Cesare will look for us there," Guglielmo said. "Angelo needs to be warned, but this way he can tell anyone that he doesn't know anything and not be lying. He doesn't lie well."
"I think Cardinal Fortezzi sent some men down there earlier to look for you. Those men who were guarding me were talking about mercenaries lying in wait for them. One of them was killed."
"Damn it." Guglielmo stared in the direction of the Crusader's Kiss.
Alexander touched his arm. "Do you know anything about Isabetta? Is she all right?"
Guglielmo put an arm around his shoulders. "When last I saw her, she had a lump on her head, a black eye, and a very annoyed Irishman who wasn't in the mood to step more than five feet away from her." His smile faded. "I wonder what happened at the inn?"
Alexander tried to think of any options. Maestro Bramante might help, but he was back inside the Vatican walls. "What do we do?"
Guglielmo squeezed his shoulders then let go. "We find somewhere off the street, for now."
"You're bleeding again." Alexander pointed at Guglielmo's arm.
"We'll take care of that when we find somewhere to hide." He looked around again, shrugged, then headed down the nearest street. Aside from the dying torches at either end of the street, light came from the moon rising over the rooftops.
The street wasn't deserted: at the far end a man with a dim lantern was poking through a refuse-choked gutter, reaching down occasionally to pick up something and put it into the sack at his hip. He hid his face as Guglielmo and Alexander went by. Once the sound of running feet made Guglielmo pull Alexander into a shadowed doorway. Out of an alley came a man dressed as a nobleman, but with clothes torn and bloody and sword drawn. He looked up and down the street, then ran in the direction of the Vatican. Guglielmo waited till the echos died, then tugged on Alexander's sleeve so they could continue on their way.
Alexander's feet were starting to hurt, and it was getting harder to walk as silently as Guglielmo. He found himself longing for the hard cot in the cell where he'd spent the day. He was about to give in and ask when they were going to finally stop, when he realized Guglielmo had gone still. The mercenary was staring down yet another alley. From the darkness came the sound of a woman quietly singing.
A pale, long-fingered hand emerged from the shadows and beckoned the pair.
"Not likely," Guglielmo said, a hand on his dagger hilt. "Come out of there."
The woman chuckled as she detached herself from hiding. "You're the one who should be seeking the shadows, sweet Guillermo."
Alexander looked rapidly between Guglielmo and the woman. "She knows you."
Guglielmo nodded. "I know her. This is Roxilana. Don't try to keep secrets from her."
Alexander stared at the woman, who gazed back at him, smiling and humming softly. Tiny jewels winked in the depths of her black hair and twisted gold chains lay around her neck. She was beautiful, but something in her eyes kept him from feeling more than uneasiness. "Is she--what is she?"
Roxilana smiled at him. "'She' is a Gypsy, pretty boy. What are you?"
He opened his mouth and found he had no answer. "Nobody," he finally said.
She tilted her head. "Are you sure?"
It all tumbled out. "I want to be. People keep trying to make me somebody, but I want to be nobody."
"You don't want to be nobody, pretty boy. Nobody gets hurt all the time."
Guglielmo stepped forward. "What are you doing here, Roxilana? How did you find us?"
She chuckled and raised her clasped fingers to cover her mouth. "Your brave captain has no courage when it comes to his lady. Some men came looking for you, sweet, and Captain Angelo took a few cuts driving them off. Isabetta refused to let the surgeon look at him and sent for me. And then she asked me to look for you."
"Is Angelo all right?"
Roxilana patted Guglielmo's cheek. "Fussing over Isabetta to make her rest and ordering everyone to find you while she fusses at him."
Guglielmo's shoulders relaxed. "Idiot ox. We still can't go back there, that's where they'll look for us first.
"We only need to find someplace until dawn," Alexander said.
"What happens at dawn?"
Alexander blinked. "I hope to be getting on a boat with Maestro Bramante and leaving this place and everything behind."
"Oh." Guglielmo looked away. "People know you're leaving with him, they can find you in Milano."
"I don't care. Milano isn't Roma, it's far away, and all I'm going to do is study architecture." He shook his head. "Too many things have twisted on me. I'm not letting fate take this from me too."
Roxilana studied him for a few moments, then reached out to brush her fingers across the back of Guglielmo's hand. Guglielmo shrugged her off.
"We still need a place to hide till dawn," he muttered. He looked around the street. "There's a barn down there, cows for noblemen who don't want to wait for the cream to arrive from the country. There's a few hours yet before the milkers show up. Roxilana . . ."
"Yes, my too generous one?" she said gently.
"Go back to Angelo, tell him where we are, where we'll be."
She nodded, drifted a hand across his cheek, then faded into the darkness of the alley. Try as he might, Alexander could not hear footsteps or moving cloth.
"She's frightening," he said.
Guglielmo nodded. "And she sees too much." He jerked his head for Alexander to follow and led the way down the street.
The cow barn made itself known to the nose before the eye. Guglielmo heard Alexander snicker. "Join the church, my father said. Never have to work with the animals again, he said."
Guglielmo glanced around for any sign of a watchman, then considered the lock on the front door. "Keep a look out," he told Alexander as he pulled his dagger.
Alexander watched the lock picking as much as the narrow street. "Where do you learn these things?"
"From breaking into people's homes and farmers' sheds." The heavy mechanism tumbled over, and he carefully unhooked the lock's hasp from the latch.
"Won't someone see that when they come by in the morning?"
"We'll be gone before anyone comes by."
The cows inside rustled and stamped in displeasure at being disturbed too early. Guglielmo felt on the walls to either side of the door until he found a small lamp and a tinder box. He set the wick as low as possible and looked around.
Alexander nodded. "Whoever takes care of them does a good job. We should let them get back to sleep."
The end stall was unoccupied and boasted blankets and a bottle tucked down in the straw. Guglielmo very carefully set the lamp on a small shelf. Alexander dropped onto the blankets with a heavy sigh and pulled his knees up.
"Do you think he--it can really find us?"
Guglielmo leaned against the wall. "I don't know. Lewes seemed to know about these vampires, but all I know is mad tales old folks have told."
"Lewes . . ." He looked up, horrified. "Is he going to--come back?"
"How should I know?" Guglielmo flexed his arm. It was starting to ache.
Alexander got to his knees and crawled over. "Take your tunic off, I want to see your arm."
"Guglielmo. He used claws on you. Claws are always dirty. I haven't lived in a city long enough to forget that."
Muttering, Guglielmo obeyed. The tunic was fairly well ruined anyway. He didn't see Isabetta being willing to mend this much damage.
"Dio," Alexander whispered. Guglielmo's armor was layers of leather bound together with bronze rivets. At the sides and shoulders, sections of fine metal chain allowed him to move easily. A white silk shirt underneath protected his skin from the armor. Fresh cutmarks sliced the leather in front and back in addition to the bloody slashes where the Master's claws had cut through tunic and silk over the unarmored forearm.
Alexander shook himself and grabbed the bottle from its hiding place. "Push the sleeve up."
Alexander gave him a scolding look. He uncorked the bottle and turned his face. "God save the poor fool who drinks this. If it is for drinking."
Guglielmo took the bottle. "Let me see that. I don't want to be doctored with some cow concoction." He sniffed it, then took a swig. "A little strong, but I've drunk worse." He started to hand the bottle back, then saw how Alexander's hands were shaking. "Sandro, go sit down. It hurts, but I don't think it's infected."
"No, I want to make sure it's clean."
Guglielmo reached over and turned Alexander's right arm to the light. That cut had scabbed over, but streaks of blood ran down the arm. Guglielmo tore a piece off his tunic, poured some of the alcohol onto it, and gently wiped off the stains. He quickly cleaned off his own arm, recorked the bottle, then pulled trembling Alexander into his arms.
Alexander dug his fingernails into the surface of the leather armor. "Monsignor Lewes is dead. That thing . . . ate him."
Guglielmo rested his face against Alexander's hair. "Yes."
"He was going to eat us."
"His Excellency was going to let him."
Alexander looked up to meet Guglielmo's eyes. "But then he threw you that crossbow bolt and told you how to use it. And you said he wasn't a coward."
"He isn't. But he saves his bravery for when it will be the most use to him. Escaping while the Master was distracted by killing us would have been the most efficient way of getting out of the situation. For a moment there, though, you and I looked like a valid threat against that creature, so Cesare backed us up, just in case. He's very practical, Cesare is."
"Why does he dislike you so much?"
