Nessuno


by
Two Ladies of Quality



Part Eleven

As he had yesterday, Alexander went to Bramante's rooms as soon as he could. Bramante didn't question it, just set him to organizing more papers. There were diagrams on some of the sheets that intrigued Alexander, and his questions soon led to a lesson in mathematics and physics.

"I should introduce you to da Vinci," Bramante said after the questions became more complex. "I know how to build things so they stay up, but he says he knows how to make things fly. He loves having new people to talk to. I think he's still in Milano, I'll take you to meet him when we get there."

Alexander wondered when it had become understood that he was leaving Roma. The excitement of learning had somehow become strong enough to hide his dread of giving up the daily rounds of the church. He could serve God anywhere, and there was so much more of the world to see.

Around mid-afternoon, Bramante looked around the room and nodded. "That should be everything. I'll spend the next couple of days saying farewell to various people, then I'll be ready to go." He looked at Alexander. "And you?"

Alexander shrugged. "I have nothing to pack. I'm supposed to be somewhere the night of St. Benedict's, but other than that I'm free."

Bramante smiled. "Freedom is a very good thing."

They were distracted by a brief knock on the open door. A man wearing the colors of Cesare Borgia's household stood in the doorway. "I'm looking for the novice Alexander," he said.

One of the first lessons Alexander had received when he came to the Vatican was how to identify the servants and members of the major households. He hadn't expected the very sight of one of Cesare's servants to make his spine quiver.

Bramante glanced at him and frowned very slightly. "Alexander is my student," he told the servant with just enough impatience to show that a renowned artist did not have to give ground to anyone's servant. "Why are you looking for him?"

The servant inclined his head a few degrees. "Your pardon, Maestro Bramante. His Excellency has requested the service of Alexander at supper this evening. He's to come with me."

A small noise of protest escaped Alexander's best efforts. Bramante glanced at him again. "He's just finishing helping me with some boxes. We'll just be a few moments."

The servant started to protest, then maintained silence as Bramante towed Alexander to the far side of the room.

"I'm guessing you're not looking forward to serving at His Excellency's table," he said softly as he rearranged some ropes on a box. Alexander could only shake his head. "Even more of a reason for you to leave Roma?"

"Yes, maestro."

"Unfortunately, only the Holy Father would be able to intervene. I'm afraid you'll have to go with him and do your best."

Miserable, Alexander nodded.

"I expect him back at work here bright and early tomorrow," Bramante said as he followed Alexander to the door of the chamber. "Don't keep him up till all hours."

"We shall do our best, maestro." The servant bowed and turned to go, not bothering to check to see if Alexander was following.

"Go on, boy," Bramante said, loud enough for the servant to hear, but he gave a nod of reassurance. Alexander nodded back and hurried to catch up.

The servant said nothing as they walked from the comfortable but plain building where Bramante was housed, to the newly redecorated wing where the Borgia households lived in splendor. They bypassed the state chambers for the kitchens, where Rodolfo, Cesare's chamberlain, was waiting.

Rodolfo dismissed the servant and studied Alexander. "Are those your best robes?" he asked.

"All my robes are like these. Though these are the cleanest."

He sniffed. "They would be. His Excellency dines in three hours. The chamber there has a place where you can wash and clothes more suitable for a nobleman's presence."

Alexander started to protest that these robes were perfectly acceptable for serving Mass, and how was Cesare Borgia's table better than that? A cunning mental voice that sounded oddly like Guglielmo's told him to be quiet, do the job, and just get out as quickly as possible. Oh, and be careful of people standing behind him.

The waiting clothes were of a finer linen than he was used to, and he nearly decided to refuse outright when he saw the red-gold bull of the Borgia coat of arms embroidered on the left front. He belonged to Holy Mother Church, if he belonged to anyone; he had neither the right nor the inclination to show any other colors.

Rip it off and burn it later, said that conniving voice in his head again. The heart of the Borgia stronghold was not the place to raise protests. He went back into the kitchen, where he stood to one side and stayed out of the way of busy cooks and assistants. Across the room, Rodolfo looked around impatiently, then waved for Alexander to join him.

He nodded grudgingly at Alexander's new clothes. "Have you ever served at a nobleman's table, boy?"

The conniving voice was drowned out by his own. "I've served at the Lord's table." Self-preservation was a half second behind, but he fought off the urge to cringe and beg pardon.

A woman kneading dough at a nearby table muffled a snicker. The disapproving line of Rodolfo's mouth twitched just a little. "Yes. You'll find this less exalted, but more complicated."

The next three hours were spent learning the basics of serving food and wine to an exalted nobleman. Alexander focused on the lessons with the same diligence he'd spent on learning the parts of a classical column. Twice he heard someone in the room whisper, "And then he said, 'I've served at the Lord's table,'" and then people would laugh very quietly. He was afraid he was being mocked, until one of the bakers handed him one of the rolls fresh from the oven and Rodolfo only said, "Don't leave crumbs on yourself."

A bell rang, and everyone hurried to finish their tasks. Rodolfo led Alexander over to a man ladling vegetables into a ceramic dish. "I need to see to His Excellency. Come with Bernardo when he's ready, and we'll begin."

A few minutes later, Bernardo was finished, and Alexander followed him up flights of stairs and through hidden servants' passageways to Cesare Borgia's suite. His sense of uncertain confidence changed completely to anxiety when Cesare looked up from the table where he sat alone and looked at Alexander thoughtfully. It was the faint smile that made Alexander want to run away and let the fates do with him as they would.

Rodolfo handed him a gold plate with a serving of vegetables and nudged him towards the table. He focused on his hurried lessons and went to the table, keeping his eyes down and remembering to bow when he reached Cesare's side. Cesare gestured slightly, and Alexander placed the dish on the table in front of him. Rodolfo appeared to arrange the napkin and to set the gold knife and fork with the carved gemstone handles at a more convenient location.

Cesare raised a finger just before Alexander retreated to pour the wine. "Cardinal Fortezzi speaks highly of you," he said quietly.

Alexander wound his fingers together tightly. "Th--thank you, Your Excellency." Cesare nodded, and Alexander hurried to the wine jug on the sideboard. He didn't spill any, but only by chanting the Our Father under his breath.

He continued to keep his mind on prayers through the rest of the meal. From the kitchen came several courses, which Cesare silently ate. His attention seemed to be on some inner world, except for a few times where he studied Alexander for several moments.

Finally, Rodolfo approached the table with a basin of warm water and a linen cloth, which he used to wash Cesare's hands. Alexander retreated to the servants' door, wondering if he dared to sigh in relief. Not just yet. Rodolfo leaned closer at a gesture, and Alexander heard Cesare say, "The boy could be trained to be useful."

"Yes, my lord."

Alexander debated bolting again, but instead he followed Rodolfo out of the room and back down to the kitchens. Rodolfo gave him a considering look, but the head cook distracted him with some discrepancy between the kitchen inventory and the actual pantry contents. One of the servants came over with a food-laden plate.

"Here," he grinned. "If you worked, you eat. We don't let people starve in this kitchen."

Alexander ate in peace, answering innocuous questions about the village he grew up in. He finally caught himself picking at the Borgia emblem on his robes and decided to change back into his own clothes.

Rodolfo caught up with him just before he could make his escape from the kitchen. "His Excellency believes you would be a useful addition to his household, Alexander. Congratulations. Let me show you--"

"I'm leaving Roma with Maestro Bramante."

Rodolfo blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

Alexander clung to the thought like he held to his belief that Christ would save him from damnation. "I'm Maestro Bramante's student. We leave Roma for Milano after the feast of St. Benedict."

"I'm sure Maestro Bramante will release you--"

"No, you don't understand." It was Guglielmo's voice in the back of his head again, telling him to be blunt and assertive. "I want to leave Roma with Bramante. I'm looking forward to it."

Rodolfo looked completely baffled. "But he is an architect, a builder. Here you have the opportunity to serve one of the most important men in Europe."

He was tempted to say that the idea of serving Cesare Borgia horrified him, but the troublesome voice advised prudence, for a change. "I have studied with the Maestro for several years now. He's teaching me his art. The only service I would give that up for is the Lord's service."

"Well." Rodolfo shook his head. "If that is the case, then, that is the case. When His Excellency inquires, I will tell him you preferred stone and mortar to glory."

Alexander thought a moment, then nodded. "Yes, I do. But thank you." Rodolfo shrugged and nodded, then turned back to his work. Alexander returned the farewell wave of one of the cook's assistants, then slipped out the kitchen door.

He remembered the way well enough to run. It was getting late in the evening; traffic in the hallways was light and unlikely to care enough about a hurrying novice to stop him. He slowed to a walk once he reached the familiar hallways of the church wing. Should he find Maestro Bramante and reassure him that all was well? Perhaps something more innocuous, like one of the illicit dice games the novices sometimes got up to in the dormitory in the evening.

"Alexander, a moment."

He turned to see Cardinal Fortezzi shuffle out of a dark side corridor. Too late to pretend he hadn't heard the summons. The Cardinal held out his hand, and Alexander knelt on the marble floor to take his hand and kiss the ring. The thin fingers clamped onto his. Fighting a gasp of pain, he looked up at the Cardinal.

"The lamb has been walking among the lions." Fortezzi gazed down, his smile lacking even the sardonic humor Cesare had. "You must learn to abjure corruption, my son."

"I do my best, Your Eminence." He winced as Fortezzi tightened his grip.

"And what did Cesare want with you, my son? He is not the proper companion for a righteous young man."

"I served him supper, Your Eminence. I don't know why he asked for me."

Fortezzi leaned down. Alexander forced himself not to cringe back, despite the predatory look on the Cardinal's face.

"You are young, Alexander," he said in a voice of kindly cruelty. "You do not have the wisdom yet to guard yourself properly. You must learn the dangers your soul lies near."

Footsteps hurried down the corridor. "Your Eminence, I'm so pleased I found you."

Alexander looked over and barely managed not to gasp in relief at the sight of Monsignor Lewes.

Fortezzi straightened, but did not relax his grip on Alexander's hand. Lewes stopped next to them and looked with mild curiosity from Alexander to the Cardinal.

"Has the boy displeased you, Your Eminence?" he asked.

Fortezzi studied him for several moments, then slowly uncurled his fingers from around Alexander's. "I have been telling him to be mindful of the company he keeps, Monsignor. Not all who he encounters in the halls of the Vatican are fit company for an untutored young man."

"Indeed not, Your Eminence."

Lewes bent his knee enough to kiss Fortezzi's ring, though he didn't touch the Cardinal's hand. A swift warning glance made Alexander scramble to his feet and move away. He tucked his hands into his sleeves and bowed his head in the best humble novice posture.

"We must be vigilant, Monsignor," Fortezzi said, still staring at Lewes. "Evil prowls even in the heart of Mother Church."

"I am utterly convinced of that, Your Eminence," Lewes replied, meeting Fortezzi's gaze. "My every effort is dedicated to ridding the Bride of Christ of the pernicious influences that would taint her."

