Nessuno


by
Two Ladies of Quality



Part Sixteen

Monsignor Lewes knelt before the crucifix on the wall of his chambers. It would be nightfall soon, and the hunt would begin in earnest.

"Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio; contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesid--"

Someone knocked on his door. Lewes debated ignoring it, but he had many informants who might be checking in with him today. Sighing and promising many Novenas of contrition, he went to the door. "May I--"

Guglielmo il Sanguinante shoved him hard in the chest, knocking him back into the room. The mercenary strode in, closed the door, and leaned back against it. He smiled.

"Now that I know how to find St. Augustine of the Waters," he said calmly, "give me two reasons why I shouldn't just kill you now."

Lewes stared at him. "I can shout and have a guard here in moments."

Il Sanguinante slowly drew his sword. "If you were going to do that, you'd have already done it. Two reasons, Monsignor. Two reasons why I shouldn't kill you and go save Alexander myself."

"You can't think to deal with this yourself, you have no idea what's waiting out there!"

The mercenary nodded. "One reason. And another? Because I haven't survived as long as I have without being able to cope with the unexpected."

"You don't know how to fight it."

"That's part of your first reason. Try again."

Lewes fought to stay calm. Il Sanguinante moved towards him, killing-edged sword held easily in an experienced hand. Somehow the man had found out he was being manipulated. His single- minded devotion to saving Alexander had no patience with a careful hunt. He was a blunt man with simple reactions to things he perceived as threats and barriers.

"Alexander will be upset if you kill someone else he knows."

Il Sanguinante's left eye twitched. "He barely knew Tonio. He doesn't have to find out about you."

"But if he did . . ."

The sword slowly slid back into the scabbard. Lewes breathed as quiet a sigh of relief as he was capable of.

The look Il Sanguinante gave him was still unfriendly. "I'm going to ask you again. What's going on? Tell me the truth this time."

Lewes studied him for a moment. "An ancient vampire is somewhere in the Vatican. Either Cesare Borgia or Cardinal Fortezzi or both of them are cooperating with it. I suspect this ritual tonight will involve giving Alexander to this vampire in return for something, though I don't know what."

Il Sanguinante gazed off for several seconds, then focused back on Lewes. "Do you know how to kill vampires?"

"You--you believe me?"

The scarred eyebrow rose. "Is there a reason I shouldn't? Are you lying to me?"

"No, but--I expected you to say I was mad."

Il Sanguinante smiled slightly. "If you're mad, then there's nothing supernatural involved. That doesn't change the fact that someone has kidnapped Sandro and has to die for it. If you're not mad, though, I want to know how to deal with it. So. How do you kill them?"


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


They hadn't even bothered to tie his hands. They'd have tied Guglielmo's hands. Guglielmo would probably have been able to get away and kept Isabetta from getting hurt.

Alexander walked another circuit of the small stone room. He'd been gagged and blindfolded as soon as the attackers had pulled him off the main street, so he didn't know where he'd been brought. There was a tiny window with iron crossbars high up in the wall, but there was no way to climb up to look out. The only furniture in the room was a bedframe with a bare lattice of ropes and the kneeling bench before the crucifix on the wall. Alexander wondered if this was a monk's cell of some sort, but the only bells he heard tolling the hours were far away.

When the men had appeared out of the crowd, he'd been certain it was another ambush like the one for Guglielmo. No weapons had appeared, though, even when Isabetta pulled a stiletto out of her sleeve and slashed one of the men who had grabbed him.

He dropped to his knees at the kneeling bench and rested his head on his clenched hands. She'd gone down so hard, when the man behind her had clubbed the side of her head with a huge fist. The lovely, laughing face streaked with blood. Because she'd tried to protect him.

The heavy lock on the door clanked. As the door opened, Alexander scrambled to his feet and went to the far wall.

Cardinal Fortezzi hobbled in, balancing on a cane, followed by two of the men who had taken Alexander off the street. The Cardinal looked around for Alexander and smiled when he spotted him.

"A chair, please," he told one of the men, who left the room and came back with a chair for the Cardinal to sit on. He settled slowly and carefully. "There now. Come here, boy."

When Alexander hesitated, Fortezzi gestured the two men to stand by the door. Alexander slowly walked to the Cardinal, who held out his ring hand; automatically, Alexander knelt to kiss the ring. Fortezzi kept hold of his hand, though without the crushing grip of before.

"I hope you weren't frightened too badly," he said. "I have no idea how you fell in with such terrible company, but I'm sure we rescued you in time."

Alexander thought of protesting, but something in Fortezzi's eyes told him to be very careful. "Your Eminence, Isabetta--is she all right?"

Fortezzi looked perplexed and glanced at the men at the door. "The woman he was with, Your Eminence," one of them explained.

"Ah. The soldier's whore." Fortezzi patted Alexander's hand. "You have a generous heart to be concerned for her, but she's no one for you to be worried about. An innocent lad such as yourself should stay far away from that sort." He frowned. "The Devil delights in setting snares for inexperienced souls. Are you all right, my son? Are you free of the Devil's taint?"

Alexander hesitated.

Fortezzi sighed and let go of his hand, then made the sign of the Cross. "I will hear your Confession, my son." Alexander glanced at the men by the door. "Ignore them. Proceed."

He licked his lips, then crossed himself and bowed his head. "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been four days since my last confession. I accuse myself of the following sins." He swallowed hard. "I have committed the sin of lasciviousness, well, several times, I have committed the sin of sloth, and . . ."

Fortezzi looked up from his clasped hands. "And?"

Alexander risked a glare at the men by the door. "I am guilty of anger against the men who hurt Isabetta."

The Cardinal smiled just a little. "As I said, you have a kind soul. However . . . lasciviousness is a grave matter. Was the sin a matter of thought or deed?"

Guilt clutched at his lungs. He and Christ knew what he had done. To his own confessor and in a proper setting he would have reluctantly told all. But nothing about this was proper, and he doubted that Fortezzi's concern for the state of his soul was purely pastoral.

He took another deep breath and glanced at the crucifix on the wall. "Thought, Your Eminence."

Fortezzi tsked in disgust. "Yes, they dragged you to that sink of evil last night, where brazen strumpets and all manner of sin lie in wait. It would take a saintly young man to turn his eyes and mind away from such things."

"I'm not a saint, Your Eminence."

Fortezzi patted his bowed head. "Fortunately God does not require us to be, just as near as we can manage. Grave sins, my son, but simply mended. A dozen Pater Nosters and a dozen Aves, to be said as soon as possible." He raised in hand and made the sign of the cross. "I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Go in peace, my son."

"Thanks be to God," Alexander murmured. He settled back on his heels and risked looking directly at the Cardinal. "Your Eminence, what's going to happen?"

The Cardinal gave him the closest thing he'd seen to a pleasant smile. "Tonight we will go to St. Augustine of the Waters, and there we will meet our destinies."

Alexander had not become more fond of destinies in the past few days. "And then what?"

"And then, my son, we shall be exalted." He patted Alexander's head and rose carefully to his feet. "Are you hungry? I'll have something sent to you." Still smiling with what passed, for him, for benevolence, he nodded at the kneeling bench. "See to your prayers, my son." He hobbled out, the two men going with him. The lock clunked behind them.

Slowly, Alexander got to his feet, then went to the kneeling bench. Settling to his knees, he stared at the crucifix.

"I lied in Holy Confession, Heavenly Father," he whispered. "But it was no proper Confession, what would he have done if I'd told the truth?" He rested his head on his hands. "It was sin, and I should have confessed. But he can't have me kidnapped and expect me to obey him--can he? Surely he's not fit to hear Confession."

He paused, horrified at what he'd just said. All his life he'd been told that the elders of the church were to be trusted and obeyed without question, that God worked through these, His servants. But for every saint he'd met--and there had been a few--he'd seen a dozen men whose minds were on their own advantage. He longed to be free of this confusion and find a place where he could know the truth of his faith again.

He whispered into his clasped hands, his words for himself and for God's ears. "I let a man touch me. I touched him. The only guilt I feel is because I know I'm supposed to. I would have let him do more. I felt safe with him, and, Lord, please let him find me soon." He began the prayers the Cardinal had set him, keeping no count and resting his mind in the familiar rhythms.





Part Seventeen

It was well past Compline. Guglielmo sat in a corner of Monsignor Lewes's chamber, sipping from a single goblet of wine and watching the candle clock on the other side of the room. Lewes had spent an hour trying to make conversation, then retreated to another room, locking the door behind him and leaving Guglielmo to his vigil.

There was little chance of finding Alexander before the appointed time. He would have to wait till all paths joined at midnight. Then would begin the killing time.

A peg fell out of the side of the burning candle, tumbling to join four others in the dish below. The door to Lewes' private chamber opened; Lewes came out, a bulky satchel over his shoulder, and he closed the door securely behind him.

"Is it time?" Guglielmo asked.

"It's time."

They went through back corridors to a door that led out of the palace. Guglielmo scanned the stars and the moonlit skyline to orient himself to the city. Lewes led the way into narrow black pathways between the buildings. Light from windows came intermittently, and Guglielmo found himself hurrying to keep up with Lewes.

They crept through a courtyard, avoiding the torches at the gate, where guards kept watch. Guglielmo recognized the building as the ambassadors' lodgings, which were towards the north end of the Vatican complex. He put on a burst of speed to catch up with Lewes, who had just disappeared into the shadows at the far side of the courtyard.

Lewes wasn't there.

Guglielmo went still in the shadows, listening for footsteps and scanning the darkness for movement. Silence.

He nodded slowly. For some reason, Lewes wanted to make sure that Guglielmo didn't get to the chapel in time. Apparently the Monsignor expected him to wander around lost after having been taken in the opposite direction from where they should have gone. Too bad Lewes didn't realize that a successful soldier always knew the lay of the field of battle, and there were few places in Roma that Guglielmo couldn't find his way around. He even knew that the kitchens of the various Vatican residences butted up against each other in a maze of workyards and storerooms.

He jogged slowly along the dark passageway between the residence and the stable block until he found the small courtyard the tradesmen used. From here he could cut through the kitchen and laundry areas of three different palaces. The black he was wearing would help him with the shadows of various corridors. Any Guardsmen who got in his way tonight would be added to his body count.

If he got to St. Augustine of the Waters before Lewes, he might just laugh at the man instead of gutting him. Maybe.


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


This time they tied his hands.

It was three men, this time, three of the ones who had taken Alexander off the street. One of them showed fresh bruises and glared at Alexander as they pulled him out of his cell.

The hallway outside the room was also built of stone. Alexander's lessons told him the building was old, built somewhere in that lean time when the Popes lived in Avignon and Roma was a dying city. Bramante would likely be able to look at the pointed stone archways and vaulting and be able to say within ten years when the place was built. Alexander knew that the only church buildings this old survived at the south end of the Vatican complex. Near St. Augustine of the Waters.

The men gripped his arms tightly as they pulled him through the old corridors. He heard voices somewhere near chanting one of the Vigil offices.

"They're early," he commented. "Or are we running late?"

"Shut up, you," the bruised one snarled. "You just have to be there, they didn't say you had to be in good shape."

"Stop it," one of the others said.

"Matteo's dead because of this--"

"Matteo was stupid. Just the two of you against a bunch of mercenaries who were waiting for trouble? You should have run when you saw the trap."

"If we'd had more men . . ."

"We were told to stay here," the last one said. "Leave it, already."

Alexander kept his mouth shut and tried not to smile at the idea of these men running into an annoyed Angelo and all the others.

They met no one as they left the building. A tangled garden lay outside; the men led Alexander between hedges and overgrown flowering bushes. He saw enough of the surrounding buildings to confirm they were in the southern part of the Vatican.

The men went quiet as they came upon the edge of the Imperial ruins. Faint light came from between the stones of the tumbled walls of the chapel. Alexander looked around, hoping Guglielmo was lurking nearby. He got a poke in the kidneys for his efforts at delay.

The Chapel of St. Augustine of the Waters had been clumsily built from the remains of a graceful Roman temple to Juno. Weather and time had eroded most of the carvings from the old altar; chisels had finished the job, replacing the bunches of grapes and the resting sheep with images of the Cross and Christ Triumphant.

A black cloth was draped over the altar. Two candles in gold holders burned at either end; before the altar stood Cardinal Fortezzi in full regalia, holding a silver goblet in his upraised hands. Standing in the shadows of a crumbling pillar was Cesare Borgia, still and silent.

Alexander, still trying to resist as much as he could without getting hit, kicked a rock that bounced across the floor and off the altar. Fortezzi glanced over his shoulder and put down the goblet.

"Welcome, Alexander," he smiled. "Join me."

The shove in his back overrode Alexander's protest. Fortezzi caught his arms as he stumbled forward and drew him close.

Alexander stared at the altar. A communion wafer lay in a silver dish. A long-bladed dagger lay next to it.

"Your Eminence, what are you doing?" he whispered.

"I told you, my son. It is our destiny." He looked at the men holding Alexander. "Two of you go outside, watch for trouble." He focused on Alexander. "My son, can I count on your co-operation?"

"Co-operation in what?"