"I wouldn't let him kill me." He ran his thumb along the sudden line between Alexander's eyebrows. "Cesare's an adequate swordsman. He managed to convince his father to order me to duel with him. I'd heard rumors about what had happened to his last dueling partners, so I made sure I never laid a swordtip on him. But I didn't let him touch me, either. He got very angry. Fortunately there were no witnesses, so he didn't have to order me executed to save his pride."
Alexander closed his eyes and shook his head. "I want to leave this city. Eternal she may be, but Roma is corrupt to the very core."
"That's just the world, lad. I don't know anywhere you can run to to get away from the corruption that is people."
"No, I don't believe that. The Master said you weren't corrupt."
"Oh, Sandro . . ." He ran his fingers through Alexander's hair. "I kill people for money, Sandro. Just because it's a straight-forward contract and it's a war that somebody else would be fighting if not me, doesn't change what I do. And I'm good at it, and I'm proud of being good at it. Don't make me into some moral example."
But Alexander just looked at him easily. "The Master did."
Guglielmo closed his eyes. "Go lay down, Sandro. It's been a long night."
Alexander stepped slowly back. "What about you?"
"I'm going to keep watch. I'm used to long nights."
Guglielmo unbuckled his sword belt and wedged the tip of his scabbard into a crack in the floor boards so that the sword hilt was close to hand. Alexander laid down on the blanket and poked at the straw underneath until he had a place to settle his hips and head. He blinked several times at Guglielmo, his dark eyes catching sparks off the lamp.
"Go to sleep," Guglielmo whispered. "I'll wake you in time to catch the boat." The eyeblinks came farther apart until the eyes stayed closed and the breathing deepened.
Guglielmo checked the lamp to make sure it was securely positioned, then untied the laces that held his armor closed up the side so he could pull it off. He was hot and tired and achy and cranky, and he wanted a long drink. Sliding down to sit at the base of the wall, he let the sounds of the barn filter into his mind, become part of the background noise. His sub-conscious would alert him if that sound changed.
He closed his eyes and let his hand stretch out just far enough to touch Alexander's hair. Damp with sweat, the curls were still soft under his fingers. Even as he tried to tell himself that the boy could and did mean nothing to him, he was memorizing the feel of his hair and the sound of his breath. Just a boy. He knew taverns where he could find boys with the same dark eyes and curling hair, plus a smile that counterfeited affection you could almost believe in. In a month of two, when the image of Alexander's soul wasn't quite so fresh, he'd probably go to one of those taverns and act out the fantasies that plagued him.
Alexander would go to Milano, study architecture, marry a nice tradesman's daughter, and raise lots of children. As the protege of someone like Bramante, he'd have a successful, peaceful life, and his time in Roma would only be a story to tell the grandchildren--after suitable edits. Maybe he'd talk about the mercenaries he met, hint at the intrigue he'd brushed against. It would be easy to pretend it happened to someone else, and he could put the inconvenient attractions of a confused youth out of his mind.
In any case, what did Guglielmo think he would do with someone in his life more important than an occasional roll? Someone who would want to keep track of where he was, who would worry when he put on sword and armor and went about his business--someone he would worry about if they didn't come home when they were supposed to. He wondered if Isabetta regretted the choice that had taken her from that farm in the Piedmont and into a mercenary's train.
Stupid man. Go to Fiorenza on Angelo's mission, make the Medici beg a little, visit some of the taverns there. There was the one place near the square--
Alexander gasped in his sleep, then sat up, staring around anxiously.
Guglielmo leaned towards him. "Sandro, what's wrong?"
Guglielmo looked around quickly, but there was no change inside the barn. He rubbed Alexander's shoulder. "Sandro, I think you were having a nightmare."
Still looking in all directions, Alexander reached up to take his hand. "Are you sure?"
"I didn't hear anything, the door's still closed, and the cows don't seem bothered by anything." He scooted closer and pulled Alexander back to lean on him. "Just a dream," he whispered into the dark hair.
Alexander slowly relaxed. He laid his head on Guglielmo's shoulder. "How could Cardinal Fortezzi give himself to that creature? He didn't seem to care about how he corrupted himself. Did a lifetime of serving the church mean so little to him?"
Guglielmo wrapped his arms around the boy. "Surely you lived in the Vatican long enough to know that churchmen are as fallible as the rest of us. Where there is power there will be men fighting for it. Fortezzi wasn't willing to give up his power and wealth just yet. So he made a deal with the devil to keep it."
"He can't think to show up in the Vatican looking like the Master, can he?"
"Who would stop him? Lewes is dead."
Alexander shivered again and snuggled closer. "Fortezzi took my confession."
Guglielmo snorted. "As if he had any right to."
"I lied to him."
"Not that I blame you, but what could innocent you be afraid to tell any churchman?"
Alexander turned his head to look up at him. "I lied about you."
Guglielmo looked away. "I'm sorry, then. You should be able to find a priest in Milano who won't hold it too much against you. It was my fault, anyway." He pulled away from the warm body in his arms.
Alexander didn't move. "I knew Cardinal Fortezzi wouldn't be pleased if I told him. That was one reason I lied. But the other reason was--I didn't know if I could heartily repent of liking the way you looked at me."
"Sandro . . ." Guglielmo didn't dare move. He barely felt able to breathe.
"They tell us that the voice of God in our hearts will tell us the path of righteousness, if we but listen. Well, I've been listening and listening, and if He's telling me to condemn you, then I'm not hearing it." He reached up to touch Guglielmo's face, then pulled his hand back as he frowned. "Unless that means I'm already too lost to hear that voice."
Guglielmo put a finger on Alexander's lips. "No, Sandro. I don't think it's in you to become that lost. You're one of the few good ones. The Master said he could smell it on you. I think that's why he was able to make you do what he said. You're not hardened by distrust and suspicion, like Cesare and I am."
Alexander thought on that for a moment. Innocence was supposed to protect the righteous. Pure faith was the surest shield against threats. How could innocence be both shield and weakness? Monsignor Lewes had confronted the Master with weapons and holy items, not with prayer and anathema alone. The Martyrs in the Coliseum had faced the lions with God in their hearts, but perhaps they'd have been better served with prayer and a good sturdy spear.
He realized Guglielmo's finger still rested on his lips. He kissed it, and Guglielmo snatched his hand away.
"I'm sorry," Alexander said. Guglielmo looked nearly as uncertain as he felt. He couldn't bear the idea that, after everything Guglielmo had done for him, he could be responsible for any pain. He reached up and traced the scar on Guglielmo's cheekbone, wondering idly if the mercenary would be more or less beautiful without this line highlighting his face.
"I know why they preach against this so much," Alexander said softly. "Otherwise, how would anyone know that something so simple was evil? How can feeling so safe with you be wrong?"
Guglielmo took a shaky breath and ran his fingers into Alexander's hair. "Evil is hurting people who don't deserve to be hurt. And I would never hurt you, Sandro."
It was easy to smile. "I know."
It was just as easy to lean over and kiss him. Guglielmo gasped for just a moment, then the fingers in Alexander's hair tightened.
"Please don't be teasing me," Guglielmo whispered.
Alexander frowned. "Teasing you?"
Guglielmo smiled. "No, you're not like that, are you." He put his free arm around Alexander's waist and pulled him close. "You're honest and brave and forthright and still very beautiful."
"I don't feel like any of those things," Alexander admitted.
"Then you'll just have to take my word for it."
Alexander laid his hand flat against Guglielmo's chest, feeling the heat of his skin through the linen. "All right."
He ran his fingers down until he ran across a bump under the cloth. Guglielmo gasped, and he pulled his hand away.
"No, don't do that." Guglielmo tugged his head closer for another kiss. "It felt good."
Alexander carefully touched him again, hesitantly tracing the muscles. He felt Guglielmo's tongue exploring his lips and opened his mouth. He gasped as their tongues touched, and he felt Guglielmo smile. Guglielmo pulled Alexander's shirt free and slid a hand underneath to caress his back. Alexander shivered. No one had touched his bare skin since he was a child. Guglielmo's long-fingered hand slid up his spine, pushing the shirt up. The touch of air on his skin made him shiver again.
Guglielmo stopped kissing him, and Alexander opened eyes he'd forgotten he'd closed. He suspected the look on his face looked the same as his little brother wanting more honey candy, because Guglielmo chuckled and leaned in again, brushing a kiss along Alexander's lips before nibbling across his jaw to his neck. Both of Guglielmo's hands were under his shirt now. Alexander put his arms around Guglielmo, then tugged at his shirt, suddenly needing to know what bare skin would feel like under his own hands.