Fortezzi pulled in on himself and nodded. "An important job, my son. Eternal vigilance. None knows the hour when we shall be called to account." He moved slowly off, mumbling to himself.

Alexander watched him go, but he didn't straighten or pull his suddenly freezing hands out of his sleeves. He started when Lewes appeared at his side, still staring off after Fortezzi.

"Alexander, do you need anything from the dormitory?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Good." Lewes took his arm and tugged him down the side corridor.

"How did you find me?"

"After chatting with Il Sanguinante and discovering you were not expected for your lesson, I checked with the Master of Novices, who told me you'd been spending your time with Maestro Bramante. When I finally tracked Bramante down, he told me you'd been summoned to serve at the Borgia table. I've just come from the servants, who said you'd refused a place in Cesare's household and left. This was the most direct route." He studied Alexander more closely. "You're shivering, boy. What did Fortezzi say to you?"

Alexander shook his head. "He told me to abjure corruption. He said I had no idea of the danger my soul was in."

Lewes sniffed. "Kind of him to warn you."

They went down a flight of steps to one of the outside doors. Alexander hesitated. "Where are we going?"

"Someplace I should have taken you when I first realized how serious this situation is, to stay with Il Sanguinante and that band of cutthroats." He gave a brief laugh. "You'll be safer there than in the precincts of the church, God help you." Lewes eased back the doorbolt and looked outside cautiously.

Alexander started to protest, but the reasons suddenly weren't there. His soul still cringed at the memory of Guglielmo cold-bloodedly knifing an unsuspecting man, but somehow that seemed . . . smaller than the unspoken peril he had felt around him this evening.

Lewes tugged on his sleeve, pulling him out of the door. "What's wrong?"

Alexander barely noticed the night and its torch-lined shadows here outside the confines of the Vatican buildings. "Murder is a grave sin, isn't it?"

"One of the gravest."

"Then why does Guglielmo frighten me so much less than His Excellency or Cardinal Fortezzi?"

Lewes studied him for a moment, a smile that held no humor on his face. "Because Il Sanguinante's murders are committed in plain view, with no attempt to hide what he's doing or why. His Eminence and His Excellency work in the shadows, while presenting innocent faces to the light of day."

"A remorseless killer is more honest than a Prince of the Church?"

Lewes patted his shoulder, but didn't answer. Alexander knew he didn't need to.





Part Twelve

The men were, unsurprisingly, still a little nervous after the knifing of Tonio, so Guglielmo sat in a far corner of the tavern while he tended his weapons, behind one of the big tables. Not that the table would stop him if he felt the need to move quickly, but it never paid to ignore the proprieties.

His dagger had disappeared with Tonio. He'd spent hours in the markets looking for a replacement and finally found a lovely long-bladed dagger with a rosewood and ebony handle and silver fittings. And a terrible edge. He'd spent an hour with the whetstone on the thing already and was just now getting to the point where he could sharpen it instead of taking out nicks. He shifted the small oil lamp on the table closer to check the edge for any spots he'd missed.

On the other side of the room, Angelo was losing badly to Giancarlo at dice. Isabetta leaned on Angelo's shoulder, all but asleep. At another table, Thomas was patiently explaining the rules of chess to Gianni the innkeeper's sixteen-year-old daughter, Caterina. Behind the counter, Gianni sliced meat and watched every move Thomas made. Caterina also paid close attention to Thomas, running her hair ribbons through her fingers as she listened.

A knock on the outer door caused everyone to look up from what they were doing. Behind the counter, Gianni wiped his hands and started around.

Angelo got to his feet. "I'll go."

Gianni looked relieved. "Grazie, captain."

Enemies generally weren't polite enough to knock, but it wasn't unheard of for an unsuspecting person to open a door and meet an attack. Guglielmo didn't put down the whetstone, but he reached over and shifted his newly-sharpened sword to a position on the table where he could grab it quickly before going back to his work.

Angelo's body blocked any view of whomever he was talking to outside. After a moment, he looked over his shoulder, caught Guglielmo's eye, and gestured with his head. A half-step to the right showed the reason for the summons: Monsignor Lewes and Alexander, who looked like he was about to drop.

Guglielmo tried to make rolling on one hip across the table look like merely the most convenient way around the obstacle, but Isabetta's knowing smile made him think it didn't work. At least Caterina squeaked in a satisfyingly frightened way.

"I hope it won't be an imposition, his staying here," Monsignor Lewes said to Angelo as he urged Alexander into the inn. Angelo closed and barred the door behind them. "Things are a bit strange at the Vatican just now."

"Stay here?" Guglielmo said, joining them. "What's happened?" At the sound of his voice, Alexander looked up. Guglielmo told himself that it wasn't relief in the boy's eyes at sight of him.

Lewes glanced at the roomful of curious observers. "Being specifically ordered to serve at a Borgia dinner table can be a bit nerve wracking, especially when followed by an admonition to avoid corruption, delivered personally by a Cardinal."

"What?" Guglielmo looked at Alexander. "Are you all right?"

The relief was more obvious in Alexander's tired smile and voice. "Yes, I'm all right."

Angelo looked thoughtfully from Lewes to Guglielmo to Alexander. "I have no objection if the boy stays, but I don't think there are any spare rooms, are there?" He turned to look at Isabetta, who shook her head.

"I don't want to put anyone out," Alexander protested. "Let me just curl up in a corner somewhere. Back in my village I'd sleep in the stable sometimes. Do you have room out there?"

Isabetta looked him over and frowned. "You're shivering. You're not sleeping out in the night air."

"I'm not sharing a room with anyone," Guglielmo found himself saying. "Put him up there." Angelo, Isabetta, and Lewes all gave him suspicious looks, and the sudden silence behind him let him know that everyone else in the room was paying attention they didn't have the right to. A pointed look to the men made them concentrate on their own business again.

"I'm not putting you out of your room," Alexander said firmly. "Besides, I've never slept in a room all by myself, I don't think I'd be able to sleep without hearing someone snore."

"I don't snore," Guglielmo protested. Angelo bit back a laugh. "In any case, there's a perfectly comfortable chair up there, you wouldn't be putting me out."

"I can sleep in a chair," Alexander said agreeably.

Lewes cleared his throat. "Signorina," he said to Isabetta, "would you be so kind as to show Alexander to wherever would be a good place for him to stay? I need to speak to Maestro Guglielmo."

Isabetta lifted her chin and looked as though she was about to protest her delegation to servant, then she frowned. "You were here this afternoon, weren't you."

"Ah. Yes, signorina, that was me."

She considered the church robes he now wore, then shrugged slightly. "Come along, Sandro. We're not as grand as the Vatican, but we have our comforts."

Alexander glanced at Guglielmo before following her. "I was serious, I won't put Guglielmo out."

"I promise, you're perfectly welcome to hunch yourself up in that old chair of his."

Lewes waited till they were out of earshot. "Where can we speak privately?" he asked Guglielmo.

"The courtyard again. There shouldn't be many mosquitos around this time of night."

Guglielmo wasn't surprised when Angelo casually followed along, but Lewes hesitated. Angelo smiled at him. "I already know my lieutenant is involved in some plot involving the Borgias and a Cardinal. I'd rather like to know what's going on now."

"It's a sensitive matter--"

Guglielmo shrugged. "He might as well come along. I'll only tell him later, anyway."

Lewes acquiesced. Angelo stayed quiet while Alexander's adventures with the Borgia household and Cardinal Fortezzi were summarized.

"It sounds like they don't trust each other," Guglielmo said, "ever for all that they're working together on whatever it is. Cesare's trying to get Sandro under his control, and His Eminence is warning him to watch his company. Why is Sandro such a commodity?"

"He's certainly integral to whatever they're planning for St. Benedict's," Lewes said. "I wonder if they're both planning the same thing?"

"Do you think he'd be less valuable to them if he was a bit less innocent?" Angelo offered. Guglielmo was impressed that Angelo didn't even give a flicker of a look towards him.

Lewes glared at Angelo. "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that. In any case, I imagine Alexander is far less innocent of various matters than he was when this all started. They'd do better to just leave him alone."

Angelo studied Guglielmo. "And what's your part in all this, Will? I don't think it's just to guard whatever's going on."

"I don't know what they have planned, but I say that my part is to keep them from hurting Sandro."

Lewes looked up to check what stars were visible. "That's why I brought him here, because I knew he'd be safe. I need to get back. What do you plan to do about St. Benedict's?"

Guglielmo grinned. "I still plan to be ill. I imagine Sandro could also become deathly sick."

Lewes shook his head. "I don't think it will be that easy, but decisions will depend on how Cesare and the Cardinal react. I'll leave you gentlemen to it, though, until we find out otherwise."

As Angelo let Lewes out the front door, Isabetta came to Guglielmo's side. "I've put him in your room, but he's still determined to sleep in that horrible chair of yours. I did, however, convince him to rest for a bit in your bed until you came up and threw him out."

Guglielmo gaped at her. "He's young and beautiful and trusting. And you put him in my bed? You are not a good woman, Isabetta."

She made a show of thinking. "You know, I think you may have something there."

Guglielmo gave her one last glare, then went to collect his weapons from the table in the corner. The new dagger still needed a decent edge, so he sat down to finish work. His years of soldiering wouldn't allow him to have a weapon in his possession that wasn't fit for use. Plus, sharpening it gave everyone the impression that he wasn't thinking about what waited in his bed.

The sensible part of him was laughing. Sandro, he was willing to bet, didn't even understand why Tonio was killed. To him, carnal matters were what Angelo and Isabetta got up to, or the temptations he whispered to his confessor about pretty girls he saw in the street. He probably had no idea that a man might look on another man and be . . . interested. In his world of country villages and sheltered priesthood, such things would not be mentioned.

In Guglielmo's world, though, things happened that didn't make sense to other people. After fighting off a score of Frenchmen and thinking they'd seen each other go down in that second wave, Guglielmo and Angelo had been too grateful to be alive and reunited to worry about propriety. Brothers in arms, depending on each other for their very lives, were bound by different rules. In the war camp that night, while the rest of the men sought out whores, they'd sought out each other. They never spoke of it, and if Isabetta knew, she was too much a soldier's woman to hold things that happened in wartime against a man. And if Guglielmo occasionally found the charms of a young man more appealing than those of a flirtatious wench, the respect of the company and his reputation as a fighter kept the wisest mouths shut.

The tone of the whetstone on sharpened steel finally penetrated Guglielmo's mind. If he kept up, he'd sharpen his new dagger to nothingness. He wiped the blade with oiled cloth to remove any stray filings and looked around the room. The only ones left were Thomas, still delicately seducing the not unwilling Caterina over the chessboard, and Gianni behind his counter, obviously wondering how to intervene. Guglielmo stretched loudly enough to attract attention.

"Dio, it's late," he said. "Didn't the captain say we were supposed to go out tomorrow and inspect the bridges, Thomas?"

Thomas glared at him. "I thought it was the gates."

"Whatever. Something that's going to have us in the saddle before the sun has cleared St. Peter's."

Gianni came around the counter. "Caterina, your mother expects you to help with the baking in the morning. Say good night and get to bed."

