In Renaissance Italy, the priestly novice Alexander runs into intrigue, the supernatural and the mercenary known as Guglielmo il Sanguinante.



Nessuno


by
Two Ladies of Quality



Part One



Roma, 1498

All roads lead to Roma. If you wanted to reach the pinnacle of power, you didn't stay in Milano, no matter how influential the Sforza family was. Instead, you went to the center of the world and made sure you came to the attention of the Curia and the Princes of Holy Mother Church.

Guglielmo, called Il Sanguinante, lounged on the sill of a large window in a grand upper hallway of the Papal Palace, cleaning his fingernails with a long, thin-bladed dagger. The air of casual menace was no act, but the relaxation was. Since he and the mercenary band he was lieutenant of had come to Roma as part of the entourage of Giovanni Sforza five years ago in 1493, Guglielmo had been careful to reaffirm his reputation as one of the deadliest members of the band known as the Scourge of Europe. And he was only the second in command.

The company had secured their place in the favor of Pope Alexander VI by guarding his refuge in the Castel Sant' Angelo when the French had entered Roma in 1494. The Papal Guard, traditional protectors of the Holy Father, had been a little unreliable, but mercenaries were loyal to whomever paid them. And Alexander VI had access to a great deal of money.

Still, the Apostolic court had different standards than a mercenary camp, and outright murder was considered gauche. The death of three members of the Papal Guard was not the easiest thing to sweep under the carpet. Certainly the half dozen Guards standing next to the only easy exit were unwilling to let the matter slide.

Guglielmo flicked one last bit of annoyance off a long finger then gazed out the window, absently tossing his dagger into the air and catching it. Down below, St. Peter's Square was full of bustle, though most of the crowd was depressingly monochromatic. Flocks of black-clad priests and nuns, spattered with bloody Cardinals. He glanced down at his own crimson and black attire and smiled. At least he looked good.

"Will, m'lad!" boomed a very familiar voice that was coming down the hallway.

Guglielmo let only his reflection in the glass see his grin, then made sure that the eye roll and sneer were visible as he turned. "I am not one of your barbaric Irish relatives, Angelo. Or have you forgotten how to speak Italian again?" He slid easily off the window sill to his feet.

A big man who habitually wore green and gold for his native land, Angelo dell'Irlanda stood at least half a head taller than everyone around him. He fairly oozed good fellowship and seemed the perfect companion for a visit to a cheerful tavern. People who were meeting him a second time, however, stayed out of reach of those big hands and watched his eyes. Those who stayed with him knew there was no better man to have at your back in a tussle. But once you were one of his, you developed the depressing urge to fling yourself into mad schemes and hopeless battles, just because he asked it of you. Because the odds were good that he'd be leading the charge.

"How did it go?" Guglielmo asked.

Angelo flung his left arm around Guglielmo's shoulders. "The Captain of the Guard is a reasonable man, Guglielmo. I don't understand how you came to believe he was so angry with you. We discussed the matter like rational men, and he's perfectly willing to see it was a case of self-defense. Three against one? Who could possibly believe that you'd start a fight like that?"

They both managed not to snicker.

Guglielmo finally managed a straight face. "What did you do to him?"

"Do to him?" Only Angelo could manage to look so affronted and so wicked. "Why, I only offered to settle it like any gentleman would. He answers for his men, I answer for mine."

Guglielmo stopped and stared at his captain. "You challenged the Captain of the Guard to a duel?" Angelo shrugged. "Did he piss himself?"

"Guglielmo!" Angelo turned so the six Guards down the hall couldn't see his smirk. "He was going to accept, but he remembered an important meeting he needed to attend. I offered to meet him later, but he's such a busy man, he said it would be better just to let the matter slide."

"That's very kind of him." He bit the inside of his cheek to stop the laughter. "So, can we go? We've got things to do ourselves."

"We can go."

They strolled down the hallway, Angelo's arm still around Guglielmo's shoulders. The six Papal Guards glanced at each other thoughtfully. The two mercenaries pretended not to notice. More fools they, if the Guards hadn't noticed that Guglielmo's sword was on his right hip and that Angelo was not blocking his left arm, his sword arm. It wouldn't be the first time the two mercenaries had to draw steel together.

This time, however, the Guards decided on the better part of valour and let the pair go on their way. Angelo pulled his arm back, and Guglielmo stepped away to a better position for fighting if necessary. They strode down a grand staircase, and the priestly minions to the Papal throne made hurried way for them.

"Was it as simple as you make it out to be?" Guglielmo asked.

