February to April, 1500
February to April, 1500
"Kings' Corner? Slap Jack? Bullshit? What'll it be, people?" The Sparrow's hands flew through mixing the cards, shuffling, cutting, stacking, and shuffling again. The shy female Novice that had joined the two brothers when they invited her for a game of cards tilted her head.
"There are many strange games in the region you come from, maestro. Never heard of any of these."
"Kings' Corner's basically like Solitaire in how you set it up; the goal's to be the first to get rid of all your cards. Slap Jack's what the name implies; the goal's to collect the most cards. Bullshit is... Well, it's not that complicated. It's a game for good liars and you have to get rid of all your cards without being called on a lie." Lex grinned and was about to say more, but broke off as a low sigh came from Scars' seat at the table. He looked over at the man. Scars sat low in his chair, both Uva and Spock making nests out of his robes on either of his shoulders. His eyes were fixed on the skull that lay in the middle of the table when they weren't flicking to Roland and Stephen, who were quarreling animatedly about something or other. Spock fluffed and cheeped at the low German spoken by the men as he went to work on preening the downy fluff beneath one wing. "You okay, Scars?"
The glare the Owlet shot him made him flinch, but he said nothing more than, "A headache, Hakim. You might have one too, stuck between two roosting fowl and that noise your Novices are making." He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples with thumb and forefinger. Socializing had never been his strongest suit, much less with two people arguing nearby, but he'd found he couldn't refuse the Sparrow's request when he'd asked for him to come and join them at a game.
Elena smiled over at their teacher, diffusing some of the tension between the two.
"That last one sounds familiar to me. We play it a little different, but that set of rules sounds interesting." Roland agreed, as did Stephen, who was busily munching on another borrowed apple.
"Bullshit it is then." Lex dealt out five cards to each of them. Taking up his own, his eyes widened. "Um..." Okay, so this is not the standard deck of fifty-two we're playing with here. Swallowing, he decided to start out. "Two of cups?"
Elena had to explain to Lex the strange new cards after they'd played through the first round, but the Sparrow learned the new order quickly enough and the game went smoothly. It didn't help his odds, though. The young thief won four games in a row and only then did she decide to lean back and let the men have a fair shot against one another. Roland gave her a friendly nod.
"Luck must favor you, Lena." A blush colored her cheeks at the German nickname as she shook her head.
"Not really, Orlando. You simply have to memorize the order of the cards for this kind of game, and, well, I've done that enough for a living. And if the game demands luck, well, if you've got quick hands, luck is on your side." Scars raised a brow, looking up from his hand.
"So, you do belong to La Volpe's men?" Elena made a show of studying the grains of wood in the tabletop and nodded.
"God-card-counting-damn it, I'm done. I can't." Lex threw down his cards and threw up his hands as he flopped back into his chair and shut his eyes with a heavy sigh. Stephen looked between the pouting Journeyman and Scars before whispering to Willy, "He knows he won second place, aye?"
"It's not your ill-luck or lack of skill, maestro. Not really."
"That makes me feel so much better."
Elena shook her head. "The streets have been swarming with Templars and mercenaries lately, so making a living as a thief has become more difficult, especially for the younger ones, and card games bring at least some money if you're good at them. Having to take extra precautions against being caught was often a pain the young ones complained of as well, but one night spent in Templar custody is one too much." Scars nodded; he had heard his share of the makeshift prisons his fellow Owlets had discovered with the help of Ezio and his other men, as well as the many disappearances that preceded them.
Lex remained silent as the talk turned to Templar prisons, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. The thief looked at him and frowned as he made no move, glancing at the two men on either side of her. Roland looked back at her before slowly reaching out a hand and touching the Sparrow's arm. He gasped and flinched back, almost toppling his chair in the process. Scars reached over and gripped his arm to steady him and his seat.
Roland was the first to speak again while Stephen searched for something in his bag.
"Guess each of us has unpleasant memories connected to the White Cloaks." He nodded when Lex glanced over at him. "Those bastards are responsible for inflicting severe illness on many of the not so wealthy of our hometown by gifting them food and clothes so the merchants would buy medicine only the Order provided. One of my sisters nearly died because of that."
"I heard a fire there stopped the Templars' plans," said Scars. Roland and Stephen looked at each other. Roland sighed and leaned against the table with one arm.
"That is a long story..."
