|The Tale of the Condottiere
Author: Guede Mazaka
Alessandro Nesta had reached the age of thirty years without having suffered any seriously disfiguring illness or event, which was something of an accomplishment for a member of the Roman nobility given the times. He stood unusually tall and was well-proportioned, with a face that, if not following classic lines, still found a good deal of favor in most people’s eyes. His family had once numbered among the wealthiest, but though consequent unwise political speculations had since diminished their riches, they still had been well enough off for him to have secured a position in the papal service without unduly straining their coffers for the customary contribution to the pope’s funds. His undeniable talent and intelligence had carried him the rest of the way, and so now he was in Ravenna a full-fledged captain of the papal guard, charged with protecting the pope’s envoy to a condottiere who rumor had it had been birthed in a sty somewhat less snug and clean than the one generally believed to have witnessed the worldly entrance of God’s Son.
“This is ridiculous,” he muttered. He’d lost count of which time this was that he’d said that, as this dirty little antechamber had quite clearly been razed of anything interesting: no mosaics, murals…the barbarians had even smashed all the stonework in their efforts to strip it of any gildings and precious inlays. “Is this damned Hun a heretic? Because if he isn’t, he might as well start looking into that once—”
“Patience, Sandro. It is a virtue shared by both the pagans and the Church.” Cardinal Lippi somehow maintained his serenity despite the fact that they had first been forced into leaving behind the rest of the escort at the front gate and now had been made to wait for nearly half an hour.
If, of course, the clock tower Alessandro could barely see through the grimed glass of the one unboarded window was accurate. He suspected it ran slow.
The scrape of the door hinges snapped his attention forward again, and he warily watched as the heavy, scarred-oak door gradually swung outward. He’d had to surrender his sword to the outer guards, but they hadn’t bothered searching him so he still would be able to sufficiently defend himself and Lippi, if necessary. He—
So did Lippi, though that experienced worthy managed to recover himself enough to attempt a salutation within the minute. “By the Virgin Mary.”
“Il Mago has, in fact, been baptized into the Church of St. Peter but nevertheless I’d refrain from lowering his opinion of it any more than it already lies,” Paolo Maldini said. His smile was gentle, but with a strain to it that Alessandro didn’t remember. “Incidentally, he also takes extreme offense to being associated with the Huns—his parents fled Bosnia ahead of the Turks to Sweden and he was born there.”
Then again, he was supposed to have been viciously tortured and slaughtered along with the rest of his family during Ludovico Sforza’s purge of Milan four years ago. Considering that, he looked very well. He certainly hadn’t lost his diplomatic skills.
“I humbly apologize for the wait you’ve had to endure, but the…” Unfortunate delays occasioned by Il Mago’s extreme devotion to his duties, more flowery apologies…as shocked and secretly delighted as Alessandro was to see Paolo, the familiar opening gambits of any state meeting never failed to bore him into inattention.
In this case, that was probably to his benefit, as he’d already let down his guard for several minutes while in hostile territory. And that might even have been a calculated effect: Il Mago might be twenty-three and from the hinterlands of the civilized world, but he and his army had already carved out a good-sized chunk from the Romagna as well as smashing a French expeditionary force so badly that the French king had actually made a legal truce with him, a mercenary without the blood or even the manners to somehow leverage his soldiers into a noble title.
While Lippi and Paolo hastily settled a few last points of protocol, Alessandro took his time observing what kind of headquarters this Il Mago had made. With the pope in ill health and the few other capable generals locked up in the latest Florentine-Venetian dispute, the way to Rome lay wide open, yet Il Mago had settled for distant, malarial Ravenna. He’d taken over a villa from Imperial Rome’s dying days and had impressively rebuilt the defenses, but as Alessandro could see just from the hall through which they were led, he hadn’t done much else. The man had to have collected extraordinary amounts of plundered treasures, yet there wasn’t even a hint of them.
The little Alessandro had seen of the military camp on the way in…well, ‘little’ was the correct description. Off the field, condottieres usually let their men go like hounds loosed into a game pen, and so they should’ve been spilling drunkenly all over the place, tripping over their whores on the way to the latrines. But the escort that’d seen them to the villa had been the only men of Il Mago’s in sight and they’d been remarkably stone-like.
Even now there seemed to be no one. No mistresses, no servants…Alessandro felt the back of his neck prickle and swerved back to Lippi’s side just as the other man stifled a squawk of astonishment. “What?” Lippi said, rounding on Paolo. “Do you really mean to say…”
“He means no insult. It’s merely a precaution for the health of your Eminence. Till the doctors are sure that the dead brigand wasn’t in fact plague-stricken…” Paolo’s heart clearly wasn’t in the excuse, though he mouthed the words well enough. He couldn’t look continuously at Lippi and persisted in glancing off to the side so his gaze repeatedly crossed Alessandro. “I assure you, the meal that’s waiting—”
“Utter rot. I came here to see Il Mago, not to eat. I’ve been entrusted with safeguarding the spiritual health of Christiandom and I’m damn well going to see to that first before any fleshly appetites of mine.” No matter that Paolo had been one of Lippi’s favorite students; Lippi still threw back his heavy robes, drew himself up and dared Paolo with his eyes to go on in such a ridiculous matter.
There was a flicker of respectful appreciation in Paolo’s face, but instead of dispelling the tension with a wisely-chosen aside, he merely bowed his head. “Then I’m very sorry for your disappointment, but I can only protest that Il Mago thinks solely to ensure the success of your mission.”
Some movement caught Alessandro’s eye and he stepped back, crooking his fingers to touch the dagger strapped to the inside of his wrist, but it was only Lippi sighing. “I think it’s better that I retire, in that case, and return at a more favorable time,” he said. He started to turn, but paused to throw a puzzled, sad glance on Paolo. “I do thank God that you are well, though.”
Then a nod to Alessandro, and then Lippi whirled about and quickstepped about a yard forward before settling into a very slow pace for the journey back up the long hall. Alessandro suppressed a contradictory impulse to make a face at that perceptive but sometimes damnably annoying man’s back, and instead slipped up beside Paolo. “Good God, what happened? You sound like one of those stuffed-up chamberlains we used to tease.”
Paolo blinked in surprise, then smiled. It was a freer, more amused one than the one with which he’d greeted them, but it still retained that tightness around the mouth. “You know, I’ve developed quite a bit of sympathy for them lately.”
As if to make up for earlier, he stared steadily at Lippi’s back till Alessandro nearly wondered if Paolo was trying to point out something. Though he hardly needed any more warnings. “I thought when I first saw you…well, after getting over the shock, that perhaps you were the reason why Il Mago’s suddenly stopped obeying Ferdinand of Naples. But it’s that you’re serving him, in fact.”
His words pained him to say, and certainly pained Paolo to hear, but the other man didn’t deny them. His eyes stayed fixed on Lippi, but his mouth twisted hard before it straightened for speech. “It’s been a very long four years, Sandro. No, actually, longer since…so you’re a captain of the guard now?”
“For the past two years,” Alessandro said. He glanced to the side, but the windows of the gallery through which they were walking had been bricked up, which added to the irrational, claustrophobic paranoia rapidly developing in him. Then a bit of stone crumbled off and clattered to the ground so he instinctively swerved, his arm brushing up against Paolo. He hesitated, then let his fingers drag along Paolo’s inner arm as he pulled away. “Adriana? Your sons? What we heard in Rome…”
“Likely all true, and then not going far enough.” For a very, very brief moment, Paolo’s voice rang like steel, low and sharp. Then he ducked his head as Lippi made as if to turn, only half-raising it when the other man in fact didn’t. “Adriana and the boys are all fine and well. But they’re the only ones.”
Alessandro couldn’t find anything meaningful to say to that, so he simply didn’t reply. They were nearly to the end of the hall anyway and he needed to be thinking again like a member of the papal guard, not getting lost in nostalgia.
“Again, I have to express Il Mago’s regret that you will not be partaking of our hospitality,” Paolo said. He’d withdrawn a few paces and had wiped his face clear of anything but detached politeness. “And my personal regret.”
Lippi had been about to deliver a last scathing message, but Paolo’s ending words seemed to sting some pity out of him. Instead he was rather subdued, and then even went so far as to kiss Paolo on the cheeks—so it was natural enough that Alessandro followed suit.
He was careful to put his hands lightly on Paolo’s shoulders, but the moment that he bent forward and his body blocked Lippi’s view, Paolo reached up and seized his left hand. Paolo’s mouth whispered against his cheek as a scrap of paper was shoved into his palm, and then the other man was stepping back, nothing in particular in his eyes. He was absently brushing at his clothes as the guards came to see Alessandro and Lippi to the front gate.
* * *
“As if the politics weren’t bad enough, this place stinks like a pig sty,” Lippi grumbled, stomping about the cramped room. It was idiocy to lodge within Il Mago’s grasp, but nearby Ferrara was currently hostile as well and that rather limited their choices. “Damn this…this…well, what is he? A Serb, a Swede?”
Alessandro took the tray of tasted food from the servant and shut the door, then carried their evening meal over to the table. “A fool,” he suggested. “Does he really think he can put off a Cardinal like that?”
Lippi let out a gruff bark of laughter as he finally settled at the window. “Damn. There is a sty next door.”
He’d left various pieces of his vestments strewn about the room, which Alessandro now began to pick up. When acting as an envoy, Lippi preferred to travel without the ridiculous train of hangers-on nearly every other prelate had and simply had his escort act as his valets. Some of the other officers found it insulting, but personally, Alessandro thought it was a pittance in return for not having to deal with whining soft-handed hairdressers and pages.
“Well, Bosnia’s looked to the Greek in Constantinople for years…Paolo might swear up and down his master’s been baptized in our Church, but who really knows with that lot? So what did Paolo tell you?” After another moment, Lippi turned about to look sharply at Alessandro. “What on earth is he doing in Il Mago’s service?”
“I think it’s his family,” Alessandro finally said. Paolo had finished his education in Lippi’s household and would’ve known that Lippi would be listening in, but the note had clearly been meant only for Alessandro. And while Alessandro also owed a good deal to Lippi’s help and genuinely liked the man, he knew well enough Lippi would always pursue the Church’s business first. “They’re alive, and if…where would Il Mago have been then? Not in Milan—”
Lippi grimaced, and then again when he realized Alessandro had caught him. “He’s only been Il Mago for the past two years. Before that, there’s reason to believe he was working for D’Este, favorite ally of the Sforzas. So he might well have been.”
The other man crossed the room and sat down at the table, so Alessandro had to join him. After making short work of the Grace, Lippi fell to with a hearty appetite; Alessandro ate enough to not draw too much attention, but admitted he was more distracted by the situation.
“How the wheel turns…I remember thinking Paolo would end up Duke before the century ended, and now he’s a Ferraresi puppet,” Lippi muttered. “And we’re still stuck with those bloody-minded Sforzas.”
“You think so? About Ferrara.” Alessandro threw down his napkin and tapped his fingers against his plate, then swung back up to his feet. They’d ridden hard to make their failure of a meeting and now his calves were starting to cramp. “They sent that request for help when Il Mago first got to Ravenna.”
Lippi paused to swallow some wine, thinking. Then he shrugged. “But he’s just sat here and hasn’t marched, has he? Besides, Ercole D’Este has that Neapolitan wife, and we do know Ferdinand was paying Il Mago’s bills till recently. It’d suit them both to have the Sforzas out, and why else would a peasant like Il Mago have a Maldini making his excuses for him?”
The window mostly overlooked said pig sty, but just beyond it Alessandro could barely make out the stable. He’d set up watchmen with torches, but the firelight barely reached the stable roof. “I have no idea…I’m going to do a last round of the sentries, Your Eminence.”
“All right. I’ll likely still be up drafting letters, so don’t bother waiting for me, Sandro,” Lippi said.
Alessandro returned the smile, but only till he’d reached the doorway. He did check on the night guard, and properly, but after he’d finished he turned his steps towards that dark stable roof.
He’d set a guard at both doors and he told them he thought his horse might’ve lamed itself earlier and he was checking on it. They readily accepted the excuse and paid no more attention as he instead went up into the stable loft, one hand on his swordhilt. He hadn’t dared bring a lantern, but stray light from the torches outside dimly filtered through so he could make out something of what was around him.
Paolo was already up there, kneeling so close to the ladder top that Alessandro nearly jumped back to the ground in surprise. The darkness didn’t hide the flash of Paolo’s teeth as he grimaced. “Careful.”
“A little late for that,” Alessandro grunted, hauling himself the rest of the way up. He let go of his sword once he was sure they were alone.
A wry low laugh wrung itself out of Paolo. “You could’ve always not come. Or had me trapped.”
“And taken back to Rome with us? I did think about it.” Alessandro reached out till his fingers touched something. He wrapped his hand around it, found it to be Paolo’s upper arm, and used it to move closer. “God’s blood, Paolo. I thought you were dead. They said your father was cut down on the Duomo’s steps.”
Paolo shifted, his hands falling on Alessandro’s shoulders and then Alessandro’s sides. He leaned close enough for his breath to ghost raggedly over Alessandro’s face. “Did they mention first he was dragged by horses there from our house? I don’t think—I hope he wasn’t alive when they did get there.”
A trace of bile seeped into Alessandro’s mouth. He bit down on his lip, then pulled his hand up to Paolo’s neck. The curve of it bent into his palm, and then Paolo grabbed his wrist.
“Never mind that,” Paolo hissed urgently. He hauled down Alessandro’s hand, but the movement only swayed their awkward crouches closer together. “Listen. Get Lippi out of here. Tonight. Now. I lied earlier—Zlatan’s not even here yet. He’s been bogged down in Rimini and his lieutenant here’s Ferrara’s, bought and paid. The D’Este want Lippi as a hostage.”
“What—that rigmarole with dinner—”
The snort was the Paolo Alessandro had known before, older and smarter and still forgiving when Alessandro missed a cue. “Broccini was waiting and would’ve taken you two after the last course, late at night. When Lippi refused too many men loyal to Zlatan were still up and about, so thank God for Lippi’s pride.”
“Zlatan,” Alessandro repeated. He was beginning to get a sense of the situation and though his mind was racing with what they’d have to do, where they could flee…he still had to notice the odd name. And the odder way Paolo said it.
Paolo paused. Then his fingers knotted into Alessandro’s hair, nearly dragging Alessandro off his feet. “What Il Mago calls himself,” he said, dry and dark.
He pulled Alessandro across the small space separating them, his nails digging hard into Alessandro’s scalp as he crushed their mouths together. Alessandro had to grab for both Paolo’s shoulders to keep from falling on his knees and making too much noise, hungrily returning the kiss. He’d wanted to miss Paolo, and then to mourn him, but it wasn’t wise to show attachments outside of the papacy. Sometimes even not inside—and now Paolo was alive and Alessandro held onto him, all those moments he hadn’t been able to have catching up with him.
They were still carrying him off when Paolo tried to speak, then inhaled sharply through the nose and forced Alessandro off. “Get going. There’s a cavalry detachment coming within the hour.”
Alessandro kept hold of Paolo’s shoulders, pushing him down when he tried to rise. “Lippi will doubt me unless you at least come and explain. And what about you after we go?”
Paolo stiffened, then irritably jerked his head. “I’ll be fine. Ferrara still needs Zlatan, and I’m on—” his voice dipped slightly “—his staff. Damn it, Sandro—”
“Your family,” Alessandro hissed, remembering his earlier thoughts.
