December 31, 1499
December 31, 1499
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Shaun wrote in his daily log of the comings and goings of various people around the Villa, who were planning a two day long festival, combining the celebration of the New Year tonight with Ezio's return the first day of 1500.
Lex sat in converation with the Valzes until he was hoarse and forced to eat something. The family had set out shortly after their friends, though they had been hindered by the increased patrols of Cubs and Crows and nearly caught once before they reached the docks and their ship. The rest of the way, Badr's horses had provided easy travel.
"You may wish to stay outside a little longer today, Spaetzlein," the Brit heard Maria say. "Caterina Sforza is coming to wait for Ezio."
"The Caterina Sforza?" asked the taller man, poking his head out of Mario's study where he'd borrowed the use of his large desk. The other Assassins were seated on the grass, Lex directly on it, Maria and Nico on chairs.
"Hay una otra puta pelirroja sin alma se llama Caterina Sforza?" Nico asked, looking at him sideways. "Her gates were locked to us when we arrived there to seek a little rest. We had to ride through the mountains in the night to reach San Gimignano."
"Lo siento," the Brit managed. The apothecary shrugged and stood, moving to the room she shared with her wife.
Lex set off to stroll the village with the other man, watching the preparations for the festivities. Streamers, flowers, torches, everything had been put into this endeavor. Will there be fireworks too? He glanced up at the cannons mounted along the walls, jumping as Amir went zipping by toward the Villa, attended by his little flock of coal tits, crying, "Sono qui! Sono qui! I Romani sono qui!"
"Well, that was fast," the Sparrow murmured. He jumped as a hand was laid on his shoulder, looking up at the man standing there.
"Figlio, nascondere tua moglie, i figlie e argento. Non hai sentito? Gli zingari stanno arrivando."
"Signore, se hanno preso le tue cose per errore, li avevano danno subito."
"Come si fa a saperlo?"
"Ho visto i tuoi ogetti di valore. Non sono ladri vale la pena." He moved away before the man could think of a comeback. Making his way to the rooftops, he found Majid and Scars. "Salute."
"Salve," the brothers greeted. Scars continued with, "Do you have a plan?"
"Recruitment," Lex said, gasping as one of the tiles broke off underfoot. The swordsman's arm snapped out, grasping his hand as Majid took him by the tunic and pulled him up to stand beside them near the wall. The Sparrow panted as he looked at where the tile had slid down to the edge of the roof. "Thanks."
"Who do you plan to recruit and how?" Scars barrelled on. Majid rolled his eyes.
"What my brother means to say is 'You're welcome' and 'How can we help?'"
"Stand guard? Make sure Shaun doesn't say anything racist?" The Sparrow shrugged, looking up at the Owlets. "Otherwise, all I can tell you is laissez le bon temps roulle." They looked at him confusedly, then at each other. He translated it to Italian as well as he could, "Cominiciamo a divertici volte."
"Now, Brother," Majid said and turned to Scars, "good times are known as fun. Fun is when--"
"Al Hakim stated we should stand guard, not go whoring," the scarred man snarled. "Even if our master's benefactor thought it wise to set up a brothel in his village."
"I know! And there's such a distinct lack of beautiful men in that brothel!" The Owlets were soon off across the roofs, Majid cackling as he wound his way toward the brothel, Scars screaming what seemed like death threats in that language Lex couldn't understand. Though now the words tickled at the edges of his memory more than ever. Where the hell do I know them from? God, this is frustrating!
The sun finally dipped below the horizon, the moon rising as torches flared to life all about the city. A dance was going on in the streets before the villa and the little village church. The Romani had made their camp outside the walls and threaded their way inside the walls. The Sparrow had watched with the newly christened Harrier, Badr the first to go over to one of the men who was corraling some horses, no doubt to speak of breeding.
Below them, Uberto and Ignacio stood with the apothecary couple, who watched their children spinning about on the dancing grounds in front of the church. When asked, Shaun informed him, "It's the estampie, that dance." The Assassins watched until the dancers bowed, then dropped down to their fellows and walked outside the walls to the camp.
A young man was the first to spot them, snapping off in his own tongue until Nico said, "Sastimos, Fonso. We missed you too."