"The attainment of power and immortality, my son. Power and immortality."

Alexander stared at Fortezzi. The Cardinal looked near-beatified with anticipation. He glanced over at Cesare Borgia.

"Your Excellency, what's going on?"

"It is not for you to question, boy," Cesare said calmly.

Fortezzi picked up the dagger. "Alexander, I don't want to invoke your vow of obedience, but I will."

Alexander studied the items on the altar and remembered what Guglielmo had said about dark rituals. Faith and oaths said he should accept that the Cardinal was acting for the best. Blind obedience was a refuge where he wouldn't have to think any more.

But he knew the things he knew, and everything in his soul cried out in protest.

"No," he whispered.

Fortezzi stared at him. "What?"

"No, Your Eminence. I will not co-operate. I don't know what you're doing here, but it's wrong."

Fortezzi took Alexander's bound hands in his. "My son, I know it's difficult to understand, but there's nothing to worry you. It's merely a sacrifice. Why, we deal with the sacrifice of blood and flesh every day during Holy Mass."

"Blasphemy!" Alexander yanked his hands back. "If what you're doing is so holy, why aren't you doing it in a proper chapel, at a proper altar? Christ made His sacrifice on the Cross so that no one would ever have to make sacrifice again! You profane and mock the Holy Church with every breath you take!"

Fortezzi lost his paternal smile. "As you will, boy. Your co-operation would only have made things run a little smoother." He nodded, and the man behind him grabbed Alexander's arms. Fortezzi picked up the goblet and the knife. "Hold his arm out."

Alexander used all the tricks Guglielmo had shown him, but he couldn't wiggle free. The guard pushed his arm out. Fortezzi pushed the sleeve up, then sliced the inside of Alexander's arm, the goblet held ready to catch the blood.

"Don't struggle so, my son," Fortezzi said as Alexander fought to get free. He calmly moved the goblet so as not to miss any of the blood dripping off Alexander's arm. "You'll lose too much blood, which we'll need for later." The goblet was half full when the flow stopped, and Fortezzi turned back to the altar.

Alexander looked at Cesare. "Your Excellency, please! What he's doing isn't right!"

Cesare studied him for a moment, then turned his attention back to the altar.

"Your Excellency!"

"Don't make us gag you," Fortezzi said over his shoulder. He spread his arms and closed his eyes. "Hear me, Master, King of your Kind! I summon you, with a sacrifice of innocence and corruption, that you might hear our plea." He picked up the communion wafer and crumbled it into the goblet.

Alexander turned his head, not wanting to see any more. He saw Cesare Borgia watching the Cardinal avidly, and he closed his eyes.

Something poked him in the back, and the man behind him gasped. The arms holding him loosened; he wriggled free and turned. An inch of steel stuck out of the man's chest, then disappeared with a wet sound as blood spread across his shirt. He fell, revealing Guglielmo, sword still raised.

"Guglielmo," Alexander whispered. The mercenary's black tunic was sliced in several places, showing studded leather underneath.

"Hands," Guglielmo ordered, and Alexander numbly held out his arms. Guglielmo delicately slid his sword between the wrists and sliced the rope.

"Fortezzi!" Cesare shouted. He drew his own sword and stepped forward. Fortezzi broke off his chant and turned.

Guglielmo pushed Alexander to the side and easily blocked Cesare's blow. "You're not a bad swordsman, Cesare--for a nobleman," he sneered. "But you know you can't beat me." Cesare attacked again, and Guglielmo knocked the blade aside.

"Guards!" Fortezzi yelled.

Guglielmo laughed. "Please, you think I'd be in here if I'd left those two alive behind me?" He smacked the other blade down hard before slicing across Cesare's wrist. Cesare dropped his sword, clutching at his bleeding wrist as he stared at Guglielmo in horror.

"You cut me . . ."

"That's your problem, Cesare, you never worry about your own blood being shed. You're too busy wanting to see other people shed theirs." Guglielmo backed up to Alexander. "How bad is it?" he asked, nodding at Alexander's arm.

"I'll manage."

Guglielmo grinned. "Sorry I'm late, but my guide turned out to be unreliable. Let's get out of here."

Fortezzi stepped forward. "You cannot leave, I forbid it."

Alexander moved closer to Guglielmo. "I don't think you have the right to forbid us to do anything, Cardinal." He shook his head, looking at the altar. "What were you trying to do, anyway?"

"He was summoning me," said a new voice from the doorway.

Fortezzi dropped to his knees. "Master . . ."

"Blessed Mother," Guglielmo whispered.

Alexander stared at the figure. Black robes of leather and heavy cloth draped a tall, human- shaped frame, but the head was hairless and had pointed ears. Sharp teeth were framed in a mocking smile, and the face was deathly pale.

The creature sniffed audibly, and he focused more closely on Alexander. "You would be the sacrifice of innocence, I imagine. From the way you smell, you're going to taste delicious."

Fortezzi raised clasped hands to the creature. "Master, thy sacrifices are before thee, innocence and corruption. Take them, and if they please thee, please grant my prayer."

Alexander gaped at the Cardinal. "Are you praying to this? Your Eminence!"

The creature stepped towards Alexander. Guglielmo shoved Alexander behind him, then thrust his sword into the creature's chest. He twisted the blade and yanked it back, trailing blood. The creature staggered and put his hand to the wound. But he did not fall. He stared at his bloody hand for a moment, then looked at Guglielmo.

"I'm afraid that's not going to work, friend, but excellent aim. Right through the heart. Oh, sorry--ow."

Guglielmo gaped at him. "What are you?" he whispered.

"I'm a vampire. You may call me Master."

"I have only one master, and you are not he."

Alexander grabbed Guglielmo's free arm and felt the mercenary trembling despite his bravado. "Leave it, Guglielmo. Swords won't stop that."

The Master smiled at Alexander. "Innocent and brave, too. If you're not careful, boy, they'll make a saint out of you." He glanced from Alexander to Guglielmo and back, then smiled wickedly. "Or not. Tsk, boy, this isn't old Greece." He looked at the others. "So the boy is my sacrifice of innocence. Which of you is the sacrifice of corruption?"

Fortezzi, still on his knees, nodded at Guglielmo. "The craven who sought to harm thee, Master. He and the boy are thy sacrifices."

"Him?" The Master looked Guglielmo up and down. Guglielmo raised his sword. "I've seen more corruption in a virgin in a nunnery."

"Now wait a minute," Guglielmo protested.

Alexander poked him in the arm. "Be quiet, Guglielmo."

The Master grinned. "The pair of them, now, watching each other in torment, that would be delicious. But corruption? Not him."

Fortezzi bowed his head. "By thy will, Master. I thought that might be the case, so I made sure there was another." He gestured to Cesare, who was pressed into a corner, holding his wrist and gaping at everything.

"Fortezzi!" Cesare gasped. Guglielmo chuckled very softly.

The Master smiled. "Oh, yes, he would do nicely--if there weren't someone here even more ripe with the juices of corruption." He turned his sharp smile on the Cardinal, who merely bowed his head.

"I seek not to be sacrifice, Master, but servant. Hear the boon I beg of thee--make me like unto thy mighty self. I grow infirm, but I would stave off death. Grant me the gift of thine immortality, and I shall serve thee in whatever way thou sees fit."

"What?" Alexander gasped. "Your Eminence--" Guglielmo put a hand over his mouth. The Master took a step closer to Fortezzi; Guglielmo pulled Alexander further back, and the Master smiled at them.

"Soon enough, my sacrificial lambs." He gazed down on the kneeling Cardinal. "Serve me? In whatever way I see fit?"

"Yes, Master."

"Look at me." Fortezzi raised his head and looked into the alien face. "You would give up your soul, the daylight, for this?"

"Oh, yes, Master," Fortezzi said rapturously. "To defeat death, to wield power over mortals, to command these small creatures to obey my whim--I would give up my soul gladly."

"What is he talking about?" Alexander whispered to Guglielmo.

"I don't know. But he's distracted, let's--"

The Master raised a finger, though he didn't look at Guglielmo. "Not that distracted, my brave warrior. Take one step towards that doorway, and I'll break both your legs before letting you enjoy the sight of me dining on your . . . friend."

Guglielmo glanced toward the doorway into the chapel. Alexander shook his head at him.

The Master reached down to touch Fortezzi's face. "I think you would suit very well, Your Eminence. I've eaten many princes, but never a Prince of the Church."

"This is my body and my blood, which is given up for thee."

Alexander jerked at the blasphemy. The Master glanced up, then hissed and turned towards the doorway. The heavy thunk of a crossbow firing came from outside. The Master slapped the bolt from the air; it buried itself in Fortezzi's shoulder. The Cardinal cried out and fell.

Just outside the doorway, half-lit by the candles on the altar, Monsignor Lewes worked the cocking lever of the heavy crossbow in his left hand. The job was made more awkward by the cross he held in his right hand. A crossbow bolt was clenched in his teeth. The Master stepped towards him, and Lewes thrust the cross out. The Master turned his face away.

Lewes quickly dropped the crossbow bolt into the firing groove and raised it one-handed as he held out the cross again.

"You can't aim that with one hand," the Master sneered. "And if you lower that cross to aim properly, I'll be on you and ripping your throat out." He took a deep breath. "Oh, so you're the Watcher. I knew I smelled one around here."

Lewes braced the crossbow closer to his body and didn't answer. The Master moved to the side, forcing Lewes to turn.

"Go ahead, shoot. You know you'll miss me. Maybe I'll send this shot into the popinjay hiding in the corner."

Cesare gasped and reached for his dagger. "Lewes, destroy this creature!"

The Master smiled. "Oh, he doesn't take orders from you, Your Excellency. He'd let me devour everyone in this room if it would serve his purpose."

"I would not!" Lewes protested. "I'm sworn to destroy creatures like you!"

Guglielmo snorted. "Is that why you did everything in your power to keep me from getting here?"

Alexander stared at him, then looked at Lewes. "I don't understand."

"You don't have to understand, Alexander," Lewes said, watching the Master. "We must destroy this monster. Come take this cross."

Alexander started to move forward.

"I wouldn't, boy," the Master said. "You're pretty enough I might decide to keep you around afterwards, but not if you annoy me."

"I have been ordered around by everyone I know for the past few days, "Alexander snapped back, "and I'm tired of it! I am not about to accept being ordered around by some inhuman monster that's threatening to kill me!"

The Master laughed. "Oh, you will be fun. But first . . ."

He flickered, and Lewes screamed. The Master had crushed both of Lewes' hands, snapping the crossbow stock in the process. The crossbow fired, sending the bolt into the floor, and the cross fell from Lewes' useless fingers. Slowly the Master wrapped one hand around Lewes' neck and pulled him close.

Alexander stooped, picked up the cross, and swung it at the vampire. The Master took the blow on his shoulder, hissing, then he knocked the cross out of Alexander's hands and grabbed the front of his shirt.

"Wait your turn, boy," he snarled into Alexander's face. He shoved the boy back into Guglielmo, knocking them both to the ground. He turned his attention back to Lewes, who battered at the Master's hold with his broken hands. "It's not Slayer, but Watcher will do." He forced Lewes' chin over, then bent down to sink his fangs into the throat.

"Dio," Guglielmo whispered. Wet noises drowned out Lewes' whimpers, then the whimpers stopped.

The Master raised his head. Blood dripped from his chin onto the torn flesh of Lewes' throat. Alexander whimpered, but he fought Guglielmo's attempt to shield him.

"We have to do something."

"For Lewes? It's too late."

The Master ripped off a piece of the Monsignor's tunic to wipe his face, then dropped the body to the floor. "Oh, I'll get fat off such plenty." His yellow eyes gleamed as looked from Alexander and Guglielmo to Cesare, still backed into his corner. "Now, who's next?"

"Master . . ."

Fortezzi had dragged himself to the altar and leaned against it, his robes glistening red. The crossbow bolt still stuck out of his shoulder.

The Master went to him and knelt at his side. "Oh, dear. Best hurry about this, then." He picked up the dying Cardinal and laid him on the altar. The goblet fell, spilling the mixture of blood and wafer across the cloth. The Master dipped a finger in the liquid and sniffed it. "Lovely." He licked the finger clean. "Though I'd like to have sampled it before the communion wafer was added." He smiled over his shoulder at Alexander. "Soon enough."

When the Master turned back to Fortezzi, Guglielmo eased to his feet and picked up his sword. He had to nudge Alexander twice before he could tear his eyes away from the altar. Very slowly, Alexander reached for the cross he'd dropped.

The Master smiled down at Fortezzi. "Not long now, my son." He tore the robes away from the Cardinal's neck and leaned down.

Alexander looked away at the new sounds of slurping. He saw Cesare watching, horror and fascination in equal parts on his face. Guglielmo touched Alexander's shoulder, then nodded towards the open doorway.

Fortezzi was gasping thinly, his hands twitching. "There, there," the Master told him. "Just a moment." He picked up the dagger that had cut Alexander and sliced open his wrist. He lifted Fortezzi's shoulders and set his wrist against the silently working mouth. "Drink deep, my boy. Learn to laugh at death. That's it." He bowed his head as Fortezzi drew greedily on the wound.