“In a monastery, in the middle of Zlatan’s private estates. Long as he lives, they do,” Paolo replied, tone clipped and brisk. He wrapped his fingers around Alessandro’s wrists and pulled himself free so easily that Alessandro didn’t even realize what he was doing. Then he was halfway down the ladder when Alessandro had pivoted and grabbed the top.
All Alessandro could do was follow.
* * *
“They’re good men and they’ll get you through the Marches,” Alessandro said. “You have to go ahead first, Your Eminence. We’ll stay till we can’t fool them any longer and then we’ll go, but it’s absolutely essential that you at least escape.”
Lippi scowled, though he didn’t waste any time scrambling onto the nondescript horse they’d substituted for his usual showy white. “I know, Sandro. That’s the only reason I’m bothering with this ridiculous get-up.”
“You look exactly like a common ruffian, Your Eminence,” Paolo told him straight-faced.
That brought a smile to Lippi’s face, but it barely lasted a second as he looked at Paolo. “I should’ve argued with your father more,” he said gruffly. “You would’ve done better to stay in Rome.”
Paolo’s mask shivered slightly, but then he regained himself and simply threw the reins up to Lippi. “I’d prefer Rome still thinks I’m dead.”
Lippi looked hard at him, then nodded. A glance round at the few men going with him, and then the good Cardinal whipped up his horse and was off.
Alessandro watched till the dark had swallowed them up, then turned in time to catch Paolo trying to slope off. “Paolo.”
“I’m perfectly capable of sneaking back out the way I came. I think you’ll have enough trouble handling the—” Paolo started. Then he frowned, sending a confused glance towards the way Lippi had gone.
“No, that’s coming from the other--damn. They’re here.” A quick whistle brought Alessandro’s remaining lieutenant running up, and Alessandro sent him off in the same minute with his orders.
The intensity of the approaching hoofbeats was already causing buildings to rattle. However Paolo had managed to get in, he wouldn’t have the time to get back out. And he seemed to realize that as well, with the way he was crossing himself and muttering. Not in desperation, but like it was an item on a list…and next was reaching down to loosen his sword in his scabbard, which made Alessandro look sharply at him.
Paolo raised his eyebrows back as he started around the corner of the inn. “Call your man back and get ready to go. I’ll stall Broccini for you.”
“With that?” Alessandro snorted. “With all due respect, the massacres might’ve finally proved the point to you, but I don’t think you’ve had long enough to reach Broccini’s level.”
He regretted his phrasing almost the moment he’d spoken, and indeed the pain it inflicted was enough to break through Paolo’s composure. But then the other man shrugged, giving his sword-hilt an idle flick. “I might need it for a grand gesture or two, but otherwise I plan to stick with the talents God’s been good enough to give me.”
While Paolo didn’t appear to be walking terribly quickly, he still was managing to pull ahead of Alessandro, so Alessandro sped up himself and seized the man’s sleeve. “Paolo—”
“Broccini can’t kill me or—believe me, Sandro, this is one time I hate to rate myself so highly,” Paolo muttered, shaking Alessandro off. “And frankly, Ferrara could wreck quite a bit of diplomatic mayhem with a captain of the papal guard. Not as much as they could with a cardinal, but if you—”
“All right, all right.” Alessandro threw up his hands, though he stalked alongside Paolo a few more feet before beginning to turn. “It’s nice to know you’re still so careful about everybody besides yourself.”
Paolo slowed, then half-pivoted to look almost disbelievingly at Alessandro. And then he laughed, shaking his head; the firelight limned his profile in gold and stroked burgundy fingers through his hair. “I missed that,” he said, and then he stepped into the street.
The horsemen were just now visible at the other end of it, but Alessandro waited a moment more before he slipped away to join his men.
* * *
They almost did it. Whatever Paolo had told the horsemen in the square had kept them so preoccupied that Alessandro and the remaining guards had been able to lead their horses out of town and then remount without raising any alarms. And if Alessandro had managed to keep his mind on the matter at hand and had not stupidly underestimated Broccini’s tactical intelligence, they would’ve ridden away as well.
Of course there’d be more than one group, he bitterly thought. If he’d been trying to trap a cardinal—the back of his right knee suddenly buckled in an agonizing spasm. He hissed and struggled to stay up, but his hands were bound behind him and then the bastard kicked at his left calf. That was less painful, but still enough to put him knee-down on the dirt.
“Which way?” Broccini asked a second time. He waited a moment, then bashed his scabbard into the right side of Alessandro’s face. After his men pulled Alessandro back onto his knees, he did it again.
The already swelling flesh split so hot blood ran down Alessandro’s cheek and dripped off his jaw to clot on the ground in front of it. He had to blink a few times before his vision stopped doubling. “Which way to what?”
“It’s Nesta, sir. He’s not going to tell,” the man to Alessandro’s left said. “I saw him scaring off a mob once in Rome. You can’t frighten him.”
“Oh, really? How utterly useful.” Broccini stalked around Alessandro while another man took that idiot’s place. A few smacks and whimpers later, Broccini came back around. He drew his sword and forced Alessandro’s chin up with the tip. “Well, fine. It’s not necessarily him who needs to be frightened anyway.”
He looked casually to the right, towards the sound of shuffling feet. Alessandro’s blood suddenly ran cold, but he made himself turn and look as well as two men forced a very pale Paolo up to them. Paolo wasn’t bound or at swordpoint, but he clearly wasn’t any more free to go than Alessandro was.
“I’ve been to Rome, too. A long time ago, before my hair was white and certain people’s balls had properly dropped. Not that that stopped them from making the gossips talk,” Broccini said. He returned his gaze to Alessandro, dropping the sword from throat to belly, and then lower. “Which way, Maldini?”
After the first shocked stare, Paolo commendably managed to keep his eyes on Broccini. “You idiot, if you kill the Pope’s own—”
“Pope?” Broccini flashed a wolf’s smile, jaw hanging so the red lash of his tongue could be glimpsed. “What fucking Pope? There’s no pope right now—Innocent’s dead and this meddling cunt’s not worth the shit of a pig except to you.”
The—it had to be a lie. Innocent VIII was failing, but…Alessandro momentarily lost the fight against his ringing head and swayed, staring up at Broccini. What little blood had been left in Paolo’s face drained away, and he opened and closed his mouth without uttering a sound.
“Il Mago’s sage didn’t know. Hah!” Grinning, Broccini swaggered up to Paolo and mockingly tapped Paolo’s cheek. Then he backed off, his smile dying away, and his sword tapped Alessandro’s shoulder. “Now that we properly understand the situation…where is the good Cardinal Lippi?”
Paolo still didn’t say anything. The tip of Broccini’s sword snagged on Alessandro’s clothes, but then Broccini simply twisted his wrist and laid open Alessandro’s doublet. He dragged the sword-tip down the center of Alessandro’s chest, then jumped it to very high up Alessandro’s right thigh.
“Last chance,” Broccini said, eyes glittering malevolently.
And then something slammed into one side of his head and out the other spurted a huge arc of blood. Someone—more than one someone shouted as he began to topple over; their hands loosened on Alessandro just as Broccini’s sword dug into his leg and he was able to twist away just in time.
He couldn’t keep his balance, but given the number of crossbow bolts flying overhead, that might have been for the best. He had no idea who it was who was shooting—Broccini had slaughtered his men—and when a hand fell heavily on his side he jerked about and nearly sank his teeth into it before Paolo’s face leaped into view.
“Down,” Paolo hissed, and took his own advice by huddling over Alessandro.
The mayhem suddenly died away, not even giving Paolo enough time to reach for Alessandro’s bonds. In fact Paolo had barely raised his head before more feet tramped around them and they were yanked to their feet.
“God’s fucking balls, I leave to dig that fucking tick Malatesta out of my back and everything goes to hell. Zlatan’s good, but does that mean everyone else have to be absolutely awful?” complained the man roughly dusting off Paolo. He had a giant’s height, taller by four fingers’ width than Alessandro, unfashionably short brown hair topping a face more suited to some urchin teasing the village dogs, and one of the more bizarre accents Alessandro had heard.
Paolo glanced at Alessandro, who couldn’t do much more than stare back since Il Mago had already introduced himself. Then he turned back to Zlatan, who Alessandro noticed had seen the exchange, and attempted to politely bat off the other man’s hands. “I sent word about Lippi, but Broccini tried to make his move earlier—”
“Holy Mary, Mother of God!” yelped someone. “Ferrara’s man! Ercole will—”
Zlatan casually grabbed Paolo’s wrists and while still holding them at shoulder-level, leaned over to look at Broccini. “Ferrara’s going to wish Naples had sent me that last installment,” he snorted, spitting on the body. “Bastard heard about the Pope, right?”
As much as Paolo preferred not to rely on physical strength, he didn’t lack in it—at least, he hadn’t before and Alessandro doubted the intervening years had given him any opportunity to decrease in that area. But oddly, he’d stopped even trying to struggle the moment Zlatan had taken hold of him. “Yes…that’s why you rode back.”
“You should’ve kept Lippi here,” Zlatan told him more quietly. “I hear Ascanio Sforza’s already sending bags of gold around.”
Paolo’s lips thinned and his eyes went icy. His taste for politics might’ve explained his preoccupation, but then Zlatan proceeded to give clean-up orders while still holding Paolo by the arm and none of his men seemed to find that odd. Maybe they were just well-trained—watching them, Alessandro grudgingly had to commend their efficiency and order—but then again, most of them seemed to be some sort of Italian.
Zlatan stepped backwards and put himself between Paolo and Alessandro; Alessandro’s minder went off to some new duty at the same time. Alessandro glanced down when Zlatan roughly seized his elbow and couldn’t miss seeing Zlatan’s other hand slip up Paolo’s arm to curl its fingers familiarly over Paolo’s shoulder. He flicked his gaze to Paolo’s face and the other man looked back almost pleadingly. This close, Alessandro could also make out the touch of color in Paolo’s olive cheeks.
“So anyway, who did you manage to keep?” Zlatan asked.
Paolo started, blinking and turning his head. “This is Alessandro Nesta, a captain in the papal ranks. He was Lippi’s escort and volunteered to stay to help Lippi escape Broccini,” he said diffidently. “The kind of man Lippi is, you win more by letting him go than trying to hold him hostage against the Conclave.”
While he considered that, Zlatan moved his hand to Alessandro’s chin, forcing it about to look at the bleeding bruise. He touched a fingertip to Alessandro’s cheekbone so Alessandro half-bit on a hiss. “Lippi personally like him?”
Alessandro could see when the scales in Paolo’s mind tipped toward a lie. “Whether he does or doesn’t is irrelevant. He’ll sacrifice anyone if he thinks it will improve the Church,” he said. “You can’t buy his vote with me.”
Zlatan let go of Alessandro’s chin so they could look each other in the eye. The other man was grinning for some reason. “So why shouldn’t I finish what Broccini was doing with you?”
Paolo started again, then settled sharply with a grimace as Zlatan dug his fingers into Paolo’s shoulder. He looked off to the side and Alessandro realized too late that he should’ve done likewise. When he turned back, Zlatan was gazing from one to the other of them with a different edge to his smile.
He abruptly released Alessandro and spun on Paolo, his fingers climbing to nearly where Alessandro’s hand had touched Paolo’s neck a bare hour before. The ropes around Alessandro’s wrists bit deeply, and then deeper when Zlatan raised his other hand to fully encircle Paolo’s throat. Paolo’s head didn’t dip, but his fingers twitched in where they were hanging by his hips, as if he wanted to make fists.
“Who is he?” Zlatan asked again. He did something that made Paolo’s lips whiten. “Lippi just knows Broccini was behind this. I don’t need anything that links me to it, since it didn’t work.”
Alessandro still had his feet free, but for all the good that would’ve done, they might as well have been bound, too. But looking at Paolo right now was looking at a completely different kind of bondage, and…well, Alessandro’s duty had been to Lippi and to Innocent VIII, and he’d fulfilled both as far as he could. And Rome between Popes was, frankly, not any better than some strange mercenary’s camp.
And Paolo wanted to look at him, but wouldn’t.
“We both spent some time in Cardinal Lippi’s household when we were younger,” he told Zlatan. “We’re old friends, though I haven’t—I thought Paolo died four years ago in Milan. Broccini knew too, apparently.”
Paolo looked at Alessandro now over Zlatan’s shoulder, and his eyes were protesting and furious and guilty. Then he snapped back to Zlatan as the man gave him a shake. Zlatan glanced between them, looking amused.
“Friends?” Zlatan drawled. His fingers slid deliberately up and down the side of Paolo’s neck, and then he turned to pull Alessandro forward by a fistful of shirt. “Why didn’t you say you wanted some company?”
“It didn’t seem like a very important matter,” Paolo stiffly replied. His eyes dropped and then Alessandro barely managed to control his face as a thumb dipped behind his shirt to graze over his chest. “Zlatan, you can’t waste any time. The Papal Conclave will start as soon as the cardinals arrive and by then it’ll be too late for most—”
Now looking bored, Zlatan abruptly shoved Alessandro into Paolo and let go of both of them, swinging his arms over their heads. By the time he’d brought them down, he’d loped halfway down the street. “Then hurry up and neaten him up,” he called over his shoulder. “We’re breaking camp at dawn.”
The snarl Alessandro had been choking down the entire time finally proved too much, but Paolo whirled him about so Zlatan didn’t see. For that matter, the other man dealt with the rope knotted around Alessandro’s wrists like he wished he could simply tear it apart.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” he muttered.
The moment his hands were free, Alessandro turned around and took Paolo by the shoulder. “Well, it’s done. So stop being mad at me.”
Paolo stared at him. Then the other man sighed and half-turned, carefully pulling Alessandro’s arm off by grabbing it above the abraded wrist. “I never could anyway. Come on.”
* * *
Alessandro held the small smooth ball in his hand and watched as the last steaming bucket of water was poured into the…“What is that?”
“He dug it out a collapsed villa around here. He usually just uses one bucket of cold water, but…well, Zlatan has whims, and it causes less headaches if you don’t try to find reason in most of them,” Paolo said. Once the servants—guards—had left the room, he perched on the edge of the gigantic marble tub and dipped his hand into the water.
“Just how often does he do this?” The steam that was rising from the tub was beginning to turn the ball in Alessandro’s hand slippery and he absently tried to rub it off on his sleeve, only to find he had a handful of soapy foam.
“Nearly every day, if he can get the chance.” Paolo flicked his hand dry and turned around. He leaned down and grabbed the top of his right boot. “Not always using this ridiculous…it’s really more of a monument, isn’t it?”
Raising it from the ground certainly would’ve needed the same degree of engineering most people saved for building cathedrals. Clawfooted, large enough to easily hold several men, it had to have belonged to a Roman Emperor. “Still, I’m surprised he hasn’t caught a chill in his lungs. He insists on the same for you?”
After dropping his boots off to the side, Paolo got a good hold on the tub edge and carefully swung his legs over. He eased them into the water with a faint sigh, his eyes half-closed. “Sandro, just come over here already. It hasn’t killed either me or Zlatan yet, and you do need to do something about the side of your face.”
Alessandro warily did so, noting that the heat of the water couldn’t account for its slightly cloudy aspect. Well-water, most likely, and Ravenna was notorious for its summer pestilences.
When he was near enough, Paolo put out an arm and pulled Alessandro onto the rim before him. He took the soap as well and after working up a good lather, used his sleeve to try and gently dab off the dried blood from Alessandro’s temple and cheek. It wasn’t long before Alessandro lost patience and just leaned over to dip his whole face into the water. Paolo exclaimed something and grabbed Alessandro’s shoulder, and luckily so since it hurt a good deal more than expected—but at least it got the job done.
