P The sun had gone down by the time Giovanni Auditore returned home. He responded in monosyllabic answers to the polite greeting of his staff. P Maria rose to her feet when he entered the room and greeted him with a kiss. He returned it, but she could tell from his expression that something was wrong. P "Giovanni?" she regarded her husband, "What's wrong?"
P He glanced around the room and saw Federico playing with some toys near the fire place. Maria gave a tiny nod to her husband.
P Giovanni smiled. "Just a rough day," he pulled her close, whispering the word "Later" in her ear. P "Papa!" Federico stood up and ran to his father. Giovanni reflexively scooped him up before his son could collide with his legs. The young boy laughed as his father swung him around.
P "And how are you today?"
P "Bueno!" P "I hope you didn't cause too much trouble for your mother," Giovanni said with mock sternness.
P "None at all!" Federico exclaimed, "I even played quiet so the babies could sleep." P "I'm sure that your mother appreciated that," Giovanni told him with a nod, shifting the boy slightly so he could carry him better. P His son regarded him. "How come you always come home so late, papa?"
P "A lot of people depend on me," he said simply, "It's what comes from being too good at ones job."
P "You're the best," Federico agreed, "I wanna do what you do someday."
P "When you're grown up," Giovanni nodded P Maria approached the two of them. "I said that you could stay up until your father came home," she reminded Federico, "Now say your good nights."
P Federico gave an exaggerated sigh. He didn't know why his mother was insistent on him getting so much sleep. "Can papa tuck me in at least?" he pleaded.
P "I believe that can be arranged," Giovanni said, setting his son down, "Go on and I'll be there in a minute."
P Once his son was out of the room he turned to his wife. "I promise I will tell you everything," he told her softly. P Giovanni took his time making his way up the stairs to his son's bedroom. By the time he had arrived, Federico had changed into his night clothes. Without a word, his father rescued his abandoned clothing from the floor and placed it on the chest where it belonged. There was time enough for him to learn to clean up after himself. P Federico crawled into bed and pulled his blankets up to his chin. P "All comfy?" Giovanni asked with a smile, sitting down on the bed.
P "Uh huh!" Federico chirped. P "Good," he leaned down and kissed his son gently on the forehead, "Sleep well."
P "Good night papa."
P Giovanni crept silently down the stairs, sneaking into the room where his wife was waiting. Being the stealthy assassin that he was, he was able to allow his wife to pretend that she didn t hear him coming until he embraced her from behind, nuzzling her cheek gently. P Maria beamed and leaned into her husband's touch. Whatever bad news he had to deliver could keep for a few more moments. She half closed her eyes, giving herself over to his embrace. "Is our son asleep?"
P "Sound asleep," Giovanni reported.
P "You always manage to get him to bed so quickly."
P Her husband gave a shrug, "He was tired."
P "You're right," she agreed, "I give you entirely too much credit, darling."
P He laughed, a rich sound. He needed that laugh. P She was reluctant to break the mood, but she had to know. "Now... about earlier..."
P He took her over to sit down. She followed him obediently, her eyes showing her worry. P "In Milano... not too long ago... there were many families that were threatened," he said slowly, "Threatened by a mad man... demanding money... in exchange for the lives of their children."
P Her eyes grew wide and she put a hand over her mouth. P "And now, there is reason to believe he has come to Firenze. Already there are children missing..."
P "No..." she whispered, "My babies..."
P He took both her hands, "You must keep the children inside."
P She nodded at that. Quickly.
P "As for me..." his eyes hardened a bit and she could see the assassin within him slowly stirring, "I will find him. I will stop him."
P Maria leaned into his embrace, holding him tightly. The thought of losing their children was too much to bear. P "This will not happen," Giovanni said firmly, "Not in my city."
P For the next several days, Giovanni went out at night. They never talked about it, but Maria knew who her husband was looking for. P But as the days stretched into a week, it was getting harder and harder to come up with reasons to keep the children inside. The younger children didn't have a problem with it, but Federico was quickly growing restless. He was tired of staying home, the courtyard was boring. He was certainly old enough to go out and play with his friends, but all his pleas fell on deaf ears. BR
P Finally, one day when Maria and the others were busy tending to the younger children, Federico went to the front gate and made his way out into the street. He paused outside and grinned to himself. That hadn't been difficult at all!
