Part Six: The Brotherhood

Forget penance.

(His armor fit him well. He carried it well. He was not slowed at all by its extra weight.)

Have you found the bodies yet?

(And it wasn't hard to figure out where the mission had taken place. There wasn't even the need to rifle through Master Ezio's papers. He had been a mercenary once, after all, and mercenaries often worked with thieves. Within two hours he knew where he was going.)

What a shame.

(It was.)

-i-

Panfilo had slipped around myriad dangers as a boy in Venice. He had survived the captain of the guard's rages. He had led men, and led them well, as a mercenary. And he had found true calling in being one of Ezio Auditore's assassins. For his entire life he had passed from one role to the next as they came. But it was not as survivor or mercenary or assassin that he acted now. And he was not so vain as to consider what he was doing his avenging anybody. He was not that important. He still wore his mask.

So, as murderer or Venice miasma or as some nameless ghost, Panfilo moved across Rome's roofs. His footing was stable, and he knew the way. He passed one guard on the way, and killed the man so swiftly that the death made no sound. Before long what had been a Thieves Guild building was across the street. He stared down at it. This section of Rome was poor and looked it: the streets were narrow and crumbling, the alleys dark, many of the buildings missing windows and doors. This was a section of Rome primed for a bloodbath.

It wasn't yet dark enough. So he sat down by a smokeless chimney and waited. Below him, Borgia soldiers surrounded the guild house in fetid hordes, but he ignored their presence completely. They were not that important, either. What mattered was the body.

Panfilo waited, as clouds raced overhead and soldiers gathered below. Were they expecting someone to attack? Had this all been part of Cesare Borgia's plan? It didn't really matter. He led no men, was tasked with the success of no mission. He lifted a gloved hand and pressed his fingers against his ruined cheek. Even through two layers of cloth he could feel the rough depressions in the skin. How ugly it all was…

There were no conveniently-placed hay carts down below, no crowds to blend into. He would fight his way inside the building with guards at every step. Well-trained guards, no less: several of the soldiers bore the insignia of Cesare's personal troops. Panfilo smiled beneath his mask. The side of his mouth frozen in scar tissue weighed down the side that could still move. Well-trained troops? What of it? Perhaps there'd be wolfmen.

It was dark enough now. Panfilo rose to his feet. His sword was strapped to his waist and banged against his leg when he stood. It was a sturdy blade, it had probably left a bruise—he smiled again, dragging up the contorted flesh. Tilting his head to study the scene in front of the guild house, he saw two guards standing by the front door. There were three patrols of two guards each circling the building. The streets leading to the house had guards as well, but Panfilo wasn't planning to use the streets.

He leapt. The wind whistled in his ears, calling his name.

The two guards by the door were caught by complete surprise. Panfilo recovered quickly from his fall, jumped up and smashed his grasping hands into their respective faces. The hidden blades cut smoothly through muscle and bone, as he knew they would. Shouts came from his left, as one of the patrols rounded the corner, but he'd already had time to pull out his sword.

Panfilo fought grimly. The other patrols came quickly at the sound of battle breaking out, and he was surrounded within seconds, but he was strong and skilled and focused. So focused he almost didn't hear the wind, still whispering his name in insistent waves. There was a pile of bodies forming at his feet. He whirled around, slashing at whoever was near; someone cried, "Assassin!" and then there were even more guards, but none of it mattered.

Then the guild house door banged open. Panfilo had kept his back to the door in order to focus on the men in front of him, but now there were men behind him too, and when he glanced behind him he saw glinting armor and garish helmets.

Papal Guards? He swore without words but had no time to face them. There were too many men in front to deal with now. A poorly blocked blow sent him sprawling and a Papal Guard lunged. The wind yelled—

Annetta wasn't all that heavy, but the sheer force of a body dropping from the roof knocked the Guard off his feet. She drew her blade and stabbed before she'd even had a chance to steady her footing. Panfilo was too busy fighting to react, but he heard her swear as if he was standing still to listen.

