Nessuno


by
Two Ladies of Quality



Part Six

The hot afternoon sun beat down on the dirty streets of Roma. Vendors loudly offered discounts in an effort to get rid of their day's wares so they could go home to their dinners. The sun cooked the garbage in the street into renewed fragrance, and the constant churning of the foot traffic stirred it all into new combinations.

Horses were generally frowned upon in the crowded streets. Some people, naturally, were always considered to be exceptions: noblemen, important churchmen, and, of course, notorious mercenaries who, it was popularly believed, didn't feel a day was well spent until someone had died at their hands.

Angelo and Guglielmo were both tired after a long day conducting the snap inspections that so endeared them to the various Papal army units that had been put under their command. Still, there were few things they enjoyed more than making officers of the regular army dance to the mercenary tune.

Guglielmo was still shaking his head over the last incident as they rode through the crowd towards the Crusader's Kiss. "I still think you went too far," he said. "No matter if it is true, you shouldn't brag about bedding an officer's sister, especially when that officer is related to the Sforzas."

They reached the inn and dismounted, letting the groom take their horses. Angelo pulled off his cap and ran his fingers through his sweaty hair. "Madonna, I need a bath." He began unlacing the heavy leather jerkin he wore. "That officer wasn't upset about me bedding his sister, Will. He was upset because I said she wasn't very good."

Guglielmo sighed. "One of these days someone is going to slip a dagger between your ribs, and I won't stop them."

Gianni the landlord greeted them at the door with cold, filled goblets. "Master Guglielmo, there's someone from the Vatican here to see you."

Guglielmo looked at Angelo, then back. "To see me?"

"Si, maestro."

"Someone from the Guards?" Angelo asked suspiciously.

"No, captain. A churchman."

Guglielmo shrugged and led the way in. He grinned when he saw who was being interrogated at the big table by Isabetta. "Brother Nobody, how nice to see you. What brings you down to our world?"

Isabetta tsked. "His name is Alexander, not Nobody."

Alexander looked relieved when Isabetta got up from the table. He got up too and nodded awkwardly. "Good afternoon, Signore . . . um . . . "

Guglielmo took over the seat Isabetta had occupied. "No need to stand on manners, brother. I'm Guglielmo, you're Alexander." He found a goblet and the wine pitcher, filled the first from the second, and held it out to Alexander. "What brings you to this part of town, Alexander?"

Alexander hesitated, then took the goblet and resumed his seat. He glanced towards Angelo nervously, then looked away quickly. Guglielmo checked over his shoulder and saw Isabetta giving Angelo a proper welcome home kiss. Alexander took a quick drink of wine. "I was told to bring you a message." He jumped at a sudden shriek from Isabetta, who had just been tossed over Angelo's shoulder as he headed for the stairs.

Guglielmo chuckled and poured his own wine. "Well, he was wanting a bath." Alexander's dazed expression caught his eye. "When's the last time you talked to a girl? Much less a pretty girl?"

The young man blushed and yanked his gaze back from watching Angelo and the wiggling, laughing girl. "Um, a while." He stared at his wine goblet, his lips moving.

Which saint were you supposed to pray to, Guglielmo wondered, in order to resist the natural reactions of a healthy young man? "It's a shame you're stuck up in that monastery with all those shriveled up celibates."

Alexander glared at him. "Celibacy is a sacrifice to God. Women are a distraction from our proper work."

Guglielmo raised his goblet. "Praise be." He drained his goblet, then refilled it and leaned back in his chair to put his feet on the table. "Tell me about this message."

The young man dropped his eyes and fidgeted with his goblet. "The presence of Guglielmo il Sanguinante is requested at the Vatican at his soonest convenience. I'm to guide you."

"What, now? I've been out in the sun all day, I don't want to pull on my fancy clothes and go out again. I want a bath and a girl and more wine." He hid his smile at Alexander's discomfort behind his goblet. "Who sent you, anyway?"

"His Excellency Cesare Borgia."

Slowly Guglielmo pulled his feet down. "Cesare sent you." Alexander nodded uneasily. "And what does His Excellency want with me?"

"I don't know, signore. I was told he needed a messenger, I went to his chambers for instructions, he told me to come here and bring you back for a meeting."

He studied the boy carefully. "He asked for me specifically?" Alexander nodded. "Anyone else?"

"No, signore. His Excellency said you were to come alone."

"Oh, he'd like that, I'm sure." Guglielmo watched Alexander as he thought. "Did he mention our little encounter the other day?"

"No, signore."

"Stop that. My name's Guglielmo, not signore. Stay here."

He got up and headed for the stairs, hoping Isabetta hadn't gotten too far in her "I'm glad you're home" evening greetings.

He heard splashing and laughter when he reached Angelo's door. Maybe a visit to the Vatican was safer than interrupting the pair inside. But dalliance would have to take second place to the extreme inadvisability of going alone into possibly hostile territory without telling anyone. He reluctantly knocked on the door.

"Go away!" Angelo shouted. "I'm busy."

"Business, captain," Guglielmo called back.

An oath, then a bigger splash, then stomping footsteps coming to the door. Angelo pulled the door open, obviously unconcerned about his lack of wardrobe. Behind him, Isabetta squeaked and sank down to neck level in the big wooden tub that sat in the middle of the room. Guglielmo mentally congratulated her for having organized the bringing up and filling of the tub before her lover returned.

"What?" Angelo snapped.

Now that he could lower his voice, Guglielmo was less formal. "The boy was sent by Cesare Borgia, who wants me, specifically, to go up to the palace. Now. Alone."

Angelo frowned. "That's idiocy."

"I agree. But so is refusing."

"What's he want you for?"

"The boy doesn't know. He's waiting to go back with me."

"Alone, eh?" He glanced back thoughtfully at Isabetta and the tub. Isabetta began to pout.

"You can't go," Guglielmo said, fighting a pleased smile. "Me taking one of the men can be shrugged off as wanting a body guard. Me taking you is a threat."

"And so is summoning you at the end of the day." Angelo thought some more. "You'll take one of the men?"

Guglielmo nodded. "Is Thomas around?"

"He's not much less of a liability. But he is out in the stables. He can help pick someone to go with you."

"I'll check with him." He grinned at Angelo as he turned to go. "If I'm not home by morning, check the Tiber."

"Will . . ." Guglielmo turned around completely. Angelo stood in the doorway to watch him. "Be careful."

"Always."

Angelo closed the door and Guglielmo strode down the corridor to his room at the other end, yanking his shirt over his head in the interests of time.

"Alessandro!" he yelled when he reached the railing overlooking the main room.

The boy jumped and stared upwards. "Signore?"

"Out in the stable yard is a man named Thomas Wyndham. Find him and tell him I need someone to go up to the palace with me. Oh, and tell him he can't go."

"But--you're supposed to go alone."

He grinned and tossed his shirt in the general direction of a laundry basket standing in the corridor. "You may have noticed that I'm not the kind of man who generally does as he's told."

"But--"

"Shoo." He began worrying at the knot in the laces that held his hose together. "The longer you take the longer His Excellency has to wait." The laces finally came undone.

Alexander suddenly blushed and scurried for the door. Guglielmo nodded in approval as he pushed down the hose and pulled off his boots before continuing down to his room.

Out in the stable yard, Alexander took a moment to pull himself together. He had truly fallen into a den of iniquity. Loose women and shameless men. He knew things happened up at the Vatican that contradicted everything Father Riccardo at home had told him about how a man of God should behave, but he'd always been able to avoid such things. He hadn't dreamed that obeying His Excellency's orders would give him such a list of things he'd have to tell his confessor.

He knew to avert his eyes from the whores in the streets, but that girl, Isabetta, had seemed so friendly and pleasant that it had taken him several moments to realize how fascinatingly low-cut her bodice was. And he shouldn't have watched the way she and Captain Angelo, well, greeted each other.

Shaking himself, he forced his mind back to his instructions. Find the man Thomas Wyndham, tell him Il Sanguinante needed someone to accompany him to the palace in direct contradiction of the orders His Excellency had sent. Alexander sighed in frustration. Giuseppe didn't have days like this down in the archives.

A group of men sat in the shade of the stables, drinking wine and tossing dice. One of them looked up at Alexander's approach. "Looking for something, little priest?" he asked in a mostly friendly voice.

"Yes, I'm looking for Thomas Wyndham."

The man farthest back in the shadows stepped forward. "I am he. What do you want?"

Alexander fought to keep from fidgeting. This man was making no pretensions to being friendly. "Signore Guglielmo told me--"

"Guglielmo sent you?" Wyndham interrupted.

"Yes, he did." It was getting very hard to be polite with all the stress he was under. "He wanted me to tell you that he's going up to the Palace and he wants someone to go with him. And he told me to tell you that you're not allowed to go."

The other men gasped a little, but Alexander didn't care.

Thomas Wyndham raised an eyebrow. "I beg your pardon? I'm not allowed to go?"

Once upon a time, Alexander might have had the sense to be nervous at the man's tone of voice. "That's what he said. You're not allowed to go. Actually, no one's supposed to go with him. Those were the instructions, he's supposed to go alone."

"Ah. One of those situations." Wyndham looked at the other men. "Well, gentlemen? Who doesn't have plans this evening?"

The men muttered together. "Maurice is drunk. Already? What about Paolo? Out with Jeanne."

Wyndham stood patiently, though one foot did tap occasionally. "Well?"

A dark, scarred man stepped forward. "Looks like it's my turn, Thomas."

"Thank you, Giancarlo." Wyndham looked at Alexander. "Did Guglielmo say how long he'd be?"

"I--he was taking off his clothes right before I came out here." Alexander knew he was blushing badly. "How long does he take to change clothes?"

The man was definitely fighting a grin. "Depends on if he has a better reason to stay out of his clothes than putting on other ones."

The mercenaries snickered, and Alexander wished he hadn't been running late for Maestro Bramante's class when Cesare Borgia's servant had come looking for a messenger. He ran over the parts of a classical Greek entablature in his mind to distract himself.

Guglielmo came out the door, dressed in his black and red finery. His black velvet hat was crooked, he was wiggling his feet to get the boots settled correctly, and his scabbarded sword was tucked under his right arm. "Sandro, tie this." He held out his left arm with the dangling ties for his cuffs.

Fighting a growl, Alexander obeyed. "My name is Alexander."

"I doubt that's what the priest in your home village said at your baptism," Guglielmo grinned. He juggled his sword into his left hand and held out his right arm to be tied.

When did this man stop being a notorious cold-blooded killer and become an obnoxious buffoon? "Are you ready?" He cinched the right-hand knot down as tight as he could.

Guglielmo grinned at Thomas Wyndham. "Am I ready? Who did you find?"

Wyndham quietly retied the right-hand cuff into something looser. "Giancarlo's going with you. Did you want to take horses?"

"Better not. I'd want to take someone to watch the horses as well, and that's pushing the numbers. Besides, I doubt Brother Sandro can ride."

Mustn't hit the dangerous mercenary, mustn't hit the dangerous mercenary. "I can too ride," Alexander said as calmly as he could.

"Plow horses don't count." He patted Alexander's shoulder as he looked Giancarlo over. "You'll do. You have your sword?"

One of the men in the stable tossed out a sheathed long sword and belt. Giancarlo caught it and strapped it onto his back. "Yes."