"Is it ever?" Angelo glared at him. "What have I told you, boy, about leaving witnesses to your little dances?"

"To make sure there aren't any. But I think the Holy Father might have been a bit annoyed with me if I slit the throat of his son."

Angelo paused. "You didn't tell me Cesare was there." Guglielmo shrugged. "Was he involved?"

"I saw him talking to those three before they came up and got insulting, if that's what you mean."

"You mean--it was self-defense?"

Guglielmo laughed. "Please don't sound so shocked, Angelo. I can occasionally walk down a hallway without killing someone."

Angelo didn't laugh. "Why is Cesare Borgia involved in this?"

"Cesare likes seeing things die. I don't know if he was hoping I'd go down or if he just wanted to watch me butcher those Guards."

"Why you?"

"I was handy? He was curious to see if I could do it?"

"You didn't--insult him?"

"Insult the Holy Father's son? Do I look stupid? Leave my hat out of this."

But Angelo ignored the invitation to begin a debate on tastes in clothing. "I've seen him watching you, and it's a very thoughtful look."

Guglielmo tilted his head to give his captain a narrow look. "Are you thinking I propositioned him and he was offended? Or that I refused an invitation to one of his little Greek feasts? Angelo, just because you sometimes find me in bed with someone other than a wench doesn't mean every man in the city is after me. And you're blushing."

"I am not," Angelo snapped, walking faster and not caring that a pair of bejeweled Bishops had to jump out of his way.

Guglielmo was careful to stay far enough back so he'd have to raise his voice. "Besides, I'm too old to suit his tastes." Angelo waved his hands around his ears, as if he could shoo away the words.

Bumpkin, Guglielmo mused fondly. As if Angelo hadn't woken up next to another man himself once or twice. Though that generally involved so much wine that he started singing and babbling in his own uncivilized tongue. Oddly enough, Angelo always refused to translate those babblings the next day.

He considered his purse and wondered if there was enough wine back at their lodgings to get Angelo that drunk again.





Part Two

After five years in service at the Vatican, Alexander felt he knew his way around the Papal court fairly well. He knew the shortcuts between the ornate chambers, which Monsignors were most likely to turn a blind eye to mischief, and which members of which families it was essential not to annoy. The great Cardinals never paid attention to lowly novices; so long as you bowed appropriately as they passed and let their servants put on airs, they were safely ignored.

Alexander had come from a village near Fiorenza. The dying orders of a Medici matriarch had stated that a dozen peasant lads were to be taken from their lowly estates and sponsored to education and a new life in the arms of Holy Mother Church. Twelve-year-old Alexander, son of a sheepherder, found himself in a world that should have only existed in tales. In the novice's dormitory, he'd wept in confusion and homesickness while the townsmen's sons who had been groomed for this life sneered at him.

Most of his fellows from the villages proved unable to keep up with the lessons or were simply unable to adjust to the opulent and treacherous world of the Vatican. Three had run away and vanished. Five slipped into the position of being servants to the nobler born, and one had been found in far too familiar relations with the wrong man's daughter and then "fell into the Tiber against his will."

Only three of the transplants prospered. Giuseppe fell in with the archivists and now spent happy days among the manuscripts. Luigi revealed an unexpected talent with numbers, which brought him to the attention of the financiers.

Alexander one day found himself in the Pantheon, the immense domed building that dated from the Caesars. He was staring up at the Ocular at the top of the dome, murmuring to himself, "But how does it stay up?" To his embarrassment, a man nearby began to explain it. Three hours later, he was late returning to the novice's dormitory but had agreed to study architecture with Signore Donato Bramante. He and his compatriots were still expected to serve at the various Masses and wherever else the Master of Novices decreed, but Alexander, at last, no longer cursed the day he'd been taken from his familiar world.

He was running down a side corridor in the Papal Palace, hurrying from a class to the Basilica, where he was expected to assist one of the Cardinals with the midday Mass. At seventeen he was getting a little old for altar boy duties, but he kept putting off his ordination as a full priest. He would have to decide soon. Maestro Bramante would take him as a full-time student, but he hated to give up the magic and joy of serving the Mass.

Choices. Five years ago the only choice he saw was following in his father's steps. Now he had too many choi--

He hit something black and red, something that made a loud oofing noise and then threw him to the marble floor.

Alexander blinked and started to roll to his feet. "I'm terribly sorry, I--"

The tip of a sword was pointed at his nose.