“Sandro,” Paolo said helplessly, shaking his head.
The little flakes of blood swirled off towards the bottom of the tub along with trails of soap bubbles. Once Lippi’s nieces had sneaked in a tea-leaf reader, and when he’d found out he’d let her stay so he could lecture them on the uselessness of superstition later…Alessandro had similar thoughts on the subject of restraint in certain situations. He shrugged Paolo off and simply slipped off the edge and into the water.
“Sandro!” Paolo raised a pointless hand at the large splash that swept over him, then wiped the water out of his eyes, looking rather annoyed.
The tub was almost too deep for sitting and Alessandro had to unhook his left foot from the rim so he could keep his head above the surface. Grimacing a bit as a few bruises woke up, he swung an arm behind himself to grab the other edge, then hummed. The warm water actually did a good deal to loosen his muscles and soothe the aches. “Well, no, it doesn’t kill you.”
“Now I remember exactly how exasperated…” Muttering away, Paolo tossed the soap ball to Alessandro before standing up to lean against the tub. He put one hand on the rim and bent down to pull at his clothes, but looked up when Alessandro nudged his fingers with a foot. “You’d have to change those for something that doesn’t have the papal insignia on it anyway,” he said, pushing Alessandro’s toes away. “The last time I complained about my—” he stopped and bit his lip “—the time before tonight, that resulted in him digging up this monstrosity.”
He finished stripping off his hose and breeches in tight-lipped silence. After carefully laying them aside, he came back to the tub and peered into the water as if he were the one looking for his fortune. He stirred slightly when Alessandro pulled up beside him, but only raised his head when Alessandro finally reached out and draped an arm around his waist.
“I’ve never been so happy to see you in my life,” Alessandro said quietly. He tipped his head as Paolo stared at him. “Perhaps the circumstances leave something to be desired…”
Paolo lifted his hand and stroked his fingertips down a piece of hair clinging to Alessandro’s cheek, looking pained. Then he sucked in his breath and swung into the bath.
The waters hadn’t even subsided before they were knotting around each other, Alessandro flailing in his failure to get a foot braced and Paolo cursing Alessandro’s clothing, his hands ineffectually trying to find its fastenings as their movements just wound the cloth tighter to Alessandro’s body.
“Another reason why I always do it the wrong way and need a lesson or two…” Alessandro finally had to let go of Paolo and hold onto the rim as their three hands skinned him free of the damned clothes. A stinging clump of foam got into his nose as he mouthed down Paolo’s neck and he sneezed, vaguely and very briefly remembering the soap. Which he’d dropped in the water.
Paolo snorted, reaching past Alessandro so he could toss the garments onto the floor. He still had his white undershirt on and it’d turned translucent, the back and sides molding tightly as the front hung free like a gauzy veil. Alessandro finally managed to jam his heel into an unevenness in the bottom and let go of the tub edge to cradle Paolo’s hips in his hands. He leaned forward, using his forehead to iron the fabric to the other man till a hazy shadow turned into a nipple that pebbled up against his lips. Groaning, Paolo half-fell on Alessandro to wrap one arm around Alessandro’s head.
He grazed the bruised part of Alessandro’s face, but was muttering apologies almost before Alessandro winced. The man tried to move off, but Alessandro pushed and turned Paolo against the marble, dragging hands and mouth up the other man’s body. His lips ran off linen and onto skin so damp it hardly felt any different, save for the sudden rise in heat.
“I think you’d have learned better, since the last time I was in Rome,” Paolo said roughly, almost teasingly. His hands returned to Alessandro’s shoulders, rounding their points before his fingers wove into Alessandro’s hair. He pulled on that and Alessandro willingly dipped again, rolled up the shirt hem with his hands so he could nurse unbarred at Paolo’s nipple.
Paolo hissed, suddenly fell a little and cracked his elbow loudly on the rim. He dropped his arm as Alessandro lifted his head and then they were face to face. Alessandro ducked close enough for their brows to touch before pulling back, and then a second time before Paolo simply curled a hand around the back of Alessandro’s neck, drawing him in for the kiss. Old games, said the slight upcurve of Paolo’s mouth.
Not everything’s changed, spoke Alessandro’s hands along the other man’s arms, shoulders, sides. But then his fingers lapped over a long, jagged ridge cutting across Paolo’s left ribs. His hand passed on, then came back and stroked the scar questioningly.
Exhaling, Paolo moved his mouth from Alessandro’s down the line of the jaw, finally nestling it in the tender flesh behind Alessandro’s ear. He let go of Alessandro’s shoulders, but his hands made their presence felt a bare second later between Alessandro’s thighs, their pressure insistent with a kind of rising desperation. Alessandro hooked his arm over the rim behind Paolo, raised himself, and Paolo started to mouth at his throat, hard and rough and quick. When Alessandro reached between them and touched Paolo’s wrist, the other man turned it lightning-fast to squeeze Alessandro’s hand so hard the bones creaked. He made a soft, sorry, rasping noise when Alessandro simply pulled their hands past his swelling prick and further back, and then he didn’t hesitate any longer.
* * *
“The split’s vertical and close to your hairline, so if it does scar it won’t be too noticeable.” Paolo dabbed, leaned back to study his work, and then adjusted Alessandro’s chin. He dabbed again. “If you’d stop moving, it might not even get to that point.”
“A scar might actually be a boon, considering how lecherous the damned prelates are now. Two months ago one tried to pull me into the confessional with him,” Alessandro muttered. He finished buckling Paolo’s belt and then moved to do up the laces of the man’s shirt. Then he twisted his hand around and dropped it down Paolo’s collar, which currently gaped far enough for him to reach that scar again. “Just how long has Zlatan had you on campaign with him? I can’t believe no one else has realized you’re still alive.”
After a moment, Paolo dropped his hands from Alessandro’s face and wiped them off on a rag. They’d moved into the adjoining bedroom, but he hadn’t called anyone to empty the bath yet and so curls of steam were still drifting through the door. They seemed to attract all his attention as he pulled Alessandro’s arm away and sat down on the bed. “We haven’t been in the country the entire time. Right after the slaughter Adriana and I went north, into Switzerland. There are plenty of isolated towns in the mountains.”
“But Ferrara knows…Broccini knew who you were.” Alessandro’s fingers twitched. The new clothes fit well enough, but they felt…odd. Stiff and slippery against his skin, and…he started pulling them into order for lack of anything else to do.
“He must have recognized me when his men brought me back, because that’s the first time he’s ever seen me. Zlatan had me greet you and Lippi because I’ve told him I spent some time in Marcello’s household, but usually I’m listening behind a curtain and I give my advice afterward,” Paolo said, still looking at the steam. That rigidness around his mouth was back, and joined by shadows beneath his eyes. He started nearly off the bed when somebody moved in the hall, only to sag back when all that came was a servant calling through the door.
He peremptorily dismissed them—a little more like his old self—before turning to finally look at Alessandro, with a wariness that was painful to see. It only flared more intensely in his eyes when Alessandro settled down by him before dying into a kind of resigned shame. Shame, on Paolo Maldini.
“Advice,” Alessandro started. And then changed his mind about what he wanted to say, looking at the other man. “Is Adriana…I did get the news about your second son, by the way. But I was down in Naples, stuck in another useless treaty party, and by the time I got back—”
“I knew that,” Paolo said. And he obviously didn’t hold it against Alessandro. “I’m sorry you never did get to visit Milan.”
Alessandro grimaced, then carefully lowered himself down on his side. “I did, actually. Afterward—Ludovico Sforza sent for permission to reconsecrate the Duomo and I was part of the escort. Paolo, I…didn’t…”
“You didn’t do anything stupid, did you?” Paolo stared hard at Alessandro till he got a shake of the head. Then he snorted, a slight, wry smile flitting over his face. He suddenly let himself fall onto his back, and at the same time expelled a great gusting breath. “The Sforzas are a deeply rooted evil now; it’ll take more than another massacre to undo what they’ve wrought.”
Then he stared up above them, pensive and still. The linen of his undershirt was thin enough for Alessandro to make out yet other scars he’d missed in the frenzy of their coupling, and he began to reach out towards the nearest only to have Paolo turn his head in a near flinch.
“Paolo, tell me you’ve bargained for help to get back Milan,” Alessandro finally said. His voice sounded harsh, and he swallowed, but that didn’t improve it. “Tell me it’s more than just Il Mago holding your family.”
“He did more than that. Adriana was still recovering from the birth when—she and my sons wouldn’t be alive without him,” Paolo replied. He raised himself on his elbows, and then half-turned so he could pull the rest of his body onto the bed. “Sandro, I—well, I’ve ended up loving her after all. She’s done more than I have to hold what’s left of the family together, and for her sake…and for our sons—they alone are worth anything I could ever give up. You’re not married yet, so I don’t know if you can—”
“Even if I can’t, the fact that they matter so much to you…sorry. I shouldn’t have pushed.” Alessandro moved enough to swing his legs onto the mattress, but otherwise didn’t shift his position. He wasn’t in the most ideal spot but he was sore and tired, and anyway a lumpy bed was the least worrisome thing right now. “But Milan’s why Il Mago’s pulled you out into the open, isn’t it? Gian Galeazzo’s useless, and Caterina and Il Moro are estranged right now. If there was any better time…”
Paolo closed his eyes. “Presumably. But it’s difficult to tell with Zlatan. He did mean it when he said be up at dawn, though.” Another noise from the hall made his eyes snap open, but when it turned out to be nothing he merely turned on his side, looking exhausted. “I’m surprised he hasn’t walked in yet. I thought he would when we were in the bath.”
That—explained a good deal, and then added even more. For a moment Alessandro had to hold his breath, and when he did release it, he still had his fists pressed into the bed. “Should I move to the floor?”
“Sandro,” Paolo said warningly, lifting his head. Then he huffed out a breath and laid back again. “Well, he knows already. It wouldn’t matter to me except that you…”
“My dignity has nothing to do with what some Bosnian peasant thinks of where I sleep,” Alessandro snorted. “And I promise to try and not strangle him if he turns out to be a kicker.”
The corners of Paolo’s mouth were twitching as he pushed himself up on his arm, but by the time his lips touched Alessandro’s, they felt still enough. “Then good night, Sandro.”
Alessandro stayed still till he was sure Paolo’s breathing had slowed into true sleep, and even then he only shifted so that any third person would have to lie beside him instead of Paolo. But for him sleep was a long while in coming.
* * *
It wasn’t even mid-morning the next day before Alessandro discovered why Paolo had developed a fondness for a foot-soak: Zlatan lived up to his nickname and had his entire army on the road in a little over an hour. The operation was carried out in such a seamless fashion that Alessandro, too used to dealing with enormous trains of useless hangers-on, had to admit to jealousy. If the papal armies even had one of Zlatan’s sergeant-at-arms to drill them…
“Rimini.” The clatter of hooves came next as Zlatan arrived back up front from his inspection of the baggage train. He unceremoniously wedged his horse in between Paolo and Alessandro; the officer trailing him attempted to do the same and swore in some Northern tongue when Alessandro casually swung his mount’s haunches into the way.
Zlatan observed it, but merely grinned and so the discomfited officer had to make do with lagging along behind Paolo’s horse, as Zlatan made it clear Paolo was the aim of his remark.
“The Malatestas didn’t remember you fondly before you started raiding in their lands. They lost a high-paying client in D’Este to you,” Paolo immediately said.
“I wasn’t asking that. And I wasn’t down at Rimini for nothing—to them and to Urbino, we’re just concerned Christians like everybody else, rushing to Rome to see who’s the next Pope,” Zlatan drawled. He paused to dictate a couple orders to the officer, then kneed his horse briefly ahead as he sighted something.
When asked, Paolo obligingly related the history of the landmark, one of the many Roman ruins in the area, and Zlatan seemed to be genuinely interested, if only temporarily. The first impression was of an easily distracted, overly energetic loudmouth, but as shut out of the conversation as Alessandro was, he couldn’t help but begin to look beneath that. Il Mago was actually a better horseman than gossip said: his stallion was quite spirited but he frequently had both hands off the reins as he continued to pester Paolo in between issuing very sensible directives to his officers. And they continued to move at a blistering pace, a rather stunning accomplishment given the average mercenary’s motivation and the summer heat.
“…and on the third day, that’s reduced to one meal a day,” Paolo was saying.
“Through this window. Which supposedly ensures that nobody gets to talk to the good cardinals,” Zlatan said skeptically. At some point they’d begun discussing the upcoming Conclave to elect the new pope. “So if this servant were to accidentally drop arsenic in Della Rovere’s water, which families would get upset again?”
Paolo was silent for several seconds; his horse chawed at the bit and momentarily leaped ahead so Alessandro glimpsed his incredulous expression. “I would advise against that. Obvious tampering in the Conclave has led before to years-long interregnums and those only cause chaos everywhere. No one wins.”
“I’ve got some Germans around here somewhere—they already told me about Barbarossa.” Zlatan rolled his eyes, then rubbed at his nose. In doing so he happened to glance Alessandro’s way. “Well, you know the cardinals, don’t you? Is Giuliano della Rovere the raging bastard everyone says he is?”
At the moment the three of them were riding relatively separated from everyone else, but even if Alessandro were inclined to betray trusts so easily, he wouldn’t have relied on that. “I’m not sure why you’re asking me, since it seems like you’ve already formed an opinion on him.”
The laughing light in Zlatan’s eyes didn’t disguise his underlying coolness when they were this close together. He smiled with his mouth shut, looking down so his superior height was pointedly felt.
“He’s been waiting since his uncle died, but he’s not the only one who’ll be campaigning hard,” Paolo said quietly. “Ascanio Sforza’s even richer.”
“And he’s got Milan and Naples on his side, yes? France likes Della Rovere, and I hear Genoa does too.” Zlatan hitched his shoulders at Paolo’s obvious surprise. “What?”
Paolo shrugged, idly tangling his hand in his horse’s mane. “Della Rovere’s a known, vocal supporter of Venice. If Genoa’s now paying him, well…that doesn’t bode well for him if he gains the papacy. Venice dallies with the popes she likes and casts off the ones she doesn’t as if they were motheaten old cloaks.”
“I know you like him better than Sforza, but would you rather have revenge for your family or the French marauding the countryside?” Zlatan baldly asked.
He was sharp, Alessandro thought. Sharp to comprehend and sharp to cut whenever he felt like it. “Neither of you have heard about Rodrigo Borgia?”
They both swiveled to look at him, Paolo dropping back slightly to get past Zlatan and Zlatan actually lifting his far leg to hook it over the saddlehorn. So perched, he flicked a hand at Alessandro. “Got jealous, did you? Well, you’d better explain now.”
Alessandro struggled not to let his temper show while Paolo hastily interjected with an abbreviated account of Borgia’s family connections and personal position. While Zlatan listened to that intently enough, he reached back at Paolo’s first pause for breath and turned that into a lasting stop in the conversation. His arm stayed back while he raised his eyebrows at Alessandro.
“That brat of his, Cesare—every time he’s back in Rome he starts something. He talks like his father’s already Pope, and Borgia has to end up there if Cesare’s ever going to see twenty, I think,” Alessandro said. It was all true enough and common knowledge for anyone who spent any time in the Vatican. “His other children aren’t much better, though they don’t lack for love from him. Probably that’s the problem.”
