'The judgement of Maat' Chapter 11
Sorry for taking so long before uploading, folks, but I have an avalanche of
exams coming up and I have to concentrate about them.
I will still go on writing, though.
I got a message from someone wanting the setup to be different, but since I got no precisions,
I had to guess what was meant. Please tell me if this is worse and you want it changed back! O.o
Don't forget to review! :D
''Do not disturb me under any circumstance whatsoever!'' The cardinal Balducci ordered before slamming shut the heavy door to his office.
He faced the luxuriously decorated room and felt the harsh, warm wind of the stormful late-summer evening hit him.
The large window was wide open, a strong air current blowing the long curtains of thick velvet inwards and making the flames of the last oil lamps flicker almost to the point of extinction. The papers from the extravagant wooden desk were scattered everywhere in the spacious room and the man of the Church felt a shiver run through his body. He could not recall leaving the window open. As he went to close it his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, and he was suddenly aware of the shape of a man standing in front of him, previously hidden by the flowing curtains. Balducci was unable to restrain a gasp when he realized that he was not alone and the other chuckled softly:
''Good evening, cardinal.''
The man's boots against the floor made the regular sounds of a steady, calm walk as he stepped into the weak light of the lamps, towards the cardinal who walked backwards as he approached.
Balducci relaxed and his fright turned into indignation.
''I am glad for your presence.'' He said, crossing his arms over his chest, large, precious rings glittering. ''Would you be so kind and explain to me what in the world is happening? I wanted a man killed, you accepted the task and even received payement. You promised that he would be gone by now, which he isn't.''
''The Assassins happened.'' Lacroix answered like it was the simplest thing in the world, leaning against the edge of the heavy desk, a calm smile on his thin, colourless lips. ''The woman and one of my men are dead.''
Balducci let his arms fall and busied himself with lighting the lamps that had gone out.
''Look, I am sorry for your loss, but you were payed to do a job and I must remind you that time is of the essence...
''I realize that.''
''Good. Then what are you waiting for?''
''You yourself are still here. You can kill Morelli.''
Lacroix's smile became a grin.
''It doesn't work that way, cardinal. I orchestrate murders, I have not been carrying them out myself for many years.''
''Your reputation as a skilled killer still remains.''
''So it would seem.''
The cardinal and the Knight were silent for a moment, until Lacroix spoke again:
''Actually, I came to tell you that our deal is off.''
Balducci spun around, his plump face almost as scarlet as his cassock.
''What! You were the one who told me what would happen if I tried to sneak out of the deal! You were paid! You agreed!''
''I am sorry.''
''You're sorry? Rubbish! Why this all of the sudden?''
''I believe I simply got bored.'' The Knight shrugged.
''Yes. Of serving greedy old men in their struggle for power. I have better things to do.''
Incredule, the cardinal listened to the Frenchman continue:
''I never liked the Assassins, which speaks for itself as I am a Templar. But never did two of them become such thorns in my side as Auditore's nefew and his friend. So let me put it like this: my own purpose has become more important than yours.''
The cardinal's wide eyes watched the Templar, whose nonchalance was very unusual. Something was wrong.
''Where are your men?'' He asked, feeling a certain anxiousness starting to take over.
''I sent them back to France. They are still young and the path that I will be walking is nothing for them.''
''My God. You plan on taking on these assassins alone.''
The Frenchman did not answer, he simply looked at the other man, his blue eyes just as calm as the rest of him.
''Do you really think that you can take on two men specially trained for the purpose of killing all by yourself?''
''Let's put my reputation to the test.''
''You will die!''
''I do not have high expectations of coming out of this alive. But I will be taking the ones responsible for Jaques' death with me, and that Goddess too.''
The Knight's hands rested upon the large leather belt around his slim waist, a belt that carried a heavy broadsword and a nasty-looking dagger. Balducci could not help but disapprove how close the Templar's hands were to the weapons.
''Kill the Goddess?'' He asked. He did not really want to know what Lacroix was up to, but he feared that any silence from him would betray his worries. ''And how do you suppose succeeding at something the Church failed at for so many decades?''
''A little research in ancient documents and the Church would have known that Maats Feather and Scale can not be destroyed as long as she is alive. She needs to be killed or they will keep coming back, but the Church was to damn stupid to even consider that possibility. To get to Maat I need both items at the same time, and the Assassins are in possession of the Scale.''
''Which is why you need to find their headquarters and...''
Balducci stopped in the middle of his sentence. The Knight's blue gaze ran him through like a spear and the nonchalant smile was gone. Lacroix straightened himself up and came closer:
''You know, cardinal, when the Assassins do something, they are very thorough. I have no doubts about them knowing that you are implicated in this affair. When they come to find you, which is only a matter of time before they do, what do you think they will want to know?''
A sudden change in the Templar's voice made Balducci take a few steps back but the Frenchman followed and prevented him from going further by placing his hands on each side of the man's head.