Alexander stared at the point for a second, then shifted his gaze up the blade to the long-fingered, beringed hand wrapped around the grip. Past the narrow white ruffle at the wrist, along an arm encased in black velvet with red silk lining the pleats, to another narrow ruffle at the neck. Empty, pale eyes staring back at him. A scar nicking the left eyebrow and another emphasizing the edge of a sharp cheekbone. A thin, tight mouth that was beginning to loosen as confusion and amusement brought life into the eyes.

He took a step back. "You should watch where you're going, little priest." With his sword tip he scooped up his black velvet cap and replaced it on his head.

"I'm--I'm terribly sorry. Are you all right?"

"Just fine." The face tightened again as three members of the Papal Guard ran up.

"Brother, are you all right?" the lead Guard demanded. The other two had their hands on the hilts of their swords as they glared at the man in red and black.

Alexander looked back and forth between the two sides. "I'm fine, thank you." He wasn't sure the Guardsmen heard him. Around him he saw people backing away, but servants wearing various liveries lurked in corners and near doorways.

The man in red and black still had his sword out, pointed down and to one side. Still watching the Guards, he held a hand out to Alexander.

Slowly Alexander accepted the hand. He gasped at the strength that pulled him off the floor, and he stumbled trying to get his footing. The stranger grabbed his arm to steady him. Alexander realized he was between the swords and tried to pull away, but the grip on his arm tightened.

"Gentlemen!" came a loud, oddly accented voice. The stranger laughed very softly.

The man coming down the hallway was dark where the other stranger was fair, garbed in bright gold and green in counter to the red and black. But he also carried a sword, and Alexander didn't think his arrival was going to calm matters.

"Captain Angelo," the lead Guardsman nodded. "Your man here knocked down this novice."

"I'm sure there's some kind of misunderstanding. Isn't there, Guglielmo?" Captain Angelo added with a glare.

Guglielmo managed to erase most of the smirk on his face. "Oh, yes, there is. I was walking along, minding my own business, when all of a sudden this young man barreled into me out of nowhere." He sighed. "I know I should be more trusting, especially here in the Palace, but I thought I was under attack. I'm afraid I reacted automatically. I am sorry I threw you to the floor," he added directly to Alexander. "No hard feelings?"

"Um, none." Alexander tugged against the hold again, but Guglielmo's hand didn't budge.

"Hold still," Guglielmo muttered as Angelo apologized magnificently and insincerely. "Keep your mouth shut and you should get out of this without a scratch."

"Get out of what?"

"Hush, already. If everything goes according to plan, then nobody gets hurt."

Alexander swallowed. "That's the problem. I'm nobody."

Guglielmo did a double take, but the appearance of two more guardsmen down the corridor distracted him. "I do apologize for the inconvenience, Brother Nobody, but we might need to extend our acquaintance a bit longer."

Alexander was completely baffled. Somehow he had precipitated some sort of crisis, but he knew he was irrelevant to how this turned out. He saw Captain Angelo's hand creep toward his sword as the pair of Guardsmen came down the corridor. Their eager smiles made him feel sick.

"By all the saints, signores, have you no shame? Swords drawn in the Apostolic Palace?"

The lead Guardsman took a startled step backwards. Alexander thought he saw the man crossing his fingers against the Evil Eye. "Monsignor Lewes. How did you know . . ."

Henry Giles, Monsignor Lewes, late of Canterbury in England, glared at all of them as he strode up. "Signore," he snapped at Guglielmo, "put up your sword. And let that young man go."

Guglielmo didn't obey until Angelo confirmed the order with a faint nod. Alexander yanked free, rubbing his arm.

Monsignor Lewes shook his head. "Brawling in the hallways, you should all be ashamed." He stepped between the two sides and took hold of Alexander's sleeve. "Stay with me, boy," he murmured. Alexander just nodded. At least Monsignor Lewes didn't have a sword. "Now, what is going on here?"

Alexander jumped in before anyone else. "I was running down the hall--I know I shouldn't, Monsignor, but I was late--I'm even more late, dio, the Master of Novices will have me flogged--"

Lewes patted his arm. "I'll explain what happened, boy. Go on."

"I ran into the--the gentleman here, then I fell down." Alexander looked away from the smirk on Guglielmo's face. "I said I was sorry, and he said there were no hard feelings, and nobody got hurt, and I'm not sure why the Guards are here."

Lewes turned to the Guards. "Yes, sergeant? Why are your men here? And so many of them?"

"Well, Reverend Sir, we saw the scuffle and, considering the people involved . . ." Guglielmo and Angelo smiled identical smiles and ran casual hands over the hilts of their swords.