“Are you including yourself in that threat?” Zlatan asked. He pulled his arm back into view, lightly patting his horse’s crest. “You sound like you personally don’t like him.”
“I don’t. My brother sheltered a woman he tried to rape—at fifteen--and that little demon tried to get him hanged for it. We kicked him back to his father’s knee and he’s never forgotten it.” His father wasn’t a recommendation of the Church’s purity by a long stretch, but Rodrigo at least knew better than to go around accusing established officers of the papal guard for idiocies like that.
As long as Borgia was only a cardinal, Alessandro suddenly realized. If he was making a serious bid for the papacy—though he’d always seemed content to gather wealth as a ravening administrator, letting others act as the figureheads under fire—then even Lippi’s patronage wouldn’t be enough. Alessandro bit down on his lip and pretended to look out at the passing countryside, trying to…well, even if he could leave, Fernando was still the head of the house. His brother was no fool and would make the decision whether or not to leave Rome, and the most help Alessandro could be would be to stay out of the city and wait for them. Though if he could at least get a message to Fernando that he was alive…
“Your brother in the guard too?” Zlatan hit Alessandro on the arm when he didn’t get an immediate answer.
“He was. He injured his back while holding the Lateran Palace during a riot and he’s retired now,” Alessandro said in a clipped tone.
The only response Zlatan had to that was, oddly, a grunt. But that was explained once a messenger clattered up on a lathered horse and Il Mago went forward to meet him.
“Your family?” Paolo said as soon as he’d swerved his mount near enough.
“Fernando can move them to the country villa if he has to.” Alessandro wished he’d had another moment to speak with Lippi, but then pushed the thought away. Lippi would tell Fernando what he knew, and anyway, there was no point in dwelling now. “It’s mostly his family now, anyway. You wouldn’t have heard, would you—Katia and our parents died. Plague.”
Paolo started, glancing at Alessandro. He would’ve lifted his hand as well, but just then Zlatan wheeled about, apparently coming back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t.”
A hard lump rose in Alessandro’s throat that required two swallows to dismiss, and by then Zlatan was nearly to them. “So I know what you mean, about protecting your family,” he said, low and quick.
He didn’t have time to see Paolo’s reaction before Zlatan was there, demanding Paolo explain some insulting message the Malatestas had sent. Paolo instantly returned to his polite, detached analysis and Alessandro was left to his own thoughts as Zlatan apparently forgot he was there.
* * *
The Malatestas had changed their minds and decided to confront Zlatan with their army, despite the large bribe they’d already accepted. Given the proximity of Urbino and its dubious welcome, and the lack of anywhere else so many men could make camp, Zlatan decided to respond in kind. That was sensible enough, but his decision to speed up the march even more and fight a battle right away was insane.
“All right, we’re here and the sun’s not down yet, so he’s an excellent organizer,” Alessandro muttered. “I’ll give him that…I don’t think there’s been an army this quick since Julius Caesar.”
Paolo opened his mouth to reply, then turned sharply. The usual mocking smile firmly in place, Zlatan strode up to them and playfully tapped Paolo on the cheek before looking at Alessandro. “Well, I’m glad I’ve got your approval. God and the devil know the Gallic Wars could’ve used less about the ‘glory of Rome,’ though the tactics weren’t bad. Paolo, Henrik’ll come back for you two once this mess is settled. Urbino would probably like a letter offering him the city, wouldn’t he?”
“You’re giving Rimini to him?” Paolo said. He was startled, but a good deal less than Alessandro would have expected.
“Well, I can’t hold it—it’s nowhere near my lands. And we still have to go through his borders. Gold’s too damn heavy to carry so it just seems like it’d be easiest this way.” As offhandedly as his comment had been, Zlatan pulled Paolo to him by the shoulder and smacked a kiss to Paolo’s cheek. Then he spun on his heel and walked out.
It was some moments before Paolo seemed ready to talk; Alessandro did him the favor of sitting down and trying to eat some of their dinner. Eventually Paolo sat as well.
“He’s had Caesar read to him?” Alessandro finally asked.
“No, he’s read it.” Paolo glanced up as he slowly picked up his knife and fork. “I’ve seen him at it—he’s literate. His Greek’s better than what the Florentines teach, actually. Latin not so much, but he could get by in any reasonably civilized court.”
This time, Alessandro needed a while to absorb the information and compose himself. His initial impression of Zlatan had been forceful enough so that it was difficult to reconcile that with the facets of the man that had been displayed since. In fact, it was difficult simply to try and puzzle together the new revelations on their own into a coherent personality. Unless—
“He bathes excessively, knows Greek better than Latin, doesn’t like the Church,” Alessandro slowly said. “He was born in Sweden, you said, but I don’t remember hearing anything of him before he was nineteen or so. Where has he been?”
“I don’t know.” Their food was on the dry side where it wasn’t overly salted—a common problem with frequent traveling—so Paolo soon had to top up their glasses. He sipped at his wine thoughtfully, running his fingers along the edge of his plate. “I did try to guess at the beginning, but he still surprises me so regularly that I’m wary of that now.”
Alessandro ate enough to sustain him and then pushed the rest from him, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth. “Byzantium would be a fairly good fit.”
Paolo looked very steadily at him, then got up. He gestured for Alessandro to follow, then led them out of the tent and to the top of the hill, which overlooked a small plain on which the battle would be fought. Once Alessandro could see, Paolo started to speak—
--and was completely drowned out by a thunderous succession of explosions. The ground shook, the air suddenly filled with the sting of burnt gunpowder, and Alessandro barely had time to take in the formations drawn up below on the plain before the whole sight was obscured by thick clouds of dust.
When the pounding of the cannon finally died down enough for speech, the sound of screams almost rose high enough to compensate. In the end Alessandro had to lean in and watch Paolo’s lips move to understand what the other man said.
“Except he can fight.”
* * *
The battle was a debacle for Rimini, pulverized by superior artillery and then completely outflanked. Enough of Zlatan’s cavalry actually reached the city gates to prevent them from being shut, and then—well, that was beyond Alessandro’s sight but he knew what a sack would look like.
What he’d never seen before, however, was fighting like that which had preceded the taking of the city. Condottieres were notorious for their fainthearted strategizing, calculated to minimize physical risk and maximize material gain, but this…what he’d just witnessed had had nothing to do with that infuriating chessplay. Il Mago had a superior tactical mind and that had won the battle, but his men’s ruthless efficiency had turned it into a bloodbath. Paolo had described it correctly: everything before had been playing--this was fighting.
“He doesn’t do it every time, obviously. If he did everyone would’ve joined against him by now,” Paolo said as they walked down the hall. Zlatan had appropriated the Lord’s own house for himself and, judging from the condition of the entryway, secured it in the same way he’d secured the city. “Pandolfo’s disliked by his own people and had to hire foreigners, which I think is why Zlatan went ahead here. Nobody will care about the death of a few thousand Swiss.”
“But he could. He’s holding himself back for something.” Their escort Henrik suddenly glanced back and Alessandro ducked his head, then gazed out some of the windows they were passing. “He stopped the looting quickly enough, too. Where did he get his men? The Devil?”
Paolo frowned and glanced over as well. “That means he doesn’t want to spend long here—what’s going on?”
Muffled shouting and bangings were beginning to filter in from ahead of them. Henrik loped forward to the door where they were apparently going, peeked in, and then came back to wave Paolo on. But he held up his hand when Alessandro started to follow.
“It’s all right, I think I know…” When Paolo also pushed Alessandro back, he was already turned towards the door. He walked up to it, called out, and was immediately admitted.
“I can show you to your chambers,” Henrik said to Alessandro.
Alessandro looked down at him. The man was on the slender side and of average height, but he carried himself with a quiet assurance. And though he’d rinsed his face and hands, the amount of blood soaked into his clothes, without any visible wounds on him, was daunting.
“What if I’d rather wait in the hall?” Alessandro asked.
Henrik didn’t blink. He simply removed himself to lean against the wall some feet away, where he took out his sword and began scraping the drying gore from it. After a few minutes, Alessandro experimentally took a step towards the door. The other man didn’t move, so Alessandro continued to drift till he could nearly put out his arm and touch the wood panels.
“Zlatan--” Paolo suddenly snapped, so loud it didn’t lose any crispness as it passed through the door.
There was a snarl and a double-knock of boot-heels against wood, and then a thump so hard the floorboards trembled beneath Alessandro’s feet. Zlatan said something, too low to make out the words but the viciousness carried well enough. Then there was another, softer thump and a half-muffled cry from Paolo. Alessandro didn’t waste time looking at Henrik again; he yanked open the door and stepped in so quickly the other man couldn’t intercept him.
A sheet of paper floating in the air was the first thing that met his eyes. It dropped quickly to join a mass of fellows scattered on the floor, over the table…Alessandro’s gaze moved up to the half-curled fingers and Zlatan’s massive hands clamped down just beyond them, then to the top of Paolo’s tousled head. Zlatan hunched over him like some hunt-mad hound, completely obscuring Paolo’s face though the way Zlatan’s shoulders shifted, slow and purposeful, was clue enough. Then Il Mago moved, lifting his head so Alessandro could see their joined mouths, the fluttering tips of Paolo’s eyelashes. Paolo heaved slightly at his wrists, twisting in clear pain, and Zlatan simply grunted and jerked them higher up the table so Paolo’s right foot left the floor.
Alessandro glanced to the side and a heavy-looking vase surged into view. He reached for it.
Then he reeled back, exclaiming and clutching his bleeding hand. A dagger quivered in the wall by the vase—Alessandro spun around to find Zlatan barely a foot away. And then his back was hitting the wall, his cut hand trapped against his chest and his other desperately trying to drag off the death-grip Zlatan had on his throat. His toes were nearly off the ground.
“Sandro!” Paolo rose briefly into view behind Zlatan’s left shoulder, but then dropped when Zlatan’s free arm made a quick motion.
Alessandro heard another thunk and sheer raging fear pushed him into arching hard against the wall. He drove a knee into Zlatan’s thigh, won a little space and promptly swung his legs up and around the other man, trying to force himself higher. The vise on his throat made his sight start to blacken, but then it slackened a bit and he gasped. Slipped his hand out from between them and drove his elbow down into the spot where neck and shoulder joined.
Zlatan dropped—no, threw him down. The impact combined with the sudden rush of air into Alessandro’s starved lungs fixed him in place, and by the time he was capable of moving, he had a sword pointed at his throat.
“…don’t kill him. He’s more current on Roman politics than I am, and he’s also a great favorite of Cardinal Lippi who can sway—” Paolo…was Paolo babbling?
He was still beyond Alessandro’s sight, which was nearly filled by Zlatan. And Zlatan seemed to be more…amused?...than angry, though the bite of his sword was quite serious. He snorted and rubbed at his neck. “And I thought you Italians didn’t know how to fight. Now—well, I know at least one of you can.”
“You count so much on our weaknesses that someday you might forget to watch for our strengths,” Alessandro rasped.
Paolo went silent. Zlatan’s smile slowly melted away, though the look in his eyes was still not quite infuriated. He cocked his head, then sudden and quick as lightning swung his sword from Alessandro up to—Alessandro jerked up onto his knees, grabbing for the edge of the table, half a cry already torn from his throat, and then he saw that Zlatan had merely flipped the blade over Paolo on the way to sheathing it.
“Well, you Italians think so much of your strengths that you’ve forgotten you even have weaknesses,” Zlatan said. He looked at Alessandro again, brows up like some scolding teacher, before reaching out and dragging Paolo over the table. His fingers wrapped around Paolo’s throat—Alessandro hissed—and he pressed his mouth to Paolo’s in a deliberate, drawn-out manner, making sure that Alessandro could see Paolo’s lack of resistance to his tongue’s entrance.
On the table, Paolo’s fingers curled tightly, then slowly slackened till they were a half-fist.
With a last swipe of his tongue across Paolo’s lips, Zlatan released the other man. “I’m going to wash, and then I want to hear about D’Este.”
Paolo nodded, holding himself so closely that Alessandro almost expected his skin to split under the strain. He didn’t move till Zlatan had swept out the door, retrieving daggers on the way, and even then it was just to press the back of his hand to his mouth.
Alessandro glanced at his own hand: the cut was long but shallow, and most of it had already stopped bleeding. He pulled out his undershirt and wrapped his hand in the tail as he shakily pulled himself to his feet. “I—”
The hand dropped from the mouth, and then Paolo abruptly spun himself off the table to face Alessandro, eyes blazing. “What were you thinking? Are you so hellbent on being the perfect knight that you’ve lost any sense you ever had?”
“Do you think I can just sit here and watch you whore yourself out?” Alessandro snapped back.
He regretted it almost immediately. It rocked Paolo back a step as if he’d been slapped, and then that veil of iron calm dropped over the other man’s face. He stiffly began trying to pull his clothes into order. “Sandro, while I appreciate the concern, it’s my choice what I sacrifice to keep my family alive.”
“I have two sworn duties left in my life: to become capable of protecting them with my own resources, and to take back Milan for my sons. In that order.” The movements of Paolo’s hands rapidly degenerated into jerky trembling and finally he yanked them away from himself in disgust. He stared at them, then let out an abrupt, dejected sigh and sank back against the table.
Alessandro hesitantly moved towards him. He stopped when Paolo turned his head towards him, but when the other man did nothing else, went to stand in front of him. Then he took up Paolo’s hand and pressed it to his forehead, though Paolo tried to pull away once he realized what Alessandro was doing.
“I’m sorry,” Alessandro said.
“You’re right is what you are.” Paolo’s voice was steeped in fatigue, and when his hands cupped Alessandro’s head and drew it up, they were still shaking. “I am trading on myself with him. But Sandro, I never meant for you or anyone else to share this.”
“No, that’s all due to my stubbornness. And selfishness.” Alessandro tried out a smile and got a ghost of one in return. He eased forward, resting his own hands on Paolo’s hips. “I thought you were dead and I wanted to enjoy the fact that you weren’t.”
Pain touched Paolo’s eyes with brightness and gave his smile a lopsided twist. Then he suddenly pulled them together, pressing his brow into the uninjured side of Alessandro’s face. “I’ve seen so many that I’ve loved killed—God, Sandro, don’t add to that count,” he rasped.
Alessandro wrapped his arms around him, and said nothing.
* * *
“Legally he has the right of it,” Paolo murmured. “They’re Ercole’s men, under contract to you. You take them any further and you’re open to charges of theft, kidnapping…”
Zlatan made a rude noise and threw something onto the table. Then he kicked at something. “Contract? I seem to have lost it…in the hurry somebody must’ve dropped it in Ravenna. Terrible marshes.”
Eventually Henrik had come and taken Paolo and Alessandro to the Lord’s sleeping chambers, which Zlatan had taken for his own. He hadn’t told Alessandro to wait in the hall then, but now that Alessandro had calmed a little, he could see it all as the ploy it was and he wasn’t interested in giving Zlatan any more amusement. So he’d opted to lie down and pretend to sleep, though with the racket Zlatan made, even that was difficult.
“That won’t work. Ercole had a copy too, remember? If he has any sense, he gave it to a neutral to safeguard.” How Paolo managed to be so patient with the man’s incessant idiocy, let alone stand the rest, was a veritable marvel. “Unless you…”
“I tried. My man couldn’t get it, but he says it’s going to someone in Rome. Ferrara and Naples are going to point out I’ve been rampaging on papal land, I think. Never mind that it was on their fucking payroll,” Zlatan grumbled.