Cesare shook himself suddenly and looked around the room. His eyes narrowed when he saw Guglielmo and Alexander backing towards the doorway. "Your sacrifice is escaping," he called.

"Bastard!" Guglielmo snarled. The Master looked up, Fortezzi still clinging to his wrist.

Alexander swallowed hard. As he watched, the Cardinal's hands fell to his sides and his breath wheezed out of failing lungs. His blood-streaked mouth hung open; his eyes went blank. Alexander raised a shaking hand to cross himself.

Slowly, the Master straightened. He patted Fortezzi's head, then pulled out the crossbow bolt and threw it to one side. Then he turned to look at Alexander. "Come to me, boy," he said, smiling and holding out his hand. "And put down that heavy cross."

Peace settled over Alexander's mind. He let the piece of wood in his hand drop, and all the fear melted as he stepped forward.

Hands grabbed him and yanked him back. He heard shouting and thought he was supposed to understand what was being said.

"Bring your friend with you," his Master said, still smiling.

Alexander took hold of one of the arms holding him, trying to pull the man behind him with him. He was spun around and shaken. He gaped at the handsome man in confusion. Again, the things shouted at him made no sense. Then his head rocked to the side.

"God's blood, Sandro, snap out of it!"

He couldn't speak for the pain in his head, but he glared at Guglielmo as hard as he could. Guglielmo pulled him into a hard hug.

"Madonna, Sandro, I'm sorry, but--no, don't look at him!" A hand on his head kept Alexander from doing much more than seeing the Master out of the corner of his eye.

"Well played, my wily friend," but the vampire's voice was anything but pleased. "Come here. Bring the boy."

Guglielmo bared his teeth. "Not in this or any other hell, monster." He pushed Alexander behind him, pulled his dagger and raised his sword. "You want us, come and take us."

The Master started to step forward, but he sagged slightly. "Ah, but creation does make one tired. You're very strong, condottiere. I could use you."

"I know who I serve. It's not you. And you're not laying hands on Sandro."

"Do you really think you could stop me?"

Guglielmo didn't answer. The Master chuckled, then there was a blur. Alexander felt a hand on his arm as Guglielmo's sword flickered around. Guglielmo grunted in pain and was suddenly nursing a bleeding arm--but so was the Master, who was back next to the altar, holding a hand over his bleeding forearm and looking at Guglielmo in disbelief.

"You couldn't possibly have seen me. How did you get a blade on me so fast?"

Guglielmo sneered. "I didn't need to know where you moving, I just needed to know where you were going to end up."

"Bravo, maestro." Not all the blood on the Master's hand was his own. He licked his claws clean. "You're nearly as fast as a Slayer. Are you sure I can't interest you in living forever?"

Guglielmo twitched. "No one lives forever."

The Master chuckled. "Well, forever is hard to define. It's said that even I will truly die eventually. But I remember the walls of Troy and great Babylon and the cry that went up when Atlantis fell. I have walked the streets of eternal Roma since before that rabble rouser Paul appeared."

Guglielmo chuckled. "It sounds dull. My wits are in my swordarm. All I want out of life is a good glass of wine in the evening and companions to drink it with."

Alexander tried to check Guglielmo's wounded arm, but Guglielmo brushed him off. He looked around the room to see if there was anything he could use as a weapon in his own defense instead of hiding behind Guglielmo, and he glanced at Cesare to see if he was likely to be of any help in fighting off this creature. The Borgia prince was staring at the Master and looked as though the tale of years was anything but dull.

"And you, my fine nobleman?" The Master had apparently seen Cesare's interest as well. "Do you find the idea of seeing the ages pass and being the master of those around you to be dull?"

"No," Cesare said softly. "It sounds wonderful. The world is full of glory and splendour. I would like to see it all."

The Master's chuckle was frightening. "I can give it to you. All you need to do is ask."

Calculation replaced wonder on Cesare's face. "And what would I owe you for this gift?"

"Why, nothing at all."

"Fortezzi said he would serve you, and you accepted. I serve the Borgias, and no other."

The Master lost his smile. "You can join me--or you can become fodder. One or the other."

Cesare stared back, apparently as immune to compulsion as Guglielmo was. Alexander wondered why he had been unable to resist. "I choose neither," Cesare said flatly.

Guglielmo gave a faint laugh of what almost sounded like admiration. "You were never a coward, Your Excellency." Cesare glanced at him and nodded very slightly.

The Master sneered at all of them. Alexander ducked behind Guglielmo, wishing he was daring enough to challenge that creature to its face. He looked around the room, searching for the cross he'd dropped--and he saw Fortezzi's fingers twitch.

Guglielmo glanced around at Alexander's gasp of horror. "What's wrong?"

"Fortezzi . . . moved."

"He's dead, he can't--"

The Cardinal's hands jerked.

The Master turned around. "What, already?"

"The dead don't rise," Alexander whispered. "The trumpet hasn't sounded, Christ hasn't returned. The dead can't rise."

"Poor boy," the Master laughed. "This has nothing to do with your sacrificed carpenter--though come to think of it, he rose from the dead after sharing his blood with his followers. But we won't go into that, will we." He leaned over Fortezzi's body. "Back so soon, my boy?"

Alexander shook his head. "But--how?"

"I'm a vampire, lad, I told you. How do you think it's happening? As I did so long ago, your Cardinal Fortezzi is about to rise, one of the undead."

Cesare took a disbelieving step forward. "This is the immortality he sought?"

The Master grinned at him. "He's going to be hungry when he finishes waking. Which of you wishes to be his first meal?"

Alexander saw Guglielmo look at Cesare, just as Cesare glanced thoughtfully at him and Guglielmo. Before either could move, the Master swore and jerked the pectoral cross off Fortezzi's chest. A faint wisp of smoke rose from the spot where the cross rested.

Alexander ran to the body of Monsignor Lewes. He crossed himself very quickly, then reached for the satchel Lewes had carried. The Monsignor had known what he was facing, and the Master had seen him as a serious threat. What had a man familiar with monsters brought with him to a fight?

The bag was wet. Inside, there were two ceramic flasks, one broken by the fall. Alexander pulled out the second and saw the seal that marked containers of holy water. Also in the bag were several wooden stakes and a small, ornate cross. He pulled out the cross and turned.

"A cross and holy water won't make you a Watcher, boy," the Master sneered.

"I don't know what a Watcher is," Alexander said. He took a couple of brave steps closer. "But I do know unholy things when I see them."

The cross' carved surface held several drops of water. With a deep breath, Alexander flicked the cross hard towards the Master, sending a small shower of holy water over him. The Master snarled when the drops hit, rubbing his sleeve over his hands and face. Some of the drops landed on Fortezzi's face, sizzling. The Master rushed to Fortezzi and used his bare hands to brush the holy water away. Fortezzi's head shifted, and a faint whimpering could be heard.

"Easy, childe," the Master soothed. He bared his fangs at Alexander, who pulled the cork out of the flask with his teeth. "You'll die in pieces, boy."

Guglielmo took several steps away from Alexander, his blades ready. "You'd leave your creation helpless to get to Sandro?"

Cesare cleared his throat. "What makes you think a sword would do any more damage than before?" He tossed over the bloody crossbow bolt the Master had pulled from Fortezzi. Guglielmo caught it in his dagger hand. "The legends say wood to the heart kills them. Lewes apparently agreed."

Guglielmo gave Cesare a suspicious look, but he sheathed his dagger to get a better grip on the bolt.

Alexander slid another step away from Guglielmo, carefully angling away from the Master and towards Fortezzi, who was moving his hands more noticeably. The Master watched Alexander, then spun as Guglielmo made a move of his own.

"Clever humans," the Master sneered. He scooped Fortezzi's body up in his arms. "But one thing I always have on my side is time." He took an audible deep breath. "I know your scents now. I'll find you another time." He smiled with all his teeth at Alexander. "Will you still be as deliciously innocent when I do, I wonder?"

With that he turned and carried the feebly stirring Fortezzi out through a crumbling wall to one side of the altar.

Guglielmo grabbed Alexander's arm and dragged him towards the main door.

"We have to go after him!" Alexander protested.

"No, we don't," Guglielmo snapped. "We have to leave."

"But it's over!" Alexander stumbled as he kept himself from tripping over Monsignor Lewes' body. "And the Monsignor, we can't just leave him--"

"We can and we will."

"Guglielmo!" He looked towards Cesare, thinking to invoke His Excellency's sense of what was proper. Cesare was considering Lewes' body with a cold, thoughtful expression, and the eyes that came up to meet Alexander's were the calculating things that had studied him through a tense, interminable dinner.

Guglielmo tugged. "We're going, now."

Cesare shifted his gaze to Guglielmo, and he smiled very faintly. "Guards!" he yelled at the top of his voice. "Murder! Guards!"

"Move!" Guglielmo shoved Alexander out the door.

Guglielmo led the way through a thin spot between some bushes, then through a tangle of vines and ancient marble. Cesare called again for guards, and footsteps came running from two directions. Guglielmo pulled to a halt among some pine trees, putting a finger over Alexander's lips. Shouts came from the scene of the carnage, and Guglielmo took Alexander's hand to lead him along a narrow pathway between a building and a dry streambed.

"Why are we running?" Alexander managed to whisper. "We didn't do anything wrong."

Guglielmo checked quickly around the corner of the building before answering. "There is a dead Inquisitor on the ground back there, and a Prince of the Church has gone missing. What do you think is going to be believed, us saying that some monster killed Lewes and Fortezzi or Cesare Borgia saying that a mercenary and a boy who's abandoned the church were up to no good?"

"I haven't abandoned--"

Guglielmo took hold of Alexander's hair and pulled him close to kiss his forehead. "It's not a question of truth, Sandro. Who do you think will be believed?"

Alexander tried to answer for the truth, but Lewes, their only ally, was dead. "What do we do?"

"We run."

Guglielmo led the way to the walls bordering the Vatican's territory. The dry streambed passed through a rusting iron grill in the wall. There was a gap between the bottom of the grill and the ground itself. Guglielmo paused to listen, then pushed Alexander towards the gap. Alexander was grateful for his recent physical training as he wriggled through the small opening. The more slender Guglielmo eeled through without any visible effort.

Before Alexander could run towards the dark streets, Guglielmo pulled him into the shadows at the base of the wall. An upraised finger kept him from asking questions. After a moment, Guglielmo took his arm and they walked quietly away.

"I thought we were running," Alexander asked as softly as he could.

"Running men attract attention. Walking men who look like they're just going about their business are left alone."

"Are we going back to the inn?"

Guglielmo stopped walking. In the dim light of a torch at the corner, Alexander saw something he'd never thought to see on Guglielmo's face: indecision.

"Cesare will look for us there," Guglielmo said. "Angelo needs to be warned, but this way he can tell anyone that he doesn't know anything and not be lying. He doesn't lie well."

"I think Cardinal Fortezzi sent some men down there earlier to look for you. Those men who were guarding me were talking about mercenaries lying in wait for them. One of them was killed."

"Damn it." Guglielmo stared in the direction of the Crusader's Kiss.

Alexander touched his arm. "Do you know anything about Isabetta? Is she all right?"

Guglielmo put an arm around his shoulders. "When last I saw her, she had a lump on her head, a black eye, and a very annoyed Irishman who wasn't in the mood to step more than five feet away from her." His smile faded. "I wonder what happened at the inn?"

Alexander tried to think of any options. Maestro Bramante might help, but he was back inside the Vatican walls. "What do we do?"

Guglielmo squeezed his shoulders then let go. "We find somewhere off the street, for now."

"You're bleeding again." Alexander pointed at Guglielmo's arm.

"We'll take care of that when we find somewhere to hide." He looked around again, shrugged, then headed down the nearest street. Aside from the dying torches at either end of the street, light came from the moon rising over the rooftops.

The street wasn't deserted: at the far end a man with a dim lantern was poking through a refuse- choked gutter, reaching down occasionally to pick up something and put it into the sack at his hip. He hid his face as Guglielmo and Alexander went by. Once the sound of running feet made Guglielmo pull Alexander into a shadowed doorway. Out of an alley came a man dressed as a nobleman, but with clothes torn and bloody and sword drawn. He looked up and down the street, then ran in the direction of the Vatican. Guglielmo waited till the echos died, then tugged on Alexander's sleeve so they could continue on their way.

Alexander's feet were starting to hurt, and it was getting harder to walk as silently as Guglielmo. He found himself longing for the hard cot in the cell where he'd spent the day. He was about to give in and ask when they were going to finally stop, when he realized Guglielmo had gone still. The mercenary was staring down yet another alley. From the darkness came the sound of a woman quietly singing.

A pale, long-fingered hand emerged from the shadows and beckoned the pair.

"Not likely," Guglielmo said, a hand on his dagger hilt. "Come out of there."

The woman chuckled as she detached herself from hiding. "You're the one who should be seeking the shadows, sweet Guillermo."

Alexander looked rapidly between Guglielmo and the woman. "She knows you."

Guglielmo nodded. "I know her. This is Roxilana. Don't try to keep secrets from her."