P Eventually, Federico's wanderings took him to the river. He knew better than to sit on the ledge of the bridge, but he did stand by it, throwing stones into the water. His father had been trying to teach him how to skip stones, but the boy hadn't quite mastered it yet. So he settled for just seeing how big of a splash he could make. P The boy was so focused on his game that he didn't notice when a pale man dressed in rust brown clothing came up behind him. P "Skipping stones?" the man asked after a moment.
P "Yup!" Federico replied cheerfully.
P The pale man gave a somewhat slimy smile. "I bet your father taught you how to do that."
P Federico nodded, "He's real good at it."
P "I can imagine so," the man replied, "Where is your father now?"
P Federico gave a shrug and threw another rock into the river, "Probably at th' bank still."
P "Is that where he works?" the pale man asked thoughtfully, "And what of your mother?"
P "At home," he replied, "Probably with the babies."
P "Ah yes," the man replied, "It's hard with babies around. Always making so much noise."
P "Uh huh," Federico agreed, "And they smell."
P The pale man laughed and knelt down to Federico's height. "I m so glad I made a new friend today. I'd like to give you a toy." He reached out to take Federico's hand, "I think you'd like it. It's something for big strong boys, not babies." P "What is it?" Federico asked. P "Come with me and I'll show you," he replied. BR
P Giovanni returned home for lunch, only to discover their palazzo in an uproar. Maria was sobbing hysterically. Given that his wife was not prone to hysterics, he used his finely-tuned detective skills to conclude that something was very wrong. P "What's happened?" he asked, taking her shoulders gently but firmly.
P "Federico!" she managed to get out, "He's missing!"
P That was all that Giovanni needed. He rushed past his wife, further into the house, to his study and through the fireplace. He hesitated before going through the passage, turning back to Maria. "I will find him. I will bring him home."
P All she could do was nod. BR
P A few moments later he was back on the streets via the secret passage, clad in his white assassin attire, fully armed. Maybe it was innocent, maybe Federico was just playing somewhere, but with two dead children in the city already, he was taking no chances. He climbed to the rooftops to avoid the crowded streets. Federico was fascinated with the river - he'd start there. BR
BR P Federico looked puzzled as the man led him under the bridge. "There's nothing down here."
P "Take a closer look," the man said with a toothy smile. P Federico obediently moved closer to the bridge, looking around, when the man suddenly grabbed him from behind, holding a knife against his throat. P "Don't scream." The pale man hissed. P Federico had yelped when the man had grabbed him, but fell silent when he felt the knife against him.
P But that one yelp was enough. Enough for an anxious father who just happened to be assassin-trained to hear him. P "Good... good..." the man whispered with a cruel smile, "There there, you'll be fine." He held the boy tighter around the neck. BR
P Giovanni dropped silently to the ground behind the man, landing in a crouch. He rose to his feet. "That doesn't belong to you."
P The pale man whirled, "Who are you?" he demanded. His eyes grew wide when he saw Giovanni. "I know you! You're the eagle-demon!"
P The assassin gave a mock bow. "Now, let him go and be on your way."
P "No!" the man exclaimed, "You'll kill me!"
P "No one here has to die, Olfeo," the assassin said calmly, "Now let the boy go."
P Federico's eyes were wide. It was difficult to see under the man's hood, but he knew that voice. He would know it anywhere. P "And then what?" the man - Olfeo - took another step back towards the water, dragging Federico along with him.
P "And then you can go. Simple as that," he said, "This doesn't have to get messy."
P "N-no..." he shook his head, "You're lying!" With that, he threw the boy into the deep waters of the river, taking off in a panic. BR
P This was no time to go after the child-killer. Giovanni dove into the water after his son. Federico tried to swim, but the water was cold and dark and the current caught at him. He kicked his arms and legs, but felt himself going down. Then, something jerked hard on his collar and he was rising upwards. P As soon as his head broke free from the water, he started to cough, and gulped for air... and swallowed a mouthful of river water. Giovanni pulled his struggling son onto the shore and sat there holding him tightly. P They sat there for quite awhile, until Federico stopped coughing and started breathing normally. He leaned back against his father, exhausted and soaking wet. P "I've got you," he murmured to his son, "you're safe now. I've got you."