Regular spies, perhaps even a network. Every time Alessandro wanted to insult the man, he turned around and displayed a capability that had to be admired. It was infuriating on top of all the other reasons Alessandro had to hate him.
“Are you sending the cannons back?” Paolo finally asked.
Zlatan snorted, and well he should, since his artillery was a key part of his devastating fighting style. “Even if I wanted to, they won’t go now. They like me too much. You can go ask them, if you want.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Paolo took a drink of something. “Then you’d better go to Rome yourself. You’re going to need more than a few well-disposed cardinals.”
When Alessandro heard a chair scrape its feet along the floor, he gritted his teeth and pressed his face into the blankets. He was about to raise his arm to cover his exposed ear as well when the far side of the bed suddenly dipped. Instead he turned over, and Paolo awkwardly curled at the last moment to avoid hitting Alessandro’s knees.
Narrow-eyed, Zlatan leaned against the bedpost and watched them, Paolo hesitantly pulling himself up on his arms and Alessandro still and tense. Then he snorted again, jerking first his head round and then the rest of himself so he rolled off the post into a stride. “I lost my appetite earlier. We’re for Rome the moment the sun hits the sky.”
After the door had shut behind him, Paolo pushed himself across the bed. He put his hand on Alessandro’s arm. Alessandro was already crawling over to him, head dipping as Paolo raised his.
* * *
The journey to Rome took a week. Forty, fifty miles a day for an army was unheard of except to students of the Imperial Roman Empire, but nevertheless Zlatan fumed and fretted as if only wings would have gotten him there fast enough. The Papal Conclave had been set for the sixth of August, so they would almost certainly arrive with several days to spare, and of course Paolo had talked Zlatan into sending agents ahead, but that wasn’t enough for Il Mago.
He didn’t seem to be enjoying the runners coming to meet him either, though they were laden with enough lavish gifts to make even Alessandro stare. Sforza, Borgia and Della Rovere had to be stripping the city of everything worth anything, if this was what they were sending just to a lowborn mercenary general.
“Like any of them besides Sforza gave a damn who I was before. I know they sent this gilded shit to D’Este and Ferdinand, and then I got whatever those two thought I deserved. And what they want—I have two armies, and one’s got to stay home and guard the chickens, and one’s staying with me because I get lonely. Where do they think I’ll be finding the extra men? From my ass?” Zlatan flapped his hands for his men to carry off the latest haul, then stalked around his working desk, glaring at the letter that’d accompanied everything.
Neither Paolo nor Zlatan wanted yet to let the Sforzas know a legitimate heir to the Duchy of Milan was still alive, so Paolo was lying low with the cavalry. And even taking that into considering, Alessandro still couldn’t see why he’d suddenly become the recipient of Zlatan’s rants.
“And what they think I’m going to do with a wife—well, that’s the funniest bit,” Zlatan said. He finally kicked a chair around, then dropped into a sprawl on top of it.
Alessandro sat a little straighter and looked at the letter again. It was only a few yards away but the top third of it was bent up so that he couldn’t make out any of the words. The seal would’ve also told him the identity of its sender, but Zlatan had mangled it beyond recognition in opening the letter.
“This one’s from Borgia.” Zlatan shot Alessandro an amused look before settling further into the chair, riding leathers creaking as his lanky form slid down. He absently waved a hand. “You want to read, you can.”
“He’s offering you a marriage? Lucrezia? She’s barely twelve and already spoken for,” Alessandro reluctantly said. He did get up, but only to move his seat further into the shade. It was already quite warm and promised to be blistering hot at the peak of the day.
A derisive laugh floated through the tent. Then Zlatan—the man never seemed to come to a complete rest—twisted off the chair and back onto his feet. He prowled towards Alessandro, snatching up the letter as he went, and only swerved at the last moment to instead stop at the map table. His hip bumped Alessandro’s hand, and Alessandro jerked it away only to instinctively grab the sheet of paper that wafted in front of him.
“Seems like people here are spoken for like you speak to a dog. Pass it on whenever you feel like,” Zlatan muttered. He picked up a compass and flicked out the leg with a surprisingly delicate touch, then carefully set it on the topmost map. “Is she any better than her brother?”
Alessandro drank some watered-down wine while he regained control of his temper. Then he smoothed out the letter and began to read it; for once he didn’t skip the flowery introduction, as he was interested in how Borgia was introducing himself now. “As I said, she’s twelve. Her mother’s a whore but she’s been sensible enough to keep the girl indoors. I’ve never seen her.”
Humming, Zlatan manipulated compass and lead pencil as if they were extensions of his fingers, and once again the difference between his crass manners and the precise way he conducted his business was marked. Never mind the insults: he didn’t fight like an Italian because he clearly hadn’t learned his trade here. Perhaps not anywhere in Europe. “Two years and I think even you’d call her a woman, no? They say she’s beautiful already. And Paolo says that her father’s less militant than either Sforza or Della Rovere.”
Bait and trap were obvious enough, but it was still with difficulty that Alessandro ignored both. He concentrated on the letter, which seemed to hint that Borgia was deeply worried behind all his seeming contentment. Most of the regional powers had already sided with either Della Rovere or Sforza, and it was true that Borgia didn’t have much inclination towards the military. But he had plenty of money, and that usually sufficed. His letter, however, was offering Zlatan outrageous concessions.
“Of course your friend’s going to think that way. The Sforzas slaughtered his family and took his birthright, and if Della Rovere is friendly with the French, well, they’ve got a claim to Milan too,” Zlatan added. He met Alessandro’s glance with a mildly questioning expression. “You agree with him?”
“I already gave you my opinion on the Borgias. Paolo’s much more levelheaded than I am and less likely to be influenced by…personal feelings,” Alessandro eventually replied. He didn’t like where the conversation was going, but after the night in Rimini, he’d resolved to treat with Zlatan as civilly as possible, so as to spare Paolo the backlash of the man’s temper.
He’d finished with the letter and now Alessandro rose to return it to the other table. To do that he had to pass by the other man, but he could choose on which side to walk. After a moment’s hesitation, he went by the left.
Zlatan appeared to be preoccupied with some route he was tracing out, head bowed and his free hand holding down the curling edge of the parchment. His hip was thrown out so a stray beam of light glittered over his sword-hilt, which was pointed directly at Alessandro. “He is, isn’t he? I thought I’d never find out what it’d take to get a rise out of him.”
Alessandro faltered, then jerked back, but Zlatan had already rounded the corner to seize his forearm. The other man yanked him forward and then pivoted to trap him against the table; Zlatan’s scabbard rattled against the side of Alessandro’s leg before swinging away. He twisted their arms up behind Alessandro’s back so they were pressed together from knee to throat, his beaky nose just bumping Alessandro’s cheek.
“I was almost starting to worry, actually. A man who can’t be frightened is someone to watch,” Zlatan murmured.
His breath swept over the trickles of sweat running along Alessandro’s hairline down to dampen Alessandro’s collar. He smelled strongly of leather and horses and earth, with an almost metallic underbite of salt—and then Alessandro twisted, trying to get the man off of him, and the most incongruous trace of lavender rose from the skin of Zlatan’s neck. Zlatan chuckled and laid his other hand on Alessandro’s hip, insolently molding his fingers to the muscle, and the scent intensified to the point of nausea.
“Is that what the point of this is?” Alessandro snapped, angry and disgusted.
“Well, I’ve already seen you frightened, so no.” Dragging his nose and mouth across Alessandro’s cheek, Zlatan pulled back just enough for him to be able to look Alessandro in the eye. He rippled his fingers upwards to climb over the top of Alessandro’s hipbone. His thumb slid between them so Alessandro flinched, and then again when Zlatan gave his arm another half-twist. “Anyway, it looks like right now you’d just like to kill me. You can reach my sword from here, you know.”
He didn’t need to say that since Alessandro could see the hilt well enough. Glinting as mockingly as Zlatan’s eyes, and Alessandro with one hand still free. Except not in truth.
Alessandro swallowed hard, then looked away from that. He savaged the side of his lip in an effort to ensure that he’d be able to speak without swearing. “But I’ll refrain from doing so. Unless this is how you prefer to make your bargains, after all.”
“And you’d be fine with striking one?” Zlatan looked disbelieving. “Paolo lies better, too.”
“I’m surprised my consent even seems to trouble you,” Alessandro snarled.
Something flashed through Zlatan’s eyes. His face hardened, and for a moment Alessandro thought the man might run him through. But instead Zlatan simply gave him a hard shake before shoving him to the side. Off-guard, Alessandro also lost his balance and had to grab quickly at the table to keep on his feet.
Zlatan’s hand shot out and steadied Alessandro’s elbow—reflectively, it seemed. He and Alessandro both stared at the hand.
Then Zlatan pulled it back, flipping it a few times before picking up his pencil again. He snorted and muttered something to himself in a rough, guttural tongue. “If I wanted to get bogged down in this place, I would’ve—you all think you’re such prizes, you know. You and your whoring priests and turncoat merchants and nobles for sale. God, who would want all the trouble?”
“So kill the lot of us and import your own people, if you think you can do so much better.” Alessandro rubbed at his arm. When the pain didn’t abate quickly, he undid his cuff and pushed up the sleeve to discover the distinct shapes of five fingers rising in a purplish black in the skin.
He looked sharply up when Zlatan laughed—the man did that as straightforwardly as he did everything else including assaults, head going back and mouth open so his white teeth flashed. “Why should I bother with that when you all do so well at killing each other without my help?” he asked. Then his amusement hardened and his eyes cooled. “I don’t need a bargain with you; it’s obvious enough what you’ll do and won’t do. But keep out of what’s not your business. I don’t like being interfered with.”
* * *
Once they did reach Rome, Zlatan settled his men upstream along the Tiber, far enough away to keep up the fiction that he was merely there ‘to help ensure an orderly and peaceful election’ at the invitation of the Church. He was still keeping everyone guessing as to which side he’d favor, so all three of the leading papal candidates sent round half-smug, half-anxious representatives to the spacious country palace he’d appropriated from a Florentine banker. Who in turn assumed he was carrying genuine reassurances back home to the Medici, thanks to Paolo’s silver tongue.
“I still think you could’ve asked for a few more days before you revealed yourself,” Alessandro said, drying his face off on a towel. “I had a word with Della Rovere’s man and he says Sforza’s already sent back to Milan for armed men. Il Moro might come down as well.”
Paolo paused with his quill over the inkwell. Then he set the pen in its holder and swung around to face Alessandro. “How did you get a moment with him? Did anyone see you?”
“What—no, no, not Gilardino. The guardsman that came with him, Zambrotta. We’re friendly and he can hold his tongue, if that’s what you’re worried about.” Alessandro lowered the towel, absently twisting it between his fingers. He knew Paolo had had a long day, between Zlatan and the various delegations, but he still was a bit surprised at the other man’s curtness.
“Did you say anything else to him? How did you explain your presence—how were you even there?” Paolo pressed. His hand fidgeted nervously where it laid across the papers. A lock of hair drifted into his eyes and he pushed it away so roughly that one of his nails left a red score across the side of his forehead. “Did anyone else see you?”
In lieu of answering, Alessandro let his eyes drift about the room. It was still richly furnished, but devoid of anything small, portable and heavy, and the windows had been tightly barred. They were alone in it, for the first time since they’d left Rimini, but outside those heavy doors—also locked—were five or six guards.
Paolo took a quick, short breath. “You didn’t send to Rome, did you?”
“Only to let Fernando know I’m not dead, and that I’ve been reassigned. I told Zambrotta Lippi ordered me to stay, and he’s the kind of man who won’t inquire any further.” Alessandro dropped the towel on a sideboard and picked up his doublet. He pulled it on, but left it unbuttoned. “Zlatan’s man led me to the antechamber where Zambrotta was waiting, and then ordered me out about a quarter-hour later. And if he was listening in, he didn’t hear anything that even that whoreson could take offense to, I’d think.”
“All right,” Paolo reluctantly said. He turned back to the desk, but the strain remained in his shoulders and back. When he picked up the quill again, he broke the tip the first time he pressed it to paper. “Damn it.”
After a moment, Alessandro went over and leaned against the edge of the desk to Paolo’s right. He watched the other man discard the quill for a fresh one taken from a whole quiver of them. “He doesn’t even let you have a penknife?”
“He’s no idiot.” The skin around Paolo’s mouth was whitened with pressure. He didn’t look at Alessandro. “He did that on purpose, had you taken there. He wanted to see what you’d do.”
“I know, but I had to at least send word to my brother. And Zambrotta volunteered the news about Sforza…Paolo, damn it, we’re only an hour’s hard ride from Rome. Zlatan might be able to deal with armies and unarmed men, but how is he planning on dealing with the assassins and the poisoners? And the goddamned diplomats?” Alessandro demanded. He touched Paolo’s shoulder, brushed a hair behind the other man’s ear. “As long as he has you Sforza’s going to assume that he means to undermine Il Moro and his—”
“I’m the one who deals with the assassins and poisoners and diplomats.” Paolo snapped the quill-tip again and jerked his hand off the desk. He glowered at the quill, then abruptly cast it on the floor and almost in the same movement pushed Alessandro away. Then he put up his elbows and pressed his hands to his face; his shoulders suddenly sagged.
Alessandro bit his lip, digging the thumb of one hand into the palm of the other. With the little time they had together, he hated being abrasive but at the same time he really couldn’t see how he couldn’t ask the questions and live with himself.
“He’s decided against the Sforzas for certain,” Paolo eventually muttered. He dragged his hands down to his mouth, then lifted them off and gingerly touched at the dark circles beneath his eyes.
“Today? Well, he took his time letting you know.” All the way to Rome, Alessandro had had to put up with watching Zlatan torture Paolo over whether they’d be allying themselves with that treacherous family. Much as Zlatan professed to be disgusted with Italian politics, he wasn’t bad at it himself. “And he’s allowed them to know you’re alive…is he planning to march on Milan?”
Paolo dropped one arm and propped up his head with the other, staring broodingly at the wall. His eyes slowly half-closed, then just as slowly opened again.
“You never told me whether you’d made a deal with him or not over that,” Alessandro suddenly recalled. “Is that—you’re willing to…but that’s no better than puppetry. And under him.”
“That—” Finally startling into life, Paolo began to turn.
But his progress was arrested by the groaning of the door hinges; he looked at Alessandro for a bare second, eyes brilliantly green, and then slewed around to rise and face Zlatan. The other man stalked in with barely a glance to them, utterly furious about something. He’d already ripped open his riding jacket and now he sent it soaring just past Alessandro to hit the wall. His doublet shortly followed, but though he ripped off his sword-belt with no less passion, he kept hold of that.
Something else flicked through the air: a crumpled ball of paper. Paolo caught it and quickly smoothed it out, his eyes scanning its contents. Then he threw it onto the desk and went after Zlatan into the next chamber, cursing. “Zla—Zlatan! Wait! Think about it! Calm down and think!”
Well, Alessandro wished Paolo the best of luck with that labor of Hercules. He picked up the paper and read through it, then again. Then he blew out his breath and dropped it on the desk. It was from Ascanio Sforza and the good cardinal was disappointed to hear of this and that and especially of the presence of what was undoubtedly an imposter telling Zlatan all sorts of lies about the Maldinis and the Sforzas, and it concluded with a dinner invitation. Infuriating, yes, but more for Paolo than Zlatan, Alessandro would have thought.