Alexander stared at the woman, who gazed back at him, smiling and humming softly. Tiny jewels winked in the depths of her black hair and twisted gold chains lay around her neck. She was beautiful, but something in her eyes kept him from feeling more than uneasiness. "Is she--what is she?"

Roxilana smiled at him. "'She' is a Gypsy, pretty boy. What are you?"

He opened his mouth and found he had no answer. "Nobody," he finally said.

She tilted her head. "Are you sure?"

It all tumbled out. "I want to be. People keep trying to make me somebody, but I want to be nobody."

"You don't want to be nobody, pretty boy. Nobody gets hurt all the time."

Guglielmo stepped forward. "What are you doing here, Roxilana? How did you find us?"

She chuckled and raised her clasped fingers to cover her mouth. "Your brave captain has no courage when it comes to his lady. Some men came looking for you, sweet, and Captain Angelo took a few cuts driving them off. Isabetta refused to let the surgeon look at him and sent for me. And then she asked me to look for you."

"Is Angelo all right?"

Roxilana patted Guglielmo's cheek. "Fussing over Isabetta to make her rest and ordering everyone to find you while she fusses at him."

Guglielmo's shoulders relaxed. "Idiot ox. We still can't go back there, that's where they'll look for us first.

"We only need to find someplace until dawn," Alexander said.

"What happens at dawn?"

Alexander blinked. "I hope to be getting on a boat with Maestro Bramante and leaving this place and everything behind."

"Oh." Guglielmo looked away. "People know you're leaving with him, they can find you in Milano."

"I don't care. Milano isn't Roma, it's far away, and all I'm going to do is study architecture." He shook his head. "Too many things have twisted on me. I'm not letting fate take this from me too."

Roxilana studied him for a few moments, then reached out to brush her fingers across the back of Guglielmo's hand. Guglielmo shrugged her off.

"We still need a place to hide till dawn," he muttered. He looked around the street. "There's a barn down there, cows for noblemen who don't want to wait for the cream to arrive from the country. There's a few hours yet before the milkers show up. Roxilana . . ."

"Yes, my too generous one?" she said gently.

"Go back to Angelo, tell him where we are, where we'll be."

She nodded, drifted a hand across his cheek, then faded into the darkness of the alley. Try as he might, Alexander could not hear footsteps or moving cloth.

"She's frightening," he said.

Guglielmo nodded. "And she sees too much." He jerked his head for Alexander to follow and led the way down the street.

The cow barn made itself known to the nose before the eye. Guglielmo heard Alexander snicker. "Join the church, my father said. Never have to work with the animals again, he said."

Guglielmo glanced around for any sign of a watchman, then considered the lock on the front door. "Keep a look out," he told Alexander as he pulled his dagger.

Alexander watched the lock picking as much as the narrow street. "Where do you learn these things?"

"From breaking into people's homes and farmers' sheds." The heavy mechanism tumbled over, and he carefully unhooked the lock's hasp from the latch.

"Won't someone see that when they come by in the morning?"

"We'll be gone before anyone comes by."

The cows inside rustled and stamped in displeasure at being disturbed too early. Guglielmo felt on the walls to either side of the door until he found a small lamp and a tinder box. He set the wick as low as possible and looked around.

Alexander nodded. "Whoever takes care of them does a good job. We should let them get back to sleep."

The end stall was unoccupied and boasted blankets and a bottle tucked down in the straw. Guglielmo very carefully set the lamp on a small shelf. Alexander dropped onto the blankets with a heavy sigh and pulled his knees up.

"Do you think he--it can really find us?"

Guglielmo leaned against the wall. "I don't know. Lewes seemed to know about these vampires, but all I know is mad tales old folks have told."

"Lewes . . ." He looked up, horrified. "Is he going to--come back?"

"How should I know?" Guglielmo flexed his arm. It was starting to ache.

Alexander got to his knees and crawled over. "Take your tunic off, I want to see your arm."

"It's fine."

"Guglielmo. He used claws on you. Claws are always dirty. I haven't lived in a city long enough to forget that."

Muttering, Guglielmo obeyed. The tunic was fairly well ruined anyway. He didn't see Isabetta being willing to mend this much damage.

"Dio," Alexander whispered. Guglielmo's armor was layers of leather bound together with bronze rivets. At the sides and shoulders, sections of fine metal chain allowed him to move easily. A white silk shirt underneath protected his skin from the armor. Fresh cutmarks sliced the leather in front and back in addition to the bloody slashes where the Master's claws had cut through tunic and silk over the unarmored forearm.

Alexander shook himself and grabbed the bottle from its hiding place. "Push the sleeve up."

"Yes, maestro."

Alexander gave him a scolding look. He uncorked the bottle and turned his face. "God save the poor fool who drinks this. If it is for drinking."

Guglielmo took the bottle. "Let me see that. I don't want to be doctored with some cow concoction." He sniffed it, then took a swig. "A little strong, but I've drunk worse." He started to hand the bottle back, then saw how Alexander's hands were shaking. "Sandro, go sit down. It hurts, but I don't think it's infected."

"No, I want to make sure it's clean."

Guglielmo reached over and turned Alexander's right arm to the light. That cut had scabbed over, but streaks of blood ran down the arm. Guglielmo tore a piece off his tunic, poured some of the alcohol onto it, and gently wiped off the stains. He quickly cleaned off his own arm, recorked the bottle, then pulled trembling Alexander into his arms.

Alexander dug his fingernails into the surface of the leather armor. "Monsignor Lewes is dead. That thing . . . ate him."

Guglielmo rested his face against Alexander's hair. "Yes."

"He was going to eat us."

"Yes."

"His Excellency was going to let him."

"Yes."

Alexander looked up to meet Guglielmo's eyes. "But then he threw you that crossbow bolt and told you how to use it. And you said he wasn't a coward."

"He isn't. But he saves his bravery for when it will be the most use to him. Escaping while the Master was distracted by killing us would have been the most efficient way of getting out of the situation. For a moment there, though, you and I looked like a valid threat against that creature, so Cesare backed us up, just in case. He's very practical, Cesare is."

"Why does he dislike you so much?"

"I wouldn't let him kill me." He ran his thumb along the sudden line between Alexander's eyebrows. "Cesare's an adequate swordsman. He managed to convince his father to order me to duel with him. I'd heard rumors about what had happened to his last dueling partners, so I made sure I never laid a swordtip on him. But I didn't let him touch me, either. He got very angry. Fortunately there were no witnesses, so he didn't have to order me executed to save his pride."

Alexander closed his eyes and shook his head. "I want to leave this city. Eternal she may be, but Roma is corrupt to the very core."

"That's just the world, lad. I don't know anywhere you can run to to get away from the corruption that is people."

"No, I don't believe that. The Master said you weren't corrupt."

"Oh, Sandro . . ." He ran his fingers through Alexander's hair. "I kill people for money, Sandro. Just because it's a straight-forward contract and it's a war that somebody else would be fighting if not me, doesn't change what I do. And I'm good at it, and I'm proud of being good at it. Don't make me into some moral example."

But Alexander just looked at him easily. "The Master did."

Guglielmo closed his eyes. "Go lay down, Sandro. It's been a long night."

Alexander stepped slowly back. "What about you?"

"I'm going to keep watch. I'm used to long nights."

Guglielmo unbuckled his sword belt and wedged the tip of his scabbard into a crack in the floor boards so that the sword hilt was close to hand. Alexander laid down on the blanket and poked at the straw underneath until he had a place to settle his hips and head. He blinked several times at Guglielmo, his dark eyes catching sparks off the lamp.

"Go to sleep," Guglielmo whispered. "I'll wake you in time to catch the boat." The eyeblinks came farther apart until the eyes stayed closed and the breathing deepened.

Guglielmo checked the lamp to make sure it was securely positioned, then untied the laces that held his armor closed up the side so he could pull it off. He was hot and tired and achy and cranky, and he wanted a long drink. Sliding down to sit at the base of the wall, he let the sounds of the barn filter into his mind, become part of the background noise. His sub-conscious would alert him if that sound changed.

He closed his eyes and let his hand stretch out just far enough to touch Alexander's hair. Damp with sweat, the curls were still soft under his fingers. Even as he tried to tell himself that the boy could and did mean nothing to him, he was memorizing the feel of his hair and the sound of his breath. Just a boy. He knew taverns where he could find boys with the same dark eyes and curling hair, plus a smile that counterfeited affection you could almost believe in. In a month of two, when the image of Alexander's soul wasn't quite so fresh, he'd probably go to one of those taverns and act out the fantasies that plagued him.

Alexander would go to Milano, study architecture, marry a nice tradesman's daughter, and raise lots of children. As the protege of someone like Bramante, he'd have a successful, peaceful life, and his time in Roma would only be a story to tell the grandchildren--after suitable edits. Maybe he'd talk about the mercenaries he met, hint at the intrigue he'd brushed against. It would be easy to pretend it happened to someone else, and he could put the inconvenient attractions of a confused youth out of his mind.

In any case, what did Guglielmo think he would do with someone in his life more important than an occasional roll? Someone who would want to keep track of where he was, who would worry when he put on sword and armor and went about his business--someone he would worry about if they didn't come home when they were supposed to. He wondered if Isabetta regretted the choice that had taken her from that farm in the Piedmont and into a mercenary's train.

Stupid man. Go to Fiorenza on Angelo's mission, make the Medici beg a little, visit some of the taverns there. There was the one place near the square--

Alexander gasped in his sleep, then sat up, staring around anxiously.

Guglielmo leaned towards him. "Sandro, what's wrong?"

"He's here."

"Who?"

"The Master."

Guglielmo looked around quickly, but there was no change inside the barn. He rubbed Alexander's shoulder. "Sandro, I think you were having a nightmare."

Still looking in all directions, Alexander reached up to take his hand. "Are you sure?"

"I didn't hear anything, the door's still closed, and the cows don't seem bothered by anything." He scooted closer and pulled Alexander back to lean on him. "Just a dream," he whispered into the dark hair.

Alexander slowly relaxed. He laid his head on Guglielmo's shoulder. "How could Cardinal Fortezzi give himself to that creature? He didn't seem to care about how he corrupted himself. Did a lifetime of serving the church mean so little to him?"

Guglielmo wrapped his arms around the boy. "Surely you lived in the Vatican long enough to know that churchmen are as fallible as the rest of us. Where there is power there will be men fighting for it. Fortezzi wasn't willing to give up his power and wealth just yet. So he made a deal with the devil to keep it."

"He can't think to show up in the Vatican looking like the Master, can he?"

"Who would stop him? Lewes is dead."

Alexander shivered again and snuggled closer. "Fortezzi took my confession."

Guglielmo snorted. "As if he had any right to."

"I lied to him."

"Not that I blame you, but what could innocent you be afraid to tell any churchman?"

Alexander turned his head to look up at him. "I lied about you."

Guglielmo looked away. "I'm sorry, then. You should be able to find a priest in Milano who won't hold it too much against you. It was my fault, anyway." He pulled away from the warm body in his arms.

Alexander didn't move. "I knew Cardinal Fortezzi wouldn't be pleased if I told him. That was one reason I lied. But the other reason was--I didn't know if I could heartily repent of liking the way you looked at me."

"Sandro . . ." Guglielmo didn't dare move. He barely felt able to breathe.

"They tell us that the voice of God in our hearts will tell us the path of righteousness, if we but listen. Well, I've been listening and listening, and if He's telling me to condemn you, then I'm not hearing it." He reached up to touch Guglielmo's face, then pulled his hand back as he frowned. "Unless that means I'm already too lost to hear that voice."

Guglielmo put a finger on Alexander's lips. "No, Sandro. I don't think it's in you to become that lost. You're one of the few good ones. The Master said he could smell it on you. I think that's why he was able to make you do what he said. You're not hardened by distrust and suspicion, like Cesare and I am."

Alexander thought on that for a moment. Innocence was supposed to protect the righteous. Pure faith was the surest shield against threats. How could innocence be both shield and weakness? Monsignor Lewes had confronted the Master with weapons and holy items, not with prayer and anathema alone. The Martyrs in the Coliseum had faced the lions with God in their hearts, but perhaps they'd have been better served with prayer and a good sturdy spear.

He realized Guglielmo's finger still rested on his lips. He kissed it, and Guglielmo snatched his hand away.

"I'm sorry," Alexander said. Guglielmo looked nearly as uncertain as he felt. He couldn't bear the idea that, after everything Guglielmo had done for him, he could be responsible for any pain. He reached up and traced the scar on Guglielmo's cheekbone, wondering idly if the mercenary would be more or less beautiful without this line highlighting his face.

"I know why they preach against this so much," Alexander said softly. "Otherwise, how would anyone know that something so simple was evil? How can feeling so safe with you be wrong?"

Guglielmo took a shaky breath and ran his fingers into Alexander's hair. "Evil is hurting people who don't deserve to be hurt. And I would never hurt you, Sandro."

It was easy to smile. "I know."

It was just as easy to lean over and kiss him. Guglielmo gasped for just a moment, then the fingers in Alexander's hair tightened.

"Please don't be teasing me," Guglielmo whispered.

Alexander frowned. "Teasing you?"