Guglielmo slid his sword into its spot on his right hip, checked the dagger on his left hip, then tugged back his left sleeve to check the dagger strapped to that wrist. "Let's go then."

The walk back to the Palace was a different thing than the walk down. Alexander was used to being anonymous. One more novice in the streets of Roma drew no attention. A novice in the company of mercenaries, on the other hand, caught eyes and caused whispers. He disliked being noticed. It led to things like Inquisitors knowing his name and swordsmen giving him orders.

A woman yanked her young son back out of the way with a frightened look. Alexander looked at the mercenaries flanking him. Giancarlo seemed to be ignoring everything, making no effort to appear intimidating. Which meant . . .

He turned to his other side. "Stop it."

Guglielmo raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"

"Whatever you're doing that's making everyone look at us like this. Stop it."

"I'm not doing anything, Brother Sandro. I'm just walking along the way I normally do."

"Well, stop it."

Guglielmo laughed as Giancarlo stared at Alexander. "You do know who that is, don't you?" the quiet man said.

Alexander nodded. "Guglielmo il Sanguinante, mercenary, soldier, killer, etc., etc. My life was so much quieter before I ran into him."

Giancarlo looked at Guglielmo, who was still snickering. The laughter faded as half a dozen men with drawn swords stepped out of a narrow alley ahead.

"What interesting timing," Guglielmo said with a hard smile.

Around them, the crowd in the street faded away. Alexander looked around, confused. "What's happening?"

Guglielmo backed up to Alexander's side and put an apparently companionable arm around his shoulders. His left hand rested on the hilt of his sword.

"What we have here, young Brother Sandro, is an ambush." He looked behind to make sure no one was sneaking up. "How convenient that just as you're leading us up to the palace, these bravos should appear."

Alexander gaped in surprise. He tried to pull away, but Guglielmo held on easily. "Let go."

"I don't think so."

The men from the alley stepped forward. Guglielmo and Giancarlo drew their swords. Alexander tried one more time to pull free, but Guglielmo pulled him in front into a familiar position.

"What are you doing?" he demanded, anxiously dividing his attention between the mercenary behind him and the approaching swordsmen.

"About to find out if whomever told them to wait for you to lead me into an ambush left any instructions about sparing you."

"I didn't!"

Guglielmo spared a moment to glance at Alexander. "I'll leave the option open that you're the Judas goat and not Judas himself. Now hold still and don't get in my way."

The men charged Guglielmo. Giancarlo intercepted from the side, distracting one pair and leaving four for Guglielmo. Alexander would have shrieked if he could have gotten breath. Swearing, Guglielmo shoved him towards a wall, freeing himself to move.

"It doesn't look like they have orders to spare you," Guglielmo called to Alexander as he skewered the first man in the throat. He pulled the dagger from inside his left sleeve and used it to parry another incoming blade.

Alexander pressed himself back against the chipped plaster wall and stared in horror at the carnage. He wanted to cross himself when the first man fell to the street, choking on his own blood, but his hand wouldn't move. Giancarlo disposed of one of his opponents with a neat heart thrust. The other man who was attacking Giancarlo suddenly turned and ran. The mercenary immediately went to help Guglielmo. With a bloodthirsty grin, Guglielmo made room for his comrade, but he kept most of the fighting for himself.

"So that's why they call him Il Sanguinante," Alexander whispered to himself. When pressed, Guglielmo was a quick, efficient fighter. Given the chance, though, he went for crippling, messy wounds. He laughed as he fought, even when the blow was against him. A sword point snagged one of his black sleeves. With an intricately blasphemous oath, he gutted the man who had torn the cloth.

"Do you know how much I'm going to have to beg Isabetta to fix that?" he yelled. He turned and sliced the elbow tendons in the sword arm of his last opponent. "And then I'm going to have to make sure she doesn't embroider love knots and roses on the damned thing as well!" He slammed the sole of his boot into the face of the last man, knocking him back and letting Giancarlo finish him.

Alexander finally felt his breath flow normally again. He crossed himself, whispering prayers for the dead and dying. He stepped forward, then saw movement from the corner of his eye. The attacker who had run from Giancarlo was sneaking towards him, a dagger in his hand.

"Guglielmo!"

Il Sanguinante looked up from his inspection of his sleeve and flung the dagger in his right hand into the attacker's throat. Blood sputtered from the wound, and the man dropped, gurgling. Alexander, both hands shoved against his mouth, stared into the man's eyes until they froze and gazed at nothing.

Guglielmo appeared at Alexander's shoulder, shaking him and pulling him back. "None of your concern anymore, little priest. Well, except the obvious." Alexander was shaking too hard to make any movement towards a blessing.

Giancarlo came up and stared at the body. "He came back?"

"Apparently so." Guglielmo studied Alexander for several moments, then shook his shoulder again but more gently. "Brother Sandro, we're expected."

"What?" Alexander said, blinking.

"At the Palace. We're supposed to be at a meeting."

"But--you're still going?" He looked around at the bodies. "After this?"

Guglielmo raised an eyebrow at Giancarlo, who only sighed and shook his head. "Of course, I'm still going. Is there a reason I shouldn't?"

"I--but--they just tried to kill you!"

Guglielmo's smile suddenly changed from mocking to amused. "People try to do that all the time, Sandro. That's my job." He reached down and pulled his dagger from his victim's throat.

Alexander watched him clean the dagger. "You're left-handed."

"So?" Guglielmo dug some blood out from a crevice between the blade and the cross guard, then slid the dagger back into its sheath.

"My grandmother said left-handed people were the spawn of the devil."

The mocking smile came back. "We are."

Alexander crossed himself again, then saw his hands were shaking. Giancarlo frowned and took Alexander's arm to drag him down the street away from the bodies.

"Some people may be used to being up to their ankles in blood," Giancarlo told Guglielmo, "but most of the people in the world are nice folks who don't deal with bodies every day. Let's get the boy away from this."

Guglielmo checked his boots for blood, then followed, looking just a little chagrined.

Alexander had recovered his composure by the time they reached St. Peter's Square. At least, he looked like he had. Inside he still heard the gasps of dying men and the sound of bodies falling to the ground. And Guglielmo said that was his job, to have people trying to kill him. Alexander knew he lived a sheltered life within the precincts of the church, but he hadn't realized just how isolated he was.

The sun was casting long shadows off the dome of the old church. The Basilica was over a thousand years old, but talk had being going around for years now on how best to renovate the venerable structure. Maestro Bramante doodled plans for grand domes and great pillars on stray bits of parchment while muttering things about da Vinci and Michelangelo. As he led his companions through the twisting corridors, Alexander fretted about the Maestro's reaction to his being absent from classes, whether he was off on legitimate business or not.

Giancarlo nudged Guglielmo. "By the way, where are we going?"

"Cesare Borgia wants to talk to me about something."

"Do you know what His Eminence wants?"

"Oh, he's not a Cardinal any longer. He's renounced the cloth and is gathering more earthly power."

"Can he do that?"

Guglielmo smiled. "His father's the Pope. He can do what he wants."

Cesare Borgia's chambers were in the newest portion of the Vatican complex, several corridors away from the Papal apartments, though rumors spoke of secret passages that allowed rapid communication between father and son. Two fully armed members of the Papal Guard stood outside the door. Alexander swallowed hard in order to speak.

"I've brought Maestro Guglielmo il Sanguinante to see His Excellency."

The right-hand guard gave him a contemptuous look as the left-hand man considered the mercenaries.

"That is not Guglielmo il Sanguinante," he said, nodding at Giancarlo.

Guglielmo sighed in perfect boredom. "His Excellency is waiting to see me. Perhaps you could leave it to him to decide who he wants admitted to his presence. If we're intruding, maybe he'll let you two take care of punishing us. Or we can just leave, I can go do what I was going to do this evening, and when he asks why I didn't show up for this meeting, I'll tell him that his two guards wouldn't let me in." He shrugged and turned to go.

"You can't do that!" Alexander protested. "His Excellency is waiting for you!"

Guglielmo shrugged. "If I can't get in, I can't get in. Don't worry, brother, you did your part. It's not your fault His Excellency's guards are so zealous in their work." He smiled at the fidgeting guards. "His Excellency will know the appropriate rewards."

The two guards looked at each other anxiously, then at Giancarlo. The one shrugged at the other, who nodded.

"Your pardon, Maestro," the first one said. "Of course you would have an attendant." He looked at Alexander. "Take them in."

Alexander hesitated. "I was just told to bring Maestro Guglielmo. I've brought him." He did not want to come any more to the attention of Cesare Borgia. Far, far better to remain an anonymous messenger boy.

The guards were out of patience. "Take them in, boy. You're expected."

Guglielmo tapped Alexander's shoulder. "Yes, brother, let's go. It seems we are expected."

Alexander gave him a confused look. The mercenary's face was bare of expression except for the typical mocking smile. The hand was heavy on his shoulder, and Alexander sighed in resignation. The second guard opened the door behind him, and there were no more options.

The room beyond was gloomy, lit only by a candelabra on a side table and the small lamp hanging over the altar at the east end of the room. The smells of rich food and incense hung in the air.

Guglielmo took his hand off Alexander's shoulder and walked cautiously into the room. Giancarlo stayed by the door. Alexander, unsure of what he was supposed to do now, stayed close to Giancarlo.

At the far end of the room, another lamp was slowly turned up. Behind the desk, the elegantly garbed Cesare Borgia considered the arrivals. He was only a few years older than Alexander, but his reputation was that of a much older man. As he leaned back in his chair, he ran a finger along the dark narrow beard that edged his jaw.

Guglielmo immediately bowed, but he kept his eyes on his host.

"Thank you for coming, Maestro Guglielmo," Cesare said in a faintly bored voice. He glanced at Giancarlo but said nothing on that matter.

"Your Excellency is to--" Guglielmo jerked his head towards a shadowed corner of the room. His left hand twitched.

"I asked His Eminence to join us," Cesare said in the same flat tone.

Out of the shadows stepped the elderly Cardinal Fortezzi. "God bless you, my son." He held out his right hand with a benevolent smile. Guglielmo didn't hesitate to go to him to kneel and kiss the Cardinal's ring.

Alexander hesitated, but when Giancarlo didn't move he stayed still as well.

Guglielmo rose and backed away just slowly enough to still look normal. "How may I be of service, Your Excellency?" he asked Cesare.

"I will be hosting a gathering on the feast of St. Benedict. I would like you to be present to make sure we are not disturbed."

Guglielmo frowned very slightly. "You want me to provide security for your party?"

The hand resting on the desktop twitched. "A small, quiet gathering in the evening. You are known for your discretion."

"All the men in our company are discreet. Captain Angelo would have it no other way. And they would come cheaper."

The hand twitched again. "His Holiness hired your company to serve him."

Guglielmo nodded. "It is an honor to serve the Holy Father."

"It is a wise man who knows his true master," Cardinal Fortezzi said from his corner.

"Indeed, Your Eminence," Guglielmo said. "I serve Angelo dell'Irlanda. He has hired our company to the personal service of His Holiness the Pope."

Alexander was holding his breath. Beside him, he saw Giancarlo's hand creep towards his sword. Desperately Alexander focused his thoughts on whether he'd get any supper tonight in the refectory or if he'd have to go to Brother Sylvinius and look pathetic again.

