Six Years Later

The nine-year-old boy wove between the busy workers in the workyard surrounding the rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica. He ducked under massive timbers and around stacked marble nimbly but nearly faster than was safe.

One of the workmen scooped him out of the way of a trundling water wagon. "Careful, Niccolo! The oxen wouldn't notice you until they realized their feet were squishing as they walked. What has you so in a hurry?"

Niccolo panted. "Marcello, where's my Uncle Sandro? Mama sent me to get him, he needs to come back to the inn with me, right now."

Marcello knew better than to dig for information. Everyone knew that Alessandro il Nessuno was on exceptionally good terms with the mercenary company Il Scourge di Europa, and if one of Sandro's friends was looking for him, it was best to cooperate.

"He's looking at the new shipment of marble, I'll take you."

---

Alessandro tried very hard not to swear when he was at the worksite. His memories of serving Mass at the high altar as a priestly novice were still too precious to him to blaspheme in the same place. Days like this, though, tried him.

He ran the iron square around the corners of the marble block in front of him one more time, just in case a miracle had occurred since the last time he'd checked. He glared at the teamster who had led the caravan of six wagons. "And you are honestly telling me that this is what the quarrymen think meets our specifications? Do they even understand the difference between a trapezoid and a rectangle?"

The teamster's job was managing draft animals, not quarrying stone or building basilicas. "Uh, no?"

"I am not accepting this shipment."

Here the teamster was on his own ground. "And I'm not taking it back to the quarry. It's uphill from here, and my teams aren't going to do it."

Alessandro grimaced. It was a fair protest. But he was not going to authorize the receipt of this shipment when it wasn't what they needed.

He looked over the blocks again. Some of them were of a size to be sent over to the carvers who were working on the decorative sections, and others could be split into smaller, useful chunks.

"Even if I do accept these stones, I'm still out of six wagonloads of perfectly rectangular blocks that are supposed to go into the walls. Where's the quarry representative who was supposed to come with you?"

The teamster reluctantly grinned. "He hopped off the wagon as we came through a street of bawdy houses across the river."

"I want him here. I don't care if he's dressed or not. Go get him--and don't stop for a quick visit with one of the girls. I want him here."

The teamster looked like he wanted to protest, but while his shoulders were just as wide and solid as Alessandro's, he was lacking nearly a head in height and probably fifteen years. "My men are still going to unload that stone."

Alessandro carefully did not smile. "I've got some men who can help, if you like."

"Nobody's touching my wagons but my people."

"Fair enough."

"Uncle Sandro!"

Niccolo ducked under the nose of an ox and ran to Alessandro.

"Niccolo, you know better than that! What are you doing here?"

The boy grabbed Alessandro's sleeve. "Mama says you have to come."

His guts reached up and strangled him. Niccolo had brought messages before from the mercenary company that called the Crusader's Kiss Inn home, and sometimes it had been bad news. But the boy had never looked so terrified before.

"They're back?" Alessandro finally managed to say. Niccolo nodded. "All--all of them?" Again Niccolo nodded, but it was a much slower nod. Alessandro crossed himself automatically even as he looked around. "Marcello!"

"Si, capo!"

"Find Bernardo, tell him this shipment of marble isn't what we specified and that the quarry representative is going to be here to discuss getting the stone we need. He knows what to do."

"Right."

Marcello ran off in search of Bernardo. Alessandro looked at the teamster. "Bernardo speaks for me. I have to go."

"But--"

Alessandro whirled back. "But what!"

The teamster took a step back. "Nothing. I've sent someone for my boss. We'll be right here."

"All right. Niccolo, come on."

Alessandro had to keep pausing to let Niccolo catch up to him. The fourth time Niccolo just shoved him. "Go, I'll catch up." Alessandro ran, remembering being a boy and blessing his long, grown-up legs.

The mercenaries had gone off to war five months before, joining the other Papal States' forces against the French. Alessandro could never remember all the shifting alliances that fought up and down the Italian peninsula. To be honest, he hadn't really paid attention to Guglielmo's explanation, he'd been too busy with his usual prayers begging the saints to look after his lover.