"Nico? Maria?" The man, who couldn't have been more than seventeen, grinned. "Is Rawney with you?"
"Last we saw she was dancing inside the walls. Go on and see her if you want." Maria gestured toward the camp. "Our friends have a proposition for your brother." Lex and Shaun exchanged looks, but followed where Fonso led. Another man stopped them on their way. He was tall as Uberto--six feet and some inches, the men from the future had found the monk to be--and clapped the apothecary on the back so hard she almost ate a mouthful of turf.
"Sorry, Nico," the man boomed, his voice a deep rumble. Helping her husband up, Maria smiled and said, "You must gauge your strength, Mihai. Otherwise you might end up doctoring my poor husband."
"Oh, no one wants that, Signora Valez, especially me. I can't even see the hole to thread the needle!"
"Mihai, leave these poor folk alone!" Fonso groused, dofing his caramel colored flat cap and giving his brother a light whack on the arm. "Our friends are all inside!" The two hurried off, leaving the Assassins to come to the edge of the campfire. There a man was finishing a tune on a violin, surrounded by a ring of listeners and dancers alike. He was dressed in a pair of brown pants tucked into his knee-high leather boots, a loose-sleeved off-white shirt worn beneath a black vest done up with white embroidery. A fair growth of dark stubble covered his jaw, the workings of a good mustache already in place above his upper lip. Opening his eyes, he grinned and passed his violin to a young boy who sat beside him, spreading his arms and laughing.
"Twice in one day! Do you miss my company so, or is the empty Auditore house really so dull? Welcome, my friends, please, be welcome!" He clasped Nico tightly to his chest, thumping the apothecary on the back. The man and Maria exchanged kisses on each cheek before embracing as well. He clasped hands with Uberto and Ignacio, bending to kiss the monk's cheeks. "Inigo." He winked at the mousy little man, chuckling when the young monk turned turned red from his neck to the cleared patch of scalp that formed his tonsure.
When he turned to face Shaun and Lex, he folded his arms and lifted a brow, head cocked to one side. "And who might you be?"
"Friends, one old and one new." This was from Maria from where she had taken a seat.
"Shaun Hastings," said the Harrier, stretching out his hand. "I'm a historian." The man clasped his hand, only to allow his other brow to rise as the Englishman's other hand dropped back to where his small money pouch hung on his hip. "Sorry." Shaun managed a stiff sort of smile. "Nervous."
"No need to be so, my friend. Perhaps your histories don't note this, but our purse-cutting ways do not extend to guests seated around our fire, eating our food." Shaun's skin had turned milk white, Lex saw, as he edged over to find a seat between Uberto and Ignacio.
"Sastimos," Lex ventured when it was his turn to speak. The man grinned and ruffled up his hair, drawing him close and kissing his cheeks.
"Your accent is terrible, my friend. But how you're grown since the last time I've seen you!" The man laughed. "Then you came up to my shoulder and now to my chest! Dordi! Soon enough I'll be able to fit you into a pouch and carry you on my belt." Lex blinked and tilted his head back, studying the man's face. "Recognize me yet, chavo?"
The Sparrow saw him then. Stripping away the stubble, the mustache, shrinking him in his mind's eye, he saw him. His eyes widened.
"Luca?" The man put an arm around his shoulders and drew him to the fire. The others were already tucking into bowls of stew. Handed one himself, he was seated and bid to eat. He did so ravenously, his apetite returned after all the traveling and healing he'd been doing.
"Our friends discussed a proposition with me that you might present," said the man at last when the others had finished their meal. Lex sopped up the last of the stew with a chunk of flat bread and swallowed it down. Shaun glanced at Lex. Why am I out of the loop on this? he thought as he watched his fellow time traveller pass the bowl off to the woman who wanted it and turn back to Luca. Lex took a long breath and let it out again.
"The Assassin Order would like to recruit you and your band." Silence reigned around the fire. Luca looked at him shrewdly, one of his hands holding his chin.
"We've got a common enough enemy. The Borgia Pope and his men and his son." This was from Shaun.
"These men mean next to nothing to us. Insane pontiffs and their families come and go."