The group glanced up as the Sparrow let out a long breath. Managing to find his tongue afterward, Lex whispered, "We got time. Feel like telling?"
"My sister Anna had been fighting the fever for a week," Roland began, his Italian laden with a heavy German accent, "and the medicine she needed was simply too expensive to afford. Herbs and other remedies had been all bought by the Templars long before, so nothing was available. Though Father forbade it, we broke into a pharmacy, intent on getting something for her. There we overheard two guards talking about what I first told you. We followed them to the harbor, as without proof nothing could have been done to stop them." The Falcon lowered his head as his voice trailed off, his gaze thoughtful.
"And that was when things didn't go as planned," the Scot continued with a snort. "Twenty soldiers surrounded two boys hardly sixteen. I bit the one holding me, making his torch drop, which was not such a good thing to happen in a hall where mostly linen and wool were stored. The chaos helped us to get out of it, without any proof."
"Our father sent us away from Bremen the next night. Seeing as my family has had connections with the Brotherhood for decades, they sent us into the custody of Caterina Sforza," Roland finished, his voice leaden. He didn't say how he missed the family he had to leave behind, though the others could hear it in his words. The two looked up at their companions once the tale was through. Elena seemed well-pleased, a little admiring smile on her lips. Scars was nodding. Lex had leaned forward nearly across the table, his eyes wide, as if waiting for more. "It was worth it, I deem. Those bastards are still trying to rebuild their former forces as the harbor burning cost them pretty much all of their funds. And no more deaths from that fever."
"Caterina Sforza?" Lex asked.
"Aye, that's what he said," snorted Stephen with a roll of his eyes.
"The lady who's currently captured by the Borgias? Who's currently their prisoner? She was actually in charge of people? Are you shitting me?" The Sparrow looked at him as if he'd taken off his head and started juggling it. Shaun had had the good grace to give him a crash course in history over the last few weeks, but he couldn't bring himself to believe anything that was said about the woman without an entire shaker of salt at the ready. "No, wait, don't answer that." He rubbed at his forehead and temples and sighed. "I can guess. I can guess. Wait, if you guys were in her custody, how or why'd you end up here?"
Stephen gave him a grin matching Willy's, took a roll of parchment out of his shoulder bag, and handed it to Scars and Lex before Roland could say anything.
"Ehm... I told you about my brother and authorities."
The two looked at the unrolled parchment, up at Stephen, then at the sheet again. On it was a nude Caterina Sforza, doing what to Lex seemed the Ping-Pong trick from the USO show the South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut movie. A smile appeared on Scars' face as he looked from Stephen to the image and back again once more.
"So you were behind it? You'll be pleased to know your drawings still sell very well. That Sforza woman was raging about it at Monteriggioni."
"Can we keep this and frame it and hang it on the wall somewhere?" Lex wondered, trying to imagine it hanging on one of the walls in the room they sat in. Stephen smiled and nodded, hugging Willy to his chest. Elena leaned over then, managing a peek at the drawing. This time she didn't blush, but gave Stephen an appreciative nod, making the Scot beam all the more.
"One question, if I may ask. What did the Night Master wish from you when he called the two of you the other day?"
"He wanted to know exactly what'd happened to the two ninnies in the infirmary," Lex answered, his mind traveling back over the short conversation.
Jameel sat at his desk, writing in his journal. What he was writing couldn't be said; when Lex drew near, he shut the book, not even looking up to say, "Hello, Lex." It was the old, familiar Arabic, almost like a caress.
"I hear you've already put two Novices in the infirmary in less than two hours. Is that supposed to be an accomplishment?" The Red Owl turned his gaze toward him. It wasn't the blizzard Lex had been expecting, but it wasn't the snowfall either. It was more the world after the snow had already fallen and both sky and land were cast in white. His eyes were bloodshot, rimmed with the shadows of many sleepless nights.
"I'd prefer to call it threshing the grain." It was impulsive, something he wouldn't usually have said. It earned him another of the tired looks from the other immortal.
"And I'd prefer to call it something you won't make a habit of."
Silence fell between them, the Owl's head bowed as he pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes squeezed shut. Lex frowned, brows furrowing to match those of his lover, lips pressed into a thin line.
"Can..." He made to move a hand, reaching to touch his shoulder, to rub the tension out of his back.
"Yes?" Jameel lifted his head, hearing the movement more than the word he'd spoken, his gaze now questioning.