He felt old scars and hard muscles under skin that seemed to burn. Guglielmo gasped faintly and rested his face in Alexander's hair for a moment, then he was pulling Alexander down onto the blankets in the hay. Alexander blinked in surprise, but he was distracted by Guglielmo pulling off his shirt. When he reached out to touch the edge of one of the new bruises, he saw his fingers were shaking.
Guglielmo caught his hand and raised it to his mouth to kiss the fingertips. "Nothing I'm not very used to, caro."
"Still . . ." When Guglielmo let go of his hand, Alexander ran one finger along a recent, pinker scar that ran just below Guglielmo's left nipple. "I hate to think of you getting hurt."
"Then don't think about it." He leaned down for another kiss as he pulled the front of Alexander's shirt up.
Alexander couldn't help gasping at the touch of Guglielmo's fingers on his belly. He couldn't keep his hands still, and they slid up Guglielmo's arms to his shoulders, then around to trace the curves of his shoulder blades. Guglielmo ran his hand along Alexander's ribs, making him wince.
Guglielmo immediately pulled away. "What's wrong?"
Alexander pulled his shirt up higher. A bruise darkened his side just over his ribs. "Oh, those men who grabbed me off the street. I didn't go quietly."
Guglielmo silently ran his fingers along the edges of the bruise, his tight lips showing what he was thinking.
"It was those men who were guarding me." Alexander gently touched Guglielmo's cheek. "The men you already dealt with."
Guglielmo sighed and rubbed his face against Alexander's hand. "I'd have been there sooner."
Alexander ran his thumb over Guglielmo's lips. "I know."
Carefully, Guglielmo leaned down to kiss the edge of the bruise. Alexander shivered and gasped; his head fell back onto the blanket as the tip of a warm tongue traced across his belly, and he whimpered when another kiss settled just below his navel. Hands that had been wielding weapons delicately explored his hipbones and the edge of his drawers.
"Dio . . ."
He didn't know if he was disappointed or relieved when Guglielmo stopped what he was doing and leaned up to smile at him and brush his hair out of his eyes.
"Breathe, my lovely," he whispered with a kiss. Alexander gasped against Guglielmo's lips as nimble fingers unknotted the tie of his drawers, then slipped inside. He'd been trying so much not to think about how hard his cock was, but his mind was rapidly being drowned out by his body. He had to pull away from the kiss to breathe at the ghosting of fingertips against his balls.
Cloth stopped his own hands' exploration of Guglielmo's body. His fingers were less clever but managed to get the drawers untied. Guglielmo gasped into his neck when Alexander hesitantly followed the long back muscles down as far as he could reach, but by now Alexander was realizing that neither one of them wanted anything to stop.
Between the two of them they got the rest of their clothes off. Guglielmo took one of Alexander's hands in his own, then leaned down to pull both hands down between their chests. Alexander stared up into his blue eyes, breathing hard at the touch of unfamiliar skin. He was trembling when their joined hands reached their groins and Guglielmo shifted his hips to bring their cocks together. Alexander's fingers moved on their own, touching the hard, twitching shaft and making Guglielmo gasp even as his own cock was being fondled.
"Come for me," Guglielmo whispered in his ear. "I want to feel your lovely body shiver for me."
Alexander wrapped his arms around Guglielmo's shoulders and let his legs fall open. Guglielmo nipped at the side of his neck and caressed both cocks together. The building pressure made Alexander whimper desperately; Guglielmo growled and pulled Alexander's mouth to his as he ground their hips together. Alexander held on with arms and legs as his body let go.
Strong arms held him close, and warm, soft lips traced across his forehead and closed eyes. "Beautiful Sandro," was the whisper in his ear. "Beautiful boy."
He'd only ever felt this tranquil emptiness when serving at the altar. Now he knew why the union of two bodies was not to be done casually. He wondered if this was one of the divine mysteries, but his mind wasn't piecing things together too well.
Finally he blinked and looked at Guglielmo. He tried to think of something to say, but contented himself with a lazy caress of a self-satisfied face.
"Go to sleep, caro," Guglielmo smiled.
They'd shifted position, and Alexander's head rested on Guglielmo's shoulder. He slid an arm over Guglielmo's chest and settled his cheek more comfortably.
"I'm going to miss you," he sighed, letting the peace take him.
"I already do," was the faint whisper.
A light touch on his cheek woke Alexander. He blinked up at Guglielmo's face only a few inches above him.
"Time to get up," Guglielmo said. He straightened, and Alexander saw he was dressed in his trousers and shirt, his leather armor in his hand. Alexander suddenly realized his own nudity, then noticed the blanket had been tucked around him. He sat up, holding the blanket over his lap and wondering if this was how Adam had felt after eating the apple.
Guglielmo smiled and nodded at a cup nestled in the straw. "I stole some water from the cows. I think I got all the straw out."
"Thank you." The water eased his oddly sore throat, and he blushed as he remembered how he'd cried out last night. His clothes had been piled neatly within reach and he dressed quickly.
Guglielmo dropped his armor over his head. "Can you tie this for me?"
"Of course." Alexander remembered tying Guglielmo's sleeves that day he'd gone to the inn the first time. He'd been too flustered to noticed the heat of the other man's skin through the cloth, but now his fingers remembered heat and touch and didn't want to cooperate. He felt absurdly guilty for not feeling guilty. Shy and uncertain, yes, but that voice that warned him of evil was still silent.
A touch to his cheek made him jump. He looked up at Guglielmo, who looked as though he hadn't slept much. Alexander reached up to touch the hand resting on his face. Guglielmo started to pull away, but Alexander kept hold. Guglielmo took a deep breath, but let it go.
"Is it very close to dawn?" Alexander asked.
"I let you sleep as long as I could. You were very tired." Guglielmo briefly touched Alexander's lips. "We need to go."
"I know." Alexander let him go.
More people were in the streets than Alexander expected. Carters with food from the country, servants on early household business. It was cool and surprisingly quiet. Over the rooftops came the sound of the bells of St. Peter's, marking morning Mass. Alexander hesitated, wanting to turn and follow that sound back to what he'd thought had been his home. But Cesare would be looking for him, and there was the chance of meeting something much worse walking the corridors.
He caught up with Guglielmo, who was buying fresh, hot rolls from a baker's cart. Guglielmo handed him one silently, glancing around at the people on the street. Guglielmo was frightening in his armor, quiet and watchful. Passers-by gave him nervous looks and lots of room. When he started walking again, Alexander meekly followed.
The riverfront was busy. Guglielmo kept them close to the shadows of the buildings as he scanned the crowds. The few guards about were watching the business of loading the ships and mostly ignoring the people.
Alexander tugged Guglielmo's sleeve. "There's the Maestro."
Bramante was pacing at the foot of a gangplank, scanning the crowd and trying to peer over people's heads to see down the dock.
Guglielmo grabbed Alexander's arm. "Not yet."
"There's no one around--"
His left hand jumping to his sword hilt, Guglielmo spun.
Angelo took a step back, hands raised. "At least I didn't get as close to you as I thought I would."
Guglielmo let his breath out very slowly as his shoulders relaxed. "Angelo."
"Will." Angelo studied Guglielmo for a few moments, looked Alexander over, then stepped forward to hug Guglielmo. "You hurt anywhere?"
"Not that matters." Guglielmo reached up to squeeze Angelo's arms, then stepped back.
Angelo noticed the bundle he held and tossed it to Alexander. "There, the clothes from your shopping trip. Isabetta threatened to geld me if I didn't make sure you got those."
Alexander clutched the bundle and the kindness to his chest. "Is she all right? I heard there was trouble at the inn."
"She's fine, lad." The captain of mercenary's smile was wolfish. "The trouble was just a wee bit of exercise before bed, nothing to concern yourself with."
"Alexander!" Bramante strode up. "Thank god, boy, you're here." He hugged Alexander breathless for a moment, then stepped back to look him over. "And you look like you've had a rough night." He looked at Guglielmo and frowned. "Is it settled?"
Guglielmo passed the look to Angelo. "Is it?"
Bramante took Alexander's arm. "We need to go, lad. The captain's just waiting on us."
Alexander stared at Guglielmo. He wanted to say something, but matters between them were too big for words. "What are you going to do? You can't stay in the city, can you?"
Guglielmo nodded at Angelo. "This one has something he wants me to do in Fiorenza."
"My village is near Fiorenza. I'll have to write to my family and tell them I've gone to Milano."
Guglielmo took a small step towards him. "What's the village? I could stop by and tell them myself."