"But this insane pontiff has military forces for his backing and one of them helped kickstart the Inquisition. Once they're done with the Muslims and Jews, who's to say they won't move on to the Romani?" Luca's brow furrowed at the Englishman's words. Lex shifted himself; the man's eyes flicked to him, though they seemed to stare through him at something in the distance.
Finally, Luca spoke again, "What would your conditions be if we were to join your little band?"
"The Romani would remain as they always have. You go where you please and can inform us of anything there, be our eyes and ears, report to us. In return for information, we would give you the skills we have cultivated since the beginning to protect yourselves, as well as protecting you with our lives." The man's dark eyes focused on him again.
"Would we have to wear that red clothing your friends do?" he asked with as straight a face as Lex had ever seen, then laughed. The others who had been seated around him, listening, laughed as well, which led to the Assassins chuckling.
"No," the Assassins finally managed in one voice. Luca nodded.
"We must discuss this, my kumpania and I. Go and have fun. Go dance. The looks on your faces have been far too serious this evening, even among friends." He looked at Nico and Maria. "You may stay, if you wish, my friends. It's been so long since I've seen you."
"You'd allow us to?" the apothecary blurted, staring.
"You can give us more information on these men who want us to join them in their ranks. Or, should we say, who want to become part of ours?" The man's lips quirked up into a smirk as the two took their seats once more and the voices rose up around him to voice their opinions and comments.
January 1, 1500
The next day, the Assassins were awoken by Amir and the sound of cannon fire.
"Ezio's here! Ezio's here!" The Sparrow groaned as he lifted his head and found it pillowed on Ricardo's thigh. His arm was hooked beneath the leg he'd pillowed his head on, the rest of him sprawled out on the man. A red hood was on his stomach; he could just see the scarred face beneath it, the Owlet's arms wrapped around his legs and back.
Lex lifted his head from his immediate area and looked around. Fonso had his head on Rawney's chest with what looked like odd bruises on both their necks, Rawney sleeping against the wall beside the church doors. Mihai was nestled in a cart of flower petals, or the remnants of such, as the petals were strewn everywhere around them, his arm and head poking up out of it. Majid's arm was sticking out of it as well, his hand clasped with the Roma's.
"Ahk! Ahk! Ezio's back!" Amir cried right in his ear.
"Ayyyy! Ya Allah, Miri, what the ********?" Lex shrieked, his head screaming just as loudly. He gripped at it, moaning, "What the absolute ******** happened last night?" The shouting had woken Scars, who jerked his head up, looked at Amir, turned, looked at Lex, and settled his head down again, looking as pained as Lex felt. He swore under his breath. "My sentiments exactly."
"You don't even know what he said," Amir said with an indignant cheep, arms akimbo.
"I know a 'what the ********' when I hear it, even if I can't understand it," stated the Sparrow. The Coal Tit rolled his eyes and said, "You all go drunk and danced the night away and ended up in ludicrous positions when you fell over, giggling like idiots."
"What time is it?"
"Two in the afternoon."
"What?" Lex bolted up. Scars swore again and shoved him back down. Lex propped himself onto his elbows then, an ache behind his eyeballs like someone was taking a knife to the backs of them. "Where the hell are Badr and Shaun?"
"I don't see what that has to do with the time, but they're out riding to meet Brother and Uncle."
"Did they end up having a romp in the hay last night?"
"No, though Mama wishes they had. They spent the night talking about religion. Then Shaun fell asleep on him."
"No, but wishes he had." With that, the Coal Tit was off toward the Villa to tell Maria and Jameel the good news.
When Lex finally managed to extricate himself from the other men--no mean feat, the way Scars clutched at him--he staggered up to the Villa, holding his head the entire way. He heard Ezio speaking with Claudia and his mother, but paid it no mind. Finding the room Jameel stayed in, he grabbed the bag of aspirin. In the kitchens, he discovered, to his relief, some orange juice. Downing the medicine with some of the juice, he returned to Jameel's room and burrowed under the covers, grateful that the window faced east.
"Ugh..." He wasn't certain what time it was, but when he opened his eyes the room was dark.
"You've been sleeping all day. What's the matter?" Jameel's long, calloused fingers touched his forehead. "You smell like a wineskin."
"Happy New Year. Let me go back to sleep, please. My head's killing me."