Slowly Cesare sat back in his chair, folding his hands together. "If I were to engage your services for the evening of St. Benedict's, would you be available?"

Guglielmo nodded. "Barring any request from His Holiness, of course."

"Of course."

"As to the fee--"

Cesare waved a hand. "My chamberlain deals with such things."

"Of course." From the look on Guglielmo's face, the Borgia chamberlain would be receiving quite a bill.

Alexander was just breathing a very silent, very sincere prayer of thanksgiving when he heard faint laughter. Just a breath of a cruel chuckle. He looked cautiously at Cardinal Fortezzi, but His Eminence did not looked amused at anything. The laugh came again, from the other end of the room, where no light reached.

He was just about to nudge Giancarlo when he heard his name. He looked up to find Guglielmo studying him. "Pa--pardon?"

Guglielmo's smile was mocking again. "You've been volunteered to be my guide again, Brother Alexander, for St. Benedict's."

Blessed Mother, he wanted no more part of these people and their double meanings. But he was sworn. He bowed to Cesare. "As you wish, Your Excellency.

Cardinal Fortezzi smiled again. "The Chapel of St. Augustine of the Waters, my son. Be there by midnight."

Alexander frowned. "That's near the old walls, isn't it, Your Eminence?"

"Indeed."

He started to say more, but he noticed how Guglielmo was frowning at him. Confused, he stayed silent.

Cesare nodded briefly. "Until St. Benedict's, then. Your Eminence, will you stay?"

"Of course, my son."

Guglielmo bowed, then backed towards the door. He snagged Alexander's arm in passing and pulled him after. Giancarlo covered the rear.

They barely paused for an exchange of incivilities with the guards outside, though Guglielmo did let go of Alexander's arm.

"What's the quickest way out of here, brother?" he asked.

"Um, this way."

Alexander led them around two corners, into a side corridor that led to one of the servants stairs. Guglielmo paused and listened, then pushed open the door of a nearby room. He gestured everyone into the small sitting room.

"Watch the door," he told Giancarlo, who nodded. Guglielmo led Alexander over to a pair of chairs. "Who was that old man?" he asked tensely.

"Cardinal Fortezzi? He's--Cardinal Fortezzi."

"Why doesn't he like you?"

"Excuse me?"

"He kept looking at you, and they were very unfriendly looks."

Alexander slowly sat down, remembering the hard, suspicious stare he'd received from the Cardinal when Alexander saw him steal the consecrated Host.

"Well? What did you do? Steal his special sacramental wine? Flirt with his mistress?"

"No ..." But what did a mercenary know of the sanctity of the Mass? Besides, Cardinal Fortezzi was a Prince of the Church. There could be things going on that Alexander had no idea of. Surely nothing that needed to be shared outside Holy Mother Church. "Why were you making such a fuss about doing this?"

Guglielmo leaned against a table and spread his arms. "I am Guglielmo il Sanguinante, lieutenant and second in command of the Scourge of Europe. I have altered the course of wars. I do not play doorman at parties."

Alexander's confusion faded to the more accustomed irritation. "Then why did you agree to do it?"

Guglielmo sighed and dropped his arms. "We're in a bit of a grey area on that. The company is on personal hire to the Pope himself. Everyone knows he dotes on his children, and if Cesare were to ask, His Holiness would probably tell me to do whatever Cesare says. But I am not going to let Cesare skip those steps and let him pretend that he has the right to order me around. Cesare does have a lot of power, though, so I can't just refuse him. I'd better plan on being sick on St. Benedict's day."

"There's been typhus seen near the river," Giancarlo offered from by the door.

"Thank you, Giancarlo, I'll keep that in mind."

Alexander was thinking hard. "If it's so unheard of for someone like you to do this sort of thing, why ask?"

"To prove he can," Guglielmo shrugged. "I'm more curious as to why the Cardinal's involved. Does he have a reputation for the sorts of things Cesare indulges in? I won't name them, out of respect for your virgin ears."

Maybe he should have been offended, but Alexander was grateful to be spared a litany of vice. He'd heard whispered stories of Cesare Borgia, and he preferred to keep them whispers.

"His Eminence is, well--no, they don't tell us not to be alone with him or anything like that. He's just--strange."

"Strange how?"

"In--church matters."

To his relief, Guglielmo accepted the explanation. "Excessive devotions, hm? Exploring the edges of orthodoxy?" He started pacing around the room. "I wonder what he and Cesare have in common. Sandro, what is the significance of St. Benedict?"

"My name is Alexander." He put his head in his hands and closed his eyes. "Please, shouldn't you be going?"

There were several moments silence, then a touch on his knee made him look up. Guglielmo was crouched in front of him, looking serious.

"Alexander, do you know anything about defending yourself?"

"Defending myself from what?"

Guglielmo closed his eyes and sighed. "From people trying to kill you."

"Nobody's trying--" He remembered faces: Cardinal Fortezzi watching him, that anonymous ambusher in the street, Cesare Borgia. "Giancarlo was surprised that man in the street came back."

"They don't, normally, that sort. Unless there's a job they have to finish. He wasn't trying to sneak up on me, he was trying to sneak up on you."

Alexander shook his head, unable to speak.

"Someone wants you dead, Alexander. I think you know why, and it's not my business. But I would rather you didn't get your throat cut."

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why would you rather?"

The cool eyes studied him intently for several moments, then Guglielmo's sardonic smile was back. "Well, there aren't enough beautiful young men in the world. I can't let one simply get murdered."

"Buffoon," Alexander muttered.

"Anyway, do you know how to defend yourself? Use a knife to get yourself out of a tight spot?"

"No. Churchmen aren't supposed to use weapons."

"Not even as a youngster back home? You didn't learn any rough and tumble?"

"I threw an occasional rock at an occasional dog. Sorry."

"What are they teaching youngsters these days?" Guglielmo muttered. "I'd give you a dagger now, but anyone after you would just take it from you in a squabble. Can you get away in the evenings?"

"Why would I want to?"

Guglielmo looked like he was clinging to patience the way martyrs clung to their faith in the presence of lions. "So you can come down to the inn so I can teach you how not to get gutted in some corner somewhere."

"I'm--fairly certain that wouldn't be allowed."

"Well, you're not going to ask permission, now, are you?"

Alexander shook his head, but more to reject the entire chaotic world that was trying to suck him in than the offer to teach him self-defense. If this was fate, he wanted no more to do with it. What he wanted most at this very moment was a chance to sneak into one of the chapels and send a fervent prayer to Heaven that no more strange things happen to him.

Guglielmo waited a few more moments, then sighed and stood. "We've got six days until St. Benedict's Day. You know where you can find me. Please try not to get killed between now and then." He nodded at Giancarlo, and the two mercenaries slipped out the door and away.

Alexander listened until their faint footsteps faded away. It was peaceful here in this room all by himself. If he never left here, perhaps no one would ask him to do anything out of the ordinary ever again. He suspected, though, that the Lord intended to use him as the seed sown in the field, some to fall on the rocky ground and some to fall on the fertile ground, and now Alexander was to find out how to thrive and grow.

He got to his feet, ready to go back to what passed for normal in his world and more than willing to wait till the feast day before worrying further about odd occurrences. Why was Guglielmo concerned about St. Benedict? It was probably just the nearest convenient feast day for this gathering. Benedict wasn't the most festive saint, in any case. His spheres of influence were the dying and defense against the darker arts of witchcraft and the like.

Alexander murmured a prayer to St. Benedict on general principle. His grandfather had given many a lecture on the signs of witchcraft and devil worship, terrifying the young Alessandro into nightmares about hell creatures creeping through the windows at night. Father Ricardo always made sure to lock the sacred Hosts securely in their tabernacle after every service, because the wicked were always looking for a chance to steal one of the wafers for their . . .

"No," Alexander whispered. "Holy Mother, St. Benedict, no. He's a Cardinal, a Prince of the Church."

He sat back down, shaking at the possibilities. What could he do? His only ally was a mercenary fighter with no influence in the church. This was something for the Inquisition to deal with. He wanted nothing more to do with the Holy Office, they already knew his name. It was frightening, the idea of seeking them out.

But he was already frightened.





Part Seven

The Pieta was so new that there was still marble dust in some of the crevices. It was displayed in one of the main halls of the Palace, where everyone could see and discuss. The artist had become so incensed, though, that people didn't believe he'd created the sculpture that he'd come in one night and carved his name in the sash that crossed the Madonna's bosom.

There was no way that a mere novice was going to get close enough to Michelangelo's new work to get a good look. From his place on the far side of the room, though, Alexander had a perfect view of the Madonna's bowed head as she gazed sorrowfully down at the body of her Son. He whispered yet another prayer to the Holy Mother for courage.

It hadn't taken long to discover where he could find Monsignor Lewes and have it look accidental. Giuseppe in the Archives had been more than happy to discuss the upcoming meeting between the Inquisitor and two visiting churchmen from Rouen. If only the Monsignor was still willing to spend time on a mere novice.

A door opened, and Lewes came through, chatting with two elderly men in church robes. As he talked, he scanned the room. He hesitated very briefly when he spotted Alexander, then continued his conversation. The small group drifted across the hall, still talking amiably. Monsignor Lewes bade farewell to the visitors, then he glanced at Alexander. Reluctantly, Alexander met his eyes, and he followed when the Inquisitor nodded towards the corridor leading away.

Monsignor Lewes led the way to a side chamber and locked the door behind them. Alexander stood in the middle of the room, trying not to look at anything.

"What's happened?" Msgr. Lewes asked quietly. He smiled sadly as Alexander fidgeted. "My son, I know you wouldn't have come looking for a member of the Inquisition if you didn't have to."

"I--" Alexander broke off and stared at his hands. "Who will you tell, if I tell you?"

After a moment, Msgr. Lewes drew off his Inquisitorial signet ring and quietly laid it on a nearby table. "Alexander, I swear to you, I'll repeat nothing of what you tell me. Unless I absolutely have to."

Alexander stared at the signet ring, then at the man. He looked so calm, so compassionate. And he was sworn to hunt the enemies of the Church. Alexander was no fool. He knew that the definition of "enemy" could be very fluid. He wanted to trust this quiet man, but there were so many hidden traps around him these days.

Msgr. Lewes looked frustrated. "I protect the innocent, Alexander. That's what the Holy Office is supposed to do. Only the evil doers should fear us. But if it's important enough for you to come looking for me, then I need to know."

Alexander nodded. "I know. It's--just . . . if he knew . . ."

Lewes stepped closer. "Who is it you're afraid of, lad?"

Intrigue was already swirling its murky waters around him. He couldn't ignore the only spar he had to cling to. "Cardinal Fortezzi."

Lewes' eyes went thoughtful. "I see." He didn't sound surprised. "What's he done?"

Alexander closed his eyes. The telling was easier that way. "During the Mass I helped him celebrate, he took the Host he'd consecrated and slipped it into his sleeve instead of using it in the Mass." When the Monsignor didn't say anything, Alexander opened his eyes. Lewes was rubbing his chin and staring at the carpet. "Reverend Sir?"

"You assisted at Mass with Cardinal Fortezzi several days ago. Why tell me now?"

Taking a deep breath, Alexander told the Monsignor about taking Guglielmo il Sanguinante to meet with Cesare Borgia and Cardinal Fortezzi. His account was fairly incoherent, and Msgr. Lewes had to ask several questions about "Then what?" and "Who said that?" before he had a clear picture.