Alexander smiled. "That's very kind, but my father's going to be confused enough with finding out I've gone to Milano without trying to explain how I know a soldier well enough for him to deliver messages."
He couldn't think of anything else to say. There were too many people around for him to even hint at what had happened in the night, and he couldn't imagine what he would say in any case.
Bramante tugged on his arm again. "Alexander, we need to hurry."
"Yes, Maestro, but just a moment."
He twisted out of Bramante's grip, hesitated just a moment, then hugged Guglielmo as hard as he could. He felt Guglielmo's arms around him, the fingers digging into his back.
"Be safe," he whispered. "Try not to die."
Guglielmo rested his cheek against Alexander's hair. "I haven't so far."
Alexander pushed away, and his hand was slow to let go of Guglielmo's arm. He looked at Angelo. "Please look after him, Captain."
Angelo nodded with a dark, thoughtful look. "I intend to. It looks like you need to go now, Sandro."
"Yes, sir. Thank you."
One last look at Guglielmo, the urge to touch his lips resisted, and he turned to follow Maestro Bramante to the ship.
Guglielmo had barely taken half a step before Angelo's hand was on his shoulder.
"I know." He watched Bramante talking to the man at the foot of the gangplank, then Alexander was following his master up onto the ship. Alexander paused at the rail to look back. Even at this distance, Guglielmo could see he was blinking rapidly. Bramante said something to him, and he wiped his eyes and turned away. He was lost in the bustle of sailors tossing ropes from ship to shore and getting ready to push away from the dock.
Angelo stepped up behind him, and Guglielmo let himself rest back against the broad chest of his captain.
"I don't know if Milano is far enough to stay out of Cesare's reach," he said.
"The Borgias have no friends in Milano," Angelo said.
"All the more reason for Cesare to worry about who Sandro might talk to. He's not safe there."
Angelo sighed and pulled Guglielmo around to face him. "You're not going to Milano, Will. You're going to Fiorenza, if anywhere."
The captain on the ship yelled an order. The sailors shouted in reply, and heavy poles reached out from the ship to push against the dock. A small sail unfurled to catch the morning breeze.
"Damn it, he's just a boy," Guglielmo snarled against the lump in his throat.
Angelo sighed, then ran a finger along one of the new slashes on Guglielmo's armor. "Let's go home, Will."
The ship reached the main current and picked up speed downstream. Guglielmo finally turned away. "Cesare will look for me there first."
Angelo smiled again. "There were two men watching the inn when I left. Giancarlo is watching them, and he's watching Thomas, who's at the corner. Thomas is watching Giancarlo, and he's watching for us. When he sees us, he'll signal Giancarlo, and those two men won't be watching anything any more." He put an arm around Guglielmo's shoulders. "Now, come on. Get cleaned up, get some sleep, let Isabetta fuss and feed you, and we'll have you out of the city by Vespers."
Guglielmo nodded, but he took one last look downstream before he walked away to a future he understood.
Roma, 1504, six years later
The walls of Old St. Peter's were coming down. One of the first orders of Pope Julius II on his accession to the Papacy in 1503 was for the rebuilding of the heart-church of Christendom, and he'd brought the architect Bramante back from Milano to oversee the reinvention of Roma.
Alessandro, who called himself Il Nessuno these days as well as the original version of his given name, was a happy man. He had never developed the ability to design new buildings, but Maestro Bramante swore by his ability to look at a design and tell how to make it structurally possible. The last few years had been spent delightedly arguing aesthetics and physics with Bramante and da Vinci and anyone else who stopped by the studio.
Now they were back in Roma, with a studio and workshop in one of the wings of the palace. While Bramante and his design students covered acres of paper in sketches both practical and fantastic, Alessandro oversaw the demolition of the old church.
Alessandro had stood before the high altar, remembering chants and incense and contentment, then he'd crossed himself and given the order to bring in the scaffolds and crowbars. The altar itself and the entrance to the grotto below was covered with an elaborate framework of canvas. This was still St. Peter's, the High Altar of the Vatican, and no churchman was willing to give it up for the years it would take to rebuild. Alessandro hadn't really relaxed until the portion of the roof over the altar was finally removed and bits stopped falling on the celebrants of Mass.
Relics and antiquities had to be removed to safe storage. The crypts had to be marked and protected, and the catacombs below mapped to make sure the footings of the new basilica were solid. Alessandro had no time to think of the monsters lurking in the night or the passions of a boy ignorant of the world. Until the day he looked down from a scaffold in the nave and saw a slim figure in black and red and familiar blue eyes looking back at him.
Guglielmo hadn't actually intended to come take a look at the building site that had replaced St. Peter's. He'd been casually strolling around the city, listening to street talk, getting a feel for how Roma was changing under the new Pope. He hadn't been in the city since before Pope Alexander's last illness, and he'd been paying more attention to what the French were up to, in any case.
The company had been prepared to pull up stakes and look for other opportunities when Pope Alexander had died, but Julius was a clever fellow and not prone to blaming the tool for the hand that wielded it. Like the Papal Guard itself, the Scourge of Europe was loyal to the Papal Throne--and its treasury--regardless of who sat in it. Julius, like Alexander before him, saw the advantages in having a company of trained soldiers without other loyalties that would do his bidding.
Over the past few years Guglielmo had traveled to Fiorenza, Venice, Napoli, even some forays into Spain and France. His returns to Roma had been quiet and brief. With Julius' accession to the throne, however, the reins of influence changed hands. Cesare Borgia had fled to Napoli, and Guglielmo had come home.
He didn't remember when he'd heard about Julius' grand scheme to renovate the city and that Donato Bramante was the architect chosen to oversee things. If asked, he'd have sworn that he spared only a passing thought on the boy who had obsessed him before. Six years was a long time. People changed.
Still, he found himself in the plaza before the remains of the great church, picking his away around building supplies and busy workmen who gave him curious, guarded looks. He paid little attention to them, though he automatically cataloged them all.
It was the laugh that caught him, luring him into the gutted interior of the church.
"Alessandro!" a workman called across the nave. "Are we trying to save the floor?"
"We were going to try," was the reply from a scaffold near the wall. "Let me guess, it's too late."
There was the laugh again, and Guglielmo stared up at the man who was looking towards a cracked section of marble flooring.
More had changed than the name. Alexander--Alessandro, now, apparently--had reached his full height, and he was easily the size of Angelo now. The workshirt didn't do much to hide the muscled arms and shoulders, and his hands had the rough look that comes with heavy labor conducted with stone and hammers and other unforgiving elements. There'd be thick callouses now; the smooth hands that had been gentle yet urgent on Guglielmo's skin were a thing of the past.
Guglielmo took a step back. That was all he needed to see: Alessandro was safe and apparently thriving, giving orders and being obeyed. Just as he started to leave, Alessandro looked up. They stared at each other for several moments, then Alessandro grinned and hurried for the ladder off the scaffold. Guglilemo thought very seriously about slipping away into the confusion of the workmen while Alessandro was distracted, but he stayed and watched his past approach.
The smile faded as Alessandro came closer, but it didn't go away entirely. Guglielmo found himself smiling in return.
"I didn't think to see you here at the Vatican," Alessandro said.
"I haven't been in the city much the last few years, I thought I'd come see what all the fuss was about." Guglielmo looked around at the demolition work. "So you're pulling it down."
"And then we're going to build a new one, bigger and more beautiful."
"And you're in charge."
Alessandro shrugged. "Of this part. Maestro creates dreams, I help create realities." He took a step closer, and Guglielmo managed not to back up. "How are you?"
Alessandro's smile was looking more than a little annoyed through the amusement. "That's nice. How about everyone else?"
Guglielmo sighed. "Well, we lost Thomas in a mountain skirmish two years ago."
"I'm guessing you don't mean he wandered away."
"And the others?" Alessandro asked after a moment.
Guglielmo didn't want to do this. He was remembering things: sounds, touches, smells. All that was in the past, though, and if there was one thing he'd learned, the past is never reborn. Sandro had been young and afraid when he'd let Guglielmo hold him; he wasn't that young any more, and he looked like nothing could ever frighten him that badly again. This was just two friends catching up after years apart, and Guglielmo wanted the comfort of his fantasies instead.
Simpler to just cooperate. "Let's see, three years ago Angelo became besotted with the rich widow of a silversmith, and Isabetta missed his heart by inches when she threw a knife at him."
"Oh, no!" Alessandro gasped. "She left him?"
Guglielmo had to smile. "Only for as long as it took Angelo to get out of bed, get on his horse and follow her. He ordered her to come back, she refused at the top of her lungs, he collapsed bleeding at her feet, and she dragged him back here pledging eternal love in between cursing him to more hells than I've ever heard of." His smile became smug. "They let me be godfather to their brat."