"Indeed." Lewes glared at all of them again. "Two people have a collision in the heavily-traveled halls of the Vatican, and the Papal Guard hurries to help. That's very gratifying, sergeant, but perhaps not the most efficient use of your time."

The Guardsman took the unsubtle hint. "Of course, Reverend Sir." He gathered his men with a look, and, with a final sneer at Guglielmo and Angelo, headed off.

Angelo gave Lewes a very curious look. "A thousand thanks, Reverend Sir. No offense, but who are you that the Papal Guard turns tail when you snarl?"

Lewes tucked his hands into his wide sleeves. "Why, just another humble servant of our Holy Mother, captain. Nothing more."

"Indeed."

"Indeed." He spared another glare for Guglielmo. "Surely, captain, you and your comrade have business elsewhere?"

Guglielmo bristled, but Angelo smacked his arm. "We do, Reverend Sir. Come along, Guglielmo."

Guglielmo turned to follow, but paused to wink at Alexander. "Farewell, Brother Nobody. It's a pity we couldn't extend our acquaintance." Angelo grabbed his sleeve and tugged him along.

Monsignor Lewes let a small smile escape as he watched the pair depart. "It seems you made somewhat of an impression on William the Bloody."

Alexander didn't recognize the English words. "On who?"

"Sorry. Your new friend. Guglielmo il Sanguinante."

"Il San--" Alexander felt his knees wobble a little. "That was Guglielmo il Sanguinante? The soldier?"

"Indeed. And his captain, Angelo dell'Irlanda." Monsignor Lewes took Alexander's arm again. "Brace up, lad, you came out of a scuffle with the Scourge of Europe quite well."

"But what would men like that be doing here?"

Lewes looked very thoughtful. "I don't know. Yet." He patted Alexander on the shoulder. "Now, what's your name, lad?"

"Alexander, Reverend Sir."

"Alexander. A good name. And where were you headed when all this blew up in your face?"

Alexander shook himself. "The Basilica. I'm supposed to help serve Mass with Cardinal Fortezzi. I don't know if I'm going to make it in time now."

"Yes, it would be such a terrible tragedy to keep the good Cardinal waiting." He caught the shocked look Alexander gave him. "I'm sorry, that was terribly rude of me. His Eminence will be waiting, but I'm sure there will be another novice available if necessary. I'll explain to the Master of Novices that none of this was your fault."

They walked down the corridor towards the Basilica, garnering curious looks from observers. Alexander couldn't quite place Monsignor Lewes' position in the Vatican hierarchy, but he had seen the man around the Apostolic offices more than once. He was obviously someone important, with better things to do than shepherd one lowly novice. "Reverend Sir, it's really very kind of you to come with me, but the Master of Novices isn't that bad, really. He'll listen to me."

"I'm sure he will," Monsignor Lewes said placidly. "Still, I want to make sure your story gets a fair hearing. I hate injustice."

Alexander started to answer, but his attention was caught by the signet ring on the Monsignor's left thumb. He couldn't make out the entire seal, but he did recognize the upright sword in the center. His stomach knotted painfully. Kind Monsignor Lewes was affiliated with the Holy Office of the Inquisition.

"Alexander? Are you all right?"

He pulled his eyes away from the ring with a jerk. Lewes frowned at him, then glanced down at his own hand.

"Ah. Yes." Lewes turned the ring so that the seal was hidden beneath his hand. "Things happen, Alexander. Inexplicable things. And people have to try and find the truth of those things. It can be an ugly business. But one should never be afraid of the truth."

"Yes, sir."

There was pain in the mild eyes, but Lewes said nothing. They were silent the rest of the way to the changing rooms near the high altar in the Basilica. The Master of Novices spotted them and began working his way through the swarm of altar boys towards them.

Lewes leaned closer to Alexander. "You have nothing to fear from me, lad. If you ever need help with anything, no matter how bizarre, remember me as a friend."

More convinced than ever that this was the strangest day he had ever lived, Alexander went to find his robes.





Part Three

The two mercenaries strode along, sneering slightly at the people who were careful to stay out of their way. Even the priests and functionaries around the Apostolic precincts avoided the pair. Once they were clear of the Papal sphere of influence, they shifted from arrogance to watchfulness. In the commoners' sections of Roma, people were more likely to answer offense with blunt violence than with nebulous religious maledictions. It was much homeier and more relaxing than the stifling show of hypocritical asceticism in the Vatican.