Guglielmo smiled. "No, you're not like that, are you." He put his free arm around Alexander's waist and pulled him close. "You're honest and brave and forthright and still very beautiful."

"I don't feel like any of those things," Alexander admitted.

"Then you'll just have to take my word for it."

Alexander laid his hand flat against Guglielmo's chest, feeling the heat of his skin through the linen. "All right."

He ran his fingers down until he ran across a bump under the cloth. Guglielmo gasped, and he pulled his hand away.

"No, don't do that." Guglielmo tugged his head closer for another kiss. "It felt good."

Alexander carefully touched him again, hesitantly tracing the muscles. He felt Guglielmo's tongue exploring his lips and opened his mouth. He gasped as their tongues touched, and he felt Guglielmo smile. Guglielmo pulled Alexander's shirt free and slid a hand underneath to caress his back. Alexander shivered. No one had touched his bare skin since he was a child. Guglielmo's long-fingered hand slid up his spine, pushing the shirt up. The touch of air on his skin made him shiver again.

Guglielmo stopped kissing him, and Alexander opened eyes he'd forgotten he'd closed. He suspected the look on his face looked the same as his little brother wanting more honey candy, because Guglielmo chuckled and leaned in again, brushing a kiss along Alexander's lips before nibbling across his jaw to his neck. Both of Guglielmo's hands were under his shirt now. Alexander put his arms around Guglielmo, then tugged at his shirt, suddenly needing to know what bare skin would feel like under his own hands.

He felt old scars and hard muscles under skin that seemed to burn. Guglielmo gasped faintly and rested his face in Alexander's hair for a moment, then he was pulling Alexander down onto the blankets in the hay. Alexander blinked in surprise, but he was distracted by Guglielmo pulling off his shirt. When he reached out to touch the edge of one of the new bruises, he saw his fingers were shaking.

Guglielmo caught his hand and raised it to his mouth to kiss the fingertips. "Nothing I'm not very used to, caro."

"Still . . ." When Guglielmo let go of his hand, Alexander ran one finger along a recent, pinker scar that ran just below Guglielmo's left nipple. "I hate to think of you getting hurt."

"Then don't think about it." He leaned down for another kiss as he pulled the front of Alexander's shirt up.

Alexander couldn't help gasping at the touch of Guglielmo's fingers on his belly. He couldn't keep his hands still, and they slid up Guglielmo's arms to his shoulders, then around to trace the curves of his shoulder blades. Guglielmo ran his hand along Alexander's ribs, making him wince.

Guglielmo immediately pulled away. "What's wrong?"

Alexander pulled his shirt up higher. A bruise darkened his side just over his ribs. "Oh, those men who grabbed me off the street. I didn't go quietly."

Guglielmo silently ran his fingers along the edges of the bruise, his tight lips showing what he was thinking.

"It was those men who were guarding me." Alexander gently touched Guglielmo's cheek. "The men you already dealt with."

Guglielmo sighed and rubbed his face against Alexander's hand. "I'd have been there sooner."

Alexander ran his thumb over Guglielmo's lips. "I know."

Carefully, Guglielmo leaned down to kiss the edge of the bruise. Alexander shivered and gasped; his head fell back onto the blanket as the tip of a warm tongue traced across his belly, and he whimpered when another kiss settled just below his navel. Hands that had been wielding weapons delicately explored his hipbones and the edge of his drawers.

"Dio . . ."

He didn't know if he was disappointed or relieved when Guglielmo stopped what he was doing and leaned up to smile at him and brush his hair out of his eyes.

"Breathe, my lovely," he whispered with a kiss. Alexander gasped against Guglielmo's lips as nimble fingers unknotted the tie of his drawers, then slipped inside. He'd been trying so much not to think about how hard his cock was, but his mind was rapidly being drowned out by his body. He had to pull away from the kiss to breathe at the ghosting of fingertips against his balls.

Cloth stopped his own hands' exploration of Guglielmo's body. His fingers were less clever but managed to get the drawers untied. Guglielmo gasped into his neck when Alexander hesitantly followed the long back muscles down as far as he could reach, but by now Alexander was realizing that neither one of them wanted anything to stop.

Between the two of them they got the rest of their clothes off. Guglielmo took one of Alexander's hands in his own, then leaned down to pull both hands down between their chests. Alexander stared up into his blue eyes, breathing hard at the touch of unfamiliar skin. He was trembling when their joined hands reached their groins and Guglielmo shifted his hips to bring their cocks together. Alexander's fingers moved on their own, touching the hard, twitching shaft and making Guglielmo gasp even as his own cock was being fondled.

"Come for me," Guglielmo whispered in his ear. "I want to feel your lovely body shiver for me."

Alexander wrapped his arms around Guglielmo's shoulders and let his legs fall open. Guglielmo nipped at the side of his neck and caressed both cocks together. The building pressure made Alexander whimper desperately; Guglielmo growled and pulled Alexander's mouth to his as he ground their hips together. Alexander held on with arms and legs as his body let go.

Strong arms held him close, and warm, soft lips traced across his forehead and closed eyes. "Beautiful Sandro," was the whisper in his ear. "Beautiful boy."

He'd only ever felt this tranquil emptiness when serving at the altar. Now he knew why the union of two bodies was not to be done casually. He wondered if this was one of the divine mysteries, but his mind wasn't piecing things together too well.

Finally he blinked and looked at Guglielmo. He tried to think of something to say, but contented himself with a lazy caress of a self-satisfied face.

"Go to sleep, caro," Guglielmo smiled.

They'd shifted position, and Alexander's head rested on Guglielmo's shoulder. He slid an arm over Guglielmo's chest and settled his cheek more comfortably.

"I'm going to miss you," he sighed, letting the peace take him.

"I already do," was the faint whisper.





Part Eighteen

A light touch on his cheek woke Alexander. He blinked up at Guglielmo's face only a few inches above him.

"Time to get up," Guglielmo said. He straightened, and Alexander saw he was dressed in his trousers and shirt, his leather armor in his hand. Alexander suddenly realized his own nudity, then noticed the blanket had been tucked around him. He sat up, holding the blanket over his lap and wondering if this was how Adam had felt after eating the apple.

Guglielmo smiled and nodded at a cup nestled in the straw. "I stole some water from the cows. I think I got all the straw out."

"Thank you." The water eased his oddly sore throat, and he blushed as he remembered how he'd cried out last night. His clothes had been piled neatly within reach and he dressed quickly.

Guglielmo dropped his armor over his head. "Can you tie this for me?"

"Of course." Alexander remembered tying Guglielmo's sleeves that day he'd gone to the inn the first time. He'd been too flustered to notice the heat of the other man's skin through the cloth, but now his fingers remembered heat and touch and didn't want to cooperate. He felt absurdly guilty for not feeling guilty. Shy and uncertain, yes, but that voice that warned him of evil was still silent.

A touch to his cheek made him jump. He looked up at Guglielmo, who looked as though he hadn't slept much. Alexander reached up to touch the hand resting on his face. Guglielmo started to pull away, but Alexander kept hold. Guglielmo took a deep breath, but let it go.

"Is it very close to dawn?" Alexander asked.

"I let you sleep as long as I could. You were very tired." Guglielmo briefly touched Alexander's lips. "We need to go."

"I know." Alexander let him go.

More people were in the streets than Alexander expected. Carters with food from the country, servants on early household business. It was cool and surprisingly quiet. Over the rooftops came the sound of the bells of St. Peter's, marking morning Mass. Alexander hesitated, wanting to turn and follow that sound back to what he'd thought had been his home. But Cesare would be looking for him, and there was the chance of meeting something much worse walking the corridors.

He caught up with Guglielmo, who was buying fresh, hot rolls from a baker's cart. Guglielmo handed him one silently, glancing around at the people on the street. Guglielmo was frightening in his armor, quiet and watchful. Passers-by gave him nervous looks and lots of room. When he started walking again, Alexander meekly followed.

The riverfront was busy. Guglielmo kept them close to the shadows of the buildings as he scanned the crowds. The few guards about were watching the business of loading the ships and mostly ignoring the people.

Alexander tugged Guglielmo's sleeve. "There's the Maestro."

Bramante was pacing at the foot of a gangplank, scanning the crowd and trying to peer over people's heads to see down the dock.

Guglielmo grabbed Alexander's arm. "Not yet."

"There's no one around--"

His left hand jumping to his sword hilt, Guglielmo spun.

Angelo took a step back, hands raised. "At least I didn't get as close to you as I thought I would."

Guglielmo let his breath out very slowly as his shoulders relaxed. "Angelo."

"Will." Angelo studied Guglielmo for a few moments, looked Alexander over, then stepped forward to hug Guglielmo. "You hurt anywhere?"

"Not that matters." Guglielmo reached up to squeeze Angelo's arms, then stepped back.

Angelo noticed the bundle he held and tossed it to Alexander. "There, the clothes from your shopping trip. Isabetta threatened to geld me if I didn't make sure you got those."

Alexander clutched the bundle and the kindness to his chest. "Is she all right? I heard there was trouble at the inn."

"She's fine, lad." The captain of mercenary's smile was wolfish. "The trouble was just a wee bit of exercise before bed, nothing to concern yourself with."

"Alexander!" Bramante strode up. "Thank god, boy, you're here." He hugged Alexander breathless for a moment, then stepped back to look him over. "And you look like you've had a rough night." He looked at Guglielmo and frowned. "Is it settled?"

Guglielmo passed the look to Angelo. "Is it?"

"Settled enough."

Bramante took Alexander's arm. "We need to go, lad. The captain's just waiting on us."

Alexander stared at Guglielmo. He wanted to say something, but matters between them were too big for words. "What are you going to do? You can't stay in the city, can you?"

Guglielmo nodded at Angelo. "This one has something he wants me to do in Fiorenza."

"My village is near Fiorenza. I'll have to write to my family and tell them I've gone to Milano."

Guglielmo took a small step towards him. "What's the village? I could stop by and tell them myself."

Alexander smiled. "That's very kind, but my father's going to be confused enough with finding out I've gone to Milano without trying to explain how I know a soldier well enough for him to deliver messages."

He couldn't think of anything else to say. There were too many people around for him to even hint at what had happened in the night, and he couldn't imagine what he would say in any case.

Bramante tugged on his arm again. "Alexander, we need to hurry."

"Yes, Maestro, but just a moment."

He twisted out of Bramante's grip, hesitated just a moment, then hugged Guglielmo as hard as he could. He felt Guglielmo's arms around him, the fingers digging into his back.

"Be safe," he whispered. "Try not to die."

Guglielmo rested his cheek against Alexander's hair. "I haven't so far."

Alexander pushed away, and his hand was slow to let go of Guglielmo's arm. He looked at Angelo. "Please look after him, Captain."

Angelo nodded with a dark, thoughtful look. "I intend to. It looks like you need to go now, Sandro."

"Yes, sir. Thank you."

One last look at Guglielmo, the urge to touch his lips resisted, and he turned to follow Maestro Bramante to the ship.

Guglielmo had barely taken half a step before Angelo's hand was on his shoulder.

"Don't, Will."

"I know." He watched Bramante talking to the man at the foot of the gangplank, then Alexander was following his master up onto the ship. Alexander paused at the rail to look back. Even at this distance, Guglielmo could see he was blinking rapidly. Bramante said something to him, and he wiped his eyes and turned away. He was lost in the bustle of sailors tossing ropes from ship to shore and getting ready to push away from the dock.

Angelo stepped up behind him, and Guglielmo let himself rest back against the broad chest of his captain.

"I don't know if Milano is far enough to stay out of Cesare's reach," he said.

"The Borgias have no friends in Milano," Angelo said.

"All the more reason for Cesare to worry about who Sandro might talk to. He's not safe there."

Angelo sighed and pulled Guglielmo around to face him. "You're not going to Milano, Will. You're going to Fiorenza, if anywhere."

The captain on the ship yelled an order. The sailors shouted in reply, and heavy poles reached out from the ship to push against the dock. A small sail unfurled to catch the morning breeze.

"Damn it, he's just a boy," Guglielmo snarled against the lump in his throat.

Angelo sighed, then ran a finger along one of the new slashes on Guglielmo's armor. "Let's go home, Will."

The ship reached the main current and picked up speed downstream. Guglielmo finally turned away. "Cesare will look for me there first."

Angelo smiled again. "There were two men watching the inn when I left. Giancarlo is watching them, and he's watching Thomas, who's at the corner. Thomas is watching Giancarlo, and he's watching for us. When he sees us, he'll signal Giancarlo, and those two men won't be watching anything any more." He put an arm around Guglielmo's shoulders. "Now, come on. Get cleaned up, get some sleep, let Isabetta fuss and feed you, and we'll have you out of the city by Vespers."

Guglielmo nodded, but he took one last look downstream before he walked away to a future he understood.





Part Nineteen



Roma, 1504, six years later

The walls of Old St. Peter's were coming down. One of the first orders of Pope Julius II on his accession to the Papacy in 1503 was for the rebuilding of the heart-church of Christendom, and he'd brought the architect Bramante back from Milano to oversee the reinvention of Roma.