And the second thought Alessandro had was that it was peculiarly quiet. He frowned, instinctively letting his hand fall to his bare hip. Then he grimaced and pulled that away as he eased towards the doorway. No sword and a short temper from the aborted discussion with Paolo—he probably shouldn’t have gone to see, but he presumed that he was prepared now.
Zlatan had stormed through the bedchamber and into the adjoining toilet, blazing a wide trail in his wake. Gloves, wrist-guards, an overturned chair…Alessandro stooped to lift that out of the way and stayed down when Zlatan suddenly spoke, his voice clattering angrily from the door that’d been left ajar.
“You said he had to refuse those demands. Well, not only has he not, but he’d upped his offer.”
“I underestimated his desperation,” Paolo replied, voice tight. “I apologize. I’m as surprised as you are.”
Snort. “There was something else, though—the messenger told me it. I turn you over to him and he says I can marry his niece and take her lands plus Milan bloodlessly.”
Alessandro went very still, clutching the chair. He looked around the room again, but as with the other chamber, there wasn’t anything he could use. Save perhaps the chair, but it was so heavy it’d be too unwieldy and—and even Paolo didn’t know exactly where his family was being kept, though he got regular letters from his wife.
“That’s a lie. Ludovico Sforza would never stand for it.” Paolo moved, his shadow coming into Alessandro’s view.
“I know it is. He’s just fucking around like a street bitch that’s sneaked into the kennel. He’s doing what I did right back to me—he’s making a joke,” Zlatan snorted. He sounded much calmer, almost laughing. “Not a bad one either. I don’t think he’s taking you seriously, but then again, he knows this is my army, not yours.”
He walked across the room, the clomp of his riding boots echoing through the suite. Then there came the sound of splashing water, and Alessandro guessed that Zlatan was beginning to rinse his face and hair, as was his habit at the end of the day.
“He’s insulting you as well. The Sforzas are all that way, high-handed and greedy,” Paolo said. The degree of control audible in his voice tended to correspond fairly well to the degree of control he’d lost over his temper, and right now he sounded as if he were bridling himself with iron to stay calm. “There has to be something else—he’ll try and bribe your men, or send to Milan for reinforcements—”
“I heard about that too,” Zlatan replied, dry and meaningful.
Alessandro grimaced and looked down at his hands. He’d pried one off the chair when the sound of footsteps made him raise his head again. Then he heard a half-choked oath and a heavy thud, followed by a single click of a bootheel against tile.
“What did you say to Sforza’s man?” Paolo finally rasped. He was angry and in some pain, and there was something else as well, something that hooked in and tore.
“I said I’d go to dinner.” Zlatan made a low, rolling noise in his throat. “You think you could stand to meet a Sforza in person?”
Silence. Then Paolo uttered a sound very close to a snarl and there was a short, sharp struggle that ended in another hard thump. Paolo gasped, but was abruptly cut off.
Alessandro let go of the chair and was over by the door in an instant, pressing his fists into its heavy oaken panels. He remembered himself enough to know he couldn’t interfere—not and not make it worse—but he couldn’t keep himself outside, not knowing.
Zlatan had Paolo pressed to the wall, wrists crossed over his head and pinned that way under one hand. The other hand Zlatan was roughly drawing down Paolo’s left side, splayed fingers pressing hard while he shoved back the side of Paolo’s doublet with his elbow. His hair was still dripping wet, and so were his hands so where he touched, the cloth was left twisted and clinging to Paolo.
He was forcing his mouth down like the previous time, so hard that Alessandro could see Paolo’s flesh turning bloodless beneath the pressure. But it was not, Alessandro gradually understood, a mindless assault. Zlatan was up on his toes for better leverage and rocking back every so often, letting up and then coming down again at a slightly different angle. His mouth gradually slipped off of Paolo’s, and Paolo turned his head a little, almost as if regretting the absence.
Paolo was open-eyed the entire time, and though from his angle Alessandro couldn’t make out the exact expression of the other man’s face, Paolo did not look so much revolted as…as…it wasn’t even resignation. It was as if he were trying not to accept the gift of a favorite food, and even as he was fighting to refuse, his hunger was giving him away.
“All right,” Zlatan said. He raised his head and let go of Paolo’s wrists, settling both hands on either side of Paolo’s waist. “If you can’t do it, you won’t go. Borgia’s sending his man again and you can entertain him. I’m still thinking about saying yes to that larded ass, so you’d better be able to manage that.”
His hands dropped to Paolo’s hips, and then slid to cup the backs of Paolo’s thighs as he bent forward. He was just as brutal as before with Paolo’s mouth, but Paolo was raising his head off the wall, pushing back. And Paolo closed his eyes and pulled his hands from the wall to press down on Zlatan’s shoulders as Zlatan hauled up his legs, and then Alessandro backed away. He stood looking blindly about the room, but a loud grunt from behind him impelled him into moving. In the end he went back to the desk in the antechamber and sat down, putting his head in his hands.
* * *
Some time later, two fingers lightly touched his shoulder. “Sandro.”
“I saw,” Alessandro curtly said. “It’s not that hard for you, then?”
After a moment, Paolo lifted his hand. Alessandro bit back an oath and turned, but the other man was simply pulling up a chair. Paolo sat with some care—Alessandro turned back, swallowing hard.
“Is it just the familiarity of the situation?” he asked. He could hear the plea struggling to breach his hard words and hissed out his breath.
“Partly. Though…he’s never forced me. Not once a certain point was passed. I don’t think—he has this peculiarity—”
“I’m acquainted with it.” Alessandro twisted around again, lifted his brows at the look on Paolo’s face. “He’s tried pushing me. Tried.”
Paolo blinked away the accusation that had first sat in his eyes and replaced it with guilty regret.
“Oh, stop that. I put myself in his path and you can’t be responsible for every damn thing he does. Or I do. But…” And here Alessandro faltered. He couldn’t find the words, and then when he could, couldn’t bring himself to fling their fury at the other man. So in the end he simply asked the question. “Why?”
Paolo opened his mouth, then shut it and looked down. He was cradling one wrist in the other, and the dark fresh bruises around them stood out against the white of his sleeves. “Sandro, I thought my father was—well, that he’d at least see seventy. I didn’t think I’d be heading the family for a long time, or that I’d be responsible for—for avenging so many members of it, and for regaining Milan, and for dealing with possibly the greatest general Italy’s seen in centuries.”
Alessandro couldn’t help snorting.
“He is, whether you like it or not,” Paolo said, a touch of reproof in his voice. His eyes flicked up, then returned back to his hands. “If only because if he doesn’t immediately get his due, he doesn’t wait and attempt to extort. He simply destroys your army. And he…sometimes everything I have to do and remember and take into consideration is too damned much, Sandro. He knows that and he takes advantage of it, and I have to admit it can be a relief when he does.”
He looked up at the end of it, blunt and bared like Alessandro couldn’t ever remember seeing him before. He obviously was expecting very little, and when Alessandro reached out and folded his hands around Paolo’s, the naked surprise on the other man’s face almost hurt worse than the confession.
Alessandro started to lean forward, but the sound of a bootheel on the threshold made them both slide back.
Zlatan stood in the doorway, looking almost warily at them. It might have been a trick of the candlelight, since in the next moment he was sauntering past with his usual grating insouciance. “Figure out what we’re going to say about him,” he said to Paolo, but with a nod towards Alessandro. “I’m taking him into the city. I’m not about to let all those fucking nobles get a good laugh out of me asking for the wrong spoon.”
He continued on and had left the room before a response could be delivered. In fact, Alessandro was still staring in some shock at the door when he received a hard shake of the arm. “He’s joking.”
“He’s not. He—” Lips thinned, Paolo twisted around to put both hands on the edge of the desk. He pushed against it till his arms were fully extended, then slackened slightly so his shoulders weren’t hunched. His fingers drummed hard against the wood. “Damn. Damn it. You’ll have to go. You should go.”
“I’m coming back.” Alessandro said that mildly enough, but he didn’t flinch from the sharp look Paolo turned on him. “If you think I’m leaving you now…anyway, I know what Rome’s like better than you, even if I don’t have your gift of persuasion. I think I can manage telling him who’s bedding who without accidentally breaking his neck.”
Predictably enough, Paolo didn’t look relieved at all. But he also didn’t look simply worried—his brow was furrowed with a few other thoughts than Alessandro’s ability to curb his temper. “Sandro…”
“Or Sforza’s or Borgia’s,” Alessandro added. He shrugged and gave Paolo a hard smile. “It’s like choosing between devils, but frankly, Borgia does seem like the practical choice. He’ll pop his brats into robes they don’t deserve and run the Church into bankruptcy, but he’s no warrior. If you want relative peace, he’d have to be it.”
“You’re still hoping to run into his son in some dark alley one day, aren’t you?” Paolo finally replied. He briefly produced his own dry smile.
“It can wait. Besides, I think Fernando would make first claim.” Alessandro paused, then shifted close enough to wrap his fingers over Paolo’s wrists again. He touched the bruises as gently as he could, then bent down to kiss one. “Anything else?”
Paolo breathed in sharply, then carded his hands through Alessandro’s hair and pulled Alessandro back up. “I don’t understand, but I thank God and all the saints for you,” he said quietly.
“There’s not really that much to it. I—wasn’t there, when you could’ve used me. So I can hardly protest at what decisions you’ve taken since then.” Alessandro pulled down Paolo’s right hand and pressed his mouth to its back, then to the wrist again. Then he drew his lips along the side of one finger, and when he came to the end of it, Paolo’s mouth was there to meet him.
* * *
“Nice enough building,” Zlatan said, gazing up. Then he shrugged and spurred his horse so they continued down the street. He kept looking about, frustrated with the slow pace that their guides had adopted.
The moment they’d seen Alessandro, Sforza’s men had been clearly discomfited, but they’d since dropped that attitude in favor of an annoying tendency to try and sidle up to him and Zlatan. That alone would’ve worked Alessandro’s nerves raw, and instead of reassuring him, the sword strapped to his side merely acted as a constant goad.
“That was the Lateran Palace,” Alessandro replied through gritted teeth. “You were looking at the residence of the Pope.”
Zlatan turned just enough to roll an eye towards Alessandro. “Really? It could do with a fresh coat of whitewash.”
Alessandro started to retort, then saw one of their guides eyeing them and shut his mouth. He took a deep breath, looking around for a distraction, and was pleased to note that at least the small troop Zlatan had brought with him was, to a man, gaping in awe at their surroundings. And anyway—perhaps the stream of slighting observations coming from Zlatan was more than his need to be as irritating as possible. His background still was a mystery, but occasionally he dropped a hint.
With that in mind, Alessandro made a fresh attempt at imitating Paolo’s disinterested instruction. It helped that the sun was beginning to sink and so he had to direct some of his attention to steering his horse through the cluttered streets. Here and there he saw signs of recent riots, and though the sidewalks and alleys were full enough, the people watched their group go by with a seething nervousness that didn’t bode well for the nighttime.
Though they did reach Sforza’s palace without incident, and there Alessandro merely stood back to observe the pomp and circumstance as the cardinal himself held the reins of Zlatan’s horse so the man could dismount. It was all faintly ridiculous, clearly aimed at bowling over an inexperienced newcomer—and from the derisive twist of Zlatan’s mouth, he fully realized that.
When Il Mago, ruthless soldier of fortune, suddenly displayed enough manners to compliment Cardinal Sforza on the new frescos in the entryway, Alessandro didn’t bother hiding his amusement. He could smell the lingering odor of freshly-slaked plaster and he knew where Zlatan was taking his cues, but these so-called sophisticates didn’t have a clue.
Zlatan made the passing remark that since he’d never been to Rome before, Alessandro had offered to show him about, and that earned Alessandro several more hard looks. He ignored them as best he could, but in the end reluctantly found himself keeping pace with Zlatan’s shadow in order to lessen the opportunity for anything untoward to happen.
Dinner, at least as far as the food was concerned, was fairly forgettable. The conversation wasn’t terribly better: Sforza talked up Rome and particularly the parts of it connected to him, Zlatan pretended to listen and occasionally asked a question in seeming innocence that made Sforza look extraordinarily stupid. Alessandro was seated by a fellow officer of the papal guard and put up with the man’s insinuations till nearly the last course, when he pointed out that they’d both been appointed under Innocent and since Innocent was dead and they held their ranks by a technicality only till and if the next pope reconfirmed them, it seemed only practical to be exploring other avenues.
The fool flushed with embarrassment, as well he should since he was dining with a cardinal to whom he hadn’t been assigned, and a grinning Zlatan lazily turned the conversation towards the upcoming Conclave. Then Alessandro sat up and listened seriously, since Sforza began by denouncing Paolo for a pretender to the Duchy of Milan.
Zlatan blandly insisted otherwise and apparently—the one time Alessandro caught his attention, Zlatan waved his hand in a negative—foundered purposefully around in the conversation till Sforza admitted Paolo’s father had reneged his claim in an effort to keep the peace. In fact, he’d even acted as an advisor to Galeazzo Maria Sforza, the Cardinal’s own father, and didn’t that say that it’d been a permanent renunciation and not a temporary one?
“Well, was there anything on paper?” Zlatan laughed. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Italy, it’s your love of official documents.”
“Unfortunately paper is such a delicate material. In the uproars a few years ago…well, it was something like what’s going on right now between Rimini and Urbino,” Sforza silkily responded.
A clear dig at Zlatan’s situation, and in all probability a hint that Sforza had been the recipient of Ferrara’s message. Alessandro glanced at the other man and found him looking too serious when he should’ve continued playing the idiot. He tried to signal to him, but Zlatan didn’t glance his way and instead asked Sforza rather sharply if he wanted them to go back to stone tablets. Sforza promptly turned that into an invitation to view some room he’d just had redone and they all had to rise.
Alessandro immediately tried to get through to Zlatan, but he was deliberately impeded by various members of Sforza’s household—and that idiot seemed to have forgotten Alessandro was even there. And then, once Alessandro had outmaneuvered his opposition, somebody seized his arm.
“Yes?” Alessandro said brusquely. Then he turned and saw who it was, and he momentarily forgot what he was doing in his surprise. “Canna?”
Fabio Cannavaro confirmed his identity with a brilliant smile. Then he glanced aside, his delight turning to caution. He quickly drew them into a small alcove; Alessandro looked towards Zlatan, but the man had already disappeared down the hall with Sforza. They’d left a trail of servants and other nobodies in their wake so it’d be easy enough to track them, but Alessandro still wasn’t entirely comfortable with the situation. Zlatan obviously didn’t like him and odd little moments aside, tended to separate him and Paolo as much as possible.
“…brother,” Fabio was saying. He hit Alessandro on the shoulder, looking a little vexed. “Here I am, overjoyed that you’re not lying in a ditch in Ravenna, and you’re staring at blondes.”
That made very little sense till a young maid-servant hurried out of the dining room with a load of dirty plates. “I didn’t even notice her till you pointed her out. What are you…you’re here on behalf of Ferdinand, aren’t you? Is it pope-making or something lesser?”
Cannavaro looked wounded. “Sandro, I’ve never let allegiances stand in the way of a good dinner friendship.”
“Well, dinner’s over,” Alessandro sharply retorted. Then he grimaced, glancing away—Fabio was close enough to deserve better than that, even if he were a Neapolitan to the bone. “Listen, what do you want? I need to—”
“I did hear that Il Mago pays amazing salaries, and not only in cash. Is it true that he’s got Paolo Maldini in his train?” Fabio quirked an eyebrow.
Alessandro stared, his hand dropping to his sword-hilt before he quite realized what he was doing.