Caterina pouted, but she gave Thomas her most charming smile and thanked him for the lesson. "I hope we have time for another soon."

"So do I." Thomas waited until Gianni herded Caterina through the door behind the bar, into the family's section of the inn, then glared at Guglielmo. "Of course, you're probably in a hurry to get to your bed."

They'd known each other too long for Guglielmo to take too much offense. "If Gianni poisons your wine some evening, you've only yourself to blame."

Thomas glanced towards the door behind the counter and managed not to smirk. "I was only teaching her chess."

Guglielmo couldn't help snickering. "Thomas, not even you are that subtle." He stood and draped his various weapons on himself. "And odds are I'm sleeping in my chair tonight, so, no, I'm not in any hurry."

"And no one has ever accused you of subtlety." Thomas packed up the board and chess pieces. "Though you do occasionally show surprising sense."

"I think I'll take that as a compliment."

"If you like."

They bade each other good night at the top of the stairs, and Guglielmo slipped quietly into his room. He paused next to the door to let his eyes adjust to the light of the single candle in the lantern next to the bed. There were church robes draped over the arm of his old high-backed chair, and soft boots on the floor. By the breathing, Sandro was asleep, a quiet lump under the blankets on the bed.

Guglielmo carefully hung his sword and dagger on the pegs in the wall, then pulled off his shirt. He undid his hose, let them drop, and was just untying the cord that held his drawers closed when he heard the blankets move.

"There you are," said Sandro's sleepy voice. "I should let you have your bed."

"You're supposed to be asleep," Guglielmo said. He forced himself not to turn around, not to find out if the face looked as warm and sweet as the voice sounded.

"Supposed to sleep in the chair so that I don't put you out."

"You are not sleeping in the chair, you're going to stay where you are and get a decent night's sleep." Guglielmo turned and glared and regretted it. Alexander's dark hair was mussed and hanging over his eyes. He'd loosened the drawstring on the neck of his shirt, and the opening had slid over his left shoulder. He was blinking like a stubborn, tired child, but Guglielmo's gut felt things differently. "I'm taking the chair," he said gruffly.

Alexander glared, then took a deep breath. "Fine. I refuse to put you out of your own bed, you're insisting on sleeping in the chair. I guess it's the floor for me, then." He threw back the blankets.

"Sandro!"

"Guglielmo, really, it's hardly the first time. I slept on the floor a lot when my little brother and sisters reached the wiggly stage."

"What?"

Alexander laughed. "Small cottage, five children, two beds, and my father only shared his bed with my mother. It wasn't so bad when the little ones were really little, they were nice to snuggle against, but there's only so much giggling and whispering and 'Sandro, Ana pinched me' I can take before I go see if the cows are better company."

The image of young Sandro and the little ones was much more calming to Guglielmo's nerves. "You were the oldest?"

"Second oldest. My brother Torio found . . . other places to sleep," Alexander grinned. "Last I heard, he and Margaretta have two children of their own." He nodded decisively and stood up. "So, there's your bed. I'll sleep on the floor--though I wouldn't mind the loan of a cushion or something."

Guglielmo blessed the shadows and the fact that Alexander's shirt was thigh length. Perhaps it was time to let slip to Angelo that Isabetta had intentionally ruined that old fur cloak of his that he'd brought from Ireland and which shed like a nervous lapdog. She definitely needed to pay for this. And she was a convenient excuse.

"Isabetta would have my head if I let you sleep on the floor or the chair. So get back in there and go to sleep."

Alexander crossed his arms. "There's only one way to settle this, isn't there. We're going to have to share the bed."

Guglielmo muttered a prayer to St. Michael, patron of soldiers. He was trying to do the honorable thing, here, and heaven could at least cooperate by not tipping temptation in his way.

Still, it made sense. God knew there were many times he hadn't been picky about who--or what--shared his bunk. In the cold of winter and on mountain campaigns, bundling up together was only common sense.

Arguing about it was only going to make Alexander suspicious. He wasn't going to be the one to make the boy self-conscious.

"Don't hog the covers, then," he muttered. He debated putting his shirt back on, but the night was too warm.

Alexander grinned in triumph. "I won't."

Fortunately, Guglielmo's love of comforts meant there was no bickering over pillows as they climbed into bed. Guglielmo rolled onto his side away from Alexander who was snuggling down into the feather mattress.

"You do plan to settle down soon, don't you?" Guglielmo was going to have a difficult enough time getting to sleep without this lovely boy wriggling and making happy noises behind him.

Alexander went still. "I'm sorry. It's just that this bed is so much more comfortable than the one in the novice's dormitory." He yawned. "Thank you."

"Go to sleep, Sandro. Blow out the candle."





Part Thirteen

The hillside above Alexander's village was covered in rocks and brush, but the sheep had few problems finding things to graze on. Alexander watched from the high pile of rocks that had been assembled by the generations of sheep herders before him.

Watching the sheep in the hills hadn't been his job for years. By now, Vittorio's oldest should be big enough to do this. What had seemed like drudgery as a boy, though, was now a chance for some peace and quiet.

He lounged back against the rocks, idly scratching the sheepdog's ears. The cicadas sounded as sleepy as he felt. The olive tree behind him broke the sunlight into gold coins that wandered over the ground as the breeze nudged the branches back and forth. Out in the sunlight, the sheep dozed on their feet or folded themselves into the shadows of rocks.

Movement up the slope caught his eye. Wolves, picking their cautious way from rock to rock. Beside him, the dog growled, but the wolves kept coming. Alexander picked up a small rock from the pile next to him, but he knew it wouldn't be enough against a determined wolf.

He rested his hand on the dog's back, then looked down. In place of the shaggy mongrel was another wolf. A long tongue came out to clean some dried blood off its muzzle. It looked up at him, pale eyes watchful, then it turned its attention back to the rest of the wolves.

There was no place to retreat from either danger. The approaching wolves spared hardly a glance for the oblivious sheep. Every vulpine eye was on Alexander, and the stalkers were beginning to sink down into the creeping slouches that signaled they were about to attack--

"Sandro!"

He opened his eyes to thick darkness, the sound of his own frantic breathing, and hands on his shoulders.

"Sandro, wake up!"

The name was that of his childhood, but the voice had no place in that past. He struggled in confusion.

The voice swore and the hands let go. Alexander felt someone crawl over him, then heard more swearing and things moving around. A light appeared, a small flame on a candle. Alexander's mind cleared, and he recognized Guglielmo, closing a tinder box and setting the candle back in the lantern.

Guglielmo stared down at Alexander. "You ride the nightmare often, boy?"

Alexander shook his head. "I don't think I've ever had reason. I hope I didn't wake anybody."

"Other than me?"

"I'm sorry."

Guglielmo waved that off and went over to the table by the shuttered window. He poured a cupful of wine from the jug, drained most of it, refilled it and brought it back. Alexander sat up and took it silently.

"So what was the dream?" Guglielmo asked as he went back to the other side of the bed and crawled under the covers again.

Alexander stared into the wine. "Wolves. I was surrounded by wolves. And they were about to attack."

Guglielmo snorted as he settled his shoulders comfortably into the feather mattress. "They'll have to get past me first, Sandro."

"You were one of them," Alexander said softly. "I turned around to find my sheepdog to help me, but behind me was a pale-eyed wolf with a blood-stained muzzle."

Guglielmo studied the ceiling and its moving shadows. "Was it going to attack you, too?"

"It--watched the other wolves. But it was still a wolf."

"There are worse things to have at your back."

Alexander bowed his head. "The world has become too strange. The ones who should be shepherds are my enemies, and the wolves are my friends. I miss the world I knew."

A hand suddenly rested on his back. "Welcome to manhood," Guglielmo said wearily. "We all lose the innocent world we knew. You've managed to keep yours longer than most." He patted Alexander's shoulder firmly. "Go back to sleep."

Alexander finished the wine and put the cup on the bedside table. "Shall I blow out the candle?"

"Leave it. If you wake up again, it'll help to see where you're at."

"I don't mind--"

Guglielmo sighed. "Sandro, more than one man you've met here has a candle burning in his room right now, so that when he wakes up in the middle of the night he knows this is where he is and not where he fears to be."

Alexander slid under the covers, pulling them up over his shoulder. He rolled onto his side facing Guglielmo, whose eyes were closed. "Do you know what Cesare and the Cardinal are up to?"

Guglielmo opened one eye, then rolled over to face Alexander. "I don't know much."

"I don't know anything. Other than the two of them keep asking me questions that seem to mean something, but I have no idea what."

After a moment, Guglielmo nodded. "Monsignor Lewes thinks your Cardinal is dabbling in dark powers of some sort. He thinks Fortezzi and Cesare are up to something that the Inquisition should know about, but he doesn't want to tell his brothers just yet because there won't be any proof. Something is planned for St. Benedict's, something they want us both there for."

"That's the gathering they want me to take you to, to guard?" Alexander swallowed hard. "The thing I know about Cardinal Fortezzi? I saw him steal a consecrated wafer during Mass. He knows I saw him. And there's no reason why he should take such a thing."

"Why would he steal one? He's a priest, surely he can make as many as he wants."

"Consecrated at the High Altar of St. Peter's Basilica during a Mass witnessed by hundreds of people. Maybe it means more that way."

Guglielmo shook his head. "Whatever it is, it's nothing good." He thought a moment, then met Alexander's eyes. "Sandro, you should leave the city. Leave Roma. Let me get you out of here before St. Benedict's."

Alexander blinked. "I can't leave. I mean--I'm going to leave, I'm going to Milan with Maestro Bramante, after St. Benedict's."

"You can't stay, you can't go to that meeting. God knows what they're planning. It's not safe."

"I'm beginning to understand that." He hesitated, thinking it would be nice to disappear, just avoid whatever fate he was being rushed to. Then he shook his head. "No, fate has pushed me around too much. I'm going with Maestro Bramante. Somehow I'm just going to have to survive whatever's going to happen." He glared at Guglielmo and was surprised to see him smiling. "What?"

Guglielmo leaned forward and swiftly kissed his forehead. "It's nice to see that something can rile you."

Alexander scrubbed at his forehead. "You kiss like my mother." He thought he saw a grin on Guglielmo's face, but it swiftly changed to an angelically innocent smile. "And that's even more disturbing."

Guglielmo laughed and tugged on Alexander's hair. "Go back to sleep, Brother Nobody. You're starting to not make any sense."

Alexander shoved his pillow to a more comfortable position under his head. All his humor was gone, though, when he looked at Guglielmo. "What are we going to do on St. Benedict's Day?"

The pale eyes in the candlelight looked like the wolf's eyes in his dream. "We don't let them do whatever they think they're going to do to us." Guglielmo pulled the covers over their shoulders. "Remember, having a wolf at your back is a good thing."

Alexander nodded and closed his eyes. He felt light fingertips on his cheek, but he just nodded and let sleep take him.





Part Fourteen

Alexander slowly came awake to the feel of something very lightly brushing his face. Blasted flies. They got in everywhere in the summer.

Wrongness slowly seeped into his brain. The bed was too soft. He couldn't hear the other novices. Very faintly, the sound of bells came to him. Bells that were too far away.