The Sparrow lowered his arm, looking away from him, toward one wall that was slowly becoming decorated with diagrams of weapons, enemies, armor, allies. Beneath the hodgepodge of charcoal and parchment was a low bed, made but unused.
"Can I sleep in here with you tonight?"
Lex was woken from his thoughts by the scratching of charcoal on parchment. He began to wonder where the Scot got his supply of it, then remembered what Roland had said about Stephen's definition of personal property. He turned his head as he heard heavy footsteps approaching. A very tired looking Bear appeared in the doorway. He sighed when he looked toward the young thief.
The Sparrow looked between Elena and Uberto. He knew that look; he'd seen it before on some of his teachers' faces before returning a paper to him.
"Young lady, I have no idea what I shall do with you," the tall monk addressed the girl. "You can read and you're not bad at that, but what in all the names of the holy is this?" He held up a sheet of parchment. "If I didn't know what I'd dictated to you, I'd have no idea what your writing is supposed to mean here."
The Sparrow lifted a brow as Elena bowed her head, standing and moving to get a better look at the page the monk was holding. He tilted his head first to one side, then the other and back again. It was a second before what he was seeing finally clicked, his mind sifting back, back, back through time. Or, as was the case with where he stood then, forward.
"Oh," he said, running a hand through his hair as he wondered why he hadn't recognized the problem straightaway. "I think I see what's going on here."
The thief, who'd been playing with the deck of cards to avoid meeting Uberto's eyes, looked up at Lex and frowned.
"What do you mean, maestro?" Lex went to the table and flopped back into his chair, the page still in his hand. He pointed to the writing, a few vague scribbles and jumbles of words with odd spaces and capitalizations here and there.
"I think you might have dyslexia. I'm not a pro by any means at diagnosing stuff like that, but judging from having to read my dyslexic friend Halim's writing for thirteen years, you might have it."
Elena looked between them again, utterly confused and at a loss for how to respond. She had never such words before. Is it an illness, or is it just a scholarly way of saying I'm stupid? she thought. "It's an illness, but one that can be worked with." Lex tapped his head. "Your brain's wired differently, so sometimes words and letters get ******** up or jumbled, or it takes a little longer for you to process them." Even as he said it, he knew the explanation fell nearer to the shittier range than top notch on the scale of explanations, but it was all he could think of for how to describe the problem without the aid of a medical dictionary.
Elena was still looking down, studying her hands, when she felt her hair ruffled gently.
"Dunnae frown, lassie. Your mind cannot be as tangled as mine is. Just ask Willy--he knows what I'm talking about." The Scot tapped her forehead, making the girl blush brightly. "And she who simply manages to learn to memorize cards that quickly must have something in there." The monk shook his head at Stephen's words but joined in giving the red-cheeked young thief a smile before he turned to where Ignacio stood off to the side, talking to the Romani leader.
The young monk stood toe to toe with the man, their heads close together. Both Luca's hands rested on his shoulders; the Rom's fingers worked the muscle beneath absently.
"We've finally settled in," he said, smiling down at the Mouse. "What of you? How are things here for you?"
Ignacio returned the smile, his own face reddening at Luca's touch.
"A lot of work to do for me here. Many, many new recruits, and some of them still have to learn that this is not a game at all." Not wanting to lean into the Rom Baro in the open, he settled for fiddling with the buttons of his shirt. "I always thought that the nobles would grant their offspring a decent education and some common sense, but it seems the contadini do a better job of that." Luca jumped as the little monk suddenly slapped his forehead and hissed what sounded like a very fluent curse under his breath. Following him off, the pair returned to the group gathered around the table shortly afterward, Inigo now in possession of a small, iron box. "Can any of you help me to get this thing open again?"
"What the ever living ******** is that? A gift from the man in the iron mask?" Lex said as he and the others gathered around. Scars paused in his movements to find a good position only to give the Sparrow's head a shove. "Hey!"
"May I?" Elena asked. Ignacio handed the box over as the girl took out what looked like a bundle of dirty rags from her pocket, unwrapping it to reveal a set of shiny metallic tools. She picked up a thin, needle-like device and one that looked like an allen wrench. The others had hardly counted to three when the box popped open. The smell of costly oils and incense came from the interior. Uberto grinned and gave Elena a nod of thanks.