Alessandro laughed. "They have a child? That's wonderful! Are you all still at the same inn?"
"Yes, we are." The smile faded. "Not that I'm there often. I travel for Angelo, since he doesn't like leaving Isabetta and the baby." Especially if this new version of the boy he'd--cared about was going to come visit.
This new man stared at him for a puzzled moment, and the uncertainty in the dark eyes looked familiar. Six years was unravelling in Guglielmo's head, and he fiercely reminded himself that the beautiful boy in his memories had been eager to get away from the world of soldiers and danger, away from him. Guglielmo's proclivities were still considered anathema, and Alessandro, valued and visible member of His Holiness' pet project, had more to lose than Alexander the inconsequential novice. Safest to let it go, to let it be an unspoken part of the past.
A young churchman bustled towards them, directed their way by one of the workmen. "Excuse me? Are you the overseer here? I'm supposed to find Alessandro il Nessuno."
Alessandro hesitated, then nodded at the man. "That's me."
"Alexander the Nobody," Guglielmo said softly. Alessandro glanced at him and grinned.
The churchman huffed impatiently. "I'm sorry to interrupt, signores, but Bishop Emanuele is irate. He wants to know why your men are digging up the catacombs."
Alessandro sighed. "They're not digging up, they're only surveying."
"Then where is all the dirt coming from down there?"
Guglielmo stepped back. "You're a busy man, Sandro. You'd best get back to work."
Alessandro took a step towards him, but the churchman tugged on his sleeve. "Guglielmo . . ."
Guglielmo paused to fix in his mind the picture of tall, strong, important Alessandro. "Good-bye, Brother Nobody." People made way for him as he strode out.
The men finished work as the day's heat began settling in. Alessandro headed back to Maestro Bramante's studio to do the most boring part of his job, the books. His desk was tucked in a corner away from the designers' section of the large room, something he was grateful for when the students started bickering with each other over who had stolen whose idea and which ancient Greek temple was more perfect.
As usual, Maestro Bramante came over after Alessandro had finished writing down the day's work. He settled into the chair next to the desk and sighed at the drawing-covered scroll in his hand. "I don't care if it's one of the perfect forms, a pyramid will not do as part of the high altar. Anything interesting happen today?"
"Let's see, Benedetto broke one of the big marble pavers by dropping a hammer from thirty feet up, but it cracked into large pieces, so we still might be able to salvage it. Also, there's a Bishop who thinks we're trying to dig up dead popes down in the catacombs. It seems that piles of dirt are appearing in side passages."
"The surveying doesn't require any digging."
"I went down to check. I found the dirt, but I also found the reason." Alessandro grinned. "A pair of novices are certain there's an ancient treasure buried down there. They've been digging for weeks."
Bramante shook his head. "Novices. Always getting into trouble."
Alessandro smiled back at his master. He'd never hidden the fact that he'd been a priestly novice himself before becoming Bramante's student, but he let everyone assume he'd come straight from Fiorenza, not Roma. Bramante let him keep his secret.
His smile slipped away. "And I had a visitor." Bramante cocked his head. "Guglielmo il Sanguinante wandered by."
"Guglielmo--oh, the soldier! The one who helped you. Still alive, then. He must be very good at his business."
"It appears so."
"Did he know you were here? Is that why he came by?"
Alessandro blinked. "I don't know. He didn't seem too pleased when I went to talk him."
Bramante shrugged. "Perhaps he didn't like getting caught spying." He tapped the scroll he held on Alessandro's desk. "I'm having dinner with His Holiness' chamberlain tonight. Do you want to come with me? I'm taking Vincenzo and Gandalfo."
"No, thank you, Maestro. I'll just eat in my room."
"Oh, don't stay in again. At least go out to an inn or something. Let me get you an invitation to one of the Guildmaster's houses. Maybe you could meet someone nice."
Alessandro laughed. "Like I did in Milano?"
"Just because Simonetta was a wretched tease and broke your heart, that's no reason to judge all women by her standard."
"I'm just in no hurry to be lied to again. I didn't even know she was seeing Marco at the same time she was leading me on." He shook his head. "Marco the stone cutter."
"Marco the son and heir of the owner of a very profitable quarry." Bramante patted Alessandro's shoulder. "I'm sure if all things were equal, she would have chosen you. A woman is not to blame if she manages affairs to her own best advantage."
"No, I understand that, I do. But she lied to me."
"It's what they do, my boy. If ever you find a woman who tells you a truth you want to hear, then hold to her and never let her go. Which you're not going to be able to do if you stay in your room every night. Go down to the mason's quarter, they all know you down there. I'm sure they have lovely sisters and daughters and nieces they're dying to introduce you to."
Alessandro laughed. "I'm sure they do. All right, I'll go out. And if you're going to be taking Vincenzo and Gandalfo to meet noble churchmen, you'd better get them cleaned up."
Bramante looked over to where a small scuffle involving ink had broken out. "Blessed saints. But it's too late to cancel on the chamberlain. I imagine you're going to have a better evening than I. Stop that, you two!"
Alessandro tidied up his desk and went to the room in Bramante's suite he shared with the other students. He laid on his bed and thought, ignoring Vincenzo and Gandalfo when they came in to bicker and look for clean clothes.
He hadn't thought of Simonetta in ages. Apparently several girls in the builders' community of Milano had been noticing Bramante's new student, but Simonetta was the first one Alessandro had noticed back. Red-blonde hair and sea green eyes, a strong figure and delicate grace. She'd smiled at him, then ducked her head, and Alessandro had forgotten how to walk straight. In the midst of his distraction, he'd felt some relief. He'd begun to wonder if there was a woman in the world who could affect him the way Guglielmo had.
He had eventually found a priest to confess to. Father Zacharias had scolded him for risking himself for so long with a grave sin on his conscience. To his shame, Alessandro had not confessed quite everything. He'd admitted to the attraction to another man, to lustful thoughts, and to enough interaction to know the attraction went both ways. His confessor had been dismayed enough at those revelations, the rest didn't need to be brought up.
He should have done personal penance until the memory of Guglielmo's smile held nothing of pleasure. He should have fasted and scourged himself every time he remembered the soft, amazed voice and the gentle touch. He should not feel so desolate that Guglielmo had been anxious to get away from him today.
Vincenzo and Gandalfo were long gone; Alessandro let himself flop over dramatically as he sighed. Nothing had happened between himself and Simonetta other than some kisses and a few daring touches that even layers of cloth couldn't make innocent. Father Zacharias had only chuckled knowingly about young men and women and how it was better to marry than to burn. The people of his new community had nodded to each other and smiled.
Then one day Simonetta had kissed him sweetly and told him that her father, one of the masters of the leatherworkers guild, had arranged matters with Marco's father, and she'd strolled away on Marco's arm with every evidence of perfect understanding between them. Alessandro had received sympathy and reassurance that women were conniving schemers but he'd eventually find one who connived in his favor.
He didn't want conniving. He wanted someone who would tell him a simple truth he could trust. Even if it was only "I think you're nice, but that man over there is more appealing." At least he'd know. He'd lost any patience he might have had with prevarication at the hands of Cesare Borgia and Cardinal Fortezzi.
Guglielmo had never lied to him. For all the allegedly unnatural passion and unhallowed dealings between them, Alessandro didn't think he'd been lied to. Guglielmo had made his interest known, and Alessandro now understood that he could have been far more devious in pressing his attentions. It seemed very wrong that a relationship condemned by every tenet of law and faith should seem the most comforting and least complicated of his life.
Bramante had reassured him that he couldn't judge his future by his first romance. He kept being introduced to appropriate daughters and sisters and nieces. But it seemed so involved, and he looked for something simple.
He sat up slowly. Simple feelings didn't necessarily lead to a simple life. Wanting something didn't mean you should have it. Saying he wanted to see Isabetta and Angelo's child was simply a convenient truth. A near occasion to sin, as Father Zacharias would say. Alessandro laughed, remembering Guglielmo's eagerness to get away from him. Maybe only a near occasion to memories. In any case, he was hungry and the Crusader's Kiss was an inn. If nothing else, maybe he could put memories in the past for good and all and set his future free.
Gianni at the Crusaders Kiss had changed very little in six years. He obviously didn't recognize the man who had just come in, though Alessandro didn't blame him. The last time Gianni had seen Alessandro, he'd been slighter of build, not nearly as well dressed, and completely lost in the world outside the church.