"As you wish." Lips brushed against his cheek and jaw, arms folding him into a loose embrace against his lover's chest.
"How's your leg?"
"I'm walking." Jameel opened his mouth to say more, but a soft snore answered his statement. He dipped his head down, kissing the smaller man's cheek near his lips, before allowing himself to pillow his head just behind his, breathing in the smell of him as his fingers combed his hair, palm pressed to his cheek.
X x X
Darkness. Where is everyone? He looked around. Nothing but the faint outline barren wastes, the sky above moonless, even starless thanks to the low-hanging clouds. Why am I here in the middle of nowhere? He tried his Night Vision; it wouldn't work, no matter how hard he focused. He felt himself over. He lacked his weapons, armor, even his clothing.
A knot of fear worked its way up inside of him. He forced it down with a swallow. No! There has to be a way out of this! He started walking. He felt he walked in circles, arms outstretched before him like a blind man. The ground rose up. He crested the rise, only for his foot to catch on something. The Red Owl's face met the ground, the friction of his fall bringing some warmth to his skin. But what had he been caught on? Something...
Jameel half-turned to see what he had fallen over. The stars pricked through the clouds then, illuminating a body. He was about to put himself back on his feet when a pair of hands wrapped around his ankles. They were the corpse's hands, decaying things partially covered by rotted leather gloves and the remnants of rusted bracers. He froze as the head rose, revealing a face equally rotted, the hood moth-eaten and covered in the large, brown-black patches of dried bloodstains. He knew that face, would know it anywhere, even if he had been as blind as he'd felt minutes ago. No... No, no, no!
"You left me to die." The voice was piteous and frail, a mere whisper on the wind, though the accusation stung none the less. Jameel tried to speak, but found his tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth. No, no, I'd never leave you! I'd die first! His mind brought up Venice then. Tears studded his vision for a brief moment.
Movement caught the corners of his eyes. The Assassin panicked, trying to escape the corpse's ice cold grip. It was to no avail, the fingers like iron traps. More corpses soon surrounded him in a loose ring. Shredded robes, rusted weapons, rotted leather, different faces. Some lacked eyes, others lacked lips and teeth, a few hardly had any faces left at all!
"We followed you!"
"We trusted you!"
"You led us to our doom and didn't even think twice to rescue us!"
The dead tightened their circle around him. They were friends, old comrades in arms, and here they were, pushing him down to the ground. The one that had gripped his ankles climbed atop him, the mutilated lips brushing his own when it hissed, "We will return the favor!" Their teeth sank into him, tearing his flesh wherever they could reach. Pain washed over him, his blood almost blissfully warm, the corpse atop him gnawing at his mouth and tongue almost tenderly, even when he wished to shriek as his tongue was shorn away.
His eyes left the corpse, gazing toward the moonless sky, only to see a pair of yellow lenses fitted in a white, beaked mask soullessly staring down at him. He thought he saw a sinister smile crease the white beak...
Jameel gasped, flailing his arms like a drowning man reaching the surface of the water, as he bolted upright in the bed. Cold sweat clutched the sheets to his bare skin. He looked around. The room was still dark, though he could see the barest hint of light on the horizon that signaled the not-far-off dawn. He looked down. Lex lay on his side, arms outstretched toward him almost pleadingly. Whole, he was whole and breathing and alive, his eyes twitching behind his lids as he dreamed.
The Assassin shuddered, unable to suppress the silent sobs that wracked his frame any longer. Damn it all. He leaned down again, drawing the smaller man into his arms and curling around him as best as he was able. He cuddled closer as the Sparrow squirmed and slipped his arms around his neck, head pressing beneath his chin, his warmth alone soothing him back into a dreamless sleep.
January 2, 1500
Shaun gasped as he was awakened by a horrendous explosion. Badr's hand closed over his mouth the next moment, his voice in his ear husky with sleep, "We are under attack. The enemy are in armed ranks with heavy artillery. Get to the Villa. Stop for nothing. Inshallah, I will see you when this chaos is over."