"Now we know who to ask if Brother Gabriele once again forgets to send the keys along. I guess we'll be receiving those sometime next month." The Sparrow leaned over and gave the box a deep sniff.
"Myrrh, frankincense, jasmine, rose, lavender, but no hash," he reported, his tone almost sad with that last item. The monks turned and walked away to bring the valuable goods to safety, Luca just behind, while Elena ordered and rewrapped her tools. Stephen pondered a few minutes, then tugged Roland's sleeve, whispering into his brother's ear. The German nodded and took a small pouch from his belt, handing it over to Lex.
"Feel free to help yourself, sayyid."
The Sparrow looked at Roland, then opened the pouch and stared at its contents. Leaning down, he took a deep, experimental breath. A smile spread across his face as he set the pouch down and pulled a small square of parchment from one of the pouches on his belt. Rolling some of the herb into a rough joint, he lit the one end on one of the candles and dragged deeply. Letting it out again more slowly than he'd taken it in, he looked over at the others.
"You guys might wanna go train or something. I think me and your gift'll be a while." The brothers grinned and led the smaller female out. Scars made to follow, only to stop at the threshold. The Journeyman looked up at the Owlet, pausing in the middle of his second drag. "Hnn?"
"Don't be so greedy with that little gift. I'm going out there with them and you'd better save me some." The red-clad man disappeared as the time traveler broke into hacking laughter.
X x X
"Allahu Akbar..." The voice was soft yet sonorous. The Brit found himself blinking away sleep. The first faint rays of light were not even cascading through the wooden blinds, though Shaun could make out thin, patched strip of canvas that served as a curtain. "Allahu Akbar..."
The Harrier crawled soundlessly from their shared pallet, pulling his rumpled tunic straight with one hand. Something tugged inside of him then, a thrill he hadn't felt since his boyhood. As he took up his own kneeling position beside the other man, he bowed his head, hands coming together automatically. The first notes rose up out of him, ringing from his throat, a single, deep sound.
Badr continued, "Ash-hadu an-la ilaha illa llah..." Shaun fell in time with him, "...eleison..."
The songs continued, meshing into one resonant piece as the sun finished surmounting the horizon, the rays of light streaming in through the wooden slats, blinding the Englishman. After a time, his vision cleared, but for the spots of black and purple that danced on his retinas, and he was able to look over at the other man.
"I believe what we just did is called quid lobet. Mixing two pieces of music that shouldn't really come together," he whispered.
"And I believe, Novice," Badr replied, his face still turned toward the sun, "that what we just did is called praying."
X x X
"So, riddle me this, Red Arrow: when did I sign up for archery practice?" Lex asked as he stood with the quiver strapped to his back, one of the Owlets' recurved bows in hand.
"A few days ago. Don't you remember?" Lex thought back to what they had been speaking of. Jameel's Owlets, that's what it was. He had wondered then why they all were archers. Scars had simply said it was a useful skill for long ranged combat--why close in on the enemy when one could simply pick him off with a well-placed bolt? It had reminded him of the guns in Acre. That was when he'd made the mistake of saying he was a more or less fair shot. Scars hadn't believed him and wanted to put him to the test.
Now here we stand, me looking like an idiot and him like a drill sergeant. The Sparrow glanced up as he felt a drop of water hit his nose. The sky, now clear, betrayed nothing of where the water had come from. And it's going to rain sometime soon. Lovely. "Draw," Scars ordered. Lex looked at him dumbly for a minute before he reached back and fumbled an arrow out of the quiver. He almost dropped it as he brought it over his shoulder. Looking at the thing as if it was going to turn into a snake, he found where the butt fitted against the string, drawing it back to his ear as he raised the bow. His arms began to tremble from shoulder to fingertip as he tried to see how to sight down the arrow toward the target. "Loose." The time traveler yelped as the string snapped against his hidden blade bracer, more surprised than actually injured. The arrow sailed wide of where he'd aimed and clattered to rest against the wall.
"********!" Scars chuckled almost inaudibly as the Sparrow swore, taking up another bow from the rack it rested on and stringing it effortlessly.
"Try this one, Hakim." The two traded bows as Lex nocked another arrow. He drew back again, trying to reach his ear once more. Both his arms screamed at the tension. He shivered as fingers slid along his arm, adjusting his hold on the bow and the arrow. The orders were heated whispers in his ear, "Two fingers below, not one. What are you doing with your other hand? Close your fingers. Make a fist beneath the arrow. There. Who taught you to draw string to ear?"