He pushed himself up and stared around. A room much smaller than the dormitory, wooden walls, sunlight poking past the edges of a shuttered window. The bright blue and red carpet on the floor was far more elegant than anything that would be in the novices' quarters. The sword and dagger hanging on the wall, of all things, looked familiar, and he remembered where he was.

"Good morning," said an amused voice next to him.

Alexander didn't turn to look at Guglielmo. "Good morning." On the table in front of the shuttered window, a thin beam of sunlight sparked off the gold pitcher and wash basin. Alexander recognized the Moorish patterns engraved in the gold from some of Maestro Bramante's books. "Maestro Bramante! He doesn't know what happened, he'll be worried. And I missed Lauds." He collapsed back on the bed. "And I stayed out all night. They'll expel me for that."

Guglielmo propped his head up on one hand. "I thought you were leaving anyway."

"I am. I mean--yes, I'm going to Milano, but--"

"Choosing to leave is different from being made to leave."

"Yes."

Guglielmo lightly stroked Alexander's hair. "I doubt anyone will care."

"I care." He closed his eyes. "Everything's changing so fast. And I'm not in control of any of it." He leaned into Guglielmo's hand as the touch became firmer.

"Control is good," Guglielmo said softly. "But a man needs to be able to adjust when circumstances change. One part of your life is over, another's about to begin. You'll be all right."

Alexander smiled and opened his eyes. "Thank you." The sunbeam that was reflecting off the pitcher was caught in Guglielmo's hair, lighting strands of gold and straw and amber. Alexander remembered thinking of Guglielmo as a statue, but marble didn't have eyes the color of the sky on a summer morning. Marble didn't smile, either, as gentle fingers trailed over the bones of his face. And a statue's lips wouldn't be so soft when leaning down into a kiss.

It was a brief touch. Alexander blinked as Guglielmo pulled away. "What . . ."

The smile twisted a little, and Guglielmo brushed a finger across Alexander's lips. "Nothing." He started to pull away, then stopped when Alexander reached up to touch his face.

"Why?"

Guglielmo turned his head to kiss Alexander's fingers. "Because you're beautiful."

Alexander shook his head. "No. I'm not beautiful. Cathedrals are. Or you."

The smile came back. "I think you need a few more lessons in beauty."

He leaned down again, and Alexander wondered if this was sin as their lips touched again. Guglielmo's fingers traced down his chin and throat, making him catch his breath. This had to be sin, because he so much wanted to feel more. No one made sins of things people didn't want to do. Before his conscience could decide for certain, though, he had run his own fingers along Guglielmo's sharp cheekbone, making him smile and settle his body against Alexander's. When Alexander felt the tip of Guglielmo's tongue against his lips, he opened his mouth a little to see what would happen next.

There was a loud pounding on the door. "If I have to be up, so do you!" came Thomas Wyndham's voice.

Alexander started and pulled back. Guglielmo dropped his head on Alexander's shoulder, growling.

After a moment, Guglielmo lifted his head and smiled at Alexander. "Pardon me while I go kill him, all right?"

"No!"

"Relax, I'm joking." Guglielmo glared at the door. "Probably."

Alexander stared at him in horror. "You wouldn't."

Guglielmo ran his fingers through Alexander's hair. "No, I wouldn't. Despite his poor timing, Thomas is a friend of mine."

Alexander swallowed. "I'm guessing that man in the stableyard wasn't a friend of yours."

Guglielmo dropped his eyes and sighed. "I'm sorry you saw that."

"But you're not sorry you did it."

With a frustrated noise, Guglielmo pushed away and got out of bed. "Don't try to reform me, all right?" He went over to the clothes press at the other end of the room, reached in and pulled out a shirt. "It never works."

Slowly, Alexander sat up, but he tried not to watch Guglielmo get dressed. He stared at the carved foot of the bed instead and wondered what people were thinking about him this morning. He hoped Giuseppe wouldn't be too worried, and he reminded himself to make sure a message was sent to Maestro Bramante.

Abruptly he realized he was running his fingers along his lips, unconsciously reliving the feel of Guglielmo's mouth against his own. The rest of his body was reacting the way the Master of Novices said was natural for a young man his age but which his oaths said he was to ignore. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Guglielmo pulling on a pair of leather trews and tying them with rough motions. Alexander looked away quickly, wondering how much worse it was to think these kinds of thoughts about a man instead of a woman.

Guglielmo shoved his feet into his boots, then strode over to take his sword and dagger off the wall. He went to the door, paused, then turned to look at Alexander. "I know it goes against everything you've been taught," he said softly, "but I don't regret a thing. Least of all anything to do with you."

He went out, and a few moments later, Alexander heard raised voices. A bellow that sounded like Captain Angelo cut through the voices, and there was silence.

Alexander looked around the room and considered the phrase "den of iniquity." He and Giuseppe had always wondered what those were, and they pictured dark rooms with strange smells and sounds. Rather like the taverns their fathers would disappear into after a day's work and which their mothers would send them to to fetch their fathers home when it was time for supper. This was just a room with very few comforts, nothing like the luxurious chambers he saw up at the Vatican. Guglielmo's private place, where he thought Alexander would be safe.

He caught himself touching his lips again and yanked his hand down. The sense of sin was on him, but for all his training, what upset him most was the look on Guglielmo's face as he left. Alexander tried to cast his memories of Guglielmo touching him into the form of evil, but he kept remembering that small, sweet smile. Those eyes looking at him and being delighted with what they saw.

He pulled his knees up and rested his head. A confessor would help him sort these things out, clear his mind. Father Rodolfo heard the novices' confessions, and he was well versed on the sins of young men trying to fit themselves into the church. Alexander remembered when Sebastiano of Genoa had confessed the thoughts he'd been having about Xavier from Parma. Sebastiano had been flogged, then worn sackcloth for a year as penance. Xavier had denied knowing anything about the matter and had finally left rather than face the disbelief. There had been many sermons and whispers about unnatural attractions--but Alexander remembered a dark afternoon in October, when he'd seen Xavier and Sebastiano in a shadowed corridor, simply looking at each other and barely touching fingers. They'd looked happy, and Alexander had quickly passed on by.

Lounging in Guglielmo's bed was no way to resolve this. He got up and went to the window, opening it enough to let more light in. He then found his rosary amidst his clothes on the chair and knelt on the hard, bare boards of the floor for morning prayers, hoping that the saints and apostles and the Holy Virgin Mother might have clearer words for him.

A dozen Aves later, there was a gentle knock on the door. "Sandro? Are you up?" Isabetta called through the door.

Alexander finished the prayer quickly before answering. "Yes, signorina."

"They've all left, so you can come down and get breakfast without a mob in your way. And my name is Isabetta."

He couldn't help smiling. "Yes, Isabetta."

"And there are some clothes in a basket out here if you want something clean."

"Yes, mother." He heard her "humph" and walk away. He finished the decade of beads on his rosary, then got ready to face the world.

A girl and an older woman were busy picking up dishes in the common room when Alexander went down, dressed in the plain shirt and breeches. The woman gave him a thoughtful look, then nudged the girl and nodded in his direction. He blushed at the blatant consideration, but managed not to laugh when the girl gave the woman an irritated look and went on with her work.

"There you are," Isabetta said from the counter. Platters and pots of food stood in a line, and she was wiping up several spills on the counter. "Honestly, you'd think those men had never heard of eating with something other than their fingers. You, at least, are probably better trained."

"I can eat without dropping things on myself."

"Which puts you a step up from most of the company." She nodded at the other women. "This is Lucia and Caterina, our landlady and her daughter."

Alexander nodded politely, and Lucia become more blatant in her observations. "Don't they feed you up at the Vatican?"

"Um, yes, signora."

Lucia hmphed, and Isabetta nudged Alexander towards a table. "Sit, I'll bring you some breakfast."

He tried to protest that he was supposed to be the one doing the serving, but he recognized a stronger will than his.

The food was certainly better than what the novices received. Porridge that was warm and tasted of spices, sausages, and bread that was still warm enough to melt the fresh butter. Alexander turned down the offer of a third helping.

"Can I help you with anything?" he asked as Isabetta swept his dishes up.

"Thank you, but no. Men don't know how to clean."

"Who do you think does this sort of thing at the Vatican?"

She stared at him. "I thought that's what the nuns were for."

He laughed. "Only some of them. Mostly it's men doing the cleaning."

Lucia snorted. "I'd like to see that."

Caterina poked her. "Mother."

"Ha. I bet they say it's a great service to God, cleaning up after all the Cardinals and Bishops and priests." She went to an open window and snapped her cloth to toss the crumbs outside. "A chamber pot smells as bad, no matter how holy the bottom that sits on it."

"Mother!"

Isabetta muffled most of her snicker and patted Alexander's shoulder. "Lucia, you're shocking the boy."

Lucia gave him another once-over. "He looks like he could use some shocking."

Caterina blushed and headed for the door behind the counter. "I'm sure that laundry needs looked at, excuse me." Lucia cackled and followed her daughter with a pile of dishes. Isabetta sat on the bench across from Alexander. "I'm sorry about that. She's like that with everyone. She's the only one I know of who can make Angelo blush."

"That's all right. She reminds me of my aunts."

She patted his hand. "Still, you've been out of the world, and she shouldn't tease you like that."

Alexander started to answer, but the words caught in his mind. Out of the world. He'd been cloistered from the larger world for five years, but that was over.

"Sandro?" Isabetta asked. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," he said, feeling a little dazed. "I'm leaving the church."

"Oh, dear." Isabetta glanced towards the rooms upstairs and bit her lip. "Why are you leaving the church? Has--something happened?"

He nodded. "I'm going to Milano with Maestro Bramante. I'm going to be his student."

Her shoulders slumped. "Oh, thank God."

"I'm just starting to realize what that means, though. I don't know how to be anything other than part of Holy Mother Church."

Isabetta studied him for a few moments, then quietly took the last dishes out through the door the other women had gone through.

Alexander found himself shivering just a little. He'd thought leaving his home village to come to Roma when he was twelve had been the most frightening thing he could possibly experience, but even then he'd been excited by the adventure. Now, though, the track of his life was taking a hard angle off the sedate path he'd been settling into. He'd imagined that studying with Maestro Bramante would be like his days at the Vatican, but with more lessons and fewer religious duties. There would be more lessons, but the entire framework of his life would be different. He wouldn't be eating in the refectory with the other novices, he wouldn't be traveling through corridors filled with grave and cunning churchmen. Life would be more like what he'd seen here at the inn; the people he was going to meet would see him as just another young man in training with a master, not someone who was defined by the robe he wore and the vows he'd taken.

He knew how to be a novice in service to God. He didn't know how to be a man in the mundane world. The cheerful blasphemies he heard on the street horrified him, the short-sightedness of people ignoring the fate of their souls baffled him. And when his protective church robes were taken from him, leaving him looking like any other man, he would have no shield against the speculative looks from the women he met. More than that, he'd be expected to look back.