Alessandro, who called himself Il Nessuno these days as well as the original version of his given name, was a happy man. He had never developed the ability to design new buildings, but Maestro Bramante swore by his ability to look at a design and tell how to make it structurally possible. The last few years had been spent delightedly arguing aesthetics and physics with Bramante and da Vinci and anyone else who stopped by the studio.

Now they were back in Roma, with a studio and workshop in one of the wings of the palace. While Bramante and his design students covered acres of paper in sketches both practical and fantastic, Alessandro oversaw the demolition of the old church.

Alessandro had stood before the high altar, remembering chants and incense and contentment, then he'd crossed himself and given the order to bring in the scaffolds and crowbars. The altar itself and the entrance to the grotto below was covered with an elaborate framework of canvas. This was still St. Peter's, the High Altar of the Vatican, and no churchman was willing to give it up for the years it would take to rebuild. Alessandro hadn't really relaxed until the portion of the roof over the altar was finally removed and bits stopped falling on the celebrants of Mass.

Relics and antiquities had to be removed to safe storage. The crypts had to be marked and protected, and the catacombs below mapped to make sure the footings of the new basilica were solid. Alessandro had no time to think of the monsters lurking in the night or the passions of a boy ignorant of the world. Until the day he looked down from a scaffold in the nave and saw a slim figure in black and red and familiar blue eyes looking back at him.

Guglielmo hadn't actually intended to come take a look at the building site that had replaced St. Peter's. He'd been casually strolling around the city, listening to street talk, getting a feel for how Roma was changing under the new Pope. He hadn't been in the city since before Pope Alexander's last illness, and he'd been paying more attention to what the French were up to, in any case.

The company had been prepared to pull up stakes and look for other opportunities when Pope Alexander had died, but Julius was a clever fellow and not prone to blaming the tool for the hand that wielded it. Like the Papal Guard itself, the Scourge of Europe was loyal to the Papal Throne--and its treasury--regardless of who sat in it. Julius, like Alexander before him, saw the advantages in having a company of trained soldiers without other loyalties that would do his bidding.

Over the past few years Guglielmo had traveled to Fiorenza, Venice, Napoli, even some forays into Spain and France. His returns to Roma had been quiet and brief. With Julius' accession to the throne, however, the reins of influence changed hands. Cesare Borgia had fled to Napoli, and Guglielmo had come home.

He didn't remember when he'd heard about Julius' grand scheme to renovate the city and that Donato Bramante was the architect chosen to oversee things. If asked, he'd have sworn that he spared only a passing thought on the boy who had obsessed him before. Six years was a long time. People changed.

Still, he found himself in the plaza before the remains of the great church, picking his away around building supplies and busy workmen who gave him curious, guarded looks. He paid little attention to them, though he automatically cataloged them all.

It was the laugh that caught him, luring him into the gutted interior of the church.

"Alessandro!" a workman called across the nave. "Are we trying to save the floor?"

"We were going to try," was the reply from a scaffold near the wall. "Let me guess, it's too late."

"Not completely."

There was the laugh again, and Guglielmo stared up at the man who was looking towards a cracked section of marble flooring.

More had changed than the name. Alexander--Alessandro, now, apparently--had reached his full height, and he was easily the size of Angelo now. The workshirt didn't do much to hide the muscled arms and shoulders, and his hands had the rough look that comes with heavy labor conducted with stone and hammers and other unforgiving elements. There'd be thick callouses now; the smooth hands that had been gentle yet urgent on Guglielmo's skin were a thing of the past.

Guglielmo took a step back. That was all he needed to see: Alessandro was safe and apparently thriving, giving orders and being obeyed. Just as he started to leave, Alessandro looked up. They stared at each other for several moments, then Alessandro grinned and hurried for the ladder off the scaffold. Guglilemo thought very seriously about slipping away into the confusion of the workmen while Alessandro was distracted, but he stayed and watched his past approach.

The smile faded as Alessandro came closer, but it didn't go away entirely. Guglielmo found himself smiling in return.

"I didn't think to see you here at the Vatican," Alessandro said.

"I haven't been in the city much the last few years, I thought I'd come see what all the fuss was about." Guglielmo looked around at the demolition work. "So you're pulling it down."

"And then we're going to build a new one, bigger and more beautiful."

"And you're in charge."

Alessandro shrugged. "Of this part. Maestro creates dreams, I help create realities." He took a step closer, and Guglielmo managed not to back up. "How are you?"

"Well enough."

Alessandro's smile was looking more than a little annoyed through the amusement. "That's nice. How about everyone else?"

Guglielmo sighed. "Well, we lost Thomas in a mountain skirmish two years ago."

"I'm guessing you don't mean he wandered away."

"No."

"And the others?" Alessandro asked after a moment.

Guglielmo didn't want to do this. He was remembering things: sounds, touches, smells. All that was in the past, though, and if there was one thing he'd learned, the past is never reborn. Sandro had been young and afraid when he'd let Guglielmo hold him; he wasn't that young any more, and he looked like nothing could ever frighten him that badly again. This was just two friends catching up after years apart, and Guglielmo wanted the comfort of his fantasies instead.

Simpler to just cooperate. "Let's see, three years ago Angelo became besotted with the rich widow of a silversmith, and Isabetta missed his heart by inches when she threw a knife at him."

"Oh, no!" Alessandro gasped. "She left him?"

Guglielmo had to smile. "Only for as long as it took Angelo to get out of bed, get on his horse and follow her. He ordered her to come back, she refused at the top of her lungs, he collapsed bleeding at her feet, and she dragged him back here pledging eternal love in between cursing him to more hells than I've ever heard of." His smile became smug. "They let me be godfather to their brat."

Alessandro laughed. "They have a child? That's wonderful! Are you all still at the same inn?"

"Yes, we are." The smile faded. "Not that I'm there often. I travel for Angelo, since he doesn't like leaving Isabetta and the baby." Especially if this new version of the boy he'd--cared about was going to come visit.

This new man stared at him for a puzzled moment, and the uncertainty in the dark eyes looked familiar. Six years was unravelling in Guglielmo's head, and he fiercely reminded himself that the beautiful boy in his memories had been eager to get away from the world of soldiers and danger, away from him. Guglielmo's proclivities were still considered anathema, and Alessandro, valued and visible member of His Holiness' pet project, had more to lose than Alexander the inconsequential novice. Safest to let it go, to let it be an unspoken part of the past.

A young churchman bustled towards them, directed their way by one of the workmen. "Excuse me? Are you the overseer here? I'm supposed to find Alessandro il Nessuno."

Alessandro hesitated, then nodded at the man. "That's me."

"Alexander the Nobody," Guglielmo said softly. Alessandro glanced at him and grinned.

The churchman huffed impatiently. "I'm sorry to interrupt, signores, but Bishop Emanuele is irate. He wants to know why your men are digging up the catacombs."

Alessandro sighed. "They're not digging up, they're only surveying."

"Then where is all the dirt coming from down there?"

Guglielmo stepped back. "You're a busy man, Sandro. You'd best get back to work."

Alessandro took a step towards him, but the churchman tugged on his sleeve. "Guglielmo . . ."

Guglielmo paused to fix in his mind the picture of tall, strong, important Alessandro. "Good-bye, Brother Nobody." People made way for him as he strode out.

The men finished work as the day's heat began settling in. Alessandro headed back to Maestro Bramante's studio to do the most boring part of his job, the books. His desk was tucked in a corner away from the designers' section of the large room, something he was grateful for when the students started bickering with each other over who had stolen whose idea and which ancient Greek temple was more perfect.

As usual, Maestro Bramante came over after Alessandro had finished writing down the day's work. He settled into the chair next to the desk and sighed at the drawing-covered scroll in his hand. "I don't care if it's one of the perfect forms, a pyramid will not do as part of the high altar. Anything interesting happen today?"

"Let's see, Benedetto broke one of the big marble pavers by dropping a hammer from thirty feet up, but it cracked into large pieces, so we still might be able to salvage it. Also, there's a Bishop who thinks we're trying to dig up dead popes down in the catacombs. It seems that piles of dirt are appearing in side passages."

"The surveying doesn't require any digging."

"I went down to check. I found the dirt, but I also found the reason." Alessandro grinned. "A pair of novices are certain there's an ancient treasure buried down there. They've been digging for weeks."

Bramante shook his head. "Novices. Always getting into trouble."

Alessandro smiled back at his master. He'd never hidden the fact that he'd been a priestly novice himself before becoming Bramante's student, but he let everyone assume he'd come straight from Fiorenza, not Roma. Bramante let him keep his secret.

His smile slipped away. "And I had a visitor." Bramante cocked his head. "Guglielmo il Sanguinante wandered by."

"Guglielmo--oh, the soldier! The one who helped you. Still alive, then. He must be very good at his business."

"It appears so."

"Did he know you were here? Is that why he came by?"

Alessandro blinked. "I don't know. He didn't seem too pleased when I went to talk him."

Bramante shrugged. "Perhaps he didn't like getting caught spying." He tapped the scroll he held on Alessandro's desk. "I'm having dinner with His Holiness' chamberlain tonight. Do you want to come with me? I'm taking Vincenzo and Gandalfo."

"No, thank you, Maestro. I'll just eat in my room."

"Oh, don't stay in again. At least go out to an inn or something. Let me get you an invitation to one of the Guildmaster's houses. Maybe you could meet someone nice."

Alessandro laughed. "Like I did in Milano?"

"Just because Simonetta was a wretched tease and broke your heart, that's no reason to judge all women by her standard."

"I'm just in no hurry to be lied to again. I didn't even know she was seeing Marco at the same time she was leading me on." He shook his head. "Marco the stone cutter."

"Marco the son and heir of the owner of a very profitable quarry." Bramante patted Alessandro's shoulder. "I'm sure if all things were equal, she would have chosen you. A woman is not to blame if she manages affairs to her own best advantage."

"No, I understand that, I do. But she lied to me."

"It's what they do, my boy. If ever you find a woman who tells you a truth you want to hear, then hold to her and never let her go. Which you're not going to be able to do if you stay in your room every night. Go down to the mason's quarter, they all know you down there. I'm sure they have lovely sisters and daughters and nieces they're dying to introduce you to."

Alessandro laughed. "I'm sure they do. All right, I'll go out. And if you're going to be taking Vincenzo and Gandalfo to meet noble churchmen, you'd better get them cleaned up."

Bramante looked over to where a small scuffle involving ink had broken out. "Blessed saints. But it's too late to cancel on the chamberlain. I imagine you're going to have a better evening than I. Stop that, you two!"

Alessandro tidied up his desk and went to the room in Bramante's suite he shared with the other students. He laid on his bed and thought, ignoring Vincenzo and Gandalfo when they came in to bicker and look for clean clothes.

He hadn't thought of Simonetta in ages. Apparently several girls in the builders' community of Milano had been noticing Bramante's new student, but Simonetta was the first one Alessandro had noticed back. Red-blonde hair and sea green eyes, a strong figure and delicate grace. She'd smiled at him, then ducked her head, and Alessandro had forgotten how to walk straight. In the midst of his distraction, he'd felt some relief. He'd begun to wonder if there was a woman in the world who could affect him the way Guglielmo had.

He had eventually found a priest to confess to. Father Zacharias had scolded him for risking himself for so long with a grave sin on his conscience. To his shame, Alessandro had not confessed quite everything. He'd admitted to the attraction to another man, to lustful thoughts, and to enough interaction to know the attraction went both ways. His confessor had been dismayed enough at those revelations, the rest didn't need to be brought up.

He should have done personal penance until the memory of Guglielmo's smile held nothing of pleasure. He should have fasted and scourged himself every time he remembered the soft, amazed voice and the gentle touch. He should not feel so desolate that Guglielmo had been anxious to get away from him today.

Vincenzo and Gandalfo were long gone; Alessandro let himself flop over dramatically as he sighed. Nothing had happened between himself and Simonetta other than some kisses and a few daring touches that even layers of cloth couldn't make innocent. Father Zacharias had only chuckled knowingly about young men and women and how it was better to marry than to burn. The people of his new community had nodded to each other and smiled.

Then one day Simonetta had kissed him sweetly and told him that her father, one of the masters of the leatherworkers guild, had arranged matters with Marco's father, and she'd strolled away on Marco's arm with every evidence of perfect understanding between them. Alessandro had received sympathy and reassurance that women were conniving schemers but he'd eventually find one who connived in his favor.

He didn't want conniving. He wanted someone who would tell him a simple truth he could trust. Even if it was only "I think you're nice, but that man over there is more appealing." At least he'd know. He'd lost any patience he might have had with prevarication at the hands of Cesare Borgia and Cardinal Fortezzi.

Guglielmo had never lied to him. For all the allegedly unnatural passion and unhallowed dealings between them, Alessandro didn't think he'd been lied to. Guglielmo had made his interest known, and Alessandro now understood that he could have been far more devious in pressing his attentions. It seemed very wrong that a relationship condemned by every tenet of law and faith should seem the most comforting and least complicated of his life.

Bramante had reassured him that he couldn't judge his future by his first romance. He kept being introduced to appropriate daughters and sisters and nieces. But it seemed so involved, and he looked for something simple.