"Guglielmo il Sanguinante as a doorman for a party?" Lewes finally said. "That makes no sense."

"Is His Excellency trying to get revenge for something? Is that why he's making Guglielmo do this?"

Lewes gave Alexander a small, approving smile. "You're catching on to this sort of thing. I do know that Cesare apparently has some sort of grudge against Il Sanguinante, but I'm not sure why. Though you seem to have better relations with mercenaries than I. Did Il Sanguinante give any reason?"

Alexander ignored the remark about how well he knew soldiers. "He seemed to think it was just some sort of excuse for His Excellency to flaunt his power."

Lewes nodded. "Cesare's guests would be impressed that he could order someone the likes of the second in command of the Scourge of Europe to guard his party. I'm still troubled by Fortezzi's involvement." He studied Alexander for several moments. "My son, I think you're in danger."

"That's what Guglielmo said," Alexander sighed.

"I would take his professional word for it. Did he say why?"

"He didn't like the way His Eminence kept giving me unfriendly looks."

"He suspects the Cardinal of setting those men on you in the street." Lewes sighed and reached through a slit in the side of his robes. He pulled out a dagger in a plain leather sheath. "Take this."

Alexander drew back. "Churchmen are forbidden to use weapons that can draw blood!"

"A ban that is observed much more in the breech than in true practice. Alexander, God does not expect you to take the lesson of the lamb laying down with the lion quite so literally that you don't defend yourself." He held the dagger out.

"I--don't know how to use a dagger. I never had a reason to learn."

"The wars didn't come near your village when you were young?"

"Not that close."

Lewes sighed. "Someone who had a peaceful life. Why is it the truly innocent souls who come to these passes?"

Alexander hung his head at his ineptness. "Guglielmo offered to teach me, but that's impossible."

"Why? That's a very good idea."

"But--I can't go down there! It's a haven of iniquity, sin run rampant!"

Lewes fought back his laughter, but he couldn't help the stifled grin. "Young ladies with not much on?"

"And men! None of them has any shame!"

The Monsignor let one chuckle escape, then put his hands on Alexander's shoulders. "If your soul and mind are pure, then the sins of others cannot touch you. Truly, my son, take advantage of Il Sanguinante's offer. Praise God he was moved to make it, you may not have a fiendishly skilled fighter at your beck and call the next time someone tries to kill you."

Alexander blinked in horror. "Next time . . ."

"It could happen. You have a suspicion about what Cardinal Fortezzi plans. You saw him take the Host."

"But no one would believe me. My word against a Cardinal's?"

"I believe you," Lewes said quietly. "And for some men, the threat is enough. They survive by removing all threats."

Alexander took yet another deep breath. "Why did you believe me? You weren't surprised."

Silently Monsignor Lewes went to pick up his Inquisitorial signet ring. He slid it back onto his finger. "I told you before, Alexander. Things happen, evil things. Someone has to be prepared to deal with them. I'm sorry you've had to see some of that evil."

Alexander shook his head. "It's so hard to think of people I've met as being . . . evil. And I keep wondering who that was in the shadows, laughing like that."

Lewes went still. "Laughing? Where? When?"

"During the meeting with His Excellency and His Eminence. Didn't I tell you?"

"You must have missed that part."

"Oh. The room was very dark. I couldn't see the corners. Any number of people could have been hiding in there. They were talking, and I kept hearing this very quiet, cold, awful laughter from the darkness. It was horrible."

"This was in Cesare's office? While he and Fortezzi were there?" Alexander nodded. "Blessed Mother." He took hold of Alexander's shoulder. "Do you have a crucifix, one you can wear?"

Alexander touched his throat. "Yes, I do."

"Good. Don't take that off for anything. Do you have a larger one, that you can carry about with you?"

"No--"

"Get one. When you go down to Il Sanguinante's inn for lessons, be sure to get back to the palace before dark. Try not to be alone."

"Reverend Sir," Alexander finally managed to interrupt, "I told you, I can't go down there. The Master of Novices would never approve."

Lewes waved a hand. "If anyone asks, tell them you're running errands for me. The office does have its privileges. We just need to get past St. Benedict's Day, then we can work everything out." He met Alexander's eyes squarely. "Something is going on, my son. Something bad."

"But--I'm just a novice. I'm not a fighter, I'm not an Inquisitor. I just want to learn about buildings."

The Monsignor's smile was sad. "I wanted to illuminate manuscripts. But God rules our choices, not us. Like many before you, my son, you've been pulled into the heart of darkness, and now you must prepare to survive it."





Part Eight

A mercenary had to train every day that he could. There was always another fighter out there, wanting to make a name and looking for a target. It was just the way of things: you fought until someone better came along. And that someone always did.

Guglielmo had been out all day, drilling the troops at the northern camp. The age-old restrictions against bringing troops into the Eternal City still held in many cases, so the bodies of armed men in the Papal units were barracked in camps outside the walls. Guglielmo had shown the most basic of sword moves to a depressing number of recruits.

"No more sense of a sword than of a sharp stick," he complained as he thrust his sword into the heart of the straw dummy in the inn's stable yard. "They must be pulling farm boys straight out of the fields. Give them pitch forks, now, then they might be a threat."

"That's certainly true," Angelo said. He tugged the dummy on its wheeled base to Guglielmo's left, forcing the other man to turn as he lunged. In the shade of the stables, the rest of the men watched. "Farmers are wickedly dangerous."

Guglielmo grinned and skewered the dummy's heart again. "You'd think they thought we had designs on their sons and daughters and livestock and such."

"If you've started taking up with the sheep, now, lad, I don't want to hear about it." Angelo shoved the dummy towards Guglielmo and pulled his own sword to charge. Guglielmo laughed, jumped out of the way of the dummy, and set himself to meet the attack.

"Excuse me!" yelled a voice from the door into the inn. Isabetta stood there, her hands on her hips. Angelo skidded to a halt just shy of Guglielmo, and they lowered their swords. "Will has a visitor."

Angelo gave Guglielmo a surprised look. "You're getting popular."

Guglielmo had his own reasons to suspect his popularity. "Who is it, bella?"

Isabetta just smiled and stepped to one side. Behind her, Alexander glowered. He wore plain workman's clothes instead of the robes of a novice.

"Brother Sandro," Guglielmo grinned, then the smile dropped away. "What brings you down here again?"

"I--" Alexander paused and looked around at all the eager attention.

Guglielmo nodded, then glanced at Angelo. Angelo went to a pile of equipment and traded his sword for a blunted version, then turned to his men.

"Get off your asses and out here into the sun!" he yelled. "Bear pit! Who wants to try me first?"

The men swore for effect but gathered their own practice equipment and got in line.

Isabetta shook her head. "There'll be cracked heads and blood before they're done with this. I'd better check the bandages." Sighing, she went inside.

Alexander watched in puzzlement. "What are they doing?"

Guglielmo watched Thomas Wyndham square off against Angelo. "Bear pit. Angelo fights until someone knocks him down, then that man takes Angelo's place and Angelo gets in line. It'll go until they're too tired and hurting to go on." He turned back to Alexander. "What's happened? Why are you here?"

Alexander looked at the ground, then up at Guglielmo. "I'm supposed to ask you to help me learn to defend myself."

"Says who?"

"Excuse me?"

Guglielmo frowned. "Who says you're supposed to? Who have you been talking to that you've brought my name into it?"

Alexander looked uncertain, so Guglielmo tugged him over to a bench in the shade and made him sit down. Alexander watched Thomas Wyndham pick himself up from where Angelo's blow had sent him, then one of the anonymous men took up his position in front of the mercenary captain, who grinned as he charged. Alexander sighed and let his shoulders slump.

"I might as well tell you. I went and asked for advice from someone. Monsignor Lewes from the Holy Office."

"The Holy--" Guglielmo drew back. "You told the Inquisition about me?"

Alexander shivered at the cold tone of voice. "Monsignor Lewes already knows about you," he said quickly. "He's the man who broke up that fight you were trying to start when you were using me as a human shield. The first time. He's the one who told me your name."

"There in the Palace with the Papal Guard? He's an Inquisitor?" Guglielmo shook his head. "He doesn't look it. Most of that sort have very squinty, suspicious eyes." He focused on Alexander. "What did you tell him?"

"Everything. The meeting we had with His Excellency and the Cardinal, them wanting you for security for the gathering they're planning, everything. He thought it was odd that they'd involve you, too."

Guglielmo sat down. "I suppose that's reassuring. So he thinks you're in danger, too? Why?"

Alexander took a long, deep breath. "I--know some things about Cardinal Fortezzi that His Eminence would rather I didn't know. Msgr. Lewes is concerned about that. Those men that jumped us when I was taking you to the meeting--a Cardinal wouldn't hire men like that, would he?"

"Why not? Cardinals are politicians as much as anyone else. Politicians always have lots of little plots that need tending, and sometimes you need to clear inconvenient people out of the way. Somehow Cardinal Fortezzi finds you inconvenient." He looked at Alexander. "Is what you know worth killing over?"

"Nothing is worth killing over."

Guglielmo laughed, but it was a sad sound. "If that were true, I'd still be in Siena, probably running the printing shop by now. There's always something worth killing over, especially if you can get someone else to do the deed. This thing with the Cardinal--it would wreck his career, endanger him?"

Alexander swallowed hard. "The Inquisition would be very interested in it."

Guglielmo nodded. "Don't eat or drink anything you don't know exactly where it came from. Poison is easy to get and very popular with people who like handling matters quietly. Now, if he decides he doesn't care how quietly things are handled, you need to know how to defend yourself. Let's see what you know."

What Alexander knew was how to fall down. As a boy, rough housing wasn't a matter of much subtlety: someone grabbed you, you tried to wriggle free, flailing around until they let go or you got a lucky shot in. Then someone ran home with a bloody nose, and you all got scolded for wasting time when all that energy could be used more profitably. By the time Alexander had been selected to go to Roma, he and his friends were being put to work in the fields and shops, and the rough housing days were over.

The holds Guglielmo was demonstrating, on the other hand, were much more deliberate than those used by boys. For the sixth time, Alexander hit the ground, his feet kicked out from under him, and he was on his back, helpless to a sword or knife thrust. He was already bruised from hard jabs into his throat and kidneys as the mercenary demonstrated the preferred methods of being set upon by someone jumping out of hiding.

He refused to open his eyes, knowing Guglielmo would only be staring down at him again, a look of frustration on his face. The sounds of the other mercenaries fighting had stopped, so they were probably watching all this too.

"I think it'll be simpler for all concerned if I just let them kill me," he muttered.

The disgusted noise was familiar now. "If that's all the fight you're going to put up, then maybe it would be."

Alexander heard footsteps crunching away across the dirt. Someone made some remark on the far side of the courtyard, and the others laughed. Five years of careful training in the proper behavior of a servant to Holy Mother Church fell away, and he picked up the small stone he felt under his right hand. He raised up and threw the stone with a snarl. It bounced off the back of Guglielmo's head with an audible thwack.

"Ow!" he yelled, and Il Sanguinante reached up and pulled his hand away bloody.

Everyone in the courtyard, from Angelo to the stableboy, froze in shock.