He shook his head. In the space of a few hours, the reactions that were normal but to be repressed were changed to urges to be explored. He had no idea how to change the training of years--at least not without looking like an idiot.

A small voice in the back of his mind whispered, "Guglielmo didn't seem to think you were acting like an idiot."

He tried to chase that voice away from his thoughts. What he and Guglielmo had done was sinful, even if he was no longer bound to the Church. It made no difference that lying next to Guglielmo was the safest he'd felt in a very long time or that touching him had been so natural as to require no thought at all. Guglielmo's untroubled appreciation surely had to be error.

The teachings were clear. If Alexander was now free to contemplate the ways of flesh, then his mind should be full of images of someone like lovely, bashful Caterina, who was no hardship at all to contemplate. And he would have to stop touching his lips thoughtfully and remembering the warm body that settled against his own.

Busy hands would distract him from improper thoughts. He went to the door behind the counter and knocked. Lucia opened the door and smiled broadly at him. "And what can I do for you, young man?"

Before Alexander could answer, Isabetta smacked Lucia in the arm and took her place in the doorway. "Was there something you needed?"

"I need something to do. I can't just sit around doing nothing. Oh, and I need to tell Maestro Bramante that I'm all right."

Isabetta nodded. "I'm sure we can send someone up with a message."

"I could go myself--"

"No," she said firmly. "Angelo told me Lewes was firm on that, you're not going anywhere." She held up a finger as he started to protest. "Come with me."

She led the way out to the stableyard. Most of the horses were gone, and the ones left were peering lazily over the railings between the stalls. "Manolo!"

The stableboy poked his head around the hindquarters of a large dapple grey. "Yes, Isabetta?"

"Have you gotten yourself all over muck yet? I need to send you on an errand."

Sighing, Manolo came out of the stables. "This isn't another trip to the ribbon seller, is it?"

Isabetta looked him over critically. "No, I need you to take a message to the Vatican."

Manolo's eyes went big. "All sorts of stuff to snitch up there."

"What?" Alexander protested.

"He's joking," Isabetta said quickly. "You're joking," she added firmly, glaring at Manolo, who grinned. "Alexander, what's the easiest way to find your Maestro Bramante?"

Reluctantly, Alexander gave the boy instructions on how to get to the gate nearest Bramante's lodgings, what to tell the guards, and what to tell Bramante. "And if you steal anything from him, I'll thump you."

"You're supposed to be a priest," Manolo protested. "You're not allowed to thump anybody."

"Shows what you know about priests."

"If you get caught stealing," Isabetta said, "I'll make sure it's Angelo who goes to get you from the guards."

Manolo swallowed quickly and nodded. "So if I'm going up there, I'm not going to get in trouble for not finishing the stalls, right?"

"I can finish that," Alexander volunteered. Isabetta and Manolo gave him near identical disbelieving looks. "I can! I did it all the time back in my village."

Manolo shrugged. "Just don't complain when you have blisters by noon. I'll show you where everything is."

An hour later, the stalls had been cleaned and Alexander was remembering the many things he didn't miss about life in his village. He'd managed to avoid blisters, but his shoulders and back were feeling the strain. Still, it was refreshingly mindless work. Perhaps the celebratory chants of the Easter liturgy were not the most appropriate things to be whistling while cleaning out stables, but the horses seemed to enjoy it. They'd made their curiosity about the new person in their midst abundantly clear, snuffling his hair when he was close enough and watching him over the partitions.

He went up the line, doling out feed according to Manolo's suspiciously detailed instructions and making sure the water in the buckets was clean, then he found the combs and brushes. The well-tended horses didn't need much grooming, but it was a wonderfully peaceful task that could take hours if he wanted.

The large dapple grey all but fell asleep as Alexander patiently untangled its mane and combed out the straw. He continued talking anyway.

"One thing people don't realize is that a perfectly straight column doesn't look like it's straight. It needs to bulge out a little in the middle to look right." He looked up at a chuckle.

Captain Angelo leaned against one of the supports of the stable roof. "I don't think Lugh cares very much for architecture." He patted the horse's rump as he came into the stall. The horse twitched an ear but didn't shift from its loose-hipped slouch. "Lazy bastard. Where's Manolo?"

"Isabetta sent him to Maestro Bramante with a message from me that I'm all right. I hope that's all right--"

Angelo waved a hand. "Isabetta can send him off wherever she likes. I just care about the horses being seen to. Hand me the brush."

Alexander continued combing out the mane while Angelo brushed the horse's rump and down the legs. Alexander wondered if he should say anything, but the captain seemed content to work on the horse in silence.

"I've known Guglielmo a long time," Angelo finally said as he examined Lugh's hooves. "He's a . . ."

Alexander peered under the horse's belly when Angelo went quiet. "Sir?"

Angelo laughed briefly. "I was going to say he's a good man, but I think he'd hurt me if I did. And there are several thousand people who would definitely disagree. What he is, though, is honorable and faithful and a good man to have at your back in a tight spot." He got to his feet and handed the brush over Lugh to Alexander. "I've never known him to break his word or let harm come to someone under his protection."

Alexander took the brush and quickly turned to put it in the bag with the other grooming equipment. He knew he was blushing, and he couldn't bring himself to meet the captain's eyes. Were Guglielmo's--inclinations so well known that Angelo could assume--had Isabetta been thinking . . . The bag of brushes slipped from his hands to thump into the straw.

"Sandro?" Angelo stared at him, then ducked under the horse's head to get closer. "Sandro, what's wrong?"

"That's what he meant," Alexander whispered. "Tonio. When he talked about Guglielmo--looking after me. That's why Guglielmo killed him. Because of me."

Angelo sighed. "Despite what people say, Will doesn't kill everybody who annoys him. There isn't time for him to kill all the people who annoy him." He shook Alexander's shoulder gently. "Sandro, you were just the latest excuse Tonio found for making trouble."

"He was just saying what everyone was thinking, wasn't he."

"You can't help what people think. But you can make sure they keep it to themselves."

"It's not a very long distance between thinking and whispering." Alexander remembered Xavier and Sebastiano, and the way the novices whispered to each other in the dormitory after lights-out and in the lavatorium.

"It is in my company," Angelo said decisively. "I can't control what they think, more's the pity, but I can control what they say and do, and if they can't keep their thoughts from getting in the way then they'd best find another company."

He patted Alexander's shoulder again, then stopped to pick up the bag he'd dropped.

Alexander wondered if it would just be simpler to let Cesare Borgia and Cardinal Fortezzi carry through with their plot, no matter how it involved him, than to try and deal with all this confusion. "People will gossip where you can't hear them. They'll whisper together, and they'll make signs against evil--"

"Evil?" Angelo stared at him. "Who said anything about evil?"

"The church says--"

Angelo snorted. "Just because something's against church law doesn't make it evil."

Alexander's jaw dropped.

"Usury is against church law, but that doesn't stop everyone from doing it. Priests are supposed to live lives of simplicity and humility." He grinned at Alexander. "You've lived in the Vatican. How simple and humble are things up there?" His smile faded as he looked away. "Evil is declaring a truce to let the women and children escape from a besieged town, then gathering them up and slaughtering them in front of their husbands and fathers on the walls. Evil is telling your men you're going for reinforcements, then leaving them to die behind you while you make your escape."

"What about besieging the town in the first place?" Alexander whispered.

"War's an evil so large it births its own laws, and you can only do the best you can inside it. It's big enough there's room to do good."

"You said Guglielmo wasn't a good man."

Part of Angelo's grin came back. "He isn't. That doesn't make him evil, though. Just makes him a man."

Manolo sauntered into the courtyard, whistling until he saw Angelo standing in the stable. "Captain! Isabetta said I could go and let him look after the horses--"

Angelo waved his hand. "Sandro already told me, it's all right. How'd it go?"

"Signore Bramante found and message delivered, no thanks to the snooty servants up there who think their marble floors are too good for a bit of honest horse shit."

"What did he say?" Alexander asked as he worked his way past Lugh.

Manolo started patting himself. "He gave me a message to bring back, where did I put it--"

Angelo leaned against a column. "Manolo."

"Oh, here it is." He pulled a folded piece of parchment from his belt and handed it to Alexander. "Nice man, your master. He gave me a coin to bring that back to you."

Alexander nodded and read the note. Bramante was getting everything packed up to leave as soon as possible, but he didn't expect to leave any sooner than two days from now. Bramante advised laying low, then meeting up with him at the port to catch the boat north. More details to follow.

Two days. St. Benedict's feast day was tomorrow. He looked over at Angelo. "Have you been told what's going on?"

"I have." Angelo looked pointedly at Manolo.

Manolo was already moving towards the door to the inn. "I'll just check to see if lunch is ready yet."

Angelo watched him go and smiled. "Smart boy. He'll go far--unless he goes to a gallows first." He walked closer to Alexander so they could keep their voices down. "So, yes, I know about Borgia and the Cardinal and all that."

"The gathering they're having, the one I'm supposed to take Guglielmo to, it's tomorrow night."

"Yes. And?"

"I don't know what to do about it."

Angelo blinked. "You're not going to do anything about it. You and Guglielmo are going to stay right here, and they can just sit around and wonder where you are."

"Except--I'm bound to obey them."

"No, you're not."

"I'm a novice of the Church."

"But you're leaving."

"I know. That's the thing. Being out all night would get me expelled, the same with leaving Roma with the Maestro. But that expulsion isn't official until the Master of Novices says so. Until then, officially I am still a part of the Church and officially I'm still bound to obey."

Angelo thought a moment. "Sandro, that's stupid. You either want to consider yourself bound or you don't. Which is it?"

Alexander started to answer, then had to think. "I want to be bound to the Church I thought I knew. Not the one it's turning out to be."

"Then do it."

"What?"

"Be bound to the Church you believe in, not to the men who corrupt it."

Alexander frowned. "Telling the difference between the parts won't be easy."

"There you're on your own." Angelo went over to the nearby horse trough, ran his hand through the water, then flicked his fingers at Alexander. "There. I baptize you as part of this company. Gives you somewhere to belong until you figure out where you want to be bound to. Have Bramante throw some water on you later if you like. Or, you can stay here," he grinned. "You wouldn't be the first renegade churchman I've hired."

"I am not a renegade!"

Angelo blinked, then a cold voice said, "What are you doing to him, Angelo?" Guglielmo stood in the doorway to the inn, glaring at his captain.

Alexander swallowed hard at the look on Guglielmo's face, but Angelo only smiled. "Just teasing him, Will, but it's not a subject he likes being teased on. So I'll let it be. Come tell me what you found."

Before Angelo could pull him back into the inn, Guglielmo looked at Alexander. "You're all right?"

Alexander couldn't help smiling. "I'm fine." Guglielmo still looked doubtful, but he followed Angelo inside.

Manolo appeared in the stableyard door, leading two horses. "Lunch is ready," he told Alexander. "Might as well get yours while it's hot, I've got to see to these two before I get to eat."

"Give me one of them."

Manolo stared at him for a moment, then handed over the reins to a stubborn copy of Lugh. "This is Guglielmo's horse, Nebbia. Maybe he'll behave with you since you smell more like Guglielmo than I do."