Angelo tossed a coin to a vendor in exchange for some meat rolls. He handed one to Guglielmo, who bit in delicately, careful of the hot grease. He shook his head at Angelo's less civilized manners.

"You get spots on that tunic, and Isabetta will have your scalp for a dust cloth."

Angelo paused, almost reached to his head, then sneered. "I can manage Isabetta." He held the sausage-filled roll a little further away from his body.

"Of course."

"Now, you tell me what you were thinking when you grabbed an infant priest for a shield?"

"That he'd make a very good one, and that those big dark eyes of his are just begging to be shocked."

"I know you understand the concept of choosing your fights wisely, but do you think you could give me some warning when you decide to challenge the entire Papal Guard?"

"Oh, it was not the entire Guard! A half dozen men, pffth."

Angelo sighed. "And how do you know the boy has dark eyes?"

Guglielmo hesitated. "Typical local lad. With that coloring he's bound to have dark eyes, too."

"Um hm. Do you remember that girl in Venice?"

"Drusilla," Guglielmo purred.

"You swore that was love at first sight, that her eyes beckoned you to take refuge in their dark, comforting depths."

"I said that?"

"You did."

"Was I drunk?"

"No."

"And you didn't have the simple human decency to forget about it, out of respect for me, who's served you for over a decade?"

Angelo beamed at him. "Not for the forgiveness of all my days in Purgatory."

"Oh, as if you have any chance of Purgatory. Hellbound, you are."

"Not with all the gold I spend on Masses. But we're not discussing my soul, we're focusing on your inability to keep your hands to yourself. I don't recall Drusilla being that smitten with you. I can't imagine why. Grandniece of the Doge, the sons of dukes at her feet. No reason not to look twice at a soldier."

"You're an evil bastard and I hate you."

Angelo put an arm around his shoulders and laid a damp kiss on his forehead. "Of course, you do. But, Will--a noblewoman is one thing. I expected you to at least woo the girl into bed. But a boy studying to be a priest? You'll not be seeing much support from me on this."

"I wasn't asking for any."

Guglielmo walked faster. This was nothing like Drusilla in Venice. She'd definitely been softening her attitude towards the end. Was it his fault that she'd decided it was the wisest course of action to cry rape when her brother found the two of them in her room? How the hell did they think he'd found her room in the first place, after all? Still, leaving town was definitely advisable.

Brother Nobody was just that, nobody. An awkward boy too ungainly to keep his feet. No one had taught him how to move, how to use that big body of his to best effect. He was just another youth trapped in the machinery of Holy Church, destined to a withered life of serving an altar instead of learning how to be a man.

He came to a stop. "Oh, Blessed Mother, no . . ."

He was just stepping to the wall of a nearby building, ready to knock his head against it, when a familiar big hand wrapped around his neck. "None of that now, boy. A few gallons of wine, that's what you need. Maybe a wench or three."

"Blondes. Red heads."

"Of course."

The Crusader's Kiss was an old inn which still had its attached stables, despite the value of land inside Roma and the scarcity of horses on the crowded streets. When the Scourge of Europe was looking for a Roman headquarters, lodging for their horses had been the first consideration. Any moral objections the landlord may have had to becoming permanent host to a gang of soldiers were quickly resolved by the glitter of gold, and he and Captain Angelo quickly came to a mutually beneficial arrangement. A wooden mace carved above the front doorway served as the sign. Passers-by still occasionally came in for drinks and to listen to the tales of warfare, but the primary business was the care and comfort of the mercenaries who currently called the inn home.

"Gianni!" Angelo called as he pulled Guglielmo after him into the inn. "Wine for my besotted friend, here!"

The plump man behind the counter waved. "At once, Captain Angelo."

Angelo dropped Guglielmo into his chair at the long table in the back of the room, then took his own ornately-carved seat at the head. Across from Guglielmo sat a tall, thin, dour man in dark clothes. He was writing in a large book and counting various piles of coins.

"Is it settled?" he asked, not looking up from his work.

"Aye, Thomas, all's well." Angelo accepted a large goblet of wine from Gianni, who placed one in front of Guglielmo.

Thomas Wyndham turned to another section of his ledger. "How much was the fine?"

"No fine. The Captain of the Guard was happy to let the matter go."

"No fine." Thomas considered first Guglielmo, then Angelo. "How many bodies did you two leave behind you?"

"It is not true that we kill someone every time we go out!"

"No, of course not."

"Everything was settled quite diplomatically and at no cost to ourselves." Angelo reached out for the nearest pile of coins.