Scars snorted and moved his right hand once more. "Thumb to cheek, Hakim. Relax your elbow. No, the other elbow, your left. Just so. Now loose."
"Should I go on?" a new voice asked. "Or just give up?"
The arrow landed in the straw dummy's kneecap.
"Were you even looking at the target?" Scars asked.
"Huh? What?" The Sparrow looked away from Scars to where the arrow had made its new home. "Yeah, was going for the knees." He shrugged as well as his aching shoulders allowed. He'd been aiming for the head, but the Owlet's proximity and the new voice had distracted him. He looked over at the girl who stood on the edge of the training ring. "You just going to sit there and talk to yourself, or are you wanting to join us?"
The girl looked up from where she sat muttering to herself.
"Oh, no, I'm all right." She was a slight girl, dirty blonde and pale, though it seemed she'd gotten sunburnt on her cheeks, nose, and high, high forehead. Yeesh, kid, what happened to that forehead? thought the Sparrow. What's her name? Deidre? Daphne? Dianna, that's it! "I was just going anyway, maestro." The girl turned to leave, the leg of her pants catching on strut of the fence and sending her sprawling to the stones. Both the men winced as she spluttered and shot to her feet again, muffling a noise of pain as she hurried to the door. "Maybe go see Rina for that sunburn?"
Whether she heard him or not was hard to tell, though the small Journeyman was sure he wasn't hallucinating when he saw Giacomo of all people start after her to bring her in the right direction.
"Are you done watching that Novice?" Lex nodded. "Good." Scars took up his station beside him, well out of misfire range, and began barking orders once more, "Draw. Aim. Loose." Lex released, the arrow finding its way to the dummy's other knee. "Stop giving those men arrows to the knee!"
"He was a man like me," intoned the Sparrow, "until he took an arrow the knee!"
"Draw!"" He jumped and obeyed. "Aim! Loose!" Lex panted as he drew another arrow, unsure where the last had even fallen.
"Why are you making me do suicide runs?"
"You can quit once you've hit something vital. Draw! Aim! Loose!" The Owlet paused as he saw where the latest arrow had landed, his face flushed, the fletch still quivering out of the dummy's crotch as Lex grinned cheekily over at him.
X x X
The Sparrow wandered the roofs of Rome, the Petrel by his side for a change with Willy resting in his pack as usual. He had learned Stephen's bird during the last few rainy weeks of March that led into an equally wet start to April.
"April showers bring May flowers," he'd told himself as yet another day dawned gray and bleak. "And May flowers bring--" A tackle had sent him sprawling to the wet pile of laundry behind him.
"A Stormbird's hug to cheer up wee Sawney?" the Scot had said. "Although I've naught to do with flowers and rain?"
Lex had learned to bear the rain to do his rounds of patrol. It was something to do in any case. He and Scars usually went together, sometimes he and Amir. When Stephen decided to join, it more often than not became a race around the area with the goal of getting back to home base.
The two hopped from roof to roof, not their usual frenzied pace, more a leisurely stroll this time.
"Say, Sawney. What is the scarred Owlet making such a mystery about?" Stephen looked curiously at the Sparrow, one arm extended in case the little Journeyman should need it for balance; the slick tile and his footing still were sometimes at odds with one another. "Says you've been setting up things for your recruits."
"Well, if I told you, that'd ruin the surprise, wouldn't it, Stevie?" The teen smiled widely up at the man, taking his hand from his arm. "You'll just have to wait and see. It'll be ready by the time the weekend's up."
"You confused something, wee master. The patient one of us brother is blonde, beardier, and a smidgeon taller than me is." Stephen grinned, hopped over to the next roof, and headed down to the street the next moment, making for the island where the headquarters lay.
Lex staggered as he dropped down to land on the cobbles, trotting and weaving through the throng to be at the Petrel's side once more.
"Well, pretend it's Christmas or something."
Stephen sighed and pouted, muttering to himself in Gael. Lex had to c**k his head and squint, but was sure he'd heard "Stubborn, sneaky Sawney" mixed in with the unintelligible rambling.
From outside with the rain beginning to come down in sheets, the building they walked toward seemed the dead husk of an absurdly-stacked wooden soufflé whose layers had caved in one atop the other. Both knew, however, that life swarmed beneath and within.