"Inshallah," Shaun agreed in a whisper before he pelted his way out of the blind man's house, glimpsing rank upon rank of soldiers and cannon and horse before he ducked beneath the closing portcullis. The cannons overhead on the walls sounded as he ran, hopping up onto the roofs to get out of the ranks of milling citizenry.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw men in black flitting over the rooftops, firing arrows. Some exploded. Some threw grenades that released smoke. He pulled his hood up, covered his mouth with a cloth he found stuffed somehow within it. It had been a peaceful night; they had sat on the roof, talking of religions and politics and history--at least, what was history to him.
Now, total chaos.
One of the black-clad men halted on the roof before him, sneering. His head was bald, his neck long, a ruff of white feathers on his collar.
"Assassin," he called in Italian thick with a Russian accent, "lay down your weapons!"
"Templar," Shaun heard himself yell back over the sound of exploding tiles, "come and get them!" He was fairly sure the man would have skinned him alive had not a tile flown up and clocked him on the side of the head. The Russian slumped to the roof and tumbled out of sight. Shaun nodded his thanks, but Amir and Fonso were already away.
Having nowhere else to go, the Brit followed them. Luca was shouting orders to his men, grasping Fonso by the shoulders and shouting at him. The Romani scattered through the village. A pair of men appeared from nowhere, clad in some sort of livery. All Shaun saw was dust and reds and whites, and then Luca had stuck a chiv into their livers and they were on the ground, bleeding out their lives in the rubble.
The historian let out a startled yell as what looked like a molotov cocktail for a moment flew down and burst apart at his feet. Leaping away from the hot liquid within, he spun, only to face another beaked stranger. A black dagger came at him. He rolled away, scooped up a piece of broken bottle, and rammed it home beneath the white beak. Blood spurted hot onto his hands as the Crow fell back, gurgled, died. The Harrier ran toward the Villa.
The Brit looked up, spotting the Vulture twins standing in front of Lex, who was dodging around their explosive liquor. One had a fine, bloody gash in his head. Moving as if in a dance, they began to throw daggers at the Sparrow, his blade fending them off with quick clangs of steel on steel.
"You knew that we would come here," said gash-head.
"To slay and slaughter all you hold dear," said his twin.
"Stealing, maiming, weaving the lie," they said as one voice. "The Vulture Twins will guarantee that you all die!"
"[******** you!" Gash-head's brother screeched as Lex jabbed out his eye with his rapier. Shaun landed on Gash-head's back, smashing his jaw with a chunk of masonry he snatched up from the ground. Lex looked up, eyes wide, and screamed, "Run!" The Assassins and the Vulture threw themselves aside as a cannonball landed where they had stood, the one twin supported the other as they retreated over the roofs.
Shaun pushed himself up and swiped the dust away from his eyes, though it clung to his face with his sweat. He looked around, coughing.
"Sparrah?" he called. A coughed "I'm here" answered him. Panting, Lex crawled from beneath where a chunk of stair had been thrown up onto him, his shoulder bloodied. "I'm oka--" He yelped as a bullet the size of the eyeball he'd poked out pinged off the stairs beside him. The two men hurried down into the chaos once more.
"Opre, Roma!" They heard Ricardo shout like a warcry, several men in livery and the Crows with them suddenly crushed by falling debris that was shoved from the rooftops. The battle had found its way to the former dancing ground, Fonso, Mihai, and a group of others fighting before the steps, Ignacio and Uberto battling atop them.
Shaun drove his hidden blade into the spine of one of the men in uniform as Rawney slit his throat. Amir rolled by and rose up tossing daggers into a few Crows. Fonso and Mihai had stolen a few black bows and were using them to deadly effect with the men beside them. The smaller man jerked back as an axeman came from the swirling dust, his blow almost cleaving him in two. Mihai lifted him then by the throat and slammed him down onto the ground twice. He didn't get up.
A cluster of men burst from the dust, shouting so furiously Shaun had trouble catching what they'd said. Ricardo pulled him one way as his sister, her face and dress and arms smeared with the blood of her enemies, hauled Amir the other, Uberto's hammer coming down to smash the heads of two of the leading men like mellons, spraying their fellows with a gooey shower of brain and bone and blood.
Ignacio, to Shaun's surprise, was no less violent. A crack and a crunch was heard as one Crow's beak was broken, his nose shoved back into his brain. The little monk turned, curls falling in his face, and shoved another's Adam's apple back into his throat. The man gasped, wheezed, and collapsed to join the other bodies.