A dagger appeared from inside Thomas' sleeve, then stabbed into the table between the stack of coins and Angelo's fingers. Thomas jotted a notation in his book. Guglielmo surreptitiously used a convenient cloth to wipe up the wine he'd spilled while fighting back laughter.

"Thomas," Angelo said carefully, "you do remember whose money that is, don't you?"

"Certainly, captain. And I'm sure you remember who manages the money and keeps your accounts straight." He reached to his left to a larger pile of coins, picked up several and handed them to Angelo.

"But it's all the same money."

"No, it is not." Thomas pointed to the pile Angelo had reached for. "This is the rent. That is the men's pay." He pointed to his left. "And that is the quarterly pay from our patron that I am still divvying up between the bills. You'll get your share when I'm done."

Angelo glared at Thomas, who ignored him, then at Guglielmo, who raised his hands. "That's why you hired him, Angelo. Plus he knows all the best weapons smiths."

Angelo muttered a few moments more, then signaled Gianni for more wine as he watched Thomas count coins. "So what are we paying for rent these days?" he finally asked.

Thomas glanced at Guglielmo and winked very briefly. Every quarter it was like this: Angelo would bluster and complain, then he'd get interested in the minutiae of the business. Guglielmo picked up his wine goblet and headed upstairs. On the upper balcony he met Isabetta, Angelo's mistress. She was a tiny blonde who knew more dirty tricks with a dagger than Thomas did.

"If you're here, then Angelo's here," she said when she saw Guglielmo. "Are either of you hurt?"

Guglielmo sighed rather than protesting. "We're fine. He's downstairs watching Thomas count money."

Isabetta grinned. "Ooh, the money. I need a new skirt." She bounced down the stairs and over to Angelo's lap.

Guglielmo tried not to listen to the shrieking giggles when Angelo found her ticklish spot. Perhaps he ought to send a note to Nicoletta, see if she was available. Maybe she could bring some friends.

He froze just before he reached his own room. The shadows at the end of the corridor were moving, then they coalesced into the figure of a hooded woman stepping into view.

"Roxilana, you're not supposed to be here," he said. "You know how Angelo feels about Gypsies."

Black hair, black eyes, lithe figure, but he'd as soon lay hand on her as declare the Blessed Virgin a strumpet at high noon in St. Peter's Square. Roxilana raised a graceful finger to her lips. "Our brave captain mislikes mysteries," she whispered. "He distrusts anything he cannot kill. But you love the things that lie behind the images, handsome Guillermo. You want to know why."

He was used to her cryptic words. She had been appearing in his life intermittently for the last seven years, ever since that night in Aragon when he'd let a running girl hide behind a wagon and he'd told the pursuing Spanish Inquisitors that he'd seen a Gypsy girl duck into an alleyway a hundred yards further on. He'd expected the usual tokens of gratitude. Instead of offering herself for his pleasure, though, she'd placed a fingertip on his forehead, smiled, and told him to beware of stone fences before vanishing into the shadows. Two weeks later, in a desperate battle with French forces, he and Angelo had been retreating down a village street. A stone fence had appeared, and Angelo suggested jumping it and circling around to come at the French from behind. At the last minute Guglielmo remembered the girl's warning and pulled Angelo further down the road. Within moments, French reinforcements appeared at that fence. Guglielmo credited better hearing for their escape.

"Why are you here, Roxilana?" he asked calmly. Sometimes she warned him about an upcoming battle, sometimes she only spoke of the commonplace.

Her smile was sly. "Isabetta wanted a love charm. I told her she didn't need one, that her captain was loyal, if not completely faithful."

"I didn't know you knew Isabetta. Angelo won't like that."

"Does Angelo need to know?" Roxilana drifted past him, trailing a hand along his arm. She hesitated, then stared into his eyes. "Poor Guillermo. You are too generous with your heart. He will break it, the lovely boy."

Guglielmo resisted his first reaction. "You'd best go, before anyone else sees you." He nearly snarled at the look of sympathy she gave him before she disappeared.





Part Four

It was after Vespers when Alexander finally made it back to his dormitory. Thankfully the room was empty and he could take a moment to let his mind slow down. Such a bizarre day. It made one wonder what God was thinking as He ordered the paths of His creatures.

Alexander found himself musing on the different types of fear. When he'd been faced with the sword point of the notorious Il Sanguinante, the fear had been immediate and physical. Still, he'd rather have that feeling back again if forced to choose between the other fears he'd met today.

