Ezio blankly looked at his hands: They were much too pale and useless, with the clock striking nine, and Federico working late into the night.

It had been a while since the incident in the marketplace, but the series of strange events that occurred after it only strengthened his plight. He did not dare to tell Federico of his dilemma, because the other looked a tad more than stressed lately, and he wished to abate the tension in those shoulders, not add to it, as hard as it was. Every often, pulling a little kiss, the older man had poked at the crease in his brow, asking him what the matter was, how he looked a bit off, no longer chiding the cook for her mystery lasagna, and instead, eating it sans complaint. There was nothing else to say to those words, into the eyes that seemed to know everything without him having to voice it—but whatever slip he made, Federico did not speak of them, and in a way, there was a truce of silence.

Merda, he cursed, sinking back further into the tub. What had caused this chain, he did not know; all he wanted was peace, peace that seemed to slowly blossom, even after what had happened after that day of death …

He tersely sat up once more, and shivered, despite the heat that enveloped him. If he had thought that he was paranoid, just after the initial stalking, then he erred: For, hugging his knees to his chest, hot water teasing the back of his neck, his wariness had increased tenfold, which had led him to bathe in the spare closet, next to the ancient armoire, amidst the questioning states of his servants. He could not help it, however, the nervous switching of his eyes; that enigma of a predator had appeared here and there, even in the most secure places, including the master bedroom, the main office, even in the canopied gardens that were ornamentally grand, to the right of the kitchens. As careful as he was, though, it did not matter—and he felt as if the perpetrator left signs of evidence on purpose, the way those menacing, thick snakes slowly wound around its prey, in the sweetest succor of obtaining a catch.

Or whatever intention it had.

Tightly, he curled again, like the tub had meant to swallow him whole; how he wished to freely move about, to visit Leonardo and sneak into Federico's place in the Medici bank, uncaring of a penetrating gaze. Respite was an offer he solemnly chose—lest he desired the stalker to snag him in his sleep, the nights that Federico did not comprehend, his attention was fixed on the wide doors and windows, noting each and every flutter of the curtain and the creaking of hinges. He barely realized that his skin was now wrinkling, due to the water. The oath he darkly muttered seemed to mock him as he uneasily stood, and the towel felt rough and unforgiving in his hands.

Gritting his teeth, he stepped out of his bath and allowed the cold tiles to meet his feet.

Until they were swept out under him.

Whatever, or whoever, grabbed him, it was maddeningly quick, and the grip around his waist was unrelenting. Ezio hoarsely gasped as he was hoisted roughly over the—it was a man, a monster!—hard shoulder, the cold wind assaulting his wet form, his face contorted in pain as a gloved hand held greedily onto the back of his thighs sans mercy.

By the time he regained his senses, the darkly clothed figure pushed past the open door and stormed out into the hall, rousing servants, and the like, with every clunk of his heavy boots. A bit of hope stirred in him when he saw the servants come out from their duties, but he could not suppress a cry of betrayal when they simply bowed to his offender and took off their plain garbs, revealing the same kind of attire their true master had on. Not even a sliver of remorse or sympathy lingered in their poses, and Ezio tried all the more to break free of the deathly hold.

The silence was too loud, much too overbearing when he gasped at the punishing slap to his buttocks, rendering him momentarily paralyzed.

And the blow to his head negated all thoughts as the night took hold.