Gabriele scowled, wrapping yet more cloth around his palms. He'd missed the beam again, and nursing a sore rear and pride, couldn't help but feel jealous towards the young man swathed in black robes, standing on that very same beam. Of course, he'd gotten there on his first try. Next to him, there was a small flurry of teal as Annetta failed too, so it was time for his go. Taking a running start, Gabriele flexed his fingers, jumping just before the beam, bringing his arms up and his legs close to his chest, and using the momentum to swing round to land on top of the wood.
'Finally.' The man spoke Gabriele's own thoughts aloud. 'I was beginning to think the sun would rise before you made it.'
'I only took four goes,' he began to protest, but was cut off.
'That's three goes too many then, eh? I guess you're only young, so I'll let it slide...'
'You're just two years older than - ' Gabriele stopped, face flushing red as he noticed the man smiling. He was teasing him! Below them, Annette coughed for their attention.
'Well, I'm all out of tries,' she muttered, shooting them both a glare quickly, 'and don't you say it's because I'm a girl, Zeno, or I'll cut breathing holes in all your robes.'
'Wasn't going to,' he retorted gruffly, raising both hands in mock defeat, but it was an obvious lie. Gabriele was too busy staring at Annette to care. Her hood had fallen back to show her tightly curled hair, and as he flicked his gaze over her face their eyes met. Instantly he looked away, as if burned.
The night was coming to an end.
'Gabriele, are you deaf, or do I have to repeat myself to get through that thick skull of yours?'
Dawn was rising.
'Gabriele. Gabriele!' Somebody was shaking his shoulders. He opened an eyelid to see another of the assassin recruits standing over him, arms folded. It was Ottavio, grinning wildly. Gabriele groaned.
'Why'd you have to grab me so hard,' he joked. 'Can't get enough of me?'
'You sleep like a log. Well, more like a tree trunk actually, but you get the picture, which wasn't pretty mind you - all drool and vacant expression - ' Ottavio yelped as he thumped him with a pillow, ducking the next blow. 'Come on, you'll be late for Zeno's graduation ceremony.' The smile fell from Gabriele's face. It had been five months since the events he'd been dreaming about, and since then the race between the two of them had only gotten more...personal. Zeno had always been one step ahead, as always, and no matter how hard Gabriele tried, no matter how much he trained. He had, as the master had said, some 'talent', after all. It angered Gabriele that someone could be born in such a way that let them beat those that should have been equals, with minimal effort. Perhaps if his parents had been a little more considerate, they could have given him a proper man's name too.
'Hero of God' indeed!
'What?' Gabriele realised he'd spoken aloud.
'Oh, nothing,' he said, waving dismissively, whilst grabbing a spare tunic and putting on his best fake smile. 'We can't be late for Zeno!' They hurried downstairs, into the long gilt-lined hall that would now be used for the first time.
By the wrong person. Gabriele bit down on his lip as the two of them joined the end of the line of recruits, standing on either side of an ornate rug that extended to the far side of the room, up onto a platform where both a brazier, Machiavelli, and the master himself - Ezio Auditore - were waiting. All of the recruits turned their heads to watch Zeno entering the room, his usual recruit robes replaced with that of an assassin's, similar to the master's.
'How long do you think it'll take before he dyes them black?' Gabriele whispered to Ottavio, but was replied to by a finger on his lips. Silence, it said. This was, after all, the day all the recruits looked forward to, despite the branding of the finger, which he winced at, almost imagining the feel of hot iron against flesh, the agony.
And you're supposed to not make a sound! It was an expression of control as well as a symbol of the order, one of the most valued attributes an assassin could have. Of course, Zeno did not let out a murmur, and as the ceremony came to an end with the two - no, three, assassins leaving to take the leap of faith - Gabriele realised that he would have cried out. I'm not ready. The realisation was sickening and calming at the same time. Perhaps he'd overestimated himself.
'Are you alright? You look a little pale.'
'I'm fine,' he didn't need to look up to know it was Annette's voice. 'Just all the excitement I guess. Zeno's a role model for all of us.' He hurried out, avoiding the other recruits, who were already thinking up questions they'd ask the new assassin about Ezio. Tiber Island was small compared to the rest of Rome, but it had enough places to sit alone, out of sight from guards and nosy civilians. Settling for a grassy outcrop next to the water's edge, he sat down, the air growing colder as night set in.
'Hey,' Gabriele whipped a curved stiletto out as a hand brushed the bare skin at the back of his neck. He pinned his attacker to the ground.
'Wait, what?' He drew the blade back, sheathing it. 'Annette? You should know better than to sneak up on me like that!'
'I just wanted to see if you were alright.' Guilt pained Gabriele's features as he saw a trickle of blood, running from a shallow cut on her forehead, and he turned his head away. A pair of arms stopped him. ' Gabriele, look at me. Just look at me for once.' More guilt followed, but he did as she asked. 'I know you're jealous of Zeno.' He felt himself deflate, outer walls crumbling. What powers did women possess that they could understand men so easily?
'It's childish,' he muttered.
'Yes.' Her reply surprised him, and an uncomfortable silence fell for a short while. 'But that's why I like you. We're all in our twenties, and yet most of us have already buried that which makes us human. Emotions. Sometimes I feel like I'm surrounded by statues, that use humour to mask the fact that they've lost something.' She smiled, watching the shock grow on his face. 'So when you admit that you've been childish, it reminds me why I like you. Really like you. You're not made of stone.'
But isn't that what we have to be? The true sacrifice an assassin has to make?
'Come on, Gabriele, I want to show you something,' she held out her hand towards his.
He only hesitated for a moment before he took it.