The Auditores left Venice in the first week of Spring.
The weather was pleasant the morning of their leaving, though the winter fog still lingered, and the darkening clouds overhead forewarned of a thunderstorm to come later that day. Jessica stood with Ezio Auditore and watched him say his farewells to his family.
Leonardo had said his goodbye the night before, at a lavish dinner at the Auditore's Palazzo, before they finished the night celebrating the final day of Carnevale, joining the throngs of masked Venetians in the streets, laughing and dancing and drinking until they stumbled home to fall prone upon their beds, only to collect themselves up what seemed like minutes later to walk to the pier, rubbing their temples and willing their stomachs to settle. Leonardo had a meeting with the Comte, and could not get away. Jessica doubted he was having a very good time of it, considering his hangover. He had always been a surprisingly heavy drinker.
She tried not to think on the fact that it would likely be a great many months before she would see her friends again, but as she hugged them each in turn, her smile was watery and she could think of very little to say. They each promised to write, and then she watched as they walked the gangplank to the ship. The anchor was hoisted, and soon they were specks in the distance.
She remained on the pier beside the Ezio, who was today dressed in casual attire; brown pants and boots, and a fine tunic over a crisp white shirt to replace the usual robes and hood. He looked like any other young man; his eyes full of melancholy as he watched his family disappear over the horizon. She knew he didn't know when he would see them again. And she knew that Claudia and Petruccio always feared that he never would.
Jessica let out a heavy sigh and leaned against a post, resting her chin on her arms as she stared at the light dancing on the waters. "I'm going to miss them."
When Ezio didn't reply, she looked to him and noticed that he was holding an open letter loosely in his grip.
He took a deep breath and then turned his back to the water, raising the letter for her to see.
"A letter from a friend."
A single word at the bottom of the curly script caught her eye and she twisted to face him, stepping forward for a better look. He tucked the paper within his robes with a warning look before she could read anymore, but she had seen all she needed.
"La Volpe? You know him?"
He blinked at her, "You know of him?"
Her mouth fell open, and then closed. "I... I've heard of him. A few years ago I... caught one of his men following me."
Frowning, Ezio waited for her to go on. When she didn't, he said, "La Volpe is an assassin. It's unsurprising that he had you watched. Federico must have asked it of him after you fled."
Jessica's heart skipped a beat. "Federico?"
"Yes. Even after you broke his heart and left him, he could not bear the thought of you in danger, so he must have asked another member of the Order to watch over you." Ezio finished with a snort.
Her eyes were wide. Federico had asked an assassin, La Volpe, to watch over her. And he had sent that man, she couldn't remember his name, and she had...
"If you were watched," Ezio broke into her thoughts, "it should have been in secret. How did you catch him?"
She shrugged in a way she hoped appeared nonchalant. "I... just noticed he was following me and then confronted him."
"He just told you who he worked for?"
Ezio clearly doubted her, and she wasn't entirely sure why she lied to him. Perhaps because so many years had passed since; or because she didn't want to upset him by telling that the man who was ordered to protect her ended up attacking her, or perhaps it was because she had a direct part in his death and she didn't want to tell Ezio that she had done the very thing that she so often judged him for.
"I threatened to scream for the guards if he didn't."
After staring at her a moment, he chuckled, rolling his eyes. "Of course you did."
Glad that he seemed to believe her, she gestured for them to start walking, and he fell in step beside her. She crossed her arms and sighed as they stepped into the shadows of the buildings, growing chilled in the cool air without the warmth of the sun. "I wish I'd known," she frowned. "I spent ages trying to figure out who La Volpe was afterwards. That's actually how I met Elmo."
He shot her a pained look. "Please don't tell me you went to the nearest tavern and started asking around."
Letting out a low, awkward laugh, she blushed in embarrassment as he groaned. "Elmo shut me up pretty quick."
He snorted as she narrowed her eyes at him, and they walked on.
Jessica was hardly surprised when they came across a large crowd gathered in Piazza San Marco, all eyes on a clean-shaven elderly man wearing a poncy black hat and fine green and yellow robes who stood, flanked by guards, on the gallows.
Ezio and Jessica stopped to watch the scene, the sad melancholy of the morning fading as their eyes took in the ominous view.
"Who is that?" Jessica muttered, not liking the look of the man.
"That," Ezio ground out, his hands curling into fists, "...is Emilio Barbarigo."
"That's the man..." He intended to kill.
Jessica watched a muscle twitch in his jaw. "...Are you going to...?"