I am going to die, Alexander realized with utter clarity. "I do heartily repent of all my sins," he whispered quickly. "Ave, Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum--"

"Yes!" Guglielmo yelled. "About time! Now we can get somewhere." Grinning, he strode back to Alexander and held out a hand to help him up.

Alexander stared at the blood-streaked fingers. "I'm sor--"

"No, don't go all sheep-hearted on me again!" Guglielmo reached down and hauled Alexander up by his shirt. "That was the first sign I've seen that you cared about what was happening."

"You're not angry?"

Guglielmo carefully poked at the back of his head. "Well, I generally prefer not to bleed, but I think this is a positive sign." He gave Alexander another grin. "Very well thrown, too."

Alexander shook his head. "Anger is one of the seven deadly sins. I lost my temper and hurt you. I'm sorry."

Guglielmo sighed. "Sandro, you are too good to live. And someone is counting on that." He put his hands around Alexander's face and stared into his eyes. "There is someone who wants to kill you. It's supposed to make you angry!"

"It makes me afraid," Alexander whispered.

The mercenary leaned in closer. "Me, too," he said softly. "But I know how to use it. That's what I'm trying to teach you, but I had to know that you could act through the fear instead of just freezing like a rabbit waiting for the wolf." He shook Alexander's head gently and stepped back. "So now we start again."

As Alexander sighed wearily, Angelo walked up. "Will, he's exhausted. And he's going to be black and blue in the morning. You can't teach him everything in one night."

"I haven't taught him anything yet!"

Alexander was too tired to watch his words. "They can kill me tonight, I don't mind." He barely winced at the glare he got.

"He's not yours to worry about, Will," Angelo said firmly. Guglielmo sighed and turned away. Angelo smiled, then looked at Alexander. "Can you make it back to the Palace all right, brother?"

Alexander nodded nervously. "I just need to be back before dark. You, um, you don't mind my coming down, do you, Captain?"

"Not at all. It's good for his patience, teaching, and the Madonna knows he could use some work on that." He grinned over his shoulder at the rude noise from Guglielmo. "It's a rare opportunity for you, in any case. Not many can say they've had private tutoring from the likes of Il Sanguinante."

Guglielmo turned around. "Was that a compliment?"

"Might have been."

Alexander cleared his throat. "Anyway, thank you, Captain, and thank you, Guglielmo. I'll--come back tomorrow, if it's all right?"

Angelo shrugged. "We'll be here." With a last smile, he headed back to the gathered men.

Guglielmo came up and looked Alexander over, frowning. "You are going to be bruised. Get a hot bath when you get back, it'll keep your muscles from stiffening. And watch yourself. I'm not going through all this just so you can get ambushed."

"You're going through?" Alexander protested. Guglielmo reached up to the back of his head, and Alexander blushed. "Yes, that. It won't happen again."

"No, it's not. I'm not turning my back on you when you've got something to throw handy." Guglielmo patted his shoulder and let his hand lay for a few moments. "Come see me tomorrow, we'll work on you actually getting free next time."

Alexander nodded. The approval in the mercenary's smile told him there might be some hope for him at this sort of thing, and the firm squeeze of his shoulder reassured him. "Good night, Guglielmo."

"Good night--Alexander."

He grinned at the use of his preferred name and left.

After several moments, Angelo wandered back to Guglielmo's side. "I suppose it's too late to tell you to mind your heart."

Guglielmo was rubbing his fingers together, as if to memorize the way something felt. "Yes, it is. Do you think anyone would mind very much if I paid a visit to Cardinal Fortezzi and showed him the error of his ways in persecuting that boy?"

"No murdering Cardinals."

"Wouldn't be the first one."

"No. They squeak and thrash around, and someone always makes a fuss. So, no."

Guglielmo sighed. "It was so much simpler before we were respectable."

"Aye," Angelo nodded sadly. "We'll not see those days again."





Part Nine

Four days until the feast of St. Benedict. Alexander went to the Master of Novices and hesitantly told him that Monsignor Lewes of the Holy Office had requested his help in various matters for the next several days. The Master gave him a look that wavered between leering and uneasy. "We are all here to serve," he finally said gruffly, and waved Alexander off.

Alexander wasn't going to skip his classes with Maestro Bramante, no matter what Inquisitors and mercenaries might say. The small Vatican suite the Maestro was using wasn't in the palace itself but was easily reached by the side corridors known to the servants and novices. Bramante was bustling around his piles of parchments and models, muttering to himself.

"Sandro," he said, scratching at his balding head, "where are my sketches on domes? I thought they were with the plans of Santa Marie delle Grazie."

"You rearranged those last week, maestro. You put all the general studies in the big portfolio over there."

Bramante threw up his hands. "Madonna, you're right. Papers, they will drive me mad yet." He went to the portfolio and began paging through the sheets of drawings and plans. "Bah, not the right ones, where are--oh, of course." He glared at a blank wall. "There's nothing for it, then. I have to go back to Milano."

Alexander felt his stomach drop. "Maestro?"

"Sandro, sit." Bramante gestured at a stool. Alexander obeyed, trying not to look too anxious. "It's time I was back in Milano, lad. My studio's there, and Il Sforza has been patient, but he is my patron, and I owe him service. You're a good student, lad. I want you to come with me, be a student full-time."

He managed not to fall off the stool. "Go to Milano? Leave? Leave Roma?" He swallowed hard. "Leave the church?"

Bramante perched on the edge of the worktable. "Sandro, do you really intend to be a priest?" he asked kindly.

He was gasping for air, but nothing was reaching his brain. Leave the arms that had sheltered him, leave the mysteries that brought him joy? Leaving his home village and his family hadn't wrenched at his guts as badly as the thought of leaving the Church behind. He'd known he'd have to decide soon but there had always seemed to be so much time.

"You're not right for this place, lad," Bramante went on. "The church is more than the altar. There are more hours of the day spent plotting and maneuvering than there are spent celebrating Mass." He patted Alexander's shoulder. "And if you do want to, you can be a priest in Milano as easily as you can in Roma. Probably easier." He leaned forward to grin and whisper. "God does live in other cities than this one, you know, despite what they tell you."

Alexander managed to find his feet and stand up. "Maestro, I--"

"Go, lad. I know you need to think. I won't be ready to go before St. Benedict's Day, though I'd like your help packing, if you can."

"Yes, maestro."

He found his way out of the suite and into the maze of corridors and rooms. He stumbled across a Lady Chapel where Mass was being celebrated. The officiant's Latin had a strong peasant accent, and Alexander settled to his knees in a back row, remembering home.

Father Ricardo had spoken of God and the saints as if they were old friends he was expecting to show up for supper. The Stations of the Cross were the tale of suffering in the family, and you wept at the Holy Mother's grief and her Son's suffering. Alexander knew he could be that kind of priest, but--

He lowered his head away from the gaze of Jesus on His cross. He was not the kind of man who could joyfully spend his life tending the cares of a congregation. The world held thousands of fascinating things he wanted to explore. Bramante's lessons spoke of ancient people, intricate sciences, creations waiting in the shadows to be born. He wanted to explore them all, not be distracted by the cares of other people.

Most of the priests in the Vatican focused on work other than tending congregations. If he wanted to be an architect in service to the Holy See, no one would think anything of it. He could even join one of the monastic orders and spend his days in study.

The joys of the cloister paled, though, in the memory of Guglielmo trying to teach him to fight. He was shocked by the shamelessness he'd seen, but the mercenaries seemed so straightforward and honest compared to the people he lived with in the Vatican. Guglielmo was no stranger to intrigue, but he obviously preferred a more honest world that let him hit things.

So many things to see in the world. Maestro Bramante had spoken of the buildings Alexander should see if he wanted to learn architecture. Milano was full of the maestro's own work he could study. He wanted to go, he wanted to see things. As the maestro had said, if he wanted to be a priest, he could be a priest in Milano as easily as in Roma.

The wafer melting on his tongue as he took Communion, though, reminded him of the nearer future. The plots of the Vatican still held him in their grip. If he survived St. Benedict's, maybe then those plans he dared to have could come true.

Having none of his usual duties, Alexander felt lost. He didn't like not having anything to do. He sat in the empty dormitory having a strenuous debate with himself, then put on his plain, non-clerical clothes and left. He told himself he wasn't in a hurry to get to the Crusader's Kiss. It was just a case of taking advantage of the freedom he'd been granted.

He wandered the markets in the city for a while, looking at the buildings and seeing where the ancient structures had been incorporated into the modern buildings. He recognized blocks from an Imperial temple making up the facade of a butcher's shop. A knifemaker had the graceful hand of an ancient statue propped up on his counter, holding a long dagger in its marble grip. Alexander munched on a honey-rich pastry and wondered if it was the hand of an emperor or a pagan god. Roma's history was strewn casually around the city. The people of the Eternal City had no awe for their ancestors' leavings, using whatever bits they could find wherever needed.

He was studying the Ionic columns built into the corners of an apartment building when he realized a girl was trying to get his attention.

"I've got a room inside, if you're interested," she grinned. Her dark hair glinted red in the sunlight, and the neckline of her green dress seemed to be having trouble staying up on her shoulders.

"Interested in what?" He started blushing even before she laughed.

She strolled closer, skirts swaying gracefully. "If you don't know, I would certainly be happy to show you. Half-price, because you're so handsome."

The Master of Novices had never told them how to fend off prostitutes. Especially pretty ones his own age who smiled at him. "I--I have to be somewhere . . ."

She lightly touched the back of his hand. "Someplace nicer than I can show you?"

He had to look down to make sure his skin wasn't burning where she'd touched him. "I'm sorry, I really have to--" He turned as fast as he could without tripping over his feet and did his best not to run.

"Come back when you don't have anywhere else to be!" she called after him, still laughing.

He stopped several blocks away. By all the saints, he understood why it was a sin. He could barely think with that girl smiling at him and--and touching him. He'd wanted to--

As fast as he could, he said the prayer the Master of Novices had taught them to distract themselves from carnal thoughts. Focus on your duty to God, on the sacrifice that a life of service required, a sacrifice that only the strongest and most worthy could give. Our Saviour is building mansions for us in the house of the Lord. Keep your mind on that, not on whores and the way their hair falls around their shoulders and lays across the curve of their--

Alexander shook himself hard, then started towards the Crusaders Kiss. When prayer failed in fending off difficult thoughts, the Master of Novices recommended physical exertion. Lots of physical exertion.

The girl Isabetta was coming down the stairs in the inn when Alexander entered. "Hello, Brother Sandro," she said cheerfully.

"Um, hello." He tried not to look at her too closely, still uneasy after his encounter with the prostitute. She just smiled at him and went on with her work, putting her basket on the big table and pulling out various bits of clothing.

"They are so hard on their clothes," she muttered, examining shoulder seams and knees. Alexander recognized the black velvet doublet Guglielmo had worn during the meeting with Cesare Borgia. Isabetta tsked over the sword cut in the sleeve. "That'll need to be mended before it goes to the launderers."

"He said he was afraid you'd embroider love knots and roses on it," Alexander found himself saying.

Isabetta laughed. "Oh, not roses. Forget-me-nots, to match his eyes." She stuck her fingers through the slit and shook her head. "I need to find him a woman of his own to do this sort of thing. I have enough to do looking after Angelo." She laid aside the doublet and two shirts, then carried the basket to a door at the back of the room. Picking up a smaller, more ornate basket, she gathered up the mending and nodded towards the door to the stableyard. "Guglielmo's out here. Aren't you a little early, though?"