The other man saw as well and took a hasty step backward so he promptly hit the wall. He put his hand back to steady himself, then lifted an apologetic face to Alessandro. “I’m sorry. I just remembered an old rumor about you two and—didn’t realize it was so…so he is still alive?” He blinked. “Sorry again. Sforza let you keep that at his dinner table?”
He indicated the sword, and Alessandro belatedly noticed he was still holding it and took his hand away. “Il Mago’s a suspicious peasant and insisted everyone be allowed to keep their arms,” he blandly said.
“Convenient.” Fabio tried out another smile, but it fled at the sound of someone walking briskly through the hall. He slipped further into the alcove, nervously pulling at his collar. “I’m sorry my tongue keeps running away with itself. I’m just surprised to see you here—don’t you know your brother’s sided with Della Rovere?”
As hard as Alessandro looked, he couldn’t see a trace of insincerity on the other man’s face. Only authentic confusion.
“No, I take it,” Fabio dryly observed.
“I’ve been—” Alessandro paused and put his hand back to his sword as the scufflings and cries of some dispute reached his ear. It sounded as if someone were trying to force his way at the front door.
He stepped halfway out of the niche, and then when nobody seemed to observe him, over to the balcony that oversaw the large entry chamber. Fabio cautiously edged up beside him, then stifled an exclamation.
“That’s one of Borgia’s lieutenants,” Fabio hissed.
Whatever the argument had been, it looked to be well settled now. Too settled for Alessandro’s taste—he withdrew a little so the shadows of the support pillars would swallow him, then went further down the hall till he could cross into a loggia that looked into the front courtyard. A little party of soldiers were closely watching several heavily-burdened mules…Alessandro stepped back and ran into someone.
He immediately pulled away, unsure if Fabio were willing to let casual friendship intrude that far into matters of state, and someone struck him a hard blow on the back of his head just as he glimpsed a face. Alessandro hissed and half-drew his sword, but they seized his arms and jerked them back. A dirty cloth was stuffed into his mouth, and his head was forced down till they could hit him again, and this time he couldn’t resist the draw of unconsciousness.
* * *
The smell woke him: the thick, nauseating sweetness of drying blood overlaid with the acrid stench of urine and fear. It choked Alessandro into opening his eyes, trying to turn so he could find fresh air.
He was in some dark room, lying on what felt like a stone floor. His hands—his limbs were free, and he was allowed to push himself onto his elbows without any interference. His head ached abominably and his sight wavered for several seconds before finally losing its blurriness so he could see a pair of boot-tips. Fine tooled leather, with gilt-encrusted heels that were splashed with something dark and clotted.
“I never liked your family.” The boots stepped back a pace, and when Alessandro managed to lift his gaze to their owner, Cesare Borgia was smiling. Dark and indulgent, the smile of a cat with a half-flayed pigeon between its paws. “Even before your brother meddled with my affairs.”
Alessandro’s breath caught and his whole body suddenly felt as if the blood had been replaced with ice-water. The smell of violent death swelled around him till he thought he might suffocate and he had to use all his willpower to refrain from gagging, so he couldn’t keep himself from looking about.
They were in his brother’s house, in the kitchen. There was the huge fireplace, big enough for a whole roasted pig, now a blackened pit in the wall. And the baskets of fresh produce, the pheasants hanging above them to ripen, the long strip where the…the pots should have been hanging, but Alessandro flinched at the sight and dropped his head, stuffed his hand into his mouth to keep from crying out. His entire gut tried to turn itself inside out and he didn’t stop himself from gagging this time.
“The good Cardinal Sforza and my father have come to a peaceful reconciliation as to certain matters, which mostly are none of your concern except that you need no longer seek employment with the papacy, and that our mutual acquaintance Paolo Maldini may rest with the assurance that Milan is safe in the hands of Cardinal Sforza’s brother,” Cesare added. He was walking further away, but others were coming up to Alessandro in his place.
His words, words, they didn’t mean—Alessandro’s head swum, then suddenly cleared at Paolo’s name. Oh, God, Fernando…but a Borgia agent was dining with Paolo right now, and Paolo wasn’t dead. He still remained. Despite everything, despite all the damned—this wasn’t right. This wasn’t deserved and it was hideous, it was—
Two men were flanking Alessandro, standing slightly behind him. They’d drawn their swords—Alessandro had registered the rasping metallic sound—and now the one on the left was prodding Alessandro in the back with his sword-tip while the other one was grunting. Raising his sword. And Alessandro was cold, cold as the pagans’ lonely Hell, but so full of fury he would’ve ripped those sorry shades to nothing.
The one on the right began to swing and Alessandro threw himself down, then twisted. He grabbed the sword that had been jabbing his back and helped the man along with his clumsy reaction, sending the stab straight into the second man’s calf. That one bellowed and his hack snapped sideways; Alessandro easily avoided it but the first man did not and stumbled away screaming and clutching at his bloody chest.
He’d let go of his sword, but the point was still stuck in the second man’s leg. Alessandro yanked it free with his left hand and rolled, kicking out as he went. His foot connected with a shin and the other man went down, though not without a credible slash at Alessandro. A sharp pain sliced across Alessandro’s arm, but the feeling died away almost instantly, joining the low throb of the scratches on his back and over the palm of his left.
But even if he didn’t feel it, that second cut still prevented him from getting a good grip on the sword. He had to waste a moment tossing it to his right hand—his fighting one anyway—and then he could rip out the man’s throat with a backhand cut.
By then Cesare had realized things weren’t going according to plan and had come storming back with the rest of his men. Some of them had pistols, but they fired them without first bothering to really see what was going on, and they came closer to catching Cesare with a bullet than they did Alessandro.
Alessandro ducked behind the main preparation table till the smoke was thick enough, then ran for the back entrance. He gained the stairs to the upper level just as a whining noise arrowed towards him, and he ducked barely in time for the flung sword to miss his head.
“He’s there, you asses! After him! I don’t want a single member of this damned family left whole!” Cesare shouted.
The bile welled in Alessandro’s throat, but he controlled himself and merely spat down as he took the stairs two and three at a time. The moment he reached the top, he threw himself at the door.
The latch wasn’t on, so he was thrown momentarily off-balance by the door’s wild swing outward. His feet went out from under him, keeping yet another sword from finding his head. Alessandro stabbed at his assailant, then heaved himself up by the knob and delivered a messy downward hack so the man went tumbling back into the stairwell, temporarily blocking that way. Then he spun around, found the hall clear but filling with men at one end, and promptly ran down the other.
At the corner he had to kill another man, and he used the body as a stepping-stone to get out a window. From there he dropped onto the windowsill of a lower level, bashed in the glass and then slipped through into a storage-room. There was only one door so if anyone was waiting outside—but the courtyard was full of men and if he was going to get out, he’d have to do so by the front entrance. He threw himself towards the door and found it ajar as well—Borgia must have come while they were preparing dinner.
Alessandro slid into the hall and immediately had to block a slash that jarred from his wrist to his shoulder. He sucked in a breath and heaved off, then swung around to try a belly-slice only to be blocked himself.
“You’re not bad,” Cesare Borgia said. He danced on his pretty boots, his cap fallen away so his auburn hair flowed out behind him. “Your brother couldn’t even parry.”
“You aren’t fit to look at him, let alone speak of fighting him,” Alessandro snarled. He slashed at the man’s hair and when Cesare’s vanity made him duck, lunged forward.
He caught Borgia’s sleeve and tore it, but the puffy fabric prevented him from striking skin. Almost in the same instant, Cesare slashed at Alessandro’s chest so his doublet and undershirt gaped open nearly to the waist.
Cesare slipped back, a slight smile on his face as his eyes lingered on his swordwork. “I can look at whatever I please. That’s all you Romans are good for, anyway.”
Alessandro’s skin crawled and he reflexively pulled his left arm up so his clothes flapped over him. Then he spun around, but Cesare’s men were too close.
He managed to stab one, but his sword lodged itself in bone and was wrenched away. A dagger was pressed to the side of his throat, but nothing else stabbed into his body: instead they forced him over to the balustrade and then over it, dragging his arms out to either side of him. More hands pressed at his back, pushing up his clothes, and then two fingers dipped into his waistband. He swore at them and bucked, only to have his ankles pinned.
“I did a good deal more than look at your brother, but thought since you have been a brave soldier for the Church, you deserved a soldier’s death. My mistake,” Cesare said in a silky murmur. He patted Alessandro’s exposed back before stepping away. “All right, after you’re done with him—God’s bones!”
His voice must have covered the whining buzz, since the crossbolt thudding between the eyes of the man holding down Alessandro’s right arm surprised all of them. Then the man began to fall, his hands slipping away, and Alessandro yanked his right side free. The others began to shove him down again, only to see another one of them fall over screaming in agony. This time the bolt had gone between the balustrade’s posts into the man’s groin.
“God’s balls, looks like,” boomed Zlatan’s voice. “He wants them back, by the way. And I want my guide back.”
After a bit more struggling, Alessandro finally jerked himself free of Cesare’s men. He stumbled to the side, then fell against the rail. Blood was trickling down his neck and he clapped a hand to it, then pulled away when he found the cut already clotting. He yanked his torn clothing around himself and wrapped his arm over it before looking out into the little courtyard.
“There are better ones you could employ, surely,” Cesare said, waving his men back. Everyone could see that the number of men Zlatan had on the roof and the ground could easily overwhelm him, and everyone could also see how ill he took that realization.
Zlatan had already walked nearly to them, his sword unsheathed and hanging easily from his right hand. In his left hand he was holding a long wooden pole he’d wrenched from somewhere—one end was splintered so badly it looked like a blooming flower—covered with fresh blood. “I like that one.” He jerked his chin at Alessandro. “He doesn’t try to fuck around with me when he doesn’t even have anything to back it up.”
Cesare arranged his face into an angelic expression of confusion.
“Oh, God, I had enough of that from Sforza tonight. So he and your daddy are friends now…well, so he doesn’t have anything to prove I broke any bargain with Ferrara, and you can’t stop me from leaving with Nesta. Not if you want to be able to go running to whine to daddy.” After dropping the pole, Zlatan reached over the rail and cupped his hand under Alessandro’s elbow. He pushed up on it.
Alessandro started and looked at him; Zlatan glanced back, strangely solemn, before he turned his amused face to Cesare again. He pushed a second time and Alessandro lifted his arm away, then grabbed the rail and levered himself over it to stand beside Zlatan. His left hand started bleeding again and he ripped off a strip of his undershirt so he could bandage it.
“You’re in bad counsel,” Cesare finally said. He made a point of ignoring Alessandro as he attempted to gather his dignity around himself. “Both my father and I admire you and your military genius a good deal, which is why I tell you now that you should reconsider where you look for your allies.”
“I’m thinking very hard about it, trust me.” Zlatan gazed deliberately around the palazzo as he walked backward a few feet. Then he turned his back on Cesare and strolled the rest of the way to his horse, but didn’t yet mount it.
Cesare stared coldly at him, and then at Alessandro when he finally started after Zlatan. Alessandro returned the gaze till something nudged his arm: Zlatan stopping him.
“What?” Zlatan called to Cesare. “I never said I was leaving now.”
An angry flush finally started in Borgia’s face and he took a quick step forward, only to have one of his men hold him back. Then he spun and belted that unfortunate across the face, and then he stalked off, his men falling in behind him.
As he watched them leave, Zlatan’s face slowly smoothed till all traces of good humor were gone. He blinked when Alessandro pulled his arm free, then turned. “Well, you could do with some manners yourself. No gratitude?”
“Go to hell,” Alessandro snarled. He finished yanking the strip around his hand, then touched the bump at the back of his skull. Thanks to Paolo’s medicinal skill, the side of his face was well on its way to healing, but that other spot would—Alessandro jerked his hand down and stared around the courtyard, blinking rapidly. His eyes took an achingly long time to stop stinging.
“You want anything?” Zlatan had stepped a little closer and dropped his voice so the others couldn’t heart. And even then, Alessandro had barely looked up before Zlatan was ordering the few remaining with them off to check parts of the palazzo. “I’m not sleeping in this fucking city, so if you do, better speak now.”
The other man half-smiled, then turned his head so the flicker of the torchlight threw a claw of shadow over his cheek. He slid his sword back into its sheath. “Go ahead, be a prickly ass. Like it wasn’t trouble enough to get the hell out of Sforza’s place and find out where you were. That Neapolitan diplomat uses half a dozen words where one would’ve done fine.”
“I want,” Alessandro started, and had to stop to clear his throat. “I want to give my family a Christian burial. They’re in the kitchen.”
“Family?” But before Zlatan could add on the obvious query, one of his men came running up from that direction. The two of them stood off a little as the man gave his report, and then Zlatan came back to Alessandro. “I told you, I’m not spending the night here—hey, how about shutting up and letting me finish? Where’s that other cardinal you know live? Lippi. I’ll make sure he receives the bodies and gets money for the arrangements.”
After a moment’s thought, Alessandro told him and Zlatan duly sent off a messenger. What his other men were doing, Alessandro…could guess but didn’t care at all. He simply stood silently aside till the bodies were carried out—Zlatan’s men took the surprising consideration of wrapping them in bedsheets—and then he went forward and helped rinse them with water from the well and wine from…the cellar, he supposed. By the time they’d finished, Lippi had sent round a wagon for them. Alessandro scribbled a short note and handed it to the driver.
They made him mount a horse so he couldn’t watch it be driven away, but perhaps that was for the best. His eyes were hurting again and he had to bite his lip to keep his vision from blurring.
“Lippi said he’d send people in the morning to take over the place, but I took what looked worth anything—I know he’s your friend, but most of you seem to have an interesting idea of friendship,” Zlatan said, leading them out the back gate. He leaned back and gave Alessandro’s horse a tap on the flanks to make it keep up, but the second time Alessandro fell behind, he sighed and grabbed the reins from Alessandro’s hands. “You can look it all over later and see if you change your mind.”
“You’re not taking it over?” It was in a good location, Alessandro absently thought. Perhaps Cesare was motivated by hatred, but the prospect of plunder couldn’t have hurt either.
Zlatan snorted and scornfully tossed his head. He was handed something by his lieutenant and he shook it out—a cloak—before offering it to Alessandro. A few moments passed, and then Zlatan snorted again and sidled his horse so close to Alessandro’s that their legs bumped. He threw the cloak around Alessandro’s shoulders, then forced the edges into Alessandro’s hand.
“You’re right about Cesare. He’s a spoiled cunt who needs his father’s prick in him to do anything,” he muttered.
Alessandro started, then slowly raised his head and looked at the other man. He tasted an acid in his mouth that wasn’t bile—it was sharper, stronger. “Does it really matter to you? It’s his father you’re dealing with, and you already have your hold on me. I can’t interfere in your damned business.”
“I came and got you.” Zlatan seemed slightly taken aback at Alessandro’s venom.
“Because you feel the same way Cesare Borgia does about being upstaged,” Alessandro snarled. He looked challengingly at the other man. “You don’t deny it, do you? You want a thanks from me? Thanks are something given by freedmen, not slaves.”
Even in the darkness, Alessandro could see the color come into Zlatan’s face. His eyes glittered—and then Alessandro hissed, raising his hand to his dropped head. The blow had fallen squarely on the bruises, hard enough so that his head rang and he was surprised to feel that the cut there hadn’t reopened.