Golden eyes flickered to something beyond the crowd, and then his gaze was on her. At once Ezio's tight form unwound, and his face, previously twisted into a vision of mad hatred, relaxed. Jessica blinked as his hand slid across her back, warm and strong, and he gently pushed her to move on. "No," he murmured, not looking at her. "Not now. We must leave."
At his tone, her feet stopped moving, and his hand became a weight on her back, his push soft but insistent. She frowned as he moved to block her view. His eyes found hers and she didn't like what she saw in them.
"Come, Marietta. You will not want to see this."
She leaned to see around him, but he stepped forward, the hand on her back growing heavier. "What are you –?"
She dodged quickly around him, resisting when he grabbed her arm and tried to pull her away. Her eyes found a new man on the platform. His tattered and filthy clothes hung from his large body, and dried blood encrusted his scalp and jaw where the hair had been hacked from his head by a rough and uncaring hand. His eyes were lowered, his hands and feet bound, and she could not tell where the dirt ended on his skin and the bruises and wounds began. Never had she seen a sorrier sight; a man so broken in body and spirit as this. He raised his eyes briefly to the crowd and something clicked in her mind. She had seen his face before.
"I know him," she said, more to herself than to Ezio, who tried to pull her away. "That's the man from the market. The day of the riot." Her stomach dropped. "The Fishmonger."
Jessica couldn't hear what Emilio Barbarigo was shouting, but the crowd clearly didn't agree. The only thing which stopped the square from descending into another riot was the fifty or so guards situated on and around the platform, holding the crowds back and threatening violent repercussions. Jessica reached out and grasped the arm which continued to pull at her, turning to look up at Ezio, sick to her stomach but with fire in her eyes.
"You have to do something."
He lowered his head, "There's nothing to be done."
She shrugged him off and turned from him. "Then I have to—"
Ezio's large hand clamped down upon her shoulder like a vice, giving a sharp tug which sent her stumbling back into him. He gripped her arms. "Marietta. There is nothing we can do. Look around. Barbarigo would not reveal himself so openly if he had not come prepared. He is expecting me to intervene."
She struggled half-heartedly against his unbreakable hold on her, "And you should!"
He raised his eyebrows, "You want me to kill him?"
"I want you to stop him!" she hissed, pointing sharply toward the gallows. "That man doesn't deserve to die."
He shook her, glowering as he spoke, his voice low and hard. "This is what men like Emilio Barbarigo do. Look at your Fishmonger. He has been imprisoned for a month at least. They have not been kind to him. And now he will die because he stood against the corrupt in power, and he lost."
Ezio held her gaze until they watered and she couldn't look at him any longer. Sagging in his hold, her teeth clenched together so hard it hurt, and the tight anger in her chest was all-consuming."It's not fair."
His hands were gentle on her. "No, it's not. And it is why men like him must be stopped."
"...I want to watch," she whispered. "He deserves that at least."
"Are you sure?"
Looking more uncertain than she had ever seen him, Ezio released her, and stood close as they faced the gallows together. Jessica promised herself that she wouldn't turn her head; she wouldn't look away.
The crowd roared their indignant and helpless fury as the noose was forced over the docile Fishmonger's head. Bile bubbled up her throat and coated her mouth as she tried to keep her breathing steady and slow.
She tried to imagine what was going through his mind. Was he regretting his actions? Was he so far gone that he didn't even know what was happening?
So many thoughts were in her mind that she almost missed the moment the trapdoor fell away beneath the Fishmonger's feet. There was a long drop, and a short stop, and that was it.
Jessica couldn't tear her eyes away. She waited for him to move; for his foot to kick, for him to struggle. But there was nothing. The crowd continued to roar, but she couldn't hear it over the blood pounding in her ears. Her hands shook, but her insides were frozen.
"It's done, Marietta. It was a quick death."
She didn't know whether she wanted to scream or cry, or rip something to shreds. An injustice had been done and there was not a damn thing she could do to stop it. There was nothing she could do. She was useless.
This time, when Ezio pressed his hand to her back, she didn't resist. She let him guide her away, the vision of the limp and broken body of the Fishmonger, swinging gently to and fro at the end of the rope, seared into her mind for all time.
The bench they sat on was wet, but Ezio didn't mind. Jessica didn't even notice. She glared at the half loaf of bread in her hands, silent. Ezio had bought them some food and found a quiet place for her to come to terms with what had happened. He sat quietly beside her, chewing on his own half loaf, waiting. It was a good half hour before she finally spoke.
"He deserved better."
Ezio sighed, brushing crumbs off his pants. "I'm sorry you had to witness that. I know how such things upset you."
She picked at the hardening bread. "They should upset everyone."
The man drew in a deep breath and stretched out his legs. "It is life. Men are put to death every day; some for crimes they have committed, and others for crimes they have not."