Alexander couldn't help but follow. "I've been let off my other duties, I thought I'd come down early." She reminded him so much of his mother--if his mother wore her hair wantonly loose and her bodices low and didn't mind repairing the damage caused in street brawls. She was young enough that Alexander felt he should be giving her lectures on not throwing her life away, but she had the air of a well-contented woman who didn't need lectures.

Isabetta sat down on the bench near the wall and began pulling thread and needles from her workbasket. "He's over there."

On the other side of the yard, the stableboy sat on an upturned barrel. Several feet in front of him stood Guglielmo, sword in his right hand and pointing down, watching intently. He was shirtless and sweating in the afternoon heat. As Alexander watched, the stableboy suddenly threw something small and glittering towards the mercenary. Guglielmo lunged towards the object, stabbing it and knocking it out of the air. Before he could completely return to position, the stableboy threw another object. Guglielmo nearly touched it, but it fell behind him.

"Three!" the stableboy cheered.

"Two!"

"Three!"

Guglielmo swore and shrugged. "Three." He settled his feet and nodded. The stableboy immediately threw, and Guglielmo hit it cleanly.

Alexander looked at Isabetta. "What are they doing?"

"Every one that Will misses, Manolo gets to keep."

Alexander looked closer and saw that the items being thrown were small gold coins. "But Guglielmo's left-handed."

Isabetta squinted at the needle she was threading. "And what if his left arm gets wounded in a fight?"

"Oh."

Guglielmo stood motionless, waiting, all his attention focused on the stableboy. Manolo's hand twitched, and the muscles in Guglielmo's swordarm bunched, then relaxed when the coin wasn't thrown. Twice more Manolo pretended to throw, but Guglielmo never brought up his sword. The next toss was real, and the sword tip hit the coin with a pretty chime. Just as quickly, Guglielmo settled back into position, motionless and ready.

Alexander watched, amazed. So much speed and precision, coiled up and waiting like one of those clockwork mechanisms Maestro Bramante described. Or, Alexander revised, seeing the faint smile on Guglielmo's face, like the cat staring at the fallen baby bird, deciding on the moment of attack.

Guglielmo lunged and knocked another coin out of the air. Alexander saw a long scar on the man's ribs. Other scars marred his skin. Alexander's experience of the human body was limited to the classical statues displayed around the Vatican and the soft, pale shapes of his fellow novices seen in the baths. Watching Guglielmo was like seeing one of those cold marble statues move, but with sweat and scars to prove he was no statue.

Isabetta chuckled, making Alexander jump. "He is very good," she said. Her head was bowed over her mending, but she wore one of those secretive female smiles that made Alexander nervous.

When the exercise was done, Manolo ran around the stableyard picking up coins as Guglielmo put his sword away. Manolo handed him a pouch holding the coins.

"Let's see, that was two," Guglielmo said as he reached into the pouch.

"Three!" Manolo stuck his hand out.

Guglielmo stared at him, and Manolo stared back. Laughing, Guglielmo dropped three coins into his hand, then added another. Manolo started to protest, but shut his mouth at Guglielmo's raised eyebrow. He wrapped his fist around the coins and ran off into the stables.

Guglielmo glanced up at the sun, then strolled over to the shady part of the stableyard. "Sneaked out early, did you, Sandro?" There was a water bucket at the end of the bench; he drank a dipperful noisily, then poured a second over his head and body.

Alexander blinked at him a moment. "No, I have permission to be here."

Isabetta poked Guglielmo in the arm with her needle.

"God's teeth, woman! What was that for?" He clutched his arm and glared at her.

"Don't be such a baby and go drip somewhere else. I'm trying to work here." She brushed water off the black velvet. "And since it's your doublet I'm working on, you should be nice to me." She spread the garment out in her lap. "It's terribly plain. Roses would match the red, but forget-me-nots would match your eyes."

"Fiendish woman." However, Guglielmo did step away before shaking the water out of his hair.

"And put this on." Isabetta tossed him one of the linen shirts she was working on. He gave her a puzzled look, and she tilted her head at Alexander. Guglielmo quickly nodded and pulled the shirt over his head.

"So, Sandro," he said from inside the shirt, "how do you feel after yesterday?"

"I'm fine. Nothing's very sore. I took a hot bath like you said."

Guglielmo tugged the shirt down over his head, grinning and wiggling until he got the cloth free from his wet skin. "I'd take you to the local baths, but you don't need that much of an education that quickly." Isabetta poked him with her foot but didn't look up from her mending. "In any case, we need to get to work. Today I'm going to show you how to get away from all those things I did to you yesterday."

"That's good."

Alexander's world view was feeling a little battered. It wasn't enough that people were trying to kill him, now he had other people flaunting themselves at him, without even knowing they were doing it. He kept thinking he should be scandalized that Guglielmo would be wandering half-dressed around Isabetta, with neither of them caring, but he remembered being young and not too concerned if the girls of the village caught a glimpse of him and his friends swimming naked in the river. The girls had gone swimming themselves, and he and his friends had tried to get their own glimpses. Father Ricardo had caught them and scolded them, but he'd been fighting a smile the whole time.

He knew Isabetta had given Guglielmo the shirt in order to spare the feelings of an innocent novice of the church. Part of him was grateful for the consideration, but part of him was feeling self-conscious at having it be an issue. He doubted someone like Monsignor Lewes worried about such things while going about his Inquisitorial work, and he'd heard enough rumors to know that the rules about modesty were taken with different degrees of seriousness by other churchmen.

He was still rattled by the encounter with the prostitute, that was all. He'd tire himself out working with Guglielmo, and he'd stop thinking about people's skins and the curves of their bodies. He followed Guglielmo out into the middle of the stableyard.

"Where is everyone?" he asked. Hopefully he wouldn't embarrass himself so badly if he didn't have an audience of mercenaries watching every move.

"The men have the day off while Angelo and Thomas are up at the Palace talking to His Holiness' Chamberlain about that innocent clerical error that happened to short us a few hundred ducats in pay."

Isabetta snorted in a very unladylike manner over her needlework. "Innocent."

"Now, now, bella," Guglielmo grinned. "I'm sure after Thomas clearly explains everything they'll see exactly where the accountants made the error."

Alexander tried not to smile. "And Captain Angelo?"

"Merely there to show that it's a straightforward business meeting."

Isabetta snorted again.

"In any case," Guglielmo said, "we're here to work." He took hold of Alexander's shoulders and maneuvered him to a spot in the middle of the stableyard. "So, you're walking down the street or a corridor, and someone comes up behind you and does this." He threw his left arm around Alexander's neck and pulled back. "What do you do?"

Startled, Alexander grabbed at the arm around his throat. He remember this from the day before, being manhandled and made to feel clumsy. He tugged at the arm, but Guglielmo was stronger than he, and he didn't have much leverage, being pulled back against the mercenary the way he was.

"No," Guglielmo said. "Don't grab the arm around your throat. What that arm's doing doesn't matter, because there's another arm headed for your kidneys with a knife in its hand." He poked Alexander lightly in the ribs to prove his point, then let go.

Alexander rubbed his neck. "So what do I do?"

"You drop." Guglielmo looked him up and down. "You're going to be Angelo's size by the time you're done growing, I imagine. I don't know many people who could hold up that much weight with one arm."

"But--you said there'd be a knife headed for my kidneys. What about the knife?"

"Move fast enough, and it should only hit the shoulder blade or arm." Guglielmo grinned at Alexander's expression. "We're trying to keep you alive here, little brother Nobody. I'm afraid I can't promise you'll stay unhurt."

He had Alexander try the grip on him, so he could demonstrate the move. Alexander suspected he was just getting some odd amusement by proving he was sneakier and more agile than a church novice.

"The key is to react as quickly as you can," Guglielmo explained after a few more demonstrations and practices. "Once someone has grabbed you, he's not going to hesitate. A professional will want to get the job over just as quickly as possible."

Alexander sat on the ground, panting. He was getting the hang of slipping out of Guglielmo's grip, but only because he knew it was coming. "Don't you have to assume you're going to get ambushed every minute, though? A lot of times when I'm going through the corridors, I'm thinking about Maestro Bramante's lessons or which Mass I'm going to be helping celebrate."

Guglielmo nodded solemnly. "That's one of the things I'm trying to teach you, anticipating threats. Think about your lessons during class. When you're moving through crowds of people, be it on the street or among your fellow churchmen, watch for the ones who are watching you."

"An assassin couldn't get into the church buildings, though, could he? Surely I'm safe in the Vatican."

The grim look on Guglielmo's face shook him. "That's where you're most vulnerable, where you're most comfortable. The last time someone seriously tried to kill me was outside my own room here in the inn."

Alexander blinked in shock. "Who . . ."

"A new recruit who thought that his promotion would be quicker if he made a spot to be promoted into." A cold smile appeared on Il Sanguinante's face. "I promoted him to his heavenly reward, instead." The frightening look of an easy killer dropped away, and Guglielmo patted Alexander's shoulder. "But all I want you to do is be able to get away. Now, let's try it some more."

For the next two hours they worked on avoiding knives coming from the back, from the front, and what to do if the attacker didn't let go when he dropped but followed him down. The first time Guglielmo tried that, landing on top of him, Alexander had let instincts rule inclination and drove his elbow back hard into the mercenary's ribs.

With a curse and a laugh, Guglielmo rolled away. "That works! Whatever gets the attacker away from you."

Alexander scrambled up. "Are you all--" A slender arm wrapped around his throat before he had gotten completely to his feet. Automatically he dropped, adding the shoulder roll Guglielmo said would throw the attacker off balance--though it had yet to work against Guglielmo himself. With a squeak, Isabetta stumbled over him and fell into Guglielmo, who caught her as well as he could.

Alexander gasped in horror. "Madonna, I'm sor--"

"Stop apologizing!" Guglielmo snapped. "That's what you were supposed to do! Though you should have given her the elbow as well."

"I can't hit a woman!"

Guglielmo dropped his head into his hand. Isabetta jumped to her feet and glared at him, her fists on her hips. "A woman can sneak up and kill somebody just as well as a man!"

Alexander, still on his knees, gaped at her. A throat was cleared behind him.

"So, I take it everything is going well?" Captain Angelo asked politely. Beside him, Thomas Wyndham watched with something close to amusement.

Isabetta pointed at Alexander. "Tell him a woman can be as much of a threat as a man can!"

Angelo rubbed his left side. "Oh, yes, women are sneaky and dangerous and you should be careful when they're standing behind you."

"That's not what I meant!"

"It isn't?"

She huffed and turned back to Alexander. "Anyone can stick a knife into somebody, it's easy. Unless you hit a rib," she added thoughtfully.

Alexander gaped at her. "But you're so tiny and pretty!"

Guglielmo snickered and Angelo covered his mouth. Thomas pointedly watched a bird sailing by overhead. Isabetta glared at all of them, then she went over and grabbed Alexander's head. "You are very silly and we are trying to keep you from getting killed." She kissed his forehead. "And you're staying for supper. After you clean up a little." She turned with a swish of skirts and went back into the inn, gathering up her mending basket as she went.

"But I'm supposed to be back before dark," Alexander said, blinking.

Angelo held up a hand. "You're welcome to tell her you're not staying. I'm not going to do it."