Stomach clenching, Alexander stared at the boy, but Manolo was busy with the other horse, a quiet chestnut. Well, he had spent the night in Guglielmo's room, so it was a valid conclusion. Nebbia was sniffing his arm and looking slightly perplexed. Alexander rubbed the horse's nose and tugged on the reins. "Which stall?"

"The empty one next to Lugh. They gossip together as much as Guglielmo and Angelo do."

They worked in silence, then went in to eat. Isabetta looked them over, sniffed at them pointedly, then smiled and nodded them towards the table. The only seats available were at the end of the table; at the head, Guglielmo and Angelo talked as they ate, discussing the gates of Roma and how they were guarded. Thomas and a few of the other members of the company that Alexander didn't know filled out the rest of the table. There were a few thoughtful glances between Guglielmo and Alexander, but no one said anything and Alexander paid attention to the bowl of stew Isabetta put in front of him.

Isabetta tried to take him away after the meal to work on his clothes, but Guglielmo intervened, telling her self-defense was more important than clothes. Alexander was pulled out to the courtyard while she was still trying to think of a good reply.

No one else was in the courtyard. Guglielmo took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Alexander caught himself watching Guglielmo's profile and remembering how the thin skin over the cheekbone had felt under his fingers. He hadn't thought of what he would say when they were alone again. All the confusion came back, and he looked at the ground rather than at the other man.

"What did Angelo want?" Guglielmo finally said.

"He said you weren't a good man."

"What! The bastard!"

Alexander fought a laugh. "Well, he said you'd hurt him if he said you were good."

"Bastard again." Guglielmo glared at the inn door. "What else did he say?"

"That you were honorable and faithful and never let anything happen to someone under your protection." He smiled at the pleased look that passed swiftly over Guglielmo's face. The look changed to guarded as Guglielmo studied him for a few moments.

"You ought to learn some more about how to defend yourself," he said quietly, "but if you don't want me to do it, you don't have to explain."

He was expecting denunciations, Alexander realized. He knew Alexander had had all morning to think about what happened, and he expected a litany of accusations and disgust. He said what first came to mind. "I want you to keep teaching me." Father Ricardo back home had said most people had to work at being evil; if you stayed mindful of God, your own soul's first instinct was your best guide.

Guglielmo tried to look unconcerned, but his shoulders loosened and the smile came easier. "Thank you."

Alexander studied him, a mercenary soldier who lived perfectly unconcerned with everything society fretted about. He was no one a decent person should do any more than shake their head over. But what Alexander felt most when he thought of Guglielmo was safe. "When did I start trusting you so much?"

"When the people you were trusting changed on you." Guglielmo's smile changed somehow, and Alexander felt his toes twitch. "I may not be the most respectable man in the world, but I've never lied to you." Alexander blinked at him for several moments, then Guglielmo chuckled. "Come on, boy. Stop looking at me like that and let's get to work."

Guglielmo found a good, basic dagger for Alexander and spent an hour showing him how to not hurt himself with it. He didn't try to teach fighting techniques, reinforcing Alexander's own belief that the best response to possible attack was to fend it off until he could run away.

"Even kitten claws draw blood," Guglielmo said as he watched Alexander practice drawing the dagger from its sheath on his belt.

Alexander studied the weapon in his hand. "So one of my first acts on leaving church service is to start carrying weapons against my fellow man."

"Everyone else is," Guglielmo said, not unkindly. "And more than one of your fellow churchmen have surprises under their robes." He patted Alexander's shoulder. "Trying to live an ideal in the real world only kills the idealists."

"Cynic."

"Alive cynic. Put it down now, I want to show you ways to get past a sword."

Guglielmo knew he hadn't shown Alexander nearly enough to help him in a real fight, but that wasn't the point. Handling the weapons and seeing their strengths and weaknesses would keep him from panicking if confronted by one, and someone who isn't panicking survives much better than a person who freezes at a threat.

They finished the afternoon by reviewing escapes from holds. If Alexander suspected Guglielmo was taking the opportunity to enjoy the touch of their bodies together, he gave no sign. He did tense up at odd times, though, generally after spending several moments with Guglielmo wrapped around him. Maybe he realized he shouldn't relax so trustingly into the hold as the other man showed him the weak spots of a grip on the wrist or an arm around the shoulders that pulled him back hard against the attacker.

Finally they sat on the ground in the growing shade, cooling off and catching their breaths. Angelo and several members of the company had come out to drill with swords and each other. A few of them paid more attention to Alexander than he was comfortable with, but on the whole they ignored him.

Angelo eventually called a halt to his sparring with Thomas and staggered into the shade near Guglielmo and Alexander.

"You're pulling up on your left again," Guglielmo observed.

"I know. Sandro, you're closest, some water, please." Angelo groaned and pulled his shirt over his head. "Madonna, I'm getting too old for this." He took the mug Alexander handed him and drank messily, letting the water run down his chest.

"Would you like some more, Captain?" Alexander asked.

"God, yes, thank you. Are you sure we can't talk you out of becoming an architect?"

"I'm sure," Alexander grinned, heading back to the water barrel.

Guglielmo blinked at Angelo. "You're trying to talk him into--what, actually?"

"Oh, I just told him he could stay here if he couldn't find anyplace else to belong." He kicked Guglielmo's leg gently. "Don't look like that, he didn't take me up on it." Angelo toweled himself off with his shirt as he accepted the water. "I've gotten through battles without sweating as much as I do at drills. You're no better, Will. Let's take an expedition down to the bath house before Isabetta tells us she won't let the stinking pack of us anywhere near supper."

"Again," Guglielmo added, getting to his feet. "Lead and we'll follow, my captain."

Alexander clutched the water cup to him. "Um, you're going to the public baths?"

Angelo took the cup from him and tossed it to Giancarlo, over at the water barrel. "We stink. You stink, too. We're going to the baths."

"But--the public baths are vile hives of wickedness and licentious evil."

"What's your point?" He laughed at Alexander's look of horror. "We won't let the whores hurt you, lad."

Guglielmo glared at his captain. "You don't have to go if you don't want to, Sandro. Though it would be the simplest way to get all the dirt and sweat off you."

Alexander took a deep breath. "We were always told that decent folk didn't go to the public baths."

Angelo shrugged. "They don't. But we're not decent folk." He strode to the inn door and bellowed for Isabetta.

Guglielmo patted Alexander's shoulder. "Stay close to me, watch your back, and you'll be fine. Think of it as an education in the secular world you've been isolated from for so long."

Alexander sighed. "I'm fairly sure I shouldn't be getting such a broad education."

Angelo stayed close to Alexander during the visit to the bath house. Some of the men offered to chip in on a whore to congratulate Alexander on leaving the church; before Guglielmo could move in for a rescue, Angelo gave him a warning look and told the men to leave Alexander alone. Guglielmo saw some of the cruder ones getting quiet hints from Thomas and Giancarlo, and he followed the completely flummoxed Alexander into the bathing rooms to protect him from the wandering whores and con men.

It was a cleaner and quieter--though no better behaved--group of mercenaries that returned to the inn an hour later. Roberti was from Milano, and he was telling Alexander where the best taverns were and which sections of the city were notorious for trying to separate a young man from his money or his life. Guglielmo made no attempt to interfere. Alexander was blushing again, but the information would come in useful when he left Roma.

In two days.

He tried not to think about what might have happened if Thomas hadn't interrupted them that morning. Would Alexander have been horrified beyond recovery, or would his skittishness have been burned out by pleasure? Guglielmo had kept telling himself to stop, that a boy less than a day from giving up his religious vows couldn't possibly realize what was going on. But Alexander had never hesitated, never showed fear or disgust, just responded.

Maybe it had just been curiosity on his part. The pleasures of the body were a novelty to him, and Guglielmo was convenient. But that didn't explain the way Alexander had looked at him and touched his face.

And he was still leaving in two days. He was giving up his life in the church to learn his chosen art from a master, not to dally with a soldier.

Roxilana had warned him, the boy would break his heart, and she was never wrong.

Isabetta was waiting at the inn door. "You and your baths," she said to Angelo, trying to frown.

"Me and my baths," Angelo agreed, sweeping her up in his arms to kiss her. "Feed us, woman."

Guglielmo looked away, fighting the jealousy that always gnawed at him. He lingered outside as the others shoved genially past each other to get inside to the food and wine. The shadows on the street were growing, and shops closed up and down the street as people sought their homes and their own suppers. He reminded himself that he'd chosen his life with open eyes, that the quiet life of a printer would have driven him mad. Still . . .

"Guglielmo? What are you doing out here?"

He didn't turn to look at Alexander standing in the doorway. "Just looking at the street. I'll be right in."

As she helped served dinner, Gianni's daughter Caterina made of point of smiling at Alexander and brushing up against him as she moved around the table. She glanced at Thomas to see his reaction, but Thomas was apparently too busy talking to Giancarlo about the horses to notice. When her back was turned, though, Guglielmo saw Giancarlo grin at Thomas, who only smiled faintly.

Alexander looked between Caterina and Thomas a few times, then leaned towards Guglielmo. "Is she flirting with me or Thomas?"

"You can tell when a girl is flirting with you, can you?"

"I haven't been in cloistered orders." Alexander fidgeted. "The Master of Novices gave us lectures on how to tell if a woman is trying to lead you into temptation. Don't you dare laugh."

"Sorry." Guglielmo grabbed a pear to muffle himself with. "She's flirting with Thomas, but I doubt she'd mind if you returned the favor."

"But would Thomas mind?"

"Thomas knows what she's up to, but he's not going to dance to her tune."

Caterina came by to refill goblets, and she gave Alexander a good view of her bodice, if he cared to take it. He looked away quickly and grabbed some bread from the basket in the middle of the table.

Thomas waved his empty goblet at Caterina. "Sandro, do you play chess?"

"What? Um, no, I don't."

"Pity. It's so hard to find people to play with. Would you like to learn?"

The look of hurt on Caterina's face made Guglielmo blink. The girl didn't think she was falling in love with Thomas, did she? Mercenaries were stupid people to fall in love with, what with their wandering ways and tendency to die on battlefields for money.

He grabbed his goblet and drank it dry. A wise mercenary avoided romantic tangles, enjoying favors when they were offered or paid for, then walking away with no regrets. That's what a wise man did. Everyone Guglielmo had ever known, though, agreed that he and wisdom would always be strangers.

Alexander hesitated before answering Thomas. "I'm terrible at games like that, sorry. But thank you."

Thomas nodded, then looked up at Caterina. "Do you have time for a lesson later?" The girl nearly stammered as she told him she did.

Guglielmo found himself wanting to hit Thomas. He regretted not hitting him that morning like he should have.

He saw Alexander fighting a yawn. "You're not tired already, are you?"

"I don't usually work so hard as I did today. And the novices' baths are usually cold," he added with a grin. "It tends to keep you awake." He covered his mouth as he yawned again.

"You might as well go to bed then, you're going to work harder tomorrow."