He sat up slowly. Simple feelings didn't necessarily lead to a simple life. Wanting something didn't mean you should have it. Saying he wanted to see Isabetta and Angelo's child was simply a convenient truth. A near occasion to sin, as Father Zacharias would say. Alessandro laughed, remembering Guglielmo's eagerness to get away from him. Maybe only a near occasion to memories. In any case, he was hungry and the Crusader's Kiss was an inn. If nothing else, maybe he could put memories in the past for good and all and set his future free.

Gianni at the Crusaders Kiss had changed very little in six years. He obviously didn't recognize the man who had just come in, though Alessandro didn't blame him. The last time Gianni had seen Alessandro, he'd been slighter of build, not nearly as well dressed, and completely lost in the world outside the church.

"Welcome, young signor," Gianni said, bustling out from behind the counter. "What can I do for you?"

Alessandro thought of asking for Guglielmo, but his courage failed him. "Is Isabetta here? I'm-- an old friend." It seemed the easiest description for someone in whose behalf she'd been attacked in the street.

Gianni looked him over again, a touch more suspiciously. "Let me check, sir." He disappeared behind the door to the kitchen.

On the other side of the room, Alessandro saw a young woman cleaning the tables. Caterina had grown even more lovely. Alessandro wondered if Thomas Wyndham had ever succeeded in seducing her over the chess board and if she mourned him.

He heard someone gasp behind him. "Sandro?"

Isabetta could have been any cheerful young Roman matron. She carried the few extra pounds with her same grace, and the faint new lines on her face came more from laughter than pain. Alessandro barely had time to catalogue the changes before she was running into his arms.

She grinned up at him. "You're not so easy to knock down, now." She patted his shoulders. "Look at you, all grown up. Just wait until Guglielmo sees you."

"Oh, um--he already has."

"He has?" She stepped back and narrowed her eyes. "When?"

"Today. I'm working on St. Peter's, and he came by."

"Really. He didn't say." She looked upstairs to where the rooms were, then back at Alessandro. "And now you're here." Her smile would have flattered any smug cat.

He was saved from answering by the sound of metal banging and a child's voice yelling, "Mama! Mama, sword!"

Isabetta paled. "Oh, Blessed Mother, not again."

Coming around the end of the counter was a small black-haired boy, maybe three years old, with a large pot lid in his left hand and a larger carving knife in his right. He waved the knife enthusiastically in the air. "Sword!"

Isabetta put her hands on her hips. "Niccolo, put that knife down right now."

"Sword!" Niccolo spotted Alessandro and lost his giddy, gap-toothed grin. The suspicious look on his face left no doubt that this was Angelo's son. He frowned mightily, pulled his "shield" in close, and pointed the knife at the stranger.

"Niccolo, do not point that at Sandro, he's a friend."

The boy looked at his mother, looked back at Alessandro, and lowered the point of his knife a couple of inches. He didn't stop scowling, though.

Isabetta sighed. "Angelo! Come in here!"

Within seconds, the door to the stableyard flew open and Angelo rushed in. "What's wrong!"

"Disarm your son. Again."

"Again?" Angelo sighed and looked down at Niccolo, who stared up with big blue eyes just like his mother. "Didn't we tell you not to play with the knives, young man?"

Niccolo blinked. "Sword," he said very quietly.

Angelo pursed his lips, in an effort to keep from smiling, Alessandro assumed. The smile was winning. Angelo went down on one knee. "You can have a sword when you're older. Didn't your mother tell you to put that down?"

The boy looked at Isabetta, his lip quivering, then back at Angelo. "Yes, Da."

Angelo held out his hand, and Niccolo very slowly held out the knife, then hung his head when Angelo took it.

"Thank you," Angelo said. "The kitchen knives aren't swords, and you shouldn't play with them either. Besides, you were holding it wrong." He plucked up his son and settled the boy on his knee as he demonstrated a grip on the knife hilt. "Don't tuck your thumb under, you want to have the thumb over the fingers--though your hands are too small still, and this is the wrong kind of hilt anyway--"

"Angelo!" Isabetta protested.

"Oh, right." He looked sternly at Niccolo. "Leave the knives alone, Niccolo, understand?"

Niccolo nodded quickly, still clinging to his pot lid shield.

Angelo set him back on the floor and kissed him on the head. "Go take that back to the kitchen."

"Yes, Da!"

As Niccolo scurried off, Angelo straightened and put the knife on the counter. Then he noticed the other person in the room, and he did a double take. "I'm sorry, I didn't see you there."

Isabetta tsked. "Angelo, it's Sandro. Guglielmo's Sandro."

Alessandro blushed as Angelo grinned and looked him over. "You've grown, boy."

"It happens, Captain."

Angelo looked up towards the rooms. "Let me get Will, let him know you're here."

"Oh, Will already knows," Isabetta said cheerfully. "Will went by St. Peter's and saw Sandro there."

"Really? He didn't say."

"No, he didn't, did he."

Alessandro did not like the way those two were looking at each other. They were just turning to look at him when the stableyard door opened again. A slight young man with blond hair came in, wobbling slightly.

"All the practice weapons are put away, Captain," he said, blinking. "May I go and die now somewhere?"

"Yes, Andre, you can go."

"Thank you, Captain." He turned and wobbled out, bumping into the doorjamb as he went.

Angelo nodded towards the door. "Brother Andre. He was at the monastery where we took Thomas after a bad fight . . ."

"Guglielmo told me about Thomas."

Relieved, Angelo nodded. "In any case, Brother Andre helped us with Thomas, then said he was being stifled in the monastery and yearned for a life of adventure and could he please come with us. Fortunately he can do the books, because he's not doing at all well learning how to fight."

Alessandro had to laugh. "I sympathize with him."

Isabetta took his arm and conducted him to the chairs around the main table. "Now, how long have you been in Roma, and why haven't you been to see us before now?"

"I--didn't know if you were still here or not."

"And you didn't think to just stop by and check?"

Her pout was murderous, but Alessandro was trying not to laugh. It was very obvious she had taken no lasting ill effects from that attack in the street six years ago. He doubted she was in a mood to be laughed at, though.

"You have a very beautiful son," he said instead. She blinked at him, then grinned in delighted motherhood.

Angelo snorted. "Well parried, Sandro. How about instead of telling us why you haven't come to see us before, why are you here now?"

"Oh, well . . ." If he couldn't admit it to these two, then he had no business thinking the things he was. "I came to see Guglielmo."

Isabetta and Angelo glanced at each other. Isabetta was nearly smirking, but Angelo was reserving judgement as he studied Alessandro. "Why do you want to see Guglielmo?" he finally asked.

What did he dare admit to? Guglielmo trusted these two, so he knew he could as well. He realized Angelo was looking at him with the same suspicious thoughtfulness as Simonetta's father had. And probably for the same reasons. The question had not been "what" did he want with Guglielmo--they probably knew fairly well what Alessandro and Guglielmo had gotten up to--but "why."

"He never lied to me," he finally said. "He never pretended to be anything other than what he was, and he never tried to push me into anything I didn't want to do. I'm beginning to realize how rare that is."

Angelo laughed again. "You do, do you? Been cutting that large a swath through the ladies of Milano?"

He wasn't the naive shepherd's son and novice anymore. "I wish it was just the ladies I've learned that lesson from, Captain." He lived among artists and those who wanted to get close to artists. He'd learned early how to stop being confused or shocked and how to be firm when saying No. He sometimes wondered if the sins he'd been taught to avoid were seen by some people as a list of things to accomplish.

Angelo nodded silently.

"It's almost sad," he finally said. "Guglielmo, a mercenary, is the only person who's been interested in me who hasn't tried to use me somehow. I wonder if I'd care if I didn't know the difference." He shook his head. "Anyway, that's long past."

Isabetta nodded and stood up. "I should go check on my offspring, see what he's gotten himself into. You men talk, and you're staying for dinner, Sandro."

Alessandro smiled. "Yes, ma'am." She headed off to the kitchens.

Angelo reached for the jug of wine and the goblets, pouring for both of them. "Why aren't you looking for a nice girl to moon over? Haven't you found one to interest you?"

"Yes. It didn't work out. Unfortunately, there aren't enough Isabettas in the world."

The infamous captain of mercenaries smiled in the direction Isabetta had gone. "No, there aren't. But I don't care, because I've got mine."

"I want that," Alessandro said abruptly. "I want to find someone to look at me the way you two look at each other. And where they tell me to look for it, I'm not finding it."

Angelo sipped from his cup, studying Alessandro. "There are some places the church and most of the world would be very upset to discover you'd been looking. Girls are safer."

"Even the ones that lie to you or tell you you're good enough but only until something better comes along?"

"It's a bit safer than them throwing knives at you." Angelo rubbed his chest thoughtfully.

"At least you knew exactly how she felt."

Angelo frowned. "There are simpler ways, you know."

Alessandro shrugged and stared into his goblet. "For all that I was so terrified six years ago, I can't help remembering how safe I felt when I was with Guglielmo. I miss that." He drained his cut and let Angelo silently refill it.

As Isabetta slipped into his room and closed the door behind her, Guglielmo didn't look up from where he lay on his bed attempting to balance a dagger on end in the palm of his hand.

"You should come down," she said.

"No, I shouldn't." The dagger fell over, and he placed the hilt in the middle of his palm again.

"Yes, you should."

"Why should I?"

"There's someone here to see you."

The dagger fell over again. "I know who's here."

Isabetta blinked. "You do?"

Guglielmo started tossing the dagger up and catching it. "I heard you yell at your demon spawn and looked out to make sure he wasn't about to burn the place down. I know who's down there."

"So why not come down and see him?" He didn't answer, just continued tossing and catching the dagger. Isabetta walked over and snatched the dagger out of the air, then sat down on the edge of the bed. "He says he came to see you."

Guglielmo rolled out the other side and started pacing. "Just stay out of it, Isabetta. I've got no reason to see him."

"Lying is a sin."

He stopped and stared at her. "So is bearing a child out of wedlock, but that didn't stop you."

"Will . . ."

He went back and dropped onto the edge of the bed opposite her. "Just leave it, please?"

"He came to see you," she said softly. "He was talking about how you were the only one who's never tried to use him."

"I'm not in the mood for nostalgia tonight."

"You want more?"

He glared at her, expecting to see a smirk, but there was only a sad smile. "What I want and what I get are two different things. Maybe, if Sandro could have stayed in Roma six years ago, I might have gotten both. By now he knows there's more in the world than what an irritable soldier can offer, and he may just want something he doesn't have to hide from the neighbors."

"You must have had a very long talk when you saw him up at St. Peter's, to know so much about what he wants." Guglielmo had to look away, and Isabetta nodded. She stood up and held her hand out to Guglielmo. "He's staying for dinner, and you're not hiding up here. If nothing else, you two were friends enough to take one evening to catch up on everything."

He knew he looked no older than Niccolo when he pouted, but that was the only reply he had. He stood up, but he didn't take her hand, telling himself that was the manly choice.

Alessandro was seated on Angelo's right hand at the dinner table, so Guglielmo took a seat near the foot. He could still take part in the conversation if he wanted, but he could retreat when he wanted, as well.

The company had changed most of its members in six years. Only a handful remembered those days when the young novice had been a regular fixture at the mercenaries' inn, and those few remembered enough not to make a fuss over Guglielmo's detachment. Guglielmo listened to Alessandro's tales of life among the volatile artists and thinkers of Milano. One tale of his having to keep Bramante and someone named Leonardo from throwing things at each other in an argument over the mathematics of domes made Isabetta nearly choke from laughing. Alessandro's grin made Guglielmo look away.

He watched Caterina moving around the tables, refilling goblets. When Giancarlo held his cup up to make refilling easier for her, she smiled at him and ran her hand along his shoulder when she was done. Guglielmo wondered how many people knew that, along with all Thomas' worldly goods, Giancarlo had also inherited Caterina's affections--though Giancarlo treated Caterina with more consideration than Thomas ever did. Her father, Gianni, didn't spend spare hours glaring at Giancarlo, and Guglielmo suspected young Niccolo would have a playmate before not too much longer.

Feeling calmer, he looked back up the table and caught Alessandro watching him. He didn't look away. The wide-eyed boy amazed with the bizarre new world he found himself in was gone. Guglielmo missed that trusting eagerness to see what would happen next. This new man had spent the last several years in a very sophisticated setting, and Guglielmo wished he could have seen the boy seeing all those things for the first time.

Was that what he'd been . . . fond of? The innocence? The chance to teach young Alexander new things? Was it the education of someone inexperienced that he longed for, or was it wanting to be the one Alessandro learned from?

Suddenly the meal was finished, and he barely remembered eating. At the head of the table, Angelo and Isabetta were inviting Alessandro out to the stableyard for some wine in the evening air. Guglielmo debated going back to his room, but cowardice irked him.

Out in the courtyard, Alessandro sat down at the small table next to Isabetta. The men scattered around with their own wine and amusements. Guglielmo leaned against the wall near Alessandro. Angelo intercepted Brother Andre before he could disappear into the stables. The former monk tried his best martyr's look, but Angelo made him get one of the practice swords to practice forms.