"Salve, Uberto, Lena," Lex called as they headed into the room off the entrance that had more or less become the drying room for anyone entering the building. Stephen went off to where Roland sat to grouse to him about their tight-lipped mentor. "What's up?" The monk handed him another sheaf of parchment covered in Elena's handwriting.
"Decided to assign you the task of transcribing what your student has put there into plain letters for this old Bear," explained Uberto while he scratched his chin. He nodded to Elena, who sat with a pile of metal snippets in front of her on the table. "May you be as creative with your tinkering as you are with creating new words, little Robin." The girl blushed and studied the metal bits intently as the monk strode away.
Lex pushed back his dripping hood, his hair, lank and blackened by the weather but for a few cowlicks, curling about the nape of his neck. Shucking off his boots and socks, he drew off his sodden robes and inspected his tunic. Deciding it wasn't wet enough to quit, he flopped into a chair and tilted his head back, eyes shut as he sighed.
"I'm a little nervous of the trials to come, maestro," Elena murmured. "Will those not passing be sent away?" Lex shook his head, sniffed as he heard the sound of a plate being set down on the table, not wanting to open his eyes just yet.
"It depends, I suppose. We'll just have to wait and see." He pointed toward the table. "Is it warm and is it edible?"
"It's a new recipe from Naples, Meister," said Roland. "Some of the recruits taught it to us." Lex opened an eye before both opened wide, the film of tiredness melting away as he stared at the plate. "It's only a peasant dish, but--"
"Was?" the German asked, startled by the youth's sudden affirmation of the divine presence, where before they had never spoken of his beliefs.
"God does indeed exist," Lex pounded the table with the flat of his hand to emphasize each word. "Pizza is in the house, on a plate right in front of me! God ******** exists, end of story!" The three Novices watched as the Sparrow took up the morsel--no more than a slice of flatbread topped with goat's cheese, and a few slices of salted meat and fish, oil, and garlic--and ate slowly, savoring each mouthful like it was his last. "There's no tomato sauce. God, you're a cruel, twisted mother ********."
Stephen glanced toward his companions before whispering, "Methinks our poor teacher's gone a bit daft with the weather. Needs some sun to dry out his brains."
X x X
The Novices were awakened and in the campo as dawn broke. A large wooden post had been driven into the ground, an arrow sunk into the wood far above their heads. Scars stood off to one side leisurely, back against a tree. His quiver rested in a similar position, bow over one shoulder. His eyes were on the Sparrow as he waited for him to begin the day's activities. Thankfully, the rain had stopped for the time being.
Lex stood at parade rest before the little group, or as close to it as he could come, watching its members knuckle the remaining dregs of sleep from their eyes. He addressed each of them in turn with a nod, "Hercole. Stephen, Willy. Roland. Elena. Giacomo. Dianna."
"Yes?" the last girl yawned. Each Novice dealt differently with being addressed by the little Journeyman. Stephen was bursting with excitement as he bounced on the balls of his feet and gave off little wordless noises while Roland tried to keep an eye on him and make sure he didn't start going backflips where he stood, the blonde man entirely relaxed. Elena was tense, Giacomo and Hercole regailing one another with baudy jests.
How shall these ever become proper Assassins? Scars thought. His eyes flicked from Elena to Giacomo, Hercole to Dianna, landing on Lex again. Most of them are hardly more than children.
"I'd like to see how you all'd get me that arrow." Walking over to one of the trees opposite Scars, he pocketed his hands and waited, watching.
At first, the Novices were confused by the request. That was all? Hercole was the first to head up to the post. It took him a good deal of time and left him with a great many splinters in his fingers, but he managed it. With a broad grin, he thrust it to Scars, who took it without so much as a blink. Dianna hardly made it off the ground while Giacomo's hands slipped when he was almost to the top. He grabbed the arrow for purchase, but to no avail. The landing was inelegant, but luck was on his side--the arrow had been pulled down with his weight. Snapped in half, but down.
When Scars shot a fresh arrow into the pole, he pointed to Roland to try next. Roland looked at the pole for so long Hercole snarled, "It will not come to you if you simply stand and stare at it." Roland turned to Lex.
"It's just to get the arrow back, no matter how?" A nod. The Falcon stepped forward, took a good grip on the pole, and lifted it, laying it down on its side as if it weighed no more than a log for the fire. He bowed, plucked the arrow out, and handed it to Scars. The rest of the group stood slack-jawed, the archer among their number. Then a grin spread across the small Journeyman's face from ear to ear, wide enough to give even Willy competition.