Panting, Shaun looked up and realized he stood in a ring of bodies. Then he was being dragged toward the Villa. He caught sight of Lex for a moment, heading toward the main gates, but then disappeared inside the building to follow the stream of civilians heading down into the Sanctuary.
The Sparrow raced across the rooftops after Ezio, whom he had seen capering around in just a shirt and pants throughout the city. Below him lay carnage. He could see where hands and feet stuck out from the rubble, sometimes only pools of blood. These made him gag. He continued on, dropping down when he spotted a familiar face. Majid and Scars were fending off a group of Crows from Nadya and Daniele. The swordsman stabbed another, his brother blocking with a light buckler he wore on his arm. Another Crow went down, a throwing dagger lodged in his back. Scars ran the last one through and nodded to the Sparrow as they moved into one group, moving toward the street that led to the Villa.
The group froze as a gunshot rang out.
Before them lay Mario Auditore, half his head gone. Ezio lay not far off, though hidden from view of the intruders in an alley, grasping his shoulder. Behind Mario stood the man with the literal smoking gun, a man with straight black hair, a beard, and a smirking face. Beside him was a blonde woman in a dress. Flanking them was a man in dented, scratched armor, his lion's face helm and pauldrons glinting sinisterly in the light and a man in black feathers, looking more like a giant crow than his followers with the bone-white mask sticking out from his headdress, his feathered cloak falling around him like folded wings. Some of the feathers moved, revealing themselves to be actual crows as they flew down and began to peck at Mario's remains.
An arrow pierced one of the carrion birds, pinning it to the ground where it quorked, flapped briefly, then went still. The group raised their eyes to where Majid stood, bow still in hand. The Metal Lion unslung his axe from his back as the bearded man reloaded his pistol, the black-feathered one waving his hand.
The scene exploded into chaos once again, only of the briefer kind. A Crow dropped down before them, his feathers colored purple in places. Majid screamed. Daniele forced his wife back as the feathered fiend slashed at him. The Sparrow and Scars were put on the defensive. And the Metal Lion drew closer.
"Majid!" Scars fell back as a blade sliced through his robes, grazing a line into his skin. "Majid!"
The downed Owlet screamed again, sobbing as he clutched and clawed at his face, "Dadash! Komak, komak!" The Owlet kicked at the ground and screamed again as the purple-feathered Crow turned toward him. The Sparrow lunged forward, jabbing, only to be forced to retreat as a gash was scored into his bracer. It was enough. Scars scooped up the other man into his arms, wheezing and sobbing now.
The Crow slashed at the Sparrow again. Lex spun away, stumbling as his heel caught on a chunk of rock and falling onto his back. Daniele moved forward, blocking the blade that was aimed for the smaller man's heart. The Crow knocked his hand away as it came down with a knife, ready to stab him instead. A yowl came from it as a stone smashed onto his head. Whipping around, the fiend turned on Nadya.
"Stop!" The blade halted at the growl. An metal-clad fist closed around some of the purple and black feathers, the Lion tossing the Crow behind him. The purple-feathered mercenary landed hard on the detritus of the attack before rolling up to his feet as the young woman stared at the great maw before her. The Lion gazed at her for a long moment. "Your eyes. I remember them from long ago." He leaned closer, the lion's nose brushing hers. "Who is your mother, girl?"
Before she could answer, the report of a shot rang out and madness engulfed the field again. The Lion whirled round to see Cesare aiming toward Ezio, who was running along the roofs. Daniele scooped Nadya into his arms, the Sparrow racing after them and the Owlets up to the Villa. Reaching the doors, they threw them open and barred them shut.
"Go, go!" Lex pushed at the couple and Scars. "Go, I'll shut the door to the study behind you!" The group rushed to the study, the woman and her husband entering the tunnel. Scars passed them his brother. Lex sucked in a breath as Scars grabbed him by the shirt and all but threw him down the stairs. Rolling, the Sparrow twisted around to a stop. "What're you doing?"
"Take care of Majid!" The door shut, sealing them in darkness. The lock clicked. There was nowhere to go but down.