"Idiota," she snarled in his general direction. "Idi—" A soldier grabbed for her throat and squeezed until she dropped her sword. It was kicked out of reach as she thrashed. The guards in front of Panfilo suddenly weren't enough to distract him and he whirled around. Annetta struggled. Then the arm of the soldier holding her pulled away from its body in a splattering of red ooze. She landed on her feet, and even as she gasped she reached for a smoke bomb with one hand and someone's dropped sword with the other. Panfilo ran his fist into the soldier's jaw, just to make sure.

They fought in sync, protecting each other as the need arose. Annetta's hair was loose and blowing and there was a gash on her cheek. Panfilo could see all five fingers in the fresh bruise around her throat.

Then the smoke bomb went off and he instinctively held his breath. Annetta pointed, mouthing the words he couldn't hear and didn't need. The door was still hanging open, and there were only a couple guards to remove before they could slam it shut behind them. The room they faced now was wide and completely empty…no furniture, no other rooms, no bodies. Annetta panted; Panfilo flexed his aching right wrist.

There were yells from outside, and the locked door shook under the weight of many fists. "Damn," Annetta breathed, and then a second later there was the sound of crashing glass and she cried, "Stay away from the window." Fortunately it was too small for anyone to crawl through, but Panfilo watched as she pulled a throwing knife free and aimed. It'd be that much harder to exploit when there was a mountain of bodies in the way.

She threw until she was out of knives, standing off to one side so she couldn't be seen. "They're backing away," she said. "Regrouping."

Panfilo nodded. That won't take them long

But Annetta whirled to face him and jabbed a shaking finger in his face, effectively cutting him off. "Idiota!" she hissed. "Testa di merda! Stupid ass! What were you thinking? Do you know what I saw on the way over here? A platoon's worth of soldiers. Ceasare Borgia's handpicked murderers, I bet. He probably thinks he's got Ezio cornered. Did you think you could fight off a hundred Papal Guards by yourself? What did you think you'd find here, anyway? Tullio's body laid out for display? Vada via in culo!"

Panfilo winced. Then he shrugged.

"Is that all? You want to cost the Brotherhood another assassin, and all you can do is shrug? Ah—and now you're laughing at me, I can tell that you are. What do you find funny?"

You're usually so calculating. It's nice to see you acting less clinical.

She understood what he was telling her and rolled her eyes. "That's my thanks for helping your suicide mission? I shouldn't have come."

No. You shouldn't have. He reached for her chin, tilted her head to the side to get a better look at the gash along her face. She pulled away.

"Enough. It'll scar is all. You…" and her lips curved up mockingly, of their own accord. "You're always so afraid to leave any marks. Even in…Haven't I told you I don't mind scars?"

Because you don't have any.

"What does that mean? I've taken my share of hits with a sword."

Forget it.

"I didn't follow you here to be ignored."

Well, you shouldn't have followed. I don't care what misplaced sense of duty you have regarding me, but—

"This has nothing to do with duty," she said softly. "In case you were wondering. I don't care what this means for my obligations. I'm sure the Master will be less than thrilled, for one."

He looked at her.

"Why are you so surprised? Weren't you the one who told me to only fight for Roma if I wanted save her?"

A slight shrug: I must have been. Even so.

"If you're going to start lecturing me I'll turn around and ignore you." He nodded his head, but she shook hers, and he realized that she was still very angry. "I should ignore you either way," she blazed, and he was left to stare at her uncertainly as she yelled. "I am tired of not knowing who you are. Did I hold people off? Fine, I did. And I probably will keep doing so in the future. But not now. Not with you. Idiot…"

Leave it. It isn't important, Annetta.

"You act so wise. So big and brave and mysterious, is that your image? I don't care. Why did you run away from the mercenaries? You were a good one, Ezio said so himself. Why won't you tell me anything? If I have to…to reattach myself for you, shouldn't you make the same effort? There is such a large part of you kept locked away—how can you expect me to know who you are?"

It has nothing to do with you—

"You should have told me this would be the set-up from the beginning," she snarled. "You should have told me if all you wanted was some half-formed mockery of a relationship! Tullio…" She paused, but only for a moment. Something of the shrewd noblewoman would always be in her blood, and she found a way through the ache. "Tullio is dead and Ermanno is a wreck because of it. You know that. But at least he knows who he is grieving over! If you had been the one to die I wouldn't have known who to mourn. I don't understand how you can expect anything different."