"I--I don't even..." He gestured to the pole almost helplessly as he broke into a fit of giggles. "Can you put it back for us again?"
"That's cheating!" Hercole cried, but fell silent as Scars glared him down.
"He solved the task successfully his way." He looked at Roland. "Put it back, Falcon." Roland put the thing back as easily as he'd plucked it out. Stephen stepped forward after Scars put the arrow into the wood.
"We can use whatever we got on hand?" The Owlet nodded. "Need ye, Bruderherz." Stephen waved his brother back over and swiftly climbed onto his shoulders. Roland being a head taller than him, he came nearly level with the fletch after having sought a good, balance stance on the other man. Stephen then took Willy out of his shoulder bag and used the skull as a sort of clamp to pluck the arrow out.
"Pffff." Lex snorted as he went over and took the proffered shaft from Stephen as he hopped down from atop his brother and walked over to Scars. "Can I shoot it this time?" The scarred Owlet looked at him as if he'd just asked if he could eat a bowl of fried worms in front of the assembled Novices. Lex gave him an endearing smile, causing the man to emit an overdramatically loud sigh of exasperation and say as he handed over the bow, "Don't miss."
The Owlet watched with his heart in his throat as Lex took aim. He'll miss, he feared, or he'll break my bow. God, don't let him break my bow. The Sparrow did neither, the arrow finding its home in the highest point of the pole. A thump on his back almost sent him sprawling, the swordsman giving him a brief, one-armed squeeze before retrieving his bow.
Elena glanced up at the pole thoughtfully. The wood offered no holds for either feet or hands and the sweat and blood left on it would make the ascent even more difficult. No wonder Stefano and Orlando worked out other ways. But I cannot simply repeat Stefano's solution.
"How long will it take, woman?" Hercole bellowed.
"I don't want to wait the rest of the day until you get your a** up there," Giacomo added. They were silenced as the swordsman, medic, and the taller, northern Novices gave them frigid stares. Hercole managed to roll his eyes when he saw the girl empty her pockets and start to bend the snippets of metal that had been therein, though even Scars allowed his eyes to widen slightly at how quickly her hands moved from one piece to the next. In less than a minute, the little metallic claw was attached to two thin ropes. The Robin climbed up into the tree Scars leaned against and made her way out onto one of the branches, minimizing her distance to the pole. The world had gone silent but for the early morning birdsong heralding the day as she tossed out the hook. The device wrapped around the shaft and allowed her to pull it loose with a quick jerk.
"Nananananananananananana! Batman!" Lex crowed, grinning from ear to ear even as he and Scars ducked to avoid the hook possibly smacking them in the face on the way down. "Can you make me one?" Elena smiled as she dropped down from the branch.
"If you grant me some time, I will craft you one, passero." Lex nodded and waved the Novices away to prepare for the next task however they would and to get a good breakfast in. His stomach decided for him that he would do the same. The swordsman fell in step beside the Sparrow.
"What do you think of what we saw?"
"Think they did pretty damn well for phase one. We have phase two ready?" Lex asked, looking over at him. Stepping closer, he wrapped an arm around the other man's waist. Scars gave him a look, confused by the sudden closeness, but let him be, eventually placing his own arm around Lex's neck.
"Any favorites you'd like to pick, seeing all six passed this first one? Well, some in better ways than others. But you'll make the final decision."
"So far, I still want to feet Hercole and Giacomo my fists, but I'll keep my favoritisms to myself. At least you're not willing to say who you're placing your bets on." Scars shook his head but didn't respond to the little jab or the c**k-eyed grin the Sparrow threw him. He followed Lex to the room where the next task was set up after a brief stop in the kitchen. The two shared slices of warm, jam-smeared bread quietly in the room before they heard the Novices enter.
The Assassins bolted to their feet as if caught at something terrible. Lex hastily licked around his mouth, trying to free his face of the crumbs stuck to it by the sticky preserves. He gave up and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. The Novices gathered around. Set before them on a table were several objects, including daggers, throwing knives, hidden guns, a flower, an assortment of swords, a long, thin needle of bone, and a set of bows, a quiver of arrows, and a crossbow.
"All right, lads and lassies," said the Sparrow, "choose whichever weapon you think is best for successfully finishing a target."