An Inquisitor knew his name, had shown interest in his life. The Holy Office protected the world against heresy and blasphemy, but their curious eyes were safest when they were far away. Monsignor Lewes had reminded him so much of the priest back home: kind, wise, patient, understanding. The kind of person who would encourage confidences. And who might then turn those confidences against you.

Why had Monsignor Lewes gone to such an effort for him? There were such better targets for an Inquisitor's attentions--

Alexander smacked himself in the mouth. A dozen Our Fathers for disrespect. He was no one to judge a Prince of the Church, a member of the Curia. Cardinal Fortezzi was just, well, odd. And old. Old men were entitled to their oddities.

He had been out of breath but right on time for Mass. The other altar boy was a very young recent arrival who had looked relieved to have an experienced partner. Helping serve Mass in a local village church was much different from assisting on the enormous stage that was St. Peter's Basilica. Alexander had been too busy shepherding the young boy to really pay attention to the celebrant. He'd let the words and the ritual carry him into a rapturous trance where the movements were a well-worn dance dedicated to God.

Until he saw Cardinal Fortezzi slip the consecrated wafer of the Host inside his sleeve instead of breaking it and adding a portion to the chalice. His Eminence continued the ritual as usual, drinking from the cup and continuing with the prayers. When he had purified the chalice with wine and water, he'd handed it to Alexander to be returned to its resting place. Alexander didn't know what expression he'd had on his face, but Cardinal Fortezzi had given him a very intent look.

There had to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for His Eminence's action. Except Alexander knew there was none. For a mad moment he'd even considered finding Monsignor Lewes, but he wanted no more contact with the Inquisition.

"There you are, Sandro!"

Alexander jumped in fear, but relaxed as Giuseppe, one of the last remnants of his old village's human tithe to the Church, dropped onto his own bed next to Alexander's. Giuseppe's hands were dark with ink stains from his work in the archives, but his easy smile said his day had been peaceful.

"You're very nervous," Giuseppe observed. "But with the day you've had, I'm not surprised."

"The day I've had?"

"Condottiere and the Papal Guard and the Inquisition? And you in the middle with a killer's hand around your throat?"

Alexander almost laughed at the eager curiosity on Giuseppe's face. "It wasn't my throat, it was my arm he was holding onto."

"Then he didn't threaten to kill you?"

"Please try not to sound so disappointed."

Giuseppe laughed. "I'm sorry. But it's the most interesting thing to happen around here in weeks. I would have loved to have been there, instead of sorting sheepskins with Master Paolo."

"I would have loved for you to be there, too. Instead of me." He returned Giuseppe's rude gesture with one of his own--after checking to make sure no authority figures were around. "How did you know about the Inquisition?"

"Monsignor Lewes? One of Bishop Rossini's servants saw you and the Monsignor walking along afterwards, and he told us all about it down in the Archives."

"What's he like?" Alexander asked casually.

"Bishop Rossini's servant?"

"Monsignor Lewes, you goat."

Giuseppe flopped back onto his pillow. "I like him. He comes down into the Archives a lot, looking for obscure references. He's always very polite and says 'Thank you', even to the lowly apprentices like me."

"But--he's still an Inquisitor."

"More of a researcher than an actual questioner. But they do say that, in Genoa a couple of years ago, he actually forced a demon to flee from the body of a young girl that was possessed." He sat up again. "Did he really make Angelo dell'Irlanda turn tail and run away?"

"He pointed out that there was surely important business elsewhere that needed to be dealt with, rather than hanging around the Vatican."

"And dell'Irlanda and Il Sanguinante just went."

"Yes."

Giuseppe leaned forward eagerly. "Tell me everything about them. What kind of swords did they have? Did you see any daggers?"

It was a better topic than strange behavior during High Mass.





Part Five

Normally only the guards and servants walked the corridors of the Apostolic Palace in the deep watches of the nights. Anyone else encountered when all others were supposed to be asleep were those on business better left unquestioned.

Especially Inquisitors. Monsignor Lewes made no real effort to avoid observers as he walked down the corridor to his private chambers. It was almost amusing, the way people found business elsewhere when he passed by.

Once he was in his rooms, he locked the door with a sigh of relief. The effort of watching everyone was exhausting. Here in his chambers he'd taken steps to make sure he would not be disturbed so that his soul could stretch. He removed his cloak and boots, then went to his private altar and knelt.

The crucifix attached to the wall was very old. Christ was clearly suffering from his tortures, but his face was serene, gazing up to Heaven and accepting the torment as a necessary price. Monsignor Lewes found the piece very comforting.