"Enough," Panfilo said. "I had to adapt. Can't you accept that? Your prying questions…do you know what you're asking? I adapted. I found a way to avoid pitying eyes, and now you want me to have to face them coming from you? I left the mercenaries because I had to. You're so focused on what other people expect of you, so of course you can't understand trying to avoid those expectations. Let it be, Annetta…"

But he trailed off when he saw her staring at him, wide-eyed. She'd brought a hand to her throat, reflexively, but not because of the bruise. Panfilo had a moment in which he didn't understand, and then he heard the sound of his own voice in his ears.

Not a whisper. Not a rasp. Something strained from years of disuse, something deep and lilting and familiar…

Panfilo said, "I didn't. I wasn't going to. I." There wasn't any rust. That was one of the bigger surprises, really. His throat was sore.

Annetta moved closer. She reached out and put a hand on either side of his face. Her fingers found the edge of his mask. She waited.

"I don't want you to see," he said. "I can't be forged out of broken bits as if I were made of metal. I don't want…"

Annetta curled her fingers around the cloth and pulled down in one swift motion. The mask fell forgotten around his neck. The guards outside could have regrouped and attacked in one giant wave and no one inside would have noticed. There was a long stretch of silence.

But they were used to silence.

Annetta drew a finger along the worst of the scarring. She studied his cheek, its whorls of faded flesh. She studied the crooked nose, more pronounced when compared with the jagged scars on either side. She saw the way the ruined skin clung over one side of a thin-lipped mouth. Panfilo was still under her touch. His eyes were closed. (And she thought, how am I to read him now? Then she remembered his voice.)

"Annetta," Panfilo said. His new voice was pleading. She focused on its tones, was more caught by its reach than by the reach of his scars. There would be so much more to discover about him now, even with the voice rescued and the mask pulled down. He was more than his mysteries could ever be.

"You had to come," she said, frank in her realization. "You knew Tullio's body wouldn't still be here but you had to come."

He nodded. "I didn't have a choice." His eyes flickered open to meet hers. She shrugged.

"You know how I feel about scars," she said. "Don't think I'd pity you for them. That'd be insulting for both of us."

He managed a smile. "You are so unsympathetic," he said. "The icy noblewoman planning her future."

"Well," she said, "I can only change so much."

Someone outside bellowed something distinctly unfriendly. Panfilo's expression grew thoughtful. Annetta read it by pure habit: a shame we're probably going to die in the next five minutes. She twisted her mouth in irritated agreement.

"I wish they would just attack now," she said. "Papal Guards are only so threatening, even head-on." She turned away…her eyes did not linger on his scarred face. He watched her walk to the window. There were more screams from outside, louder and not at all intelligible. Annetta's eyebrows shot up, which for her was a shout of surprise.

Panfilo joined her at the window and saw a familiar flash of white-on-red, hacking its way through a mass of terrified soldiery. No one was paying the guild house the slightest bit of attention.

"The Master," Annetta said slowly. "Rescuing his assassins?"

"I don't think so," Panfilo mused. "He doesn't look like he's trying to reach the building. He just looks…"

"Bloodthirsty," she finished. Something sad flickered in her gaze. "Even Master Ezio should know better than to attack so many soldiers by himself."

Panfilo ran a hand over his warped mouth. "I think he's waiting for Tullio to spring from the haystack."

Annetta accepted the pain that followed—to a point. Then she set the rest aside, for other days. "So am I," she said. "But only cowards run from battle. What good is waiting?" She pulled her blade free from its scabbard.

Panfilo echoed her movements, but before they set out he pulled his mask back up with one hand. Annetta didn't say anything. There was no longer a need.

They went to join the fray.

-i-

The great hall was crowded today. All of the assassin recruits; Machiavelli and Claudia, all the other masters of the Order; even Bartolomeo and La Volpe. The thief lord smiled, amused by the proceedings, but the condottiero had always disliked ceremonies of any kind and lurked awkwardly in the background. Ermanno was there, still pale and withdrawn, but he was managing to smile and that meant he was having a better day than the day before.