She scoffed, throwing a piece of bread onto the street before them and watching the birds descend upon it like rats. "Just because it's common for people to kill people, it doesn't mean it should be. Life is sacred."
Jessica felt his eyes on her, genuinely curious. "Do you truly believe that there is no man who has done such terrible things as to deserve death?"
Sighing, she threw more bread to the birds, watching them with a furrowed brow which told of a tired kind of anger. "I believe in retribution and rehabilitation. With capital punishment there is no room for second chances; no repentance, no hope that people can change. So many people die every day. Disease, poverty, war. Why add to the count in the name of justice?"
Ezio crossed his arms, frowning at his shoes. "What of those men who murder children and slaughter families in their homes? Who tear down houses and burn villages to the ground? Who raise taxes so high that hundreds die of starvation as they sit in luxury?" He said this with a sneer, but his voice was gentle as he observed the hunched curve of her shoulder, and her lowered eyes. "What of those men who commit such atrocities, over and over and over again?" He shook his head, looking at her, bewildered. "Can you truly say that they are deserving of the air that they breathe? Can you say that these men are as deserving of life as the hundreds of people they have harmed or killed?"
Sullenly, Jessica threw the rest of her half loaf and watched the birds rip it to shreds. Leaning back, she stretched out her legs and crossed her arms, releasing a deep sigh as she slumped on the bench beside Ezio. "My ideology is something I try to hold onto no matter the situation. No matter how naive or stupid it might make me sound." Her voice grew quiet, only for his ears, as her eyes closed and all she could see was the Fishmonger's body. "I know there are bad people out there who have done bad things for a long time. But a lengthy imprisonment; a lifetime in a cell, sitting with memories of what they once had, knowing the awful things they did and seeing how far they have fallen... Surely that's a far more fitting punishment than a quick death at the end of a blade?"
"These men cannot be imprisoned. Nothing but death can stop them."
"Everyone has a weakness. Everyone can be stopped."
"Are they worth the effort?"
"If they're really that evil... Yes," she said with conviction. "If they change? Great. If not? They spend the rest of their lives knowing that they tried and they failed, and there is nothing they can do but die." She chuckled darkly. "And they can't even have that."
When she raised her eyes, she saw Ezio looking at her with the strangest of expressions. "But if to die would be a mercy, then why..."
"Because they deserve it," she spat, bitterly. "To be locked away, where they can never hurt anyone again. Where they can live for as long as they are able. Where they can wish for death, and be cursed with life. That's justice." At Ezio's expression, Jessica sighed once more and stood, brushing herself off. "I don't want to talk about this anymore. Let's just go." She wrapped her arms around herself and kept her eyes lowered.
Ezio watched the usually brazen woman huddle into herself, the smallest he had ever seen her, and he nodded silently, rising to stand at her side and settling a warm and, hopefully, comforting hand on her lower back. She didn't move away as they walked on, wrapped in their thoughts.
It wasn't too long before Ezio broke the stillness.
"You spoke to my brother before he left?"
"May I ask what you spoke of?"
She sighed, having hoped for silence, but found that it was easier to push away terrible thoughts of the Fishmonger's limp body when he spoke, even if it was of uncomfortable things.
"I apologised for what I did; for running away, hurting him. I asked if we could be friends. He said he didn't know." She shrugged. "That was it, really."
Ezio nodded slowly, and then asked, "Did you ever love him?"
"I may have... once. But not anymore. I do care about him but..." She shrugged.
"I understand. Thank you for speaking with him."
"I'm sorry I put it off for so long." She kicked at a rock on the ground, watching it bounce away, disappearing beneath a crate of vegetables.
Looking up, she saw that they were approaching her home. They paused in the shade of a building, and she turned to him. "What will you do now?"
"Now?" He drew in a deep breath, thinking on it. "I was hoping for a long rest. I love my family, but they are exhausting," he chuckled.
Her mouth turned up at the corner. "Especially when you're not used to it. Well, you have your family's house now. You can stay there."
She saw him hesitate, his brow twitching. "I... It will be quiet without them."
She understood. "Well, you're always welcome here;" she told him matter-of-factly, "Leonardo would be thrilled to have you stay with us."
"And what about you?" He looked down at her. "Would it make you happy to have me stay?"
She scoffed, knowing that she would have little say in the matter, but she shrugged for him, smirking wryly. "I don't know. I'd survive, I suppose."
"Your enthusiasm is overwhelming," he said dryly.
She managed a chuckle at that and turned on her heel, leading him toward the red door. "Come on."
Ezio Auditore hurried to her side, grinning. And she found that she didn't mind it a bit.