Guglielmo got to his feet, then smacked Alexander in the shoulder. "Come on, Brother Nobody. Let's sluice some of this dust off ourselves. I'll make sure you get back in one piece."

Most of the men found other places to be for supper, but there were a few strangers at the big table. They glanced at Alexander curiously but ignored him. He tried very carefully not to listen to their conversation, especially the discussion of taverns and wenches and the costs of . . . things. He sat next to Isabetta at the foot of the table, and she distracted him from distressing things by asking him where he had come from and how many people were in his family and other homey things. Guglielmo, up at the other end at Angelo's right hand, glanced down occasionally and grinned.

After supper, Guglielmo took Alexander back out into the stableyard to look over some knives. He ignored Alexander's protests about using weapons, handing over small daggers for hiding under sleeves and long main gauches that nearly qualified as short swords in their own right. Everyone wandered out, preferring the last light of day to the interior of the inn.

"We're not trying to equip you for duels," Guglielmo said, taking away a blade that Alexander had nearly gutted himself with twice. "A lot of assassins don't have the nerve to face someone who can fight back. If you have time to show some teeth of your own, anyone attacking you will probably decide it's not worth the chance of them bleeding as well."

Alexander picked up another dagger, a plain blade with an unadorned wooden hilt. "I don't know if I can try to hurt someone with something like this."

"Feel free to hit them with your rosary, if you like. A good sturdy crucifix of lead or something at the end would leave quite a dent."

Over at a table near the inn doors, one of the men who had decided to stay in that evening leaned towards his neighbor. "It's rather endearing, the care he's taking to make sure his . . . friend can protect himself," he said with a smirk. The other man gave him an uncomfortable look and didn't laugh. Alexander frowned and glanced at Guglielmo, who was studying the first man with a very calm expression. Angelo, sitting next to Isabetta on the bench, was also studying the man, sipping from his goblet thoughtfully.

Alexander noticed the shadows. "I need to get back soon. Monsignor Lewes seemed quite upset at the idea of me being out after dark."

Guglielmo nodded. "We're losing the light anyway. I'll see you up there, just to be sure."

"You don't have to--" Alexander stopped talking at the look he got. "All right."

As Guglielmo fetched his sword, Alexander went over to Isabetta. "I'm sorry I tossed you like that," he said nervously, watching Angelo.

Isabetta grinned at him. "You did exactly what Guglielmo taught you to do, so stop feeling sorry about it."

Angelo gave her a scolding look. "Are you waylaying defenseless young men again, m'love?"

She smacked him in the shoulder, which he didn't seem to notice. "He's not defenseless. And I was not waylaying, I was helping with the teaching."

The man who had made the comment before snickered into his mug. "Not that Il Sanguinante is likely to share, anyway."

His neighbor looked nervous, glancing at Angelo, who had stopped drinking and was staring into his goblet, then over his shoulder at Guglielmo, who had paused in buckling on his sword to listen. "Tonio," he muttered, "be quiet." Tonio just snickered again.

Alexander, confused, saw Angelo look towards Guglielmo, then take another drink as he patted Isabetta's knee. Guglielmo tightened a buckle, then walked over. He glanced briefly at Angelo, then at Alexander. "Ready to go, Sandro?"

"Um, yes, I am."

"I'll just be a moment." He turned and strolled towards the table. Tonio blinked at him, then fought down another smirk. A dagger appeared in Guglielmo's right hand, then it was buried in Tonio's belly. Guglielmo twisted his wrist, then stepped back. Gasping, Tonio fumbled at the dagger hilt sticking out of him. "Pull that out," Guglielmo said quietly, "and you'll bleed to death quickly."

Alexander fought for air. "Wha--what if he doesn't pull it out?"

"Then he bleeds to death slowly."

Everyone looked at Angelo, who merely studied the inside of his goblet. "I wonder if we have any of that northern pale wine about the place. Isabetta, come help me look." He got to his feet and went inside. Isabetta followed, looking a little pale but not very horrified.

Alexander stared at Tonio, who was patting at the seeping red stain on his tunic and making disbelieving noises. Guglielmo tugged him around and pulled him towards the gate. None of the other men in the stableyard had said a word.

"Why--did you do that?" Alexander finally managed to say as they reached the street.

"It's best to nip that sort of thing in the bud," Guglielmo said calmly.

"What sort of thing?"

The mercenary gave him a considering look, then smiled a little sadly. "Disrespect. They should leave you alone now."

"But--I don't understand . . ."

Guglielmo patted his arm. "You don't need to, Alexander. You don't need to."

That night, Alexander did not sleep.

A man had been killed right in front of him. He wondered how long it had taken the man to die. The skirmish in the street was one thing, Guglielmo was fighting for his life. But this . . . The man, Tonio, had said something Alexander still didn't quite understand, and Guglielmo had simply walked over and shoved a knife in his belly. And no one had tried to stop him. Angelo even seemed to know what was about to happen and had just sat there sipping his wine. Lovely Isabetta hadn't protested.

And then Guglielmo had walked with him through the streets up to the side gate of the Vatican complex, not saying a word but looking at Alexander several times as if he wanted to say something. As if he expected Alexander to simply understand that casual murder was something that happened.

And in Guglielmo's world, it was.

Alexander was starting to like them. Domestic Isabetta bustling around with her mending and her sneak attacks. Brash, handsome, generous Guglielmo. Jovial Angelo, quiet Thomas, even-tempered Giancarlo--

Dead Tonio.

They were killers. The deaths of others was their stock in trade. And they looked at Alexander as if he were the one with the defective worldview.

Sitting on his bed, wrapped in his blanket against the chill that came from his soul, Alexander looked at the sleeping novices in the dormitory around him. One candle burned near the privy cabinet in the corner. Some of the younger novices still whimpered with homesickness in their sleep. Alexander envied them.

He pulled the blanket closer around him, ducking his head underneath to muffle his voice as his fingers found the next bead of his rosary. He prayed for the Holy Mother to free him from this maze of terror and confusion, to make St. Benedict's day arrive and pass quickly. To show him how to cope with people who he could care about and who he feared so much.

Sleep was taking its time making an appearance in other parts of the city.

"He won't be back," Guglielmo said, staring at the mug of wine in front of him.

Angelo refilled Isabetta's goblet and his own mug, then leaned back in his chair at the head of the big table. The only light in the room was the small lamp on the table next to the wine jug. "He might."

Guglielmo shook his head. "You didn't see the look on his face. The one that said he remembered what I am."

"And that is?" Isabetta asked softly.

"A killer." He smiled faintly as the other two fidgeted. "A very good one who doesn't regret what he is. Or, who didn't before tonight."

Isabetta touched his hand. "Not someone who an honest priest would normally be with."

Guglielmo ran his fingers through his hair. "He told me himself that there was nothing worth killing for. I laughed at him."

"Everyone here knows Tonio had it coming," Angelo said. "It was hardly the first time he'd gotten publically obnoxious."

"I should have waited. It would have kept." Guglielmo drank off half the wine. "But, no, I had to make a production out of skewering him in front of a baby priest who was starting to think of me as--" He drained the rest of the wine instead of finishing.

Angelo reached over and stroked Isabetta's arm. "You wanted to show him you were willing to defend his honor. Anyone else would have been impressed."

"I should have waited. Made sure he got home, then come back and settled matters. Called Tonio out and done it cleanly."

Isabetta rose from her seat and went around to Guglielmo. "But you didn't." She leaned down to kiss the top of his head. "You are who you are. And Alexander is who Alexander is. He might forgive you yet. That's rather his job." She gave Angelo a kiss as well. "Don't be too much longer," she said, then headed upstairs.

Angelo refilled Guglielmo's mug again and sighed.

"If you give me some pox-rotten Celtic metaphor or parable," Guglielmo growled, "I'll have your hair for boot rags."

Angelo shrugged. "No, I just have wine. I'll listen to whatever you want to talk about, even if it's just drunken babbling. I've a small cask of that Spanish sherry as well, if you simply want to get so drunk you forget about it."

"I won't be forgetting the look in his eyes anytime soon."

"Then just drink until it doesn't hurt anymore."

"That'll be a while."


*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*


After morning Mass, Alexander went straight to Maestro Bramante's chambers, where he spent several hours helping to arrange the papers and instruments and books into some sort of order for shipping. This was made no easier by the Maestro's habit of lecturing as he moved around the room and of pulling out the very papers that had just been packed to illustrate his point. Alexander spent most of his time following behind and putting things back the way they were.

They took their midday meal up to the roofs of the Palace, where Bramante chewed on sausage and cheese while pointing out architectural features of the Eternal City. His broad gestures took in the Coliseum across the river and the walls around the Vatican and where the roads had reached out to the far corners of the Roman Empire.

Alexander drank it all in, following Bramante's sweeping motions out to the horizon and back into time. The Maestro talked of the Greeks and the Caesars and the Franks and all the peoples who had gone before and whose thoughts and strivings toward heaven had created the great buildings, and how everything that was built today rested on everything that had gone on before.

They went back down to the workroom so that Bramante could show Alexander sketches of the great cathedral of Chartres and explain the mathematics of pier and buttress and vaulting. That went on until Buonarotti, the sculptor who had done the new Pieta, arrived with wine and food and gossip. Alexander retreated to a corner next to Bramante's traveling book cases and worked on fitting the Maestro's library into too little space while he listened.

"When you get to Milano," Buonarotti said as the sun sank low over the city, "make sure you see the fresco at Grazie."

Bramante laughed. "Leonardo actually finished something? Amazing."

"It is amazing. Brilliant It's also already flaking off. If you want your boy there to see it, you'd best hurry. Maybe he'll be inspired and find his calling and he can start making something of himself."

Alexander, his attention mostly on the fading light and imagining the shadows growing across a stableyard, jumped and stared. "Excuse me?"

"Relax, Sandro," Bramante said with a smile. "You haven't done anything wrong. Michelangelo has views."

"When I was his age I was already producing sculptures on commission!"

"You're also a mad genius who's been studying these things all your life. And you're not that much older than he is. Sandro has the makings of a very good churchman, if the lures of the mundane world don't prove too much for him and turn him into a builder." Bramante glanced out the window that Alexander had been staring at. "What are you watching, lad?"

"I'm--not, really, Maestro. I'm just thinking."

Bramante nodded and turned back to his excitable guest. Alexander listened a while longer to the news of which families were still securely in control of their cities and where rich patrons could be found, then went back to his thoughts. He hadn't strictly promised that he'd be at the inn every afternoon, but he wondered if Guglielmo was angry with him and why that idea upset him so.





Part Ten

An Archbishop's maid was found killed near the laundry courtyard that morning. The whispers were of an animal attack. Some of the more noble churchmen kept hunting dogs, and not all of them were kept in proper kennels.

Monsignor Lewes made a point of seeing the girl's body before it was taken away. The whisperers lowered their voices in the presence of an Inquisitor, but the tale spread quickly of how he'd examined the poor thing's throat, then sighed deeply as he made the sign of the Cross over the body.

When Lewes returned to his chamber, he secured the locks, both physical and magical, before adding to the report he was preparing for the Council.

"There is a vampire at large in the Vatican itself. Granted, holiness is not very thick on the ground here, but the traditional wards against the undead are about in abundance. I suspect this king of vampires that the prophecy spoke of. I have my suspicions about who the prince is who is assisting him, but I won't put them on paper."