"Thy shoulders are eternally strong and broad, Lord," he murmured, "but I feel a coward for wanting to lay my burdens on top of Thine. I chose this path, the work is worthy and the need is great. These blasphemies must be stopped. But all eyes follow me in suspicion, and those I can trust are far away. But Thou art always with me. Keep me mindful of Thy blessings and Thy strength. I don't do this work alone."

He crossed himself and rose. Across the room from the altar, he turned his hand so that the seal ring on his left thumb was pressed against a section of wall. "Knock, and the door shall be opened," he said. A small popping sound, and a door appeared in the wall.

The small room beyond had not been created by the architects of the Palace. Lewes' predecessors had crafted the space carefully and made sure that its secrets were passed on. Mere suspicion of the room's existence would result in very difficult questions.

Here, though, Lewes could finally relax completely. Old wards guarded the room from detection, and as far as the Monsignor could tell, there was no one else in the Palace who even had the ability to check for such things. In this room and this room alone, Henry Lewes could let his true self loose and let his magic run free.

Practice of the Arts was contrary to church law. He ran the very real risk of the Question himself for simply possessing some of the items in this room. The books alone were a heresy charge apiece. He sat at the small desk and mused nostalgically on his comrades back in England. A small pink crystal sat in a bowl on a nearby shelf, but it wasn't glowing to show that someone wanted to contact him, and homesickness was insufficient reason to use it.

If the situation here continued as he was afraid it would, though, he might have reason to contact England himself. The stars were in a very worrisome configuration, strange omens were whispered of in the back hallways, and occasionally Lewes caught the stench of true, diabolic evil. The Palace was full of the commonplace reek of human evil, of corruption and greed and lust and all the mortal sins. This, though, was truly Other.

He scolded himself for slipping into the error of confusing the authentically demonic with the tales of fallen Lucifer preached by his colleagues. Much of the Biblical story was true, as far as it went, but there was also as much that was the veneer applied by a millennia and a half of folklore, competing philosophies, and the biases of the ones who had control of the pens. Lewes often wanted to laugh at his Inquisitorial brethren, but he was generally too busy choking back tears of rage and frustration.

True demons and monsters stalked the earth, and the Holy Office was persecuting Jews and eccentrics. Not once in his official duties had Lewes seen anyone who was guilty of the evil he knew was in the world. No, those folk were too clever to be caught by the clumsy justice of the Church. Lewes wanted to leave, but he was often the only thing standing between an innocent and the flames. One of those innocents had been a young girl suddenly beset by visions of monsters and who was certain she was called to vanquish the fiends. Her family had given her to the Inquisition after flogging failed to drive the demons from her, but she remained adamant. Lewes remembered very clearly the look on her face when he'd released her from her cell in the middle of the night and he whispered to her that the monsters were real and, yes, she had been Chosen.

He'd saved her. Two others, not yet Chosen but suffering from the dreams, had been judged possessed. Their deaths under the testing were considered proof of their essential righteousness, and the Holy Office had congratulated itself on freeing the girls' souls from torment. Lewes had divested himself of every indication of his Church affiliation and lost himself in a tavern for three days.

No one currently in the custody of the Holy Office was in danger of loss of life, though their persecution smacked more of petty revenge than of the pursuit of righteousness. What worried Lewes were some hints in various prophecies referring to gathering evil. He picked up the small stack of parchments from his worktable.

The top document referred to a young man bearing a conqueror's name and who was known as The One Who Sees. He would appear at the end of the century and be instrumental in binding the forces of Hell. Unfortunately, the prophecy had been written in 1247 and neglected to say which century this seer would appear in. Still, there was the boy he'd met, Alexander. Best to keep an eye on him.

The next prophecy was more immediately worrying. A king among vampires, walking as if by right in the halls of power, with a powerful prince bringing him the tools with which to bring forth the torments of Hell. This prince, it was written, was in full knowledge of the creature he served and saw only the way to his own advancement.

Sacrifices were spoken of, both of innocence and of corruption. Lewes' sources, both written and speaking, were vague on the details, and he was getting the impression that his questions were becoming inconvenient. He'd been in the Jewish quarter tonight, hoping one of the scholars there would have manuscripts with new information, but he'd made the mistake of wearing cleric's garb. He hated the fear he saw in their eyes.

He shuffled his papers together again, too tired to make any more sense of it tonight. A quick but sincere prayer for guidance, and then off to bed for him. He couldn't Watch if he couldn't keep his eyes open.




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