Lover. Even after six years together, every now and then Alessandro had to stop and balance the kneejerk guilt of being with a man with the soul-deep joy that came when Guglielmo stopped living so flamboyantly up to his name Il Sanguinante and smiled happily at him. Maestro Bramante, Alessandro's master, suspected something out of the ordinary was up, but he only chuckled when Alessandro showed up in the morning, chagrined but happy. Alessandro refused to share tales of romance with his compatriots, but that was put down to his history as a sheltered priestly novice. Guglielmo's fellow mercenaries were only concerned that their second in command didn't go soft.

Guglielmo had warned him: most mercenaries didn't die of old age. But Niccolo had said they'd all come back. Niccolo, though, was the son of a mercenary chief, raised with a different world view. There was "coming back", then there was "coming back alive."

The door to the inn was already open, praise be. Alessandro managed to slow down enough that he didn't knock down the person he ran into. Giancarlo grabbed him and held him steady.

"Where--"

Giancarlo put a hand up. "Angelo! Sandro's here!"

The main room was full of tired, battered men, shoveling down food and gulping down the wine that Caterina, Giancarlo's wife, poured liberally into each outstretched cup. Her four-year-old daughter, Luisa, followed behind with a basket of bread. There were a few faces missing, and everyone looked the worse for wear--but Alessandro realized he didn't see Guglielmo in the crowd.

Angelo rose from the big chair at the head of the main table, moving slowly and with a hand on his side. "Sandro, come with me."

Alessandro's feet obeyed while his brain stayed frozen. "Where is he?" Angelo put an arm around his shoulders and led him towards the stairs. "Angelo, where is he!"

"He's upstairs. He's alive--Sandro, it's bad." The heavy arm kept Alessandro from running up the stairs. "He took fever three days ago, and it was all Andre could do to keep the field surgeons from taking his arm. Andre swears he can save it if he can just get the fever down."

"If?" Alessandro whispered.

"Come on."

Isabetta came out of Guglielmo's room as Angelo and Alessandro reached the top of the stairs. She wasn't smiling, and Alessandro had to swallow hard.

"He's been asking for you," she said to Alessandro. She stood back so he didn't have to push her out of the way.

He heard Guglielmo's voice first. "Sandro . . . don't go . . ."

"Oh, madonna--"

Alessandro hurried to the bedside. They'd shaved Guglielmo's beard to help fight the fever, though they hadn't shaved his head yet. The blond hair was damp with sweat as Alessandro brushed it off Guglielmo's forehead. "Caro," he whispered, "I'm here. I came as soon as I could."

The blue eyes creaked open, but they didn't focus very well. "Don't go, Sandro. It'll be all right, I'll make sure no one hurts you."

Andre, the former monastic brother, appeared at the far side of the bed, wringing a wet cloth in his hands. He'd only ever learned enough fighting to keep himself alive till he could run away or be rescued, but that was enough. He more than earned his keep as the company's healer.

"He's been hallucinating for hours," Andre said as he wiped Guglielmo's face. "Something about a Cardinal and the Borgias and blood." He laid the cloth across Guglielmo's forehead. "There were a couple of units out on the battlefield flying the Borgia banner, that must have been what reminded him." He leaned closer to the sick man. "Cesare's dead, Guglielmo, he can't hurt you anymore."

Guglielmo tossed his head. "They come back. They come back."

Andre looked at Alessandro, then stepped away to the table by the window, where his bottles and bowls were laid out.

Alessandro carefully pulled himself up onto the bed beside his lover. "Will, that's over, that's done," he whispered.

"Don't go . . ."

He nudged the wet cloth back and rested his lips on the damp forehead. "I came back, caro. I came back."

The shifting and mumbling stopped. Guglielmo stared at him, the intelligence more than a little mad. "You came back. They come back." His left arm, his sword arm, started to lift, and he whimpered.

Andre reappeared. "Guglielmo, you can't move that arm. Don't make me tie it down, damn it."

Alessandro was trying not to throw up. Every inch of Guglielmo's left arm from his wrist to his shoulder was bound up in bandages marked in fresh blood. A basket near the door held more bandages with older stains.

"What happened?" he whispered.