He saw the uncertainty in Alexander's face and looked away, letting the boy make what conclusions he wanted. There still wasn't anywhere else he could sleep, and Guglielmo wasn't going to give the others the satisfaction of acting like there was something going on worth gossiping about.

Alexander nodded. The others were getting up and moving around, so no one paid him much attention when he stood. Guglielmo stayed where he was and occupied himself with peeling an orange instead of watching Alexander go upstairs. As he slowly ate the sections of fruit, he watched Caterina hurry through the supper cleanup, argue briefly with her mother, then take a deep breath before going over to where Thomas was setting up his chess set with Giancarlo. Thomas smiled at her and nodded to the bench next to him. She settled herself demurely and paid close attention as Thomas and Giancarlo began to play.

Licking his fingers clean, Guglielmo got up and headed for the door out into the stableyard. He took his sword from the peg by the door and buckled it on.

He was halfway to the street door when the voice caught up with him. "Where are you going, Will?"

He didn't turn. "Surely there's something in this city tonight that needs killing."

Angelo strolled up beside him. "There's bound to be someone out there thinking the same thing of you."

Guglielmo slowly smiled. "I hope I meet him."

There was silence, then Angelo turned back towards the inn. "Try not to die."

"Don't I always?"

Angelo paused at the door and looked back. "No." He went in, and Guglielmo went out.

The moon was several hours past the spires of St. Peters when Guglielmo let himself back into the inn. He made sure to latch the door securely behind him. He started towards the stairs as silently as he could, but a low-burning lantern on the table told him not to bother.

"Go to bed already, I'm home."

Angelo got up from his chair and stretched. "I don't sleep well if I don't know my men are safe. You know that." He looked Guglielmo over critically. "How many? And is any of that yours?"

Guglielmo picked at the blood on his sleeves. "None of it's mine. Only fools about tonight."

"How many?"

"An even dozen." He couldn't help smiling slightly. "Il Sanguinante went for a stroll."

Angelo leaned over to blow out the lantern. "Did it help?" he asked into the darkness.

"I'll be able to sleep now." He knew his way to the stairs without light. "And no one will be pounding on the door in the morning demanding justice."

"But I imagine the city will still be whispering your name."

"By dawn they'll be saying it was thirty men, a few women, a dozen children and a dog. But it was only a dozen men. And most of them started it."

Angelo was silent as they went up the stairs. "And when Sandro sees that shirt and asks what happened?" he asked when they got to the top.

"I'll tell him I didn't get my name by being clumsy while shaving. Good night, Angelo."

"Good night, Will."

Guglielmo waited till Angelo's door had opened and closed before he went in to his own room. The mostly-spent candle lantern showed the lump in his bed; Alexander's breathing was slow and untroubled. Guglielmo pulled off his shirt and, after a moment, bundled it tightly and dropped it outside his door. Alexander didn't stir as he undressed. For a moment, he actually considered the chair, but he wanted to stretch out and get some real sleep. Alexander hadn't taken the chair, either, which meant he was ignoring everything that had happened or the idea of more didn't disturb him. Guglielmo was too tired to decide which.

When he eased under the covers, Alexander twitched and murmured. Guglielmo very gently stroked his hair. "Go to sleep, pretty one," he whispered. Alexander sighed and settled. Guglielmo let his fingers play in the dark hair for a few moments more, then he rolled over to put his back to the sleeping boy. The soft breathing behind him balanced the remembered cries of pain from the men he'd killed in the night, and he drifted off to sleep.

Guglielmo was alone when he woke. The covers that he always kicked off himself in the night had been carefully rearranged, but Alexander wasn't in the room. Which was sadly comforting, since Guglielmo had been fretting over what to do in the morning.

He got dressed and went downstairs to see if there was any breakfast left. He found Angelo and Thomas looking over some papers as Alexander counted several coins. Isabetta sat next to Alexander, finishing her own breakfast.

"Back wages?" Guglielmo said to Angelo, nodding at Alexander.

Angelo shook his head. "Not from me, at any rate."

Alexander dropped the coins into a pouch. "Maestro Bramante sent it down this morning. I'm to buy some things for the trip."

"And so I'm taking him shopping," Isabetta said brightly.

Guglielmo paused in scooping up some porridge. "Run, lad," he told Alexander. "Now, before it's too late."

Alexander looked stricken. Isabetta patted his arm. "Ignore him. I promise that shopping won't hurt. I'm just going to help you find some clothes that actually fit."

Angelo looked up from the letter he was reading. "Take someone with you."

"We're just going to the clothier's street, nothing's going to happen."

"Isabetta!" Her mouth tightened, but she said nothing. "I'll not be having another Venice," he added more softly.

She smiled and got up to give him a kiss. "All right, then."

Alexander looked curiously at Guglielmo as he sat down. He grimaced. "Some of the fine ladies of the town objected to a mercenary's woman thinking she was good enough to shop in the same streets as they did."

"I'll take Giancarlo," Isabetta said. "He doesn't make such a fuss about being bored."

"You took an hour to pick out a fan!" Angelo protested.

"It needed to be right." She gave him another kiss, then turned to Alexander. "I'm ready when you are, Sandro."

Alexander stood and brushed off some of the last crumbs. "I'm ready."

"Excellent. We want to get there early for the best things."

Guglielmo focused on his breakfast as Isabetta towed Alexander off. Thomas and Angelo resumed their conversation about weaponsmiths and armorers and the price of feed for the horses. Guglielmo eventually allowed himself to be pulled in.

Some time later, Angelo picked up a piece of paper and looked thoughtfully at Guglielmo, who glared back. "What?"

"I need someone to go to Fiorenza. With Savonarola dead, the Medici want their city back." Angelo waved the paper. "A Medici agent is wondering if we're available to help them. Before I say yes or no, I want to know how hard Fiorenza will fight to keep them out."

"I hate politics," Guglielmo grumbled. "Send Thomas."

"You're my second in command, you can give them an answer they'll have to listen to. Besides, I'm thinking you might like a distraction in the next day or so."

Guglielmo fingered the edge of the table, where it showed the hackmarks of his other bouts of frustration. He should have brought his dagger down with him. "I'm fine," he finally muttered.

Thomas made a show of tidying up his papers. "It might not be a bad idea for you to be out of the Borgia view for a while, either. Assuming you ignore the request to attend that gathering tonight."

Guglielmo glared at him, too, but Thomas ignored him. And he had a point, dammit. They both did. Sandro was leaving, and he couldn't very well go chasing after him to Milano. He'd just met the boy a couple of weeks ago, after all. He should focus on his responsibilities to the company.

He nodded at the letter in Angelo's hand. "Does that actually come out and say it's the Medici who are thinking of hiring us?"

"Yes, it does. It's signed by Pietro de Medici's chamberlain, with the Medici seal."

"Such eagerness is worth several hundred ducats all by itself," Thomas observed.

Caterina came out of the kitchen as they debated possibilities. She blushed and smiled at sight of Thomas, then she looked around the room. "Did Isabetta go upstairs?"

"She hasn't come back yet," Angelo said. He looked thoughtful. "How long has she been gone, anyway?"

"The bread's had a chance to rise twice and be put in the oven," Caterina said. "She said she'd be back to help."

Guglielmo looked outside to check the position of the sun. "It's been over two hours." He turned and stared at Angelo.

"She's gotten distracted while shopping before," Thomas offered.

Angelo looked back at Guglielmo, tapping his fingers on the table. "She said she'd be back."

Guglielmo turned and ran up the stairs.

"Get mine!" Angelo yelled after him.

He ducked into his room to grab his weapons, then into Angelo and Isabetta's room to get Angelo's sword. He tossed it down to Angelo as he hurried back down the stairs. "Where on the clothier's street would they have gone?"

"God knows." Before Angelo could buckle his sword belt, Thomas knocked his hands out of the way and untwisted the leather to make the belt lie flat. "We'll just start with the closest end and work our way down."

Angelo told Thomas to give Isabetta and the others a good scolding if they returned first, then he and Guglielmo left the inn.

The clothiers' part of the market was not far away. Guglielmo and Angelo scanned the crowds for any sign of Isabetta, Alexander, and Giancarlo. Guglielmo nudged Angelo and pointed out a section of the street that specialized in basic men's clothing. Alexander was not likely to give in to Isabetta's suggestions of velvet and silk.

"Captain!"

Giancarlo pushed through the crowd. Dried blood streaked his face. "Over here," he said, ignoring questions.

In the rear section of a shirt makers' shop, Isabetta slumped in a chair, holding a wet cloth to her head. Angelo shoved past the shopkeeper to drop to his knees beside her. She burst into tears when she saw him.

"I'm sorry . . ."

"Hush." He gently touched the bruise on the side of her face, then pulled her into his arms.

Guglielmo looked around the shop one more time, then turned to Giancarlo and raised an eyebrow.

"They took him," Giancarlo said. "There were four of them. I don't know who they were, they just appeared. One of them knocked down Isabetta, and when Sandro tried to help her, they grabbed him. He nearly got away twice, but they wrestled him down." He shrugged and sighed. "I couldn't stop them."

Guglielmo nodded and walked out to the street. Between the buildings he could see the dome of St. Peter's. He was distracted by Angelo coming out of the shop, carrying Isabetta, who held a package close.

"His clothes," she whispered. "We were just about to head back. As hard as it was to get him to pick anything, I'm not going to let him lose them."

"You hush," Angelo told her. "Let's just get you home, then we can figure out what to do." He started to go, then saw the Guglielmo was staring at St. Peter's again. "Come on, Will"

"Yes," Guglielmo said softly. "I need to get ready. I'm expected at the palace."





Part Fifteen

The stacks of paper that flowed into the Inquisitorial offices all told the same story, and the members of the Holy Office nodded gravely to each other, speaking solemnly of the evil afoot in the world. Monsignor Lewes sat at a table in the back of the room, apparently in prayer but actually clasping his hands tightly to keep from murdering his comrades.

They were debating the signs by which one could recognize a sorcerer. Considering they spent nearly every day in the presence of one, Lewes wasn't too concerned that they were likely to come up with a valid test. Not to say, of course, that their attempts wouldn't wreak havoc on the lives of blameless men throughout Christendom.

He opened his eyes and peered through his laced fingers at the pages on the table. Other bodies had been found in the area, all victims of vicious assaults or animal attacks. Perhaps there was an entire nest of vampires lurking around the Vatican. Perhaps the king of vampires spoken of in the prophecy had his own court.

Lewes regretted not asking for someone to come from England to support him. Or even for the Slayer herself to come to Roma. But she was busy in Asia Minor, where the final fall of the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople had released forces that had been bound for centuries.

Such a large world full of darkness to defend with a few wise men and one girl. The Plague Years had been a near thing. They'd been fighting disease on one side while on the other side they were beating back the monsters who were certain the reign of man was dying. At one point the Slayer's powers had passed to a girl barely four years old because so many Potentials had fallen to the plague. Lewes supposed they were lucky the Slayer hadn't been living somewhere in that new land Cristoforo Colombo had stumbled on.