(He would never adapt well to his loss. Everyone knew there was a reason Ezio kept assigning him to low-key stealth missions, which didn't require killing and only rarely required violence at all. Everyone knew there was a reason the single room had been reassigned to him from Panfilo. And no one called him anything but his name, these days.

Things in the Brotherhood had gone back to normal in the four months since Tullio's death, but normal was a different word.)

Ezio was there, of course, dressed impeccably and dripping weapons as always. His bearing was partly for show and partly ingrained, and there were more than a few hidden grins as he strutted his way past the crowds.

"Laa shay'a waqui'n moutlaq bale kouloun moumkine," he said, all in a rush. "The wisdom of our Creed is revealed through these words."

Panfilo and Annetta waited for him at the front of the great hall. They both stood stiff in new robes: the white-on-red would require adjusting, but the process was made easier by the knowledge that they were not the first. Bastiano had reached Last Rank two months before; he was the oldest assassin, the first recruit, arguably the best trainer the Order had seen yet. He deserved the honor of the first Ceremony, and no one begrudged him his position at the front of the room with Claudia and the other masters.

Ezio was taking his time getting there, though his position had been carefully arranged to accord him the most respect. He was obviously enjoying being the center of attention—he'd been born to be the master of ceremonies, even for solemn ones such as this.

Annetta rolled her eyes. She shifted, wishing sudden and sharp for her old robes. She'd been so used to them. But she'd adapted to gowns and breeches in their turn—she was no longer an Expectation, but being a Symbol wouldn't prove much more difficult. Without meaning to she raised a hand to the side of her face and felt the outlines of the faint mark there. That wound had scarred, as she'd known it would, and having it was a comfort. Annetta Barbieri would never be a coward.

She was nervous, but she allowed the anxiety to reach her bit by cautious bit. To be a Master Assassin: here, then, was her future. What a strange and lovely thing it was.

Beside her, Panfilo was smiling his little half-smile, and that was a strange and lovely thing all its own—his mask was nowhere to be seen, and no one was surprised, because he wore it so rarely now. Only on bad days, just as Ermanno only kept to his room when things felt sour. Panfilo was in the early stages of growing a beard, brown and already thick and, all right, something that required a bit of an adjustment on Annetta's part. It covered the worst of the scars, though there was still visible marring if you knew where to look. Annetta rarely felt the need to look.

(She liked that smile, though. They'd both realized quickly that flashing it was the quickest way to crack through her ice.)

Ezio had finally reached them. He held his arms out wide, and Annetta found herself expecting some dirty remark. Instead he said, "We work in the dark to serve the light," and the entire room nodded as one.

"We are Assassins." She felt a chill or two run down her back. Ezio paused for increased dramatics, and Annetta glanced over her shoulder. No one would dare talk over the Master right now, but there were always other ways to speak.

She smiled at Panfilo. He will drag this Ceremony out even longer than he did Bastiano's.

Panfilo's eyes laughed, though his face stayed stern and attentive. Tullio would have loved this. His would have lasted three days.

Imagine if he reached Assassino with someone else. The Ceremony never would have ended.

I don't actually think you mind standing here. You're taking notes.

What would I have to take notes on, exactly?

The Master. Planning on usurping him one of these days?

Hardly. She shrugged one shoulder, the movement swallowed up by the new robes. Just keeping my options open.

Of course. He smiled again. She felt herself flush, which was ridiculous.

"Nothing is true," Ezio said, "and everything is permitted." The words had age, and power, and layers of sharp-edged meaning. Annetta heard herself repeat them, heard Panfilo's deeper voice nearly drown out her own.

Thoughts from years ago came drifting back, and she knew that she had been right all along. You either withered below your scars or you stood to meet them, eye to eye.

-i-

After the Ceremony came the Leap of Faith, set to a background of sunset and chimney smoke, and Annetta was the first to jump. Her positioning was perfect, and even as she fell she memorized the sensations. Even as the waters of the Tiber closed around her head she reflected on her technique.

Panfilo jumped after her. All he thought about as the wind rushed past was the way the light seemed to fracture off the water below.

The End

(Thanks for reading!)