"Welcome, young signor," Gianni said, bustling out from behind the counter. "What can I do for you?"
Alessandro thought of asking for Guglielmo, but his courage failed him. "Is Isabetta here? I'm--an old friend." It seemed the easiest description for someone in whose behalf she'd been attacked in the street.
Gianni looked him over again, a touch more suspiciously. "Let me check, sir." He disappeared behind the door to the kitchen.
On the other side of the room, Alessandro saw a young woman cleaning the tables. Caterina had grown even more lovely. Alessandro wondered if Thomas Wyndham had ever succeeded in seducing her over the chess board and if she mourned him.
He heard someone gasp behind him. "Sandro?"
Isabetta could have been any cheerful young Roman matron. She carried the few extra pounds with her same grace, and the faint new lines on her face came more from laughter than pain. Alessandro barely had time to catalogue the changes before she was running into his arms.
She grinned up at him. "You're not so easy to knock down, now." She patted his shoulders. "Look at you, all grown up. Just wait until Guglielmo sees you."
"Oh, um--he already has."
"He has?" She stepped back and narrowed her eyes. "When?"
"Today. I'm working on St. Peter's, and he came by."
"Really. He didn't say." She looked upstairs to where the rooms were, then back at Alessandro. "And now you're here." Her smile would have flattered any smug cat.
He was saved from answering by the sound of metal banging and a child's voice yelling, "Mama! Mama, sword!"
Isabetta paled. "Oh, Blessed Mother, not again."
Coming around the end of the counter was a small black-haired boy, maybe three years old, with a large pot lid in his left hand and a larger carving knife in his right. He waved the knife enthusiastically in the air. "Sword!"
Isabetta put her hands on her hips. "Niccolo, put that knife down right now."
"Sword!" Niccolo spotted Alessandro and lost his giddy, gap-toothed grin. The suspicious look on his face left no doubt that this was Angelo's son. He frowned mightily, pulled his "shield" in close, and pointed the knife at the stranger.
"Niccolo, do not point that at Sandro, he's a friend."
The boy looked at his mother, looked back at Alessandro, and lowered the point of his knife a couple of inches. He didn't stop scowling, though.
Isabetta sighed. "Angelo! Come in here!"
Within seconds, the door to the stableyard flew open and Angelo rushed in. "What's wrong!"
"Disarm your son. Again."
"Again?" Angelo sighed and looked down at Niccolo, who stared up with big blue eyes just like his mother. "Didn't we tell you not to play with the knives, young man?"
Niccolo blinked. "Sword," he said very quietly.
Angelo pursed his lips, in an effort to keep from smiling, Alessandro assumed. The smile was winning. Angelo went down on one knee. "You can have a sword when you're older. Didn't your mother tell you to put that down?"
The boy looked at Isabetta, his lip quivering, then back at Angel. "Yes, Da."
Angelo held out his hand, and Niccolo very slowly held out the knife, then hung his head when Angelo took it.
"Thank you," Angelo said. "The kitchen knives aren't swords, and you shouldn't play with them either. Besides, you were holding it wrong." He plucked up his son and settled the boy on his knee as he demonstrated a grip on the knife hilt. "Don't tuck your thumb under, you want to have the thumb over the fingers--though your hands are too small still, and this is the wrong kind of hilt anyway--"
"Angelo!" Isabetta protested.
"Oh, right." He looked sternly at Niccolo. "Leave the knives alone, Niccolo, understand?"
Niccolo nodded quickly, still clinging to his pot lid shield.
Angelo set him back on the floor and kissed him on the head. "Go take that back to the kitchen."
As Niccolo scurried off, Angelo straightened and put the knife on the counter. Then he noticed the other person in the room, and he did a double take. "I'm sorry, I didn't see you there."
Isabetta tsked. "Angelo, it's Sandro. Guglielmo's Sandro."
Alessandro blushed as Angelo grinned and looked him over. "You've grown, boy."
"It happens, Captain."
Angelo looked up towards the rooms. "Let me get Will, let him know you're here."
"Oh, Will already knows," Isabetta said cheerfully. "Will went by St. Peter's and saw Sandro there."
"Really? He didn't say."
"No, he didn't, did he."
Alessandro did not like the way those two were looking at each other. They were just turning to look at him when the stableyard door opened again. A slight young man with blond hair came in, wobbling slightly.
"All the practice weapons are put away, Captain," he said, blinking. "May I go and die now somewhere?"
"Yes, Andre, you can go."
"Thank you, Captain." He turned and wobbled out, bumping into the doorjamb as he went.
Angelo nodded towards the door. "Brother Andre. He was at the monastery where we took Thomas after a bad fight . . ."
"Guglielmo told me about Thomas."
Relieved, Angelo nodded. "In any case, Brother Andre helped us with Thomas, then said he was being stifled in the monastery and yearned for a life of adventure and could he please come with us. Fortunately he can do the books, because he's not doing at all well learning how to fight."
Alessandro had to laugh. "I sympathize with him."
Isabetta took his arm and conducted him to the chairs around the main table. "Now, how long have you been in Roma, and why haven't you been to see us before now?"
"I--didn't know if you were still here or not."
"And you didn't think to just stop by and check?"
Her pout was murderous, but Alessandro was trying not to laugh. It was very obvious she had taken no lasting ill effects from that attack in the street six years ago. He doubted she was in a mood to be laughed at, though.
"You have a very beautiful son," he said instead. She blinked at him, then grinned in delighted motherhood.
Angelo snorted. "Well parried, Sandro. How about instead of telling us why you haven't come to see us before, why are you here now?"
"Oh, well . . ." If he couldn't admit it to these two, then he had no business thinking the things he was. "I came to see Guglielmo."
Isabetta and Angelo glanced at each other. Isabetta was nearly smirking, but Angelo was reserving judgement as he studied Alessandro. "Why do you want to see Guglielmo?" he finally asked.
What did he dare admit to? Guglielmo trusted these two, so he knew he could as well. He realized Angelo was looking at him with the same suspicious thoughtfulness as Simonetta's father had. And probably for the same reasons. The question had not been "what" did he want with Guglielmo--they probably knew fairly well what Alessandro and Guglielmo had gotten up to--but "why."
"He never lied to me," he finally said. "He never pretended to be anything other than what he was, and he never tried to push me into anything I didn't want to do. I'm beginning to realize how rare that is."
Angelo laughed again. "You do, do you? Been cutting that large a swath through the ladies of Milano?"
He wasn't the naive shepherd's son and novice anymore. "I wish it was just the ladies I've learned that lesson from, Captain." He lived among artists and those who wanted to get close to artists. He'd learned early how to stop being confused or shocked and how to be firm when saying No. He sometimes wondered if the sins he'd been taught to avoid were seen by some people as a list of things to accomplish.
Angelo nodded silently.
"It's almost sad," he finally said. "Guglielmo, a mercenary, is the only person who's been interested in me who hasn't tried to use me somehow. I wonder if I'd care if I didn't know the difference." He shook his head. "Anyway, that's long past."
Isabetta nodded and stood up. "I should go check on my offspring, see what he's gotten himself into. You men talk, and you're staying for dinner, Sandro."
Alessandro smiled. "Yes, ma'am." She headed off to the kitchens.
Angelo reached for the jug of wine and the goblets, pouring for both of them. "Why aren't you looking for a nice girl to moon over? Haven't you found one to interest you?"
"Yes. It didn't work out. Unfortunately, there aren't enough Isabettas in the world."
The infamous captain of mercenaries smiled in the direction Isabetta had gone. "No, there aren't. But I don't care, because I've got mine."
"I want that," Alessandro said abruptly. "I want to find someone to look at me the way you two look at each other. And where they tell me to look for it, I'm not finding it."
Angelo sipped from his cup, studying Alessandro. "There are some places the church and most of the world would be very upset to discover you'd been looking. Girls are safer."
"Even the ones that lie to you or tell you you're good enough but only until something better comes along?"
"It's a bit safer than them throwing knives at you." Angelo rubbed his chest thoughtfully.
"At least you knew exactly how she felt."
Angelo frowned. "There are simpler ways, you know."
Alessandro shrugged and stared into his goblet. "For all that I was so terrified six years ago, I can't help remembering how safe I felt when I was with Guglielmo. I miss that." He drained his cup and let Angelo silently refill it.
As Isabetta slipped into his room and closed the door behind her, Guglielmo didn't look up from where he lay on his bed attempting to balance a dagger on end in the palm of his hand.
"You should come down," she said.
"No, I shouldn't." The dagger fell over, and he placed the hilt in the middle of his palm again.