P Federico clung to his father, and hung onto his words. P "P-papa..." he whispered, "I... I'm sorry..."
P "Shh, shh," Giovanni hugged him tightly, "You're safe. I've got you. I love you." He carefully rose to his feet, shifting Federico to carry him easier. "Let's go home now. We'll get you dried off and warmed up, and get something to eat. How does that sound?"
P He just buried his tired face in his father's shoulder. BR
P Giovanni was pretty sure that his son fell asleep at some point on the walk home. Since Federico was sound asleep, he came in through the hidden way, exiting into his study, where Maria was lying on the couch. P She sat up immediately when she heard him enter. Her eyes were wide and her mouth formed an O.
P "We're back," Giovanni told her.
P "Is he?..."
P "Tired and soaked and scared out of his wits, but he's not hurt," Giovanni said.
P She hurried over to them, her panic fading as she could see for herself that Federico was unharmed. P "Why is he wet?" she whispered.
P "I pulled him from the river," the assassin responded expressionlessly.
P "Dio mio," Maria gathered her wits and picked up a blanket, wrapping her son tightly in the soft fabric. Giovanni let her take Federico from him, watching as she bundled him onto the couch, trying to dry him off. P "I saw him."
P Maria looked up slowly at her husband's cold eyes. "You mean... he took Federico?..."
P "He tried."
P She returned her attention to her sleeping son. "Go," she said softly.
P The assassin didn't say a word, and she didn't hear him leave, but she knew he was gone. BR
P For all the trouble that he had caused in Milano, Olfeo was not good at covering his tracks. Especially not from an assassin. Giovanni almost had to laugh when he easily trailed him to a bordello near the edge of the city. Just how had this man managed to terrorize so many people without being caught?
P The assassin climbed down the side of a building and simply walked in through the front door. He had allies in this place, which made things even easier. He was recognized by many of the girls, and one approached him.
P "Chiara," the assassin simply replied. P The courtesan blinked, but indicated the back of the room, "She's over there."
P He heard a familiar voice call out: "To long and pleasurable lives!" P Gazing through the semi-darkness of the bordello, Giovanni saw the bastardo sitting calmly with Chiara in his lap, his face buried in her hair. She blinked at the assassin, recognizing the darkness in his body language. She couldn't quite see his eyes for the hood. P "Have you been paid?" the assassin asked.
P She blinked and slowly shook her head. "Not yet. Why?"
P "Your client will not be able to."
P Her eyes widened and she slowly rose to her feet. Olfeo began to protest, but then he caught the eyes of the assassin. He cursed and stumbled to his feet, trying to grab Chiara, but the courtesan was already half way across the room.
P "I gave you a chance," the assassin said calmly.
P "H-he's dead?"
P "Outside. Now."
P "I didn't mean to kill 'im!" he gasped out, "I swear it!"
P "And what did you intend?" Giovanni asked coldly, "Just what did you think throwing a child in the river would accomplish?"
P Chiara winced visibly and distanced herself further from the vile man. BR
P In two steps, Giovanni was at Olfeo's side, his hidden blade against the man's throat, his other hand firmly holding the man's collar. "Come with me."
P "N-no!" Olfeo looked around frantically for help, but the room was strangely devoid of people. The courtesans had whisked their clients away to more "private rooms". P The assassin dragged the child-killer outside, shoving him down hard on the street outside the bordello. Olfeo whimpered, climbing to his hands and knees, fake tears rolling down his face. "Oh Signore! I plead for my life before you!"
P "Pathetic," the assassin spat. This routine looked well rehearsed, and he half wondered what sort of fools had fallen for this in the past. "And they say I am a monster." His dark eyes burned with angry fire under his hood. "You tried to drown my son."