''They will be wanting to know where I am, which you won't know of course, but as it makes you useless to them you will panick and tell them what you do know: that I will be showing up at their headquarters sooner or later to take the Scale. And I can not let you tell them that.''
Lacroix's hands squeezed the cardinal's skull harder as he spoke and Balducci's eyes went wider and wider.
''You bastard!'' The cardinal thundered. ''I had no possibility of guessing before you came and told me!''
''Yes. I talk too much.''
''You did in order to have an excuse to kill me!''
Before it even occurred to him to scream for help Lacroix's hands were clasping themselves over his nose and mouth, pushing him until he lay on top of the desk and preventing air from entering his lungs. Despite Balducci's weight and frenetic struggle Lacroix was a lot stronger than he looked, and his grip over his victim's face remained solid.
''What are you panicking for?'' The Templar hissed. ''If you lived your life like a cardinal should, you know you are off to a better place.''
Altair's knee hit the training dummy with brutal force, the power of the kick breaking the wooden stand and sending the unfortunate artificial enemy flying across the training grounds. Watching it roll in a cloud of red sand, the Arab forced himself to remain calm, trying not to give in to the overwhelming urge to hit someone really hard rather than an object. Out of breath, he stood in the middle of the training room of the Assassins' underground headquarters, his chest rising and sinking rapidly. His heartbeat was loud and he had lost track of how long and how hard he had been training, but judging from the sweat running down his back and sticking his clothes to his skin, he had been at it for a while.
Giving himself completely over to the beating of the dummy seemed to happen a lot lately, especially since that day, a day he tried over and over to banish to the most distant corner of his mind, but which always resurfaced somehow. Just the thought of it reinforced his fury. It pissed him off, but knowing that going berserk was not going to help anyone, him least of all, he closed his eyes, hands balled into fists. The far too vivid images came at once, the images of Ezio's grinning face, too close for comfort. Then the memory of his touch, the taste of his kisses and the heat radiating from his body.
Altair laughed bitterly at himself at the thought of how scared he had been for his partner when Ezio had been at the mercy of the red-haired giant. Knowing that Lefevre's strength and a little bad luck was all it would take for the Italian to crack his head open on the stone floor had been nerve-racking, especially since there was nothing Altair could do about it as the chains kept him from reaching out. He had been praying in silence for Ezio to shut his big mouth, for his constant flow of provocation drove the Templar mad, shattering Lefevre's notorious self-control.
Although they were entirely different Altair had grown used to having Ezio there as a partner, Ezio who despite his many flaws, was a talented assassin and someone Altair had come to respect as a colleague. Seeing him getting kicked around by the unstoppable mountain of a Templar had made Altair remember that the cheerful Italian still was just a man, that he was capable of dying like everybody else and that one little accident could deprive Altair of his company forever. The Arab had realized that he actually cared about the noisy younger man, and according to Marcia, Ezio cared about him too.
Eyes still closed, Altair snorted.
He thought about when he had been alone with the Knight of the Cross, before Ezio arrived to the house by the Vatican. No matter how brutal, painful and unpleasant Lefevre's kisses had been, the Templar had known that his need for contact was a vice but craved it nonetheless and could not help it. Ezio's kisses had been a lot more gentle, at least at first, but still several times worse. Being an assassin, the Arab knew to expect the unexpected, that things that he would never stand for could be important to others and lead to surprising events. He did not understand Lefevre's preference for men but could not deny that it had been very real. Ezio had not been driven by any deep need at all, he had just done it for fun.
Had his situation been similar to that of the Templar, Altair could have understood and forgiven. But not this. It had only been a game of power, something the Italian had done because he could, because he had been lucky enough to overpower his partner and had been in position to do whatever the hell he wanted. This was nothing close to caring.
Are you afraid you are going to like what I do to you?
What the hell is there to like? You are a man.
I don't think it really matters, as long as I know how to touch you.
Ezio had had a point. Had the Arab not clinged to the idea that giving in would have fueled the Italian's superirority, he might have done just that, forgotten and not cared who touched him, just let himself go. But it had become a matter of pride not to give Ezio the satisfaction of bowing to him, defiance being Altair's only weapon left.
While his thoughts had wandered his fists had tightened. His knuckles had become white, and he was brought back to reality by the sound of a man clearing his throat. He turned around to see a servant standing by the entrance to the training grounds, looking directly at him.
''Signore Mario requests your presence at his office.'' The man announced in a flat voice.
Altair nodded, relaxed his fists and picked up the robes and weapons he had left on a bench near the wall. As he lowered the hood over his eyes his lips stretched into a sardonic smile, and the assassin chuckled at his pitiful self.
I lived an entire life without feeling anything, but when I do, this is what I am rewarded with? Care is just a simple, fragile little thing.
He followed the servant out, amazed by how simply care could turn into something so dangerously close to hate.