Andre shuddered. "There was a siege, and burning pitch, and a bunch of sword cuts that he didn't pay attention to because he's like that, and by the time they took the day, he was collapsing from loss of blood and trying to pretend nothing was wrong." He shrugged. "It was a battle."

Guglielmo was still trying to struggle. "They come back, he was going to come back for you."

"I know what this is," Alessandro told Andre. "Leave him to me for a bit."

Andre nodded and retreated again.

Alessandro leaned down and stared into Guglielmo's frantic eyes. "I am alive. You and I have walked together in the sun. You've seen me handle crucifixes and holy water without flinching. I came back, and I'm alive, and I love you."

Guglielmo went still. "You came back?"

"I came back."

He blinked slowly. "You came back." The blinks slowed more till his eyes were closed.

"Andre!"

Andre hurried over, but it was the light fingers in his hair that made Alessandro jump and look around. Roxilana the gypsy detached herself from the shadows and raised a finger to her lips.

"Hush, pretty boy," she said in her soft voice. "You've not lost him yet."

"She's been helping me," Andre volunteered uneasily. "She knows a lot about herbs and . . . things." He rested the back of his hand against Guglielmo's cheek, then took a wooden tube off the bedside table to listen to listen to his heart and lungs. "I think he's cooler. I think we may have broken it."

Alessandro crossed himself and whispered a heartfelt "Gloria."

Andre pointed at him. "You are staying here. You're the only one who can make him rest, and he needs to rest."

"Yes, maestro," Alessandro said easily. For all that Andre was outsized by everyone in the company except for Isabetta and the children, everyone called him The Fierce behind his back.

Andre nodded briskly and went over to his table to begin mixing things.

Alessandro murmured more prayers as he bent over Guglielmo. Illness killed more men than warfare, and this might only be a temporary recovery. How did Isabetta stand it, watching Angelo march off year after year? It hurt so much to smile confidently as the men rode off to death and glory, but he couldn't bring himself to choose the path of avoiding heartache. But how many more times was he going to run to sickbeds, praying to get there before it became a deathbed?

The fingers were stroking his hair again, and he didn't know how long they'd been there. Roxilana was crooning something in her own mysterious language.

"Is he going to be all right?" Alessandro whispered without opening his eyes. He neither understood or trusted her skills. Maybe asking her questions was trucking with the dark powers, but he wanted to know.

"He'll live," Roxilana said. "He won't be so fearsomely bloody at his master's left side anymore, but his fangs haven't been drawn yet." He heard the smile in her voice. "Why else does he practice so hard with his right hand?"

"He can't do this much longer. There are so many wars, and he's been hurt so . . . they'll catch him yet." He remembered other things. "How badly is Angelo hurt? Poor Isabetta . . ."

"Not poor Isabetta. Her brave captain has put more than enough by to see his lady and child well taken care of."

"I doubt that will be much of a comfort." He opened his eyes and looked at Guglielmo. "It wouldn't be for me. How much longer can they do this? They're all going to die."

Her fingers hadn't stopped moving. "Everyone dies, pretty boy. Even retired mercenaries who open fighting schools and let younger men take the troops out to battle. The angel doesn't pass by the men who follow their captains into quieter lives with fewer though no less bright glories."

It took several moments for her words to sink fully into his head. "Andre? Has Captain Angelo said anything about what he's going to do next? It's going to be a while before he can hit the field again, much less Guglielmo."

Andre turned partway from the table, still grinding something in his mortar. "He was talking about something while we were still out in the field and he was sitting in the tent keeping an eye on Guglielmo. Something about staying home and watching his son grow up and not having to duck arrows anymore. But he's said that sort of thing before." He paused in his grinding. "But he did sound a lot more serious this time."

Alessandro turned his head so he could see Roxilana. "You heard them talking."

She smiled and shook her head, her black hair falling into her face.

The door opened a sliver. "Andre?" Angelo called softly.

"He's resting, Captain," Andre said, not looking up from his work. "I think he's doing better. Sandro's good for him."

"Yes, he is." The door opened wide enough for Angelo to look in. "Can you stay, Sandro?"

Alessandro settled back down beside Guglielmo. "Yes, Captain. I can stay."