P Olfeo sat up slightly, latching onto one word. "Tried? Then... he is alive?"
P "Which I am sure was not your intention."
P "You can't kill me now!" Olfeo sounded victorious, "I didn't succeed!" P "Oh no?" the assassin responded coldly, "what makes you say that?"
P "I owe you nothing"
P "Not me," he acquiesced, "but what of the two other boys you took?"
P "Why should they matter to you?" he snorted, "Their mothers were whores."
P The assassin kicked him hard in the stomach, knocking him down. "Considering where I found you, I wouldn't think that would matter to you." P Olfeo gathered himself and fumbled for his dagger.
P "Oh yes. Try. Attack me. Give me a reason." The assassin kicked the dagger out of Olfeo's hand easily and yanked him to his feet, holding him by the collar. "You deserve to suffer... for all the pain you have caused."
P He struggled, kicking out at the assassin, "No! No! You bastardo - put me down!"
P "But... you will not." Giovanni let out a breath, "I am a better man than that." He flexed his hand, shoving the blade home.
P There was a sharp gurgle, and blood seeped out of the wound. Olfeo collapsed, instantly dead. He almost casually removed the man's purse and then dropped him to the ground in a heap, like the trash he was. The man's blood coated his blade; Giovanni would have to do something about that as soon as possible. P But first... he tossed the purse to Chiara, who was standing in the doorway. She had seen him kill before... P "I didn't know he was that sort of man, Giovanni," she said softly. P "A child killer."
P She winced visibly, "I am thankful your son is alive."
P "As am I"
P "Go home," she told him, "I will have someone clean up the trash."
P Giovanni gave a little bow and hurried off down the street. P HR
P P Back in his hidden room, Giovanni cleaned the blood off his blade and polished it to a shine. Then he changed out of his assassin attire, putting his blood specked shirt in a bucket of water to soak. If the stain was not allowed to set, it would be good as new in a day or so. He changed back into his normal clothes and then made his way upstairs, where Maria was waiting for him. She studied him when he entered. Death was no longer in his eyes. She didn't have to ask what he had done, his body language told her everything. She gave a sigh of relief. He had taken care of it... he always took care of things. They were safe once again. P When he silently sat down on the bed, she climbed into his arms and they just sat there for a moment. She finally spoke. "Did I mention how much I love you today?"
P The tension was draining out of him. "I don't believe you have yet, no." He smiled and brushed his head against hers, "A terrible oversight on your part."
P "Indeed," Maria replied, "I shall have to make up for that." P She kissed him deeply and there was no more conversation that night.
P The next morning, Federico crept into his parents' bedchamber, where both his parents were still asleep. He hesitated for a moment and then whispered their names. When he got no response, he climbed into the bed, crawling rather ungracefully over his father. P "Papa?..."
P Giovanni grunted a bit, "Mm?"
P He wiggled his way into his father's arms. "Please... don't be mad at me..." he whispered.
P Giovanni opened his eyes properly and looked to his son, "I'm not mad at you"
P "Is mama mad?" he asked uncertainly.
P "No, he's not mad either," Giovanni took Federico in his arms, "In fact, last night we were talking about how happy we were that you were safe at home."
P He relaxed into his father's arms. "You saved me... yesterday." He looked up at him, "But... you didn't look like you"
P "I wasn't sure if you would know it was me or not," Giovanni admitted.
P "I didn't..." he said slowly, "Not right away."
P Giovanni just nodded.
P "Why did you look different?" he asked, "Your eyes..."
P "I was frightened," Giovanni admitted.
P "You were?" Federico blinked. Somehow, he could never picture his father being scared, "I was scared too..."
P "It was a scary monster," Giovanni agreed, "You were right to be frightened."
P "What happened to him?" Federico asked, "To the... monster?"
P "He won't hurt you again," Giovanni said, "He won't hurt anyone again. I..." he hesitated, "I took care of it." He hugged his son closer to him. "I will be here to protect you."
P Federico nodded, closing his eyes and settling comfortably against his father.
P "ISar sempre vi protegga/I," Giovanni whispered, "IPrometto/I."