Guglielmo watched the practice instead of Alessandro, but he was close enough to hear the conversation. Isabetta was taking advantage of the relative privacy to discuss Alessandro's love life. The young man dithered, then admitted that there had been a girl in Milano he'd been interested in. Guglielmo managed not to crush the goblet he held.

"And?" Isabetta asked eagerly. "What happened?"

"She found someone else." The very brevity told of the pain, and Isabetta nodded sympathetically. Guglielmo glared at her from the corner of his eye, just in time to see her glance his way and smile smugly.

"I'm sure there's someone nice for you here in Roma."

Alessandro studied the cup in his hand. "I hate the games I see people playing. Why won't people just admit they like someone without all the hinting and guessing and maybe-maybe not?"

Isabetta kept looking at Guglielmo. "People don't like risking themselves. They're afraid if they admit they like someone, that they'll get hurt. Few people are strong enough to be that honest."

"I know. But that's what I want. Someone who will just be honest with me."

"Can you be that strong back?"

Alessandro's shoulders hunched. "I think so. I want to be. I used to be. Sometimes I miss the way I was before I left."

Guglielmo's stomach twisted.

"Knowing what I wanted was simple, and I trusted that I knew the difference between right and wrong."

Isabetta frowned. "You don't know that any more?"

"I think I do. The world is a lot more complicated outside the church. So much out here is supposed to be evil, but, really, it's not. I've seen real evil, and very little comes close."

She laughed. "Unfortunately, most people don't agree with our definitions of evil."

Alessandro nodded. "I know. But I don't want that to keep me from the things I want. Even the things the world says I'm not supposed to want."

Isabetta put a hand on his shoulder and leaned closer. "You may have noticed that we don't care much about 'supposed to' around here."

"Sandro!"

Alessandro jumped, and Isabetta glared at Angelo. "Yes, Captain?"

Angelo came over, leaving Brother Andre panting and looking pathetic in the middle of the courtyard. "Did Will teach you anything about swords?"

"No, he didn't, just some knife work."

"Damn, I was hoping you could help poor Brother Andre here."

"Sorry."

Angelo frowned. "Have you learned any sword work yet? You shouldn't depend on just knife work."

Isabetta tsked. "Angelo, you can see what he's learned another time, we're just getting reacquainted and having a lovely talk."

"Still . . ." Angelo looked at Guglielmo. "Will, teach him some sword work, you can't just leave him half trained."

Guglielmo wondered how long a knife he'd need to get through that big chest and carve out Angelo's heart. "You do remember he doesn't work for you and you're not allowed to order him around, right?" Out of the corner of his eye he saw Alessandro watching him, but he focused on Angelo.

Angelo's grin looked cheerful and innocent to anyone who didn't know him as well as Guglielmo did. "Well, I, for one, hope he plans on coming around on a regular basis, and if he does he might as well pick up some tips on defending himself."

"You teach him, then. Besides, I'm going out of town."

Angelo blinked. "No, you're not."

"Yes, I am."

"Since when?"

"It's all right, Captain," Alessandro said. "If he doesn't want to teach me, we can't force him." He glanced at Guglielmo, who twitched at the closed look on his face. He stood up and leaned over to kiss Isabetta's cheek. "I should be going anyway."

"Already?" she protested.

Guglielmo forgot he'd been trying not to notice Alessandro. "Bramante gives you a curfew?"

Alessandro blinked at him. "No, but he might need help with the new apprentices. They went to a formal dinner tonight, and they're not quite civilized yet."

The glint of humor in those dark eyes unhitched more of Guglielmo's resolve. "And you have been civilized?" He wondered if he sounded wistful to anyone else.

The grin he got back was less innocent than in the past, but it was still as cheerful. "I have it on the best authority that I'm a hopeless bumpkin who will never be fit for proper society."

"Oh, good. Proper society is dull, anyway."

Angelo smiled broadly. "You should make sure he gets back safely, Will."

"What?"

Isabetta nodded. "Oh, definitely." She smiled at Alessandro. "The streets are no safer than they were before, you know."

Alessandro was fighting his own smile. "I have wandered around before now, I'll probably be fine."

"We're just going to make sure." Isabetta gave Guglielmo a stern look. "Make sure he gets home safely."

Guglielmo stared at them in disbelief. "You know they're not going to give up until you agree," Alessandro said. " Just humor them, OK?" He moved closer. "If you want, you could just go far enough to get out of their sight and leave me somewhere."

The self-deprecating look on Alessandro's face nearly gutted him. "I don't abandon my jobs halfway through. Let me get my sword." As he headed into the inn, he caught Angelo smirking. Angelo had the decency to wipe the grin away, though the innocent look had never worked for him.

"Don't dawdle!" Isabetta called after them as they headed out of the courtyard.

Guglielmo shook his head. "Motherhood has only made her worse at ordering everyone around."

Alessandro grinned. "But seeing Angelo showing the boy the proper way to hold a knife was fun."

"The man's utterly besotted. He's looking for a pony so he can start teaching the brat how to ride."

Guglielmo smiled as Alessandro laughed. He could get used to hearing that.

Alessandro had walked through Roma without a qualm several times since his return, but walking beside Guglielmo now made him remember the days when he'd been afraid. He caught himself glancing into alleys as the shadows rose.

"Did you ever hear anything?" he asked softly.

"About what?" Guglielmo asked.

"Fortezzi."

Guglielmo's casual air flickered. "Oh."

"You went to Fiorenza, didn't you?"

"Left that day."

"I've always hated that we had to leave Monsignor Lewes there."

Guglielmo let a few moments go by. "Some men from England came to the inn a couple of months after, looking for me. Angelo wouldn't tell them where I was, but they found me on the road to France. They wanted to know about Lewes."

"How did they find you? What did you tell them?"

He smiled slightly. "I don't know, and as little as possible." The smile slipped away. "They seemed to know most of it already. They mostly wanted to know about what happened to Fortezzi. I was going to tell them I didn't know anything, but they didn't seem the sort to be surprised by the tale, so I said that creature who called himself the Master took him away. They seemed to know what to make of that."

"Did Monsignor Lewes get a decent burial?"

"Always the churchman, aren't you?"

Alessandro glared. "Everyone deserves a decent burial. Even you."

"Thank you. But I don't know about Lewes. I figured it wasn't a good idea to attract attention by asking." He looked over at Alessandro. "It's old news, Sandro. Lewes is past caring. I'd let it lie."

"I suppose you're right. I'm surprised those men from England didn't look for me."

Guglielmo grinned. "They did. They may have had a little trouble finding you, though, since I told them your name was Georgio and you left Roma to become an apprentice printer in Serrano."

Alessandro laughed. He'd missed Guglielmo's unapologetic dishonesty. It was reassuring to know the mercenary was on your side. Alessandro's remembered unease at walking through the streets faded away, then he looked up and saw the walls of the Vatican in the distance. He was running out of time.

"Are you really leaving town?" he dared to ask.

Slowly, Guglielmo came to a halt. There was little light in the street now. The sun was behind the buildings, lighting only the tallest spires. Only a few torches burned at corners. But it wasn't dark enough to hide the look on Alessandro's face.

The boy was supposed to be grown up now. He wasn't supposed to still have that lost look hiding in the depths of his eyes. It hadn't been there before, when he'd been the confident foreman directing the workmen. Then again, Guglielmo himself had been known to hide things from the men he worked with.

He'd never lied to the boy. He hated the idea of starting now. Besides, best to settle it. "I should leave town."

"Do you really have business for Angelo?"

"No."

Alessandro came to a stop and looked at Guglielmo. "You'd be leaving to avoid me, wouldn't you."

"I--yes."

He blinked quickly, but there was a faint smile. "Give me a moment, I'm reminding myself that I want people to be honest with me."

Guglielmo felt like ten thousand kinds of scum. "God, Sandro, I wish you'd never come back." He winced at the shock on the boy's face.

"I'm sorry I bothered you," Alessandro said quietly. "I'll stay away. You don't have to leave."

"No, I have to. I'm not going to go through the streets of this city wondering if every tall, broad- shouldered, black-haired man I see is you."

"But why would you care?"

"Because . . ."

He couldn't come out and say it, that for years he'd spotted young men in crowds and thought "Sandro." He was a ruthless mercenary, not some simpering troubadour, and he did not catch himself at odd moments wondering how the boy was faring.

Having always been an unconvincing liar, he kept his mouth shut. And, Madonna help him, Alessandro was starting to smile.

"Once in Milano," Alessandro said softly, "I saw a blond man in black and red on the far side of the square. I would have run to him, except he turned and I saw he had brown eyes. But for a moment, I thought he was you, and that made me happy."

Guglielmo shook his head. "Sandro, we can't do this."

"Can't do what?" Uncertain Alexander had been well and truly replaced by determined Alessandro, who was obviously done with subtlety. He stepped closer. "I've tried to do what people want me to. I'm good at my work, I get along with people, and I've let people tell me I should be thinking of settling down and raise a family. And I do want to find someone, but it hasn't been that easy, because I'm looking for someone who reminds me of you. The bad temper is easy to find," he said with a grin, "but I haven't found the cleverness or the strength or anything that makes me feel nearly as safe as I felt with you."

He wrapped his fingers around his sword hilt to keep from reaching out. "Sandro, I'm a man--"

"Yes, I noticed."

His fingers were starting to hurt. "I am no one to make a life with. I have no interest in a family, I have no place in the normal world you live in. And that's completely aside from the fact that the world has no love for men who care too much about each other."

Alessandro was still smiling. "My world is a lot less normal than you think it is. Young Giorgio isn't hanging around Buonarotti's studio just because he's a good model."

Guglielmo started another protest, but Alessandro put a finger over his lips. Guglielmo couldn't help moving his lips against the callused skin. Alessandro had to try twice before he could speak.

"Do you still want me?" he whispered.

He honestly tried to say No. But the boy he'd thought he'd bid farewell to six years ago was peeking nervously out of those dark eyes, the boy so innocent that the world didn't frighten him. The boy who trusted Guglielmo never to hurt him.

"Yes," he whispered, damning himself with the heaven within his reach.

"Thank God and all the saints," Alessandro breathed. He moved his fingers to the scar on Guglielmo's cheekbone and across the skin. "I wish I'd had the courage to do this six years ago." He carefully leaned forward and kissed Guglielmo.

Decades of soldiering kept Guglielmo from letting go of his sword hilt when he was out at night, but that still left him with one free hand. He slipped the fingers of that hand into Alessandro's soft hair. He felt the firm lips under his smile before Alessandro moved into him so that their bodies touched.

Eventually, Alessandro pulled his head back far enough to speak. "What do we do now?"

"Well, I'm not leaving town, for one thing."

Guglielmo could tell Alessandro was blushing. "I meant, well, right now."

A dozen lewd suggestions came to Guglielmo's mind, but they kept dissolving at the look in Alessandro's eyes. "How open minded is Bramante? You said you had to get back."

"That was just an excuse. If he doesn't see me before breakfast, all he'll do is smirk."

"Does he smirk often?" Guglielmo tried to remind himself that it was impractical to hunt down people just for being interested in Alessandro.

"No, he doesn't, relax." The old bashful novice made a reappearance. "We could go back to the inn."

"Then we'd have to deal with Angelo and Isabetta smirking. As if they weren't already."

"Would you mind?"

Guglielmo wound dark hair around his fingers. "Not those two. I can deal with anyone else who thinks it's clever to make remarks."

Alessandro grabbed the hand in his hair. "Not like that man before. Not because of me."

Guglielmo kissed him. "I won't." He grinned. "I'll invite them to train with me." He ran his fingers over that young face. "What I said was true. I'm no one to make a life with. I go out and get in fights for money, and there are very few old mercenaries in the world."

"I could get hit by a falling block of marble or fall off a two-story scaffold." He closed his eyes briefly as Guglielmo's fingers traced behind his ear. "But I'm willing to put up with the risk."

A quick glance around the dark street reassured Guglielmo long enough for him to put both arms around Alessandro. "If you can deal with it, so can I."

They found each other's lips again in the dark. Too few moments later, the scrape of a footstep made Guglielmo pull away and reach for his sword.

A late-travelling laborer sneered. "Disgusting, unnatural--" The slow slide of steel leaving scabbard cut off his words, and he quickly found other places to be.

Guglielmo sighed and turned back to Alessandro. "I'm sorry. But that's what we have to look forward to. So if you wanted to change your mind, I'd understand."

Alessandro smiled. "Now why would I want to change my mind?" He nudged Guglielmo's arm with his shoulder in the direction of the inn.

Guglielmo obliging headed that way. Alessandro fell into step with him, then hurried around to his other side, no longer blocking his sword arm. "Women do have their good points, you know. They smell better than men, and they're soft and comfortable."

"Well, until I find one who reminds me of you, you're going to have to put up with me."

They grinned at each other. Nearby, church bells rang. Guglielmo saw Alessandro whispering along with the bells, then he crossed himself.

"Do you regret leaving it?" Guglielmo asked quietly.

Alessandro's smile held no regrets. "The important parts never left. Come on, it's getting chilly."

Guglielmo nodded, and they walked back to the warm inn.




The End





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