"Yes, you should."
"Why should I?"
"There's someone here to see you."
The dagger fell over again. "I know who's here."
Isabetta blinked. "You do?"
Guglielmo started tossing the dagger up and catching it. "I heard you yell at your demon spawn and looked out to make sure he wasn't about to burn the place down. I know who's down there."
"So why not come down and see him?" He didn't answer, just continued tossing and catching the dagger. Isabetta walked over and snatched the dagger out of the air, then sat down on the edge of the bed. "He says he came to see you."
Guglielmo rolled out the other side and started pacing. "Just stay out of it, Isabetta. I've got no reason to see him."
"Lying is a sin."
He stopped and stared at her. "So is bearing a child out of wedlock, but that didn't stop you."
"Will . . ."
He went back and dropped onto the edge of the bed opposite her. "Just leave it, please?"
"He came to see you," she said softly. "He was talking about how you were the only one who's never tried to use him."
"I'm not in the mood for nostalgia tonight."
"You want more?"
He glared at her, expecting to see a smirk, but there was only a sad smile. "What I want and what I get are two different things. Maybe, if Sandro could have stayed in Roma six years ago, I might have gotten both. By now he knows there's more in the world than what an irritable soldier can offer, and he may just want something he doesn't have to hide from the neighbors."
"You must have had a very long talk when you saw him up at St. Peter's, to know so much about what he wants." Guglielmo had to look away, and Isabetta nodded. She stood up and held her hand out to Guglielmo. "He's staying for dinner, and you're not hiding up here. If nothing else, you two were friends enough to take one evening to catch up on everything."
He knew he looked no older than Niccolo when he pouted, but that was the only reply he had. He stood up, but he didn't take her hand, telling himself that was the manly choice.
Alessandro was seated on Angelo's right hand at the dinner table, so Guglielmo took a seat near the foot. He could still take part in the conversation if he wanted, but he could retreat when he wanted, as well.
The company had changed most of its members in six years. Only a handful remembered those days when the young novice had been a regular fixture at the mercenaries' inn, and those few remembered enough not to make a fuss over Guglielmo's detachment. Guglielmo listened to Alessandro's tales of life among the volatile artists and thinkers of Milano. One tale of his having to keep Bramante and someone named Leonardo from throwing things at each other in an argument over the mathematics of domes made Isabetta nearly choke from laughing. Alessandro's grin made Guglielmo look away.
He watched Caterina moving around the tables, refilling goblets. When Giancarlo held his cup up to make refilling easier for her, she smiled at him and ran her hand along his shoulder when she was done. Guglielmo wondered how many people knew that, along with all Thomas' worldly goods, Giancarlo had also inherited Caterina's affections--though Giancarlo treated Caterina with more consideration than Thomas ever did. Her father, Gianni, didn't spend spare hours glaring at Giancarlo, and Guglielmo suspected young Niccolo would have a playmate before not too much longer.
Feeling calmer, he looked back up the table and caught Alessandro watching him. He didn't look away. The wide-eyed boy amazed with the bizarre new world he found himself in was gone. Guglielmo missed that trusting eagerness to see what would happen next. This new man had spent the last several years in a very sophisticated setting, and Guglielmo wished he could have seen the boy seeing all those things for the first time.
Was that what he'd been . . . fond of? The innocence? The chance to teach young Alexander new things? Was it the education of someone inexperienced that he longed for, or was it wanting to be the one Alessandro learned from?
Suddenly the meal was finished, and he barely remembered eating. At the head of the table, Angelo and Isabetta were inviting Alessandro out to the stableyard for some wine in the evening air. Guglielmo debated going back to his room, but cowardice irked him.
Out in the courtyard, Alessandro sat down at the small table next to Isabetta. The men scattered around with their own wine and amusements. Guglielmo leaned against the wall near Alessandro. Angelo intercepted Brother Andre before he could disappear into the stables. The former monk tried his best martyr's look, but Angelo made him get one of the practice swords to practice forms.
Guglielmo watched the practice instead of Alessandro, but he was close enough to hear the conversation. Isabetta was taking advantage of the relative privacy to discuss Alessandro's love life. The young man dithered, then admitted that there had been a girl in Milano he'd been interested in. Guglielmo managed not to crush the goblet he held.
"And?" Isabetta asked eagerly. "What happened?"
"She found someone else." The very brevity told of the pain, and Isabetta nodded sympathetically. Guglielmo glared at her from the corner of his eye, just in time to see her glance his way and smile smugly.
"I'm sure there's someone nice for you here in Roma."
Alessandro studied the cup in his hand. "I hate the games I see people playing. Why won't people just admit they like someone without all the hinting and guessing and maybe-maybe not?"
Isabetta kept looking at Guglielmo. "People don't like risking themselves. They're afraid if they admit they like someone, that they'll get hurt. Few people are strong enough to be that honest."
"I know. But that's what I want. Someone who will just be honest with me."
"Can you be that strong back?"
Alessandro's shoulders hunched. "I think so. I want to be. I used to be. Sometimes I miss the way I was before I left."
Guglielmo's stomach twisted.
"Knowing what I wanted was simple, and I trusted that I knew the difference between right and wrong."
Isabetta frowned. "You don't know that any more?"
"I think I do. The world is a lot more complicated outside the church. So much out here is supposed to be evil, but, really, it's not. I've seen real evil, and very little comes close."
She laughed. "Unfortunately, most people don't agree with our definitions of evil."
Alessandro nodded. "I know. But I don't want that to keep me from the things I want. Even the things the world says I'm not supposed to want."
Isabetta put a hand on his shoulder and leaned closer. "You may have noticed that we don't care much about 'supposed to' around here."
Alessandro jumped, and Isabetta glared at Angelo. "Yes, Captain?"
Angelo came over, leaving Brother Andre panting and looking pathetic in the middle of the courtyard. "Did Will teach you anything about swords?"
"No, he didn't, just some knife work."
"Damn, I was hoping you could help poor Brother Andre here."
Angelo frowned. "Have you learned any sword work yet? You shouldn't depend on just knife work."
Isabetta tsked. "Angelo, you can see what he's learned another time, we're just getting reacquainted and having a lovely talk."
"Still . . ." Angelo looked at Guglielmo. "Will, teach him some sword work, you can't just leave him half trained."
Guglielmo wondered how long a knife he'd need to get through that big chest and carve out Angelo's heart. "You do remember he doesn't work for you and you're not allowed to order him around, right?" Out of the corner of his eye he saw Alessandro watching him, but he focused on Angelo.
Angelo's grin looked cheerful and innocent to anyone who didn't know him as well as Guglielmo did. "Well, I, for one, hope he plans on coming around on a regular basis, and if he does he might as well pick up some tips on defending himself."
"You teach him, then. Besides, I'm going out of town."
Angelo blinked. "No, you're not."
"Yes, I am."
"It's all right, Captain," Alessandro said. "If he doesn't want to teach me, we can't force him." He glanced at Guglielmo, who twitched at the closed look on his face. He stood up and leaned over to kiss Isabetta's cheek. "I should be going anyway."
"Already?" she protested.
Guglielmo forgot he'd been trying not to notice Alessandro. "Bramante gives you a curfew?"
Alessandro blinked at him. "No, but he might need help with the new apprentices. They went to a formal dinner tonight, and they're not quite civilized yet."
The glint of humor in those dark eyes unhitched more of Guglielmo's resolve. "And you have been civilized?" He wondered if he sounded wistful to anyone else.
The grin he got back was less innocent than in the past, but it was still as cheerful. "I have it on the best authority that I'm a hopeless bumpkin who will never be fit for proper society."
"Oh, good. Proper society is dull, anyway."
Angelo smiled broadly. "You should make sure he gets back safely, Will."
Isabetta nodded. "Oh, definitely." She smiled at Alessandro. "The streets are no safer than they were before, you know."
Alessandro was fighting his own smile. "I have wandered around before now, I'll probably be fine."
"We're just going to make sure." Isabetta gave Guglielmo a stern look. "Make sure he gets home safely."
Guglielmo stared at them in disbelief. "You know they're not going to give up until you agree"
Alessandro said. " Just humor them, OK?" He moved closer. "If you want, you could just go far enough to get out of their sight and leave me somewhere."
The self-deprecating look on Alessandro's face nearly gutted him. "I don't abandon my jobs halfway through. Let me get my sword." As he headed into the inn, he caught Angelo smirking. Angelo had the decency to wipe the grin away, though the innocent look had never worked for him.