Lewes laid down his pen. It would be weeks before this report reached England, and he feared time was growing short. There was little useful advice his comrades could give him, in any case.

Cardinal Fortezzi was up to something. The theft of the Communion wafer was only the latest incident. There had been rumors of His Eminence seeking out strange knowledge, consulting with uncertain informants. The whispers said he sought a way to live forever. Lewes was dreadfully afraid he'd found a way to do it.

The upcoming St. Benedict's Day festivities His Eminence and Cesare Borgia were planning filled him with dread. He was reluctant to seek out Alexander in the Palace, not knowing whose eyes might be watching. There was someone else, though, deeply involved in this matter who might bear talking to.

The Monsignor left the Palace by the normal routes, making no effort to disguise himself or his movements. Once he was out of sight of the walls, though, he wandered into narrower streets until he drifted into a nondescript apartment building. A room at the back allowed him to transform from a respected churchman into an anonymous merchant. He waited for several minutes to allow casual observers to forget about him, and a small magical spell of obscurity baffled any observers who weren't casual.

The Crusader's Kiss was an easy inn to find. The place was quiet when Monsignor Lewes walked in. A boy scrubbed a big table with admirable diligence, but the man behind the counter seemed nervous as he wiped mugs.

"Good day, signore," Lewes said politely. "I'm looking for Maestro Guglielmo il Sanguinante. Is he here?"

The man looked around furtively. "Um, yes, sir, he is, but--now might not be the best of times--"

The side door that led out to the stableyard banged open, slamming against and knocking over a heavy chair. The boy dived under the table as Il Sanguinante strode in. He didn't look around the room, but Lewes hesitated before calling out to him.

"Wine in my room," Il Sanguinante snapped to the room at large.

"Yes, sir," the man behind the counter said quickly. He looked at Lewes uncertainly.

Lewes raised a reassuring hand. "Maestro?"

Il Sanguinante stopped at the foot of the stairs, then turned his head partway. "What?"

"I need to speak with you, if I may."

A door behind the counter opened, and a small blonde woman stepped out. She studied Lewes for a moment, then looked towards Il Sanguinante, who had turned to face Lewes.

"And what is it that you believe I'll be interested in?" he said, smiling just a little. He began walking slowly towards Lewes.

"Guglielmo," the woman behind the counter said.

Il Sanguinante paused. "Yes, Isabetta?"

"Please . . ."

"Please, what, Isabetta?"

She made a noise of frustration. "Do not take this out on us, Guglielmo. Especially not on strangers."

Lewes fought taking a step back at the cold look Il Sanguinante turned on her. "Angelo enjoys having you fuss at him, Isabetta," he said. "I do not."

Reluctantly, Lewes cleared his throat. Il Sanguinante's head snapped around; Isabetta stepped forward, as if to distract him before he acted. "It's all right, signorina," Lewes said.

The calculating threat in Il Sanguinante's eyes changed, and he tilted his head quizzically. "Is your name Lewes?"

"Yes, it is--oh, yes, that day with the Guards in the hallway. Yes, that was me."

Il Sanguinante considered Lewes' clothes, then frowned. "What's happened?"

"Nothing's happened, yet. But I need to speak with you."

He looked at the man behind the counter. "Wine in the stableyard, instead, Gianni."

"At once, Maestro."

Isabetta came around the corner. "Will?"

"It's all right, I'm not taking him out to murder him." He started towards the door, then paused and leaned down to kiss her forehead. "He knows Sandro," he added.

"Oh!" Isabetta smiled at Lewes. "How is he? He's not in trouble for coming to see us, is he?"

"Not at all, he's fine. Excuse me."

Lewes followed Il Sanguinante out into the stableyard and a table in the shade. The boy who had dived under the table came out soon after, carefully carrying a tray with a jug and a pair of goblets. He jostled the jug as he sat the tray down, and Il Sanguinante reached out to steady it. The boy cringed.

"Thank you, Manolo," Il Sanguinante said gently. The boy grinned and ran back inside.

Lewes accepted a goblet of wine. "I gather our Alexander has been making friends down here."

"Sandro lets Isabetta order him around. She likes that." Il Sanguinante sipped his wine and studied Lewes. "So you're an Inquisitor."

"Not in these clothes, I'm not."

"But when you're in your priestly garb again, you'll remember everything that happened while you were in disguise."

"Not necessarily. Maestro, I'm not here for the Inquisition. I'm here because the St. Benedict's gathering has me very worried."

"That? For what it's worth, I have no intention of showing up for that."

"But--you must!"

Il Sanguinante blinked at him. "No, I mustn't. I intend to be very ill the day after tomorrow." He shrugged and grinned. "And if Isabetta tells Angelo the way I was behaving today, I may well be dead the day after tomorrow. Either way, I won't be attending Cesare's little gathering."

"That's all very well for you, Maestro, but Alexander doesn't have your options. Who do you think will have to tell them that you're too ill--or dead--to be there?"

"Tell him to be sick. There's typhus near the river."

"I did not send him down here for you to teach him to defend himself, just so that you can abandon him at the last minute."

Il Sanguinante glared into his goblet. "He came twice. He wasn't here yesterday, and--" He glanced at the sun "--I'm not expecting him tonight."

"Well, where is he then?"

"How should I know? I'm a soldier, you're the shepherd of the flock."

"Damn it." Lewes refilled his goblet and drained half of it. "He doesn't understand what's going on. If I thought he'd do it, I'd have sent him to stay down here under your protection."

"All the saints forfend," Il Sanguinante muttered. "Lead us not into temptation."

Lewes studied him suspiciously. "What did you do that made him stop coming down?"

"What did I--" He sighed. "I killed a man in front of him."

Lewes blinked. "What, those men who ambushed you on the way to the Palace?"

"Why do I get the idea that you know more about what's going on than I do?"

"That's my job. The ambush happened before he came down here. What man?"

Il Sanguinante leaned back in his chair and glanced down at the ground. "One of the men here made a few remarks he had no business making. I--showed him the error of his ways."

"What sort of remarks?"

That coolly assessing look was back in his eyes. "The sort of remarks that could be taken to mean that I have the sort of affection for Sandro that the church officially frowns upon."

"Do you?"

"If I did, would I admit it to an Inquisitor?"

"And is that why Alexander is avoiding you?"

A dagger appeared in Il Sanguinante's left hand, a dagger he proceeded to toss casually into the air. "Sandro is avoiding me because he innocently believes that nothing is worth killing over. I didn't explain to him that if you let one mouth run on about things it shouldn't, others will soon follow. My only mistake was in not waiting till Sandro was gone before teaching Tonio a lesson."

"His innocent beliefs are something I'd like to see preserved," Lewes said mildly.

"He is perfectly safe with me."

Lewes nodded. "Then do you mind putting the dagger away?"

Il Sanguinante smiled faintly, tossed the dagger one more time, and let it fall point first into the table. "If you want him to continue learning how to defend himself, then you're going to have to find him and tell him. I can't go up there, not unless you want a lot of talk about it."

"You're right. I'll find him, make sure he's all right. And you have to go to that gathering. I think Alexander will be in a great deal of danger if you don't."

"What does that gathering have to do with Sandro?"

Lewes leaned back in his chair and studied the other man very closely. "You've seen a few strange things in your life, I imagine."

"A few."

"What do you know of magic?"

Il Sanguinante ran a finger along the curved crossguard of the dagger stuck into the table in front of. "Enough to remind myself yet again that you are an Inquisitor."

Lewes thumped the table with his fist. "Maestro, that is not the point. The Holy Office has nothing to do with what I am so worried about. My--brothers in the Holy Office are more concerned with Jews and old women than the real evil that walks the night. There are forces in the world that too many in the church blind themselves to. I don't care if you believe God has three persons or one or whether there is a God of light and a God of darkness. I have seen real, physical evil, and none of it appears in the Malleus Maleficarum."

Il Sanguinante continued to fondle the dagger. "How many of your brothers have heard that speech, Monsignor?"

"None of them," Lewes said, meeting his eyes squarely. "I wouldn't be the first Inquisitor to suddenly find himself suspect."

After a moment, Il Sanguinante nodded. "So you believe that this thing on St. Benedict's is--what?"

Lewes glanced around the stableyard and lowered his voice. "His Eminence has shown odd--interests. I have some knowledge that suggests something is being planned. A sacrifice."

"A sacrifice to what?"

"Something to which sacrifices should not be made."

"And what is to be sacrificed?"

"It's a sacrifice of innocence."

Lewes caught his breath as the knowledge flowed into Il Sanguinante's eyes. The knowledge was followed by rage, quickly tempered with the cold detachment of one for whom the deaths of others was no hardship.

"And Sandro being ill and absent won't prevent this?"

"I suspect that His Eminence will take steps to ensure Alexander's presence. It may even be known that he's come here."

"He's not the only innocent in this city."

Lewes told himself not to be horrified at the casual proposal. "But it's much easier to acquire someone who is sworn to obey a Prince of the Church, especially one with dangerous knowledge."

Il Sanguinante yanked the dagger out of the table. "You're not telling me something. The best way to foil this is to grab Sandro and take him away from here. If you suspect some dark ritual is in the offing, tell your brother Inquisitors, have them act."

"Against Cesare Borgia? Do you think the Holy Father will entertain any suggestion that his favored son is involved with the dark arts?"

"Cesare will find himself stabbed in the throat sooner or later. If you're so worried about Sandro, why are you telling me to make sure he goes to this meeting?"

"If they think you are cooperating, then they won't think of something else to do. They've chosen that night for a reason. If you're forewarned, you can go there, see what's happening, take Alexander out of there, and it will be too late for them to do anything else."

"And we're on the run for the rest of our lives because Cesare Borgia and a Cardinal knows we've witnessed them attempting black magic."

"I'll be able to help you at that point. But if I take any actions before the fact, then it's a simple matter of changing their plans. There are some things that even the Holy Office won't be able to ignore."

Il Sanguinante got up to pace. "The word of a soldier and a novice against Cesare's and a Cardinal's? There is still something you're not telling me."

"You want to protect Alexander, correct?" Lewes waited for the grudging nod. "And he will do what he is sworn to do, regardless if it scares him or not. And he is sworn to obey His Eminence's orders to be there on the night of St. Benedict's."

"Get him drunk," Il Sanguinante said. "Drug him, kidnap him. He can't obey if we don't let him."

"And will he forgive you for that?"

Il Sanguinante swore under his breath. "I'm fairly sure you're not supposed to be encouraging me to care what happens to Alexander like that."

"Like what?" Lewes said innocently.

He swore again. "I can't help him if he won't let me. And at the moment I'm not sure he's willing to."

"I'll find him, talk to him." He stood. "Try not to die before St. Benedict's." Il Sanguinante sneered at him, and Lewes let himself out of the stableyard.

Lewes reassured himself that he hadn't actually lied to the mercenary. He hadn't denied there were more elements involved than Cesare Borgia and Cardinal Fortezzi, he just hadn't gone into detail. Lewes tried not to think about who might still be alive or undamned the morning after St. Benedict's. There were larger matters involved than the fate of individuals. Immense evil was within reach, and Lewes' oaths put everything subordinate to the destruction of that evil. He didn't have to like it, he only had to obey.




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