He mused for several moments on where Slayers came from and why, then shook himself. He was just trying to distract himself from thinking about that night. He'd found no other references to what the sacrifice of innocence and corruption was supposed to accomplish. Why would a vampire care? The Arab scholar Hajji Ibrahim al-Jazeer told of conversations with a vampire who, for whatever reasons, chose to speak with al-Jazeer instead of kill him. Commentaries on the works suggested that the vampire had been the scholar's own daughter, whom he'd eventually had to destroy when he couldn't find a way to save her.

The vampire had spoken of the taste of blood, of how emotions changed the bouquet. In one horrific passage, she described the bright fire of holy men, the freshness of virgins, the rich strength of young warriors, and the smoky dreams to be found in the veins of opium eaters.

The taste of corruption and of innocence was surely not so rare that a powerful vampire could be swayed to do the bidding of humans. Some element was missing.

Lewes amused himself for a moment with the idea of inviting some of his brother Inquisitors along that night to see the face of true evil. Not that they were the sort to believe the evidence of their own eyes if it contradicted established doctrine. After this was settled, he was going to request leave to go home. He was tired of lies and ignorance.

A clerk appeared at his side. "Monsignor, there's a--person here to see you."

Lewes managed not to smile. Some of the priests were from very good families, and they were dreadful snobs. "A--person, Father Marco?"

"A--soldier. He says he needs to speak to you of St. Benedict."

"How is he dressed?"

"Monsignor?"

"Red and black or gold and green?"

"Black, Reverend Sir, with just a bit of red on the edges." The snobbery faded a bit into worry. "He doesn't seem quite--safe."

"Dear God."

Lewes hesitated when he saw Il Sanguinante standing in the outer reception room. The mercenary was apparently studying the fresco on the wall of Lucifer's fall from Heaven, but his motionlessness was ominous.. He wasn't wearing his elegant velvet; his black doublet was of some heavier cloth and cut oddly. Lewes realized Il Sanguinante was wearing armor under the doublet.

He nodded dismissal at Father Marco, then approached the soldier. "What's happened?" he asked softly.

Il Sanguinante didn't look at him. "They've taken Sandro. Do you have any idea where they might have taken him, or would it be simpler to find Cesare Borgia and beat it out of him?"

Lewes stared at him, then tugged on his arm. "Come with me."

Several corridors away from the chambers of the Inquisitors, Lewes pulled Il Sanguinante into a small sitting room. "Tell me what's happened." Il Sanguinante paced as he spoke, fidgeting with the hilt of his sword. Lewes found himself chewing on his thumb knuckle by the end of it. "What is Captain Angelo doing?"

"Sitting at Isabetta's bedside, sharpening his sword."

Lewes sighed in quiet relief. "I'm surprised he's not hunting revenge with you."

Il Sanguinante's smile was cruel. "There's some question that if they're so eager to have Sandro at their little meeting that they're willing to kidnap him, they might decide to make sure of my presence as well. Angelo and the men are sitting around the inn waiting for someone to be stupid enough to try to come after me."

"Surely people saw you come up here."

"I'm perfectly willing to kill them wherever they appear."

Lewes folded his hands together inside his sleeves. "That would attract a great deal of attention and would get you no further in finding Alexander." Il Sanguinante nodded reluctantly. "In any case, we don't know who decided to make sure of Alexander. The simplest thing to do would be to wait till the time of this ritual they want to do. They have to have Alexander there, and you can act then."

The cold-eyed look made Lewes flinch. "Leave him to whatever passes for their mercy until then."

"We don't know they'll hurt him--"

"We don't know that they won't. Do you know where this Chapel of St. Augustine of the Waters is? Sandro seemed to know, and I want to get there early. I don't want him anywhere near whatever they're thinking of sacrificing him to."

Lewes studied him for several moments. "I don't know offhand, I'll have to check the records. Maestro Guglielmo, I like the boy, I don't like the idea of harm coming to him. But we can't tear the Vatican apart looking for him. There are powerful people involved, and I doubt they'd quibble about removing you if caused too much trouble. You can't help Alexander if you let either Cesare Borgia or Cardinal Fortezzi know you're on to them."

Il Sanguinante started pacing again. "The boy doesn't deserve this. He just wants to live his life in peace. They've got no right to drag him into whatever scheme they're concocting."

"None of the innocent people of the world deserve being victims of monsters. All we can do is fight where we can, as best we can." He dared to go closer and pat the anxious man on the arm. "Perhaps it would be best if you went back to the inn, waited till it was closer to midnight before we go in search of him."

Il Sanguinante shook his head. "He's here somewhere. This is the place of power for both of them, they've got him tucked away somewhere they consider safe. I want to be close."

"All right. Then why don't you go to Signore Bramante's chambers, let him know that Alexander will need to be gotten out of the city quickly and quietly once this is over. Bramante's no fool, he knows how to do things without attracting attention."

He hesitated, then Il Sanguinante nodded. "That's an idea. How do I find him?"

Lewes gave careful instructions, grateful to find something to occupy a man clearly anxious for violence to break out. He led Il Sanguinante to one of the side corridors that would take him towards the guest wings and watched carefully till the mercenary was out of sight. Then he sighed in relief.

Things were looking like they'd work out better than he'd hoped. He had been worrying about how to get Alexander away from the obviously protective Il Sanguinante. If a sacrifice of innocence was going to lure an ancient and powerful vampire within reach of possible destruction, then the innocent one had better be where that vampire could find it.

An hour went by before Guglielmo found Bramante's chambers, and even then he had to be told the directions by a passing servant. Apparently men who weren't wearing clerical garb were uncommon enough in the Vatican corridors that they were asked their business if they looked lost.

The man inside the room was muttering to himself as he wandered among the rope-tied boxes. "Where did I put the--no, don't open that, you'll just have to tie it up again."

He had the big, scarred hands of someone used to making stone obey him. Guglielmo knew better than to antagonize such people. Swinging a hammer made a man strong, whether he was a blacksmith or a sculptor. And being pummeled by a sculptor was better than your face appearing in someone's latest satirical drawing.

"Signore Bramante?" he said politely.

"Yes?" Bramante focused, then frowned. He stepped back with apparent casualness, then Guglielmo saw the crowbar on the box behind him.

Guglielmo took his hand off his sword. "I'm a friend of Sandro's, may I talk to you?"

The hand stopped its drift towards the crowbar. "Alexander?" Bramante scanned Guglielmo's appearance again. "Are you one of those folk he's been staying with?"

"Yes, I am."

"Well, you're a more presentable messenger than that boy yesterday. It's a pity Buonarotti isn't here, he collects faces. So what brings you up here? Did Alexander run out of money already?"

Guglielmo wasn't sure what he should tell Sandro's teacher. "When will you be ready to leave the city?"

Bramante gestured at the half-empty room and the boxes. "These are the last of the things to go to the boat. We leave in the morning. But I told the boy all that in the note with the money I sent this morning." He frowned at Guglielmo. "What's happened to Alexander?"

Guglielmo decided to stay with the essentials. "He's in trouble, but I'm going to get him out of it. But he'll need to get out of the city as soon as possible."

Bramante swore. "He's just a naive boy, how did he get caught up in something that's forcing him to leave town?" He studied Guglielmo closely. "Do I need to know the details?"

"It probably would be better if you didn't."

"So I just need to do what I'm already doing."

"Essentially, yes." Guglielmo frowned. He was wasting time here when he could be trying to locate Sandro. "I'm sorry to take up your time, Signore. If it's any comfort, all Sandro's been talking about is about going to Milano with you and learning how to build things."

Bramante smiled. "He's a bright lad, he should do very well. Is there anything else I can do to help?"

"I don't suppose you know where the chapel of St. Augustine of the Waters is, do you?"

"Oh, yes. There's an old water gate in the southern part of the old Vatican walls, with some bits of an Imperial temple nearby. One of the lesser St. Augustines consecrated it about 700 years ago. Why?"

Guglielmo blinked. "You know where it is?"

"Certainly. I've been down there several times sketching the old columns and carvings. At least ten yards of the architrave survives, it's quite beautiful."

"So it's not someplace you'd have to dig through old records to locate."

Bramante laughed. "Not hardly. Ask any of the servants or the guards. Someone's always strolling around down there with their sweetheart. It's one of those overgrown and picturesque spots, though it is supposed to be haunted. Why did you think it was hard to find?"

Too worried to think straight, he'd been brushed off and sent on a mission that wasn't necessary. Now that Guglielmo thought about it, the directions to Bramante's rooms had been vague. "How odd that Monsignor Lewes didn't know where it is," he mused, smiling just a little "Thank you, signore, you've been a great deal of help." He hesitated at the look on the artist's face.

"Lewes?" Bramante said softly. "With the Holy Office?" Guglielmo nodded. "Close the door."

Guglielmo obeyed; Bramante sat on one of the boxes and gestured Guglielmo towards another box. Bramante thought for several moments, then leaned forward.

"I don't know if there's any truth to any of this. I got it from da Vinci, a friend of mine, who's so brilliant he may very well be mad. da Vinci is curious about everything, including things he has no business being curious about. And his silly backwards writing won't save him if they seize his notebooks."

Guglielmo shifted impatiently. "Signore, your point?"

"Sorry." Bramante took a deep breath. "da Vinci was here in Roma a few months ago. We were looking at some of the paintings in the palace, and I noticed him watching someone. It was Monsignor Lewes. When I asked da Vinci what was so interesting about the man, he said, 'The Inquisitor who is not an Inquisitor. He hunts much darker things.' He didn't say anything else."

"Darker things. What did he mean?"

"As I said, da Vinci may be mad. But people have said that about him before. He's spoken about--monsters. I've seen sketches of his that show what can only be horrific creatures of Hell. But these sketches are as detailed and prosaic as anything he's ever done of a siege engine or the human hand."

"As if they were a real thing he'd seen and studied," Guglielmo said softly.

"Yes." Bramante looked away briefly. "I've seen things. You have, too, probably. Things we don't admit to seeing. da Vinci said there were men who fought the monsters. They stay in the shadows, because people don't want to admit that the horrors in our imaginations are real."

"And Lewes is supposed to be one of them? An Inquisitor?"

"Lewes has a reputation for unorthodoxy. He's said to consort with Jews and Arabs, and no witch has ever been found guilty in a case where he's been involved. He's discovered any number of crimes and venalities, but the works of the Devil are very thin on the ground where he is."

Guglielmo stared at the floor, thinking. Lewes was remarkably unconcerned about the more obvious transgressions he'd come across. Guglielmo's confession of his attraction to Alexander would have inspired any average Inquisitor to heights of holy zeal. Lewes was obviously on the trail of something else.

"Something to which sacrifice should not be made," he whispered. "Dio." He shivered. Bad enough thinking of some ritual from the mind of twisted men. To think of Alexander being offered up to something that should only live in the whispers of old men and the ravings of madwomen . . .

He got to his feet and headed for the door. "Grazie, signore, you've been a great deal of help. What's the name of the boat you're taking tomorrow?"

"La Farfalla. Is there nothing else I can do?"

Guglielmo paused at the door. "Be waiting at the dock when I bring Sandro to you in the morning."




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