Hercole grasped a b*****d sword while Giacomo went for the crossbow. Dianna looked a little longer at the collection, but then took the nightshade flower in her hand. Lex gave an involuntary shudder as he saw which item the girl had chosen. Scars looked at Roland, who stood before the table but made no move toward any of the weapons. The Owlet's look became questioning as after a time he still showed no sign of choosing.
"Well," said the German finally, "if the task is to finish your target and not be spotted afterward, it would be wise to use something that does not look like a weapon." He smiled and showed Scars his huge, calloused hands, a long scar lining his left palm. "These would be my choice. Nothing else I need to end a life."
"Nice choice." Lex smiled. "Glad you're on my side." The blonde chuckled and ruffled his mentor's hair. For an instant, the Sparrow was sure that if he'd wanted, Roland could have crushed his head like an overripe melon.
Elena stepped forward next. She looked the table up and down before her eyes fell on the thin device that glowed faintly with a bleached white light. She picked up the hollow needle and nodded, having seen both implements in Orianna's workshop and upon Amir's person when he chose to unveil them. Scars nodded at her choice.
Once Elena had returned to her place, Stephen stepped up, only to step back again. Wrapping his arms around Elena and Roland, he said, "These're the best weapons a man could have, Sawney." Lex smiled slowly, nodding to him.
Hercole wanted to say something, but then he saw Roland folding his arms over his broad chest and how the man regarded him with a stricter glare than even the Owlet. He remembered as well how Roland had almost broken his arm when he'd tossed him from the training ring, so his trap remained firmly shut.
"That is it for today," said the swordsman. "There will be one last trial to come for those of you who are selected. Keep to your training. Dismissed."
When the Novices were gone, Jameel stepped from the shadows where he'd been waiting.
"Well, little bird, I guess now we can have a talk about where we will send whom."
"Can we give Ezio the moron twins?" Lex asked, managing a small smile. Jameel lifted a brow and shook his head. "But, really, Hercole and Giacomo aren't gonna mix well with the others. Dianna might go good with Rina."
"That is what I thought, too," said Scars. He exchanged glances with Lex. "And that leaves the trouble-makers to be assigned to you." Lex glanced from Scars to Jameel, who was now grinning. It was a look he hadn't seen in a long time, not since he had become a Journeyman in Masyaf. Cautiously, carefully, Jameel took his face into his hands, rubbing his cheeks with his thumb. His voice lowered, as if speaking intimately to his Sparrow alone, his gaze softening in a way the swordsman hadn't seen before, though at points he spoke to both the young men before him.
"Ezio and I have had some long talks about this, both in person and by message. Machiavelli and La Volpe as well. We thought a sort of third branch would be a good idea, between the guilds and the regular Assassins. People who think and fight in such ways neither the Templars nor the Crows could ever foresee. And for that you two, and your Novices, have found yourselves apt candidates." Scars glanced at Lex, who looked as dumbfounded as disbelieving as he felt. Taking a hand from the Sparrow's cheek, Jameel placed it on the red-clad Novice's shoulder. "The ceremony will not be for a time, not until our forces have been settled and this fiasco with the Sforza woman taken care of, but you both should know and act now as you are." He gave them each a nod, which they barely figured out how to return. "Journeyman, you know your duties. Go to them." Scars gawped at him for a second before slapping his fist to his chest and hurrying away.
Jameel returned his gaze to Lex, his hand once more brushing his face. Giving him a soft smile, he reached down and took the bracer from his lover's left arm. Slipping the one off his own, he murmured, "You've earned this, little bird." The Sparrow watched as the straps were tightened down on his forearm, remembering a time long ago when he had done the same thing with one of Jameel's battered hidden blades. Lips pressed to his brow as fingers combed into his lengthened, curling hair, a trail of kisses pressed from forehead to crown as he was pulled to the Red Owl's chest. "My little Novice. But that was so long ago. You're a Master Assassin now."
The immortal felt his stomach flutter as a shiver traversed his spine, his lover's arms wound tight around him. Stroking his head, he whispered, "Go watch the gates, little Sparrow. We'll have visitors soon enough." He watched as the young man nodded, turning and trotting away. For a moment, he was back in the dusty center of a market, watching the same young man, little more than a boy, run up the slope that lead to an ancient fortress. The same comfortable ghost of his embrace hung around his middle. Oh, Lord, how I missed this feeling.