"Don't dawdle!" Isabetta called after them as they headed out of the courtyard.
Guglielmo shook his head. "Motherhood has only made her worse at ordering everyone around."
Alessandro grinned. "But seeing Angelo showing the boy the proper way to hold a knife was fun"
"The man's utterly besotted. He's looking for a pony so he can start teaching the brat how to ride."
Guglielmo smiled as Alessandro laughed. He could get used to hearing that.
Alessandro had walked through Roma without a qualm several times since his return, but walking beside Guglielmo now made him remember the days when he'd been afraid. He caught himself glancing into alleys as the shadows rose.
"Did you ever hear anything?" he asked softly.
"About what?" Guglielmo asked.
Guglielmo's casual air flickered. "Oh."
"You went to Fiorenza, didn't you?"
"Left that day."
"I've always hated that we had to leave Monsignor Lewes there."
Guglielmo let a few moments go by. "Some men from England came to the inn a couple of months after, looking for me. Angelo wouldn't tell them where I was, but they found me on the road to France. They wanted to know about Lewes."
"How did they find you? What did you tell them?"
He smiled slightly. "I don't know, and as little as possible." The smile slipped away. "They seemed to know most of it already. They mostly wanted to know about what happened to Fortezzi. I was going to tell them I didn't know anything, but they didn't seem the sort to be surprised by the tale, so I said that creature who called himself the Master took him away. They seemed to know what to make of that."
"Did Monsignor Lewes get a decent burial?"
"Always the churchman, aren't you?"
Alessandro glared. "Everyone deserves a decent burial. Even you."
"Thank you. But I don't know about Lewes. I figured it wasn't a good idea to attract attention by asking." He looked over at Alessandro. "It's old news, Sandro. Lewes is past caring. I'd let it lie."
"I suppose you're right. I'm surprised those men from England didn't look for me."
Guglielmo grinned. "They did. They may have had a little trouble finding you, though, since I told them your name was Georgio and you left Roma to become an apprentice printer in Serrano."
Alessandro laughed. He'd missed Guglielmo's unapologetic dishonesty. It was reassuring to know the mercenary was on your side. Alessandro's remembered unease at walking through the streets faded away, then he looked up and saw the walls of the Vatican in the distance. He was running out of time.
"Are you really leaving town?" he dared to ask.
Slowly, Guglielmo came to a halt. There was little light in the street now. The sun was behind the buildings, lighting only the tallest spires. Only a few torches burned at corners. But it wasn't dark enough to hide the look on Alessandro's face.
The boy was supposed to be grown up now. He wasn't supposed to still have that lost look hiding in the depths of his eyes. It hadn't been there before, when he'd been the confident foreman directing the workmen. Then again, Guglielmo himself had been known to hide things from the men he worked with.
He'd never lied to the boy. He hated the idea of starting now. Besides, best to settle it. "I should leave town."
"Do you really have business for Angelo?"
Alessandro came to a stop and looked at Guglielmo. "You'd be leaving to avoid me, wouldn't you."
He blinked quickly, but there was a faint smile. "Give me a moment, I'm reminding myself that I want people to be honest with me."
Guglielmo felt like ten thousand kinds of scum. "God, Sandro, I wish you'd never come back." He winced at the shock on the boy's face.
"I'm sorry I bothered you," Alessandro said quietly. "I'll stay away. You don't have to leave."
"No, I have to. I'm not going to go through the streets of this city wondering if every tall, broad-shouldered, black-haired man I see is you."
"But why would you care?"
"Because . . ."
He couldn't come out and say it, that for years he'd spotted young men in crowds and thought "Sandro." He was a ruthless mercenary, not some simpering troubadour, and he did not catch himself at odd moments wondering how the boy was faring.
Having always been an unconvincing liar, he kept his mouth shut. And, Madonna help him, Alessandro was starting to smile.
"Once in Milano," Alessandro said softly, "I saw a blond man in black and red on the far side of the square. I would have run to him, except he turned and I saw he had brown eyes. But for a moment, I thought he was you, and that made me happy."
Guglielmo shook his head. "Sandro, we can't do this."
"Can't do what?" Uncertain Alexander had been well and truly replaced by determined Alessandro, who was obviously done with subtlety. He stepped closer. "I've tried to do what people want me to. I'm good at my work, I get along with people, and I've let people tell me I should be thinking of settling down and raise a family. And I do want to find someone, but it hasn't been that easy, because I'm looking for someone who reminds me of you. The bad temper is easy to find," he said with a grin, "but I haven't found the cleverness or the strength or anything that makes me feel nearly as safe as I felt with you."
He wrapped his fingers around his sword hilt to keep from reaching out. "Sandro, I'm a man--"
"Yes, I noticed."
His fingers were starting to hurt. "I am no one to make a life with. I have no interest in a family, I have no place in the normal world you live in. And that's completely aside from the fact that the world has no love for men who care too much about each other."
Alessandro was still smiling. "My world is a lot less normal than you think it is. Young Giorgio isn't hanging around Buonarotti's studio just because he's a good model."
Guglielmo started another protest, but Alessandro put a finger over his lips. Guglielmo couldn't help moving his lips against the callused skin. Alessandro had to try twice before he could speak.
"Do you still want me?" he whispered.
He honestly tried to say No. But the boy he'd thought he'd bid farewell to six years ago was peeking nervously out of those dark eyes, the boy so innocent that the world didn't frighten him. The boy who trusted Guglielmo never to hurt him.
"Yes," he whispered, damning himself with the heaven within his reach.
"Thank God and all the saints," Alessandro breathed. He moved his fingers to the scar on Guglielmo's cheekbone and across the skin. "I wish I'd had the courage to do this six years ago." He carefully leaned forward and kissed Guglielmo.
Decades of soldiering kept Guglielmo from letting go of his sword hilt when he was out at night, but that still left him with one free hand. He slipped the fingers of that hand into Alessandro's soft hair. He felt the firm lips under his smile before Alessandro moved into him so that their bodies touched.
Eventually, Alessandro pulled his head back far enough to speak. "What do we do now?"
"Well, I'm not leaving town, for one thing."
Guglielmo could tell Alessandro was blushing. "I meant, well, right now."
A dozen lewd suggestions came to Guglielmo's mind, but they kept dissolving at the look in Alessandro's eyes. "How open minded is Bramante? You said you had to get back."
"That was just an excuse. If he doesn't see me before breakfast, all he'll do is smirk."
"Does he smirk often?" Guglielmo tried to remind himself that it was impractical to hunt down people just for being interested in Alessandro.
"No, he doesn't, relax." The old bashful novice made a reappearance. "We could go back to the inn."
"Then we'd have to deal with Angelo and Isabetta smirking. As if they weren't already."
"Would you mind?"
Guglielmo wound dark hair around his fingers. "Not those two. I can deal with anyone else who thinks it's clever to make remarks."
Alessandro grabbed the hand in his hair. "Not like that man before. Not because of me."
Guglielmo kissed him. "I won't." He grinned. "I'll invite them to train with me." He ran his fingers over that young face. "What I said was true. I'm no one to make a life with. I go out and get in fights for money, and there are very few old mercenaries in the world."
"I could get hit by a falling block of marble or fall off a two-story scaffold." He closed his eyes briefly as Guglielmo's fingers traced behind his ear. "But I'm willing to put up with the risk."
A quick glance around the dark street reassured Guglielmo long enough for him to put both arms around Alessandro. "If you can deal with it, so can I."
They found each other's lips again in the dark. Too few moments later, the scrape of a footstep made Guglielmo pull away and reach for his sword.
A late-travelling laborer sneered. "Disgusting, unnatural--" The slow slide of steel leaving scabbard cut off his words, and he quickly found other places to be.
Guglielmo sighed and turned back to Alessandro. "I'm sorry. But that's what we have to look forward to. So if you wanted to change your mind, I'd understand."
Alessandro smiled. "Now why would I want to change my mind?" He nudged Guglielmo's arm with his shoulder in the direction of the inn.
Guglielmo obliging headed that way. Alessandro fell into step with him, then hurried around to his other side, no longer blocking his sword arm. "Women do have their good points, you know. They smell better than men, and they're soft and comfortable."
"Well, until I find one who reminds me of you, you're going to have to put up with me."
They grinned at each other. Nearby, church bells rang. Guglielmo saw Alessandro whispering along with the bells, then he crossed himself.
"Do you regret leaving it?" Guglielmo asked quietly.
Alessandro's smile held no regrets. "The important parts never left. Come on, it's getting chilly."
Guglielmo nodded, and they walked back to the warm inn.