“Spoken by somebody who knows what about slavery? You’re railing over nothing, nobleman,” Zlatan muttered. He jerked himself up in the saddle, throwing another look of suppressed fury at Alessandro, and then he clapped his knees to the sides of his horse, leaping ahead. His men quickly folded in to keep Alessandro in their midst, someone else taking up the reins Zlatan had dropped.
* * *
They took the backroads out of the city, all identifying marks well-muffled, but the caution was unnecessary as they weren’t challenged once. It seemed as if Borgia had indeed gone home, and Sforza had elected to keep indoors as well.
About two miles out of the city, Zlatan and his men relaxed their guard and pulled away the heavy cloth that was stifling in the heat already rising from the eastern horizon, and Alessandro leaned over the side of his horse and threw up. He’d held it as long as he could, but the surge in his throat would’ve burned its way out if he hadn’t finally opened his mouth.
“What’s he done now—oh. Shit. Jesus Christ at Calvary…Piero, go see if that cottage over there’s got anybody in it. And if it’s got water. Olof, get over here and help me with the stubborn bastard.”
Somebody held Alessandro’s horse in place while others lifted him, still convulsed with hard cramps in the gut and throat, to the ground. Then he was led a few paces, pushed up against a tree. He closed his eyes and ignored things, just trying to get control over his own body again.
When the vomiting finally stopped, a wet cloth was pressed to his mouth. He took it and mopped his face, then pushed it away. It was taken from him and a strip of metal was pressed into his hand: a ladle-handle. Alessandro rinsed and spat, and then raised his head to look at Zlatan, who was holding him to the tree by dint of an arm around the waist.
“Better?” Zlatan said. They were in a small copse, and though his men could be heard moving around, they couldn’t be seen. “When you said you two had bad blood between you, you weren’t joking.”
“No.” For a few moments Alessandro thought about trying to hit the other man with the ladle, but he finally just handed it back. When Zlatan’s head dipped, he pushed forward.
The other man went still except for his lips, which parted slightly. Alessandro pressed his mouth against them, but ran into the arm barring his waist; he grunted and got hold of Zlatan’s shoulder, pulling it, and then Zlatan moved. He shoved Alessandro roughly back so Alessandro’s head struck the tree trunk. The world darkened, then came back as a hand threaded through the hair at the back of Alessandro’s head, finding the newly sore bump.
“Oh. That’s how…” Zlatan muttered. He fell silent for a second after that, just staring unreadably at Alessandro. Then he grinned humorlessly. “What the hell was that?”
“You…really did send for Lippi. I…my brother…” Heat was slowly creeping up from Alessandro’s collar into his cheeks, but he set his jaw and pulled at Zlatan’s arm, leaning up towards the other man. “You…”
Zlatan looked incredulous. Then he pushed Alessandro again, and once he had the space, yanked off Alessandro’s hands. “Look, I told you. I don’t need to make a bargain with you.”
“Then what are you doing with me?” Alessandro snapped. He jerked himself up against the tree, shoving the heel of one hand over his cheek. His fingers caught in his hair and he angrily dragged the strands behind his ear. “What is this?”
“I think you’re upset that bastard killed your brother and tried to rape you,” Zlatan said after a moment. He stepped back a half-pace, his gaze almost dispassionate. Then he smiled again. “Well, no, right now you’re mad at me. That’s a little better.”
Alessandro opened his mouth. Then he closed it. He looked around, but that hardly helped settled his mind into coherent thought, and finally he sagged against the tree to wait it out. “What would you know about it?” he asked tiredly.
“About death in the family?” With a shrug, Zlatan half-turned to hook up a bucket. He dipped up some water with the ladle and drank deeply before spitting out the last bit. “It took a couple years to happen, but my birth killed my mother—ripped up her belly, I was so big. And then I got to see the Saracens trample my father to death when I was twelve.”
He related that in a cool, toneless voice, and the casual way he spilled the rest of the bucket’s contents over his bent head gave Alessandro no clues to his intent. But at the least, Alessandro was strangely sure the other man wasn’t lying. “Saracens? You’ve been to the Holy Land?”
“No, Egypt.” Zlatan ruffled his hair, then slicked it back with one hand as he raised his head. He vigorously rubbed all over his face with two fingers, paying special attention to the flesh beneath his eyes. “Rome reminds me of it, you know,” he said. “Amazing place, things you’d never believe were possible if you didn’t see them yourself, but not much about God or faith or even love.”
“Did they teach you how to fight?” Alessandro asked.
The other man looked a long time at Alessandro, the corners of his lips twitching upwards and something old and unpleasant in his eyes. Then he gave himself a shake, like a dog, and reached over to take Alessandro by the wrist. He pulled them out of the trees and back to their horses.
Alessandro was in the middle of swinging himself into the saddle when the breeze floated words to him: “They didn’t teach. It was fight and die, or learn and fight later. I learned.”
* * *
Paolo met them in the courtyard, nervous enough to try and step forward before Henrik signaled for him to. Then he came up somewhat between Zlatan and Alessandro; he was angling towards Alessandro, but Zlatan was asking before he’d even dismounted how things had gone at Paolo’s dinner.
“Borgia’s come to terms with Sforza, but he’s still trying to appease Della Rovere,” Paolo said. His eyes kept flicking to Alessandro’s hand and torn clothing. “He thinks you might be inclining towards Giuliano—who’s got the Ferrara treaty, by the way. But what I’m hearing is that Della Rovere would be willing to give that up if he could get cannon to match that of D’Este.”
“Can I guess that he told Sforza he’d make sure Milan stayed with that family?” Zlatan threw his reins to a soldier standing near, then started to walk by Paolo. Then he stopped, frowning.
He was in Alessandro’s way so Alessandro slipped behind the other two and came up on Paolo’s other side in time to see Zlatan turning over Paolo’s hand. Two of the fingers were slightly discolored with red chalk.
Paolo shrugged carelessly and rubbed it off with his thumb. “I believe so, but the dinner was cut a little short when Borgia’s envoy took seriously ill. A wine he brought with him, it seems. I lent him a litter to get back to Rome.”
“You didn’t have any?” Zlatan asked.
“He thought I did. Out of politeness, since I don’t care for that vintage,” Paolo said, arching his eyebrows.
Zlatan grinned and let go of Paolo’s hand. “Well, they were idiots twice over last night. I’ll be in after I talk to Henrik—Sandro can tell you about how wonderful Rome was.”
As soon as he’d gone around the corner, Paolo was up beside Alessandro, all his blitheness gone. He looked at Alessandro’s neck and then, when Alessandro pointed, at the back of Alessandro’s head. Then he started to ask a question, but the clicking of the horses’ hooves brought him back to himself and instead he led them inside.
Alessandro managed to collect himself enough to tell Paolo what had happened while Paolo cleaned and dressed his wounds. He kept his voice emotionless and stuck to facts as much as possible, and didn’t omit the odd little interlude after he’d thrown up.
“That’s where it comes from: the soap, the baths, the fighting. The dislike of the Church. He must have been enslaved and then brought up as a Mameluke when he was old enough,” he commented. “Have you ever heard him speaking Arabic with anyone?”
“No, but he’s said his mother had him baptized. I’ve seen him go to church a few times, but that may be just because he’s here.” Paolo finished tidying up, then picked up the bowls of bloody water. He went to empty them in the next room, then came back without them. “Borgia can’t be it, then. He’ll never stand for the insult to his son. It’ll have to be Della Rovere.”
When he came near enough, Alessandro reached out and touched his leg to stop the other man. Then he pulled Paolo down on the bed beside him. “You know, if Zlatan’s just looking to secure his position, he could win over all three by giving you up to Sforza, me to Borgia and lending his artillery engineers to Della Rovere. So I don’t understand why he’s taking the trouble.”
Paolo frowned, looking at Alessandro as if Alessandro were the strange one. Then his face cleared and he lifted his hands to Alessandro’s shoulders. He let them rest there for a moment, then turned their palms in to cradle Alessandro’s head. The expression in his eyes wasn’t quite clear—Alessandro blinked, then blinked again, but his sight only blurred further. A wetness burned the corners of his eyes and he raised a hand to wipe it away, only to be blocked by Paolo.
“Sandro,” Paolo said gently, and pulled Alessandro down so Alessandro didn’t have to fall upon the other man’s shoulder.
Alessandro tried to say thank-you, but his throat was too tight and all that came out was a stuttering croak. He breathed through his nose and the sound was horrible, wet and snuffling, so he tried to bury it in Paolo’s neck. The other man made a soft, murmuring noise and pulled him closer, not complaining when Alessandro dug his fingers into Paolo’s back, though it had to be painful. And so Alessandro wept.
* * *
Daylight was searing through the window shutters when Alessandro finally felt capable of speech again, but no one had come to get either of them yet and so he wasn’t about to anticipate them. He shifted a little to get off some bruises on his side and accidentally dislodged Paolo’s fingers from where they were woven into his hair. “No, don’t.”
Paolo paused, then laid back down. His lips pressed to Alessandro’s forehead. “Cannavaro will let Naples know Zlatan’s holding you, and then Lippi might be able to exert some influence as well. Zlatan has to stay near Rome till he settles the business with Ferrara, at least, so there might be time…”
“What?” Alessandro pushed again, and this time let Paolo’s hand fall from him. He lifted his head to stare at the other man. “No. I’m not leaving you. At least if Zlatan does decide to hand you over, I can do something about it.”
“Sandro, for God’s sake, stop arguing with me about this. I can see to myself, and staying with me’s already cost you—”
“Is that what you think? My God, Paolo, when did you develop such a taste for guilt?” Alessandro said incredulously. He raised himself on one elbow, then threw his other arm over Paolo when it looked as if the other man might try to rise. “Listen--listen: what happened to my brother was not caused by you. We had an old feud with Cesare and he took the first chance that came his way to settle it. And what happened to me…well, he attacked me at Sforza’s house because Zlatan brought me and Sforza probably sent a message. But if I’d left Ravenna with Lippi, then I still would have been in Rome and Cesare would’ve tracked me down wherever I was.”
Paolo was listening, but stubbornly trying not to accept—it was in his eyes. “If you stay you won’t have a chance to settle Cesare.”
“Because you’re still going to tell Zlatan to treat with him?” Alessandro watched the regret spread over Paolo’s face, then threw himself down on his back. He stared at the ceiling. “Paolo, if you can put off avenging yourself on the Sforzas for the sake of your family, I don’t understand why you think I can’t do the same.”
“Why would you?” Paolo asked, voice rough.
After a moment, Alessandro turned over. “Because the living are more important than the dead, and you’re the only one left now.”
They looked silently at each other. Then Paolo dropped his gaze, but a stray beam of light caught the dampness on his cheeks and made it sparkle. He blinked hard, and when Alessandro raised his hand to wipe his eyes, he caught it to his face and kissed it.
“I think I’m not seeing something correctly,” Paolo eventually muttered, letting go of Alessandro’s wrist. He pushed himself onto his back, then scooted up to sit against the headboard. He absently rumpled the sheets with his bare feet as he stared narrow-eyed at the far wall. “You are distracting, Sandro…not that I wouldn’t take that with the rest a thousand times over…but I’ve…” he pressed two fingers to the bridge of his nose “…I’m not thinking of something.”
“I hope you are, because I’m already sick of going to dinner with these idiots.” Zlatan walked through the door, voice muffled because he was busy unbuckling his sword-belt. With a glance to Alessandro, he leaned that against the wall before dropping onto the edge of the bed and tugging off his boots. “So which one of them is it going to be?”
Alessandro noticed Paolo tensing and moved to lay over the other man’s lap. He didn’t see any shame in it, and since Zlatan teased them freely about it, there wasn’t any point in hiding for the sake of hiding, either. “It might help if you mentioned what you wanted from them. Unless I missed that conversation, in which case I do beg pardon.”
Paolo hissed slowly through his teeth. His hand fell onto Alessandro’s back, then slid up to wrap around Alessandro’s shoulder.
However, Zlatan merely snorted and flicked an appreciative look at Alessandro. “You recover quickly. Lippi sent a messenger, by the way. He’s found room in his family crypt and he’ll do the rites on Friday.”
“Oh,” Alessandro said. He closed his eyes, then exhaled sharply and opened them again to find Zlatan looking sober enough. For him, anyway. “T—thank you.”
Zlatan blinked, then shrugged and began stripping off his wrist-guards. “I spent all damn night running around Rome and I’m tired so I’m not going to bother asking if that’s for Lippi. As for the other thing…well, you all seem to get even worse when you don’t have a Pope, so I want one elected.”
“Anything else?” Only Paolo could’ve made that sound perfectly innocuous.
The wrist-guards were tossed to land by the sword, but Zlatan carried his boots over and set them gently down. Then he braced his hands against the bedpost and pushed at it, stretching his arms and back till joints audibly popped. He sighed with relief, eyes half-closing. “I don’t like Borgia—he presumes too much when he’s got nothing yet. And no matter who’s Pope, I’ll be marching on Milan sometime this year. But Della Rovere honestly sounds like he wants to do that his damn self, only he’s a moron when it comes to strategy.”
Paolo’s fingers curled against Alessandro’s back when Milan was mentioned. Alessandro glanced up, but though the muscles of Paolo’s jaw looked a little tight, he didn’t seem about to lose control, or to want to lose it. So Alessandro resumed watching Zlatan…curiously enough, the man wasn’t addressing Paolo quite like he was the lord and Paolo the servant.
“Someone has to be pope,” Alessandro pointed out.
“I know. But these three—I won’t mind seeing them kicked off a stool with a rope around their necks, all of them.” Zlatan sat down on the bed again, close enough for his back to be grazing Paolo’s right knee before Paolo covertly shifted it. “What do you want?”
At that moment he could’ve been talking to either of them, but a few seconds later he was looking more at Paolo, so Alessandro resettled himself. Then he turned to look at Paolo as well.
For a long while, Paolo simply stared at Zlatan, hiding his uncertainty behind an expressionless face. His fingers slowly uncurled and recurled over Alessandro’s shoulderblade. Then they flattened out, as if Paolo were bracing himself.
“I want my family and my city back,” he said softly.
“So how would you do it?” Zlatan asked.
Paolo slightly tipped his head. “Is that what you want? Milan?”
Zlatan laughed and suddenly slid along the bed till he could cup one side of Paolo’s jaw with his hand. He glanced at Alessandro, who’d started to rise, and his other hand fell heavily on Alessandro’s shoulder, overlapping with Paolo’s hand there. “With the way people fight over it here? Not on your life. Relax. I’m not from Italy and I don’t care about shit like that. Now, which pope would get you back Milan?”
He pulled his hand from Paolo’s face, and then a moment later the one from Alessandro’s shoulder. Paolo glanced down and watched him shift that one to lie in his lap, like a girl sitting quietly in church. The corners of Paolo’s mouth moved slightly, but he didn’t speak. He breathed in, still looking at Zlatan’s hands, and then breathed out and looked up.
“You don’t have to stay with only one. Borgia becomes Pope with the other two’s help, but you convince Della Rovere that Sforza needs to be eliminated. It shouldn’t be hard—a trio historically makes for an uneasy partnership,” Paolo said. “So you can march on Milan and oust the Sforzas. But you have to do that right away, before they realize they’ve given you a powerful base.”
“And the other two?” Zlatan looked intrigued.
“Borgia will go wild and gorge himself—he may make enough enemies on his own that you could let him take care of himself. You’d have to watch Cesare and his children, but they can only act as long as their father can see to them. And if you think you can beat Della Rovere in the field, then I don’t think there’s any difficulty there.” Paolo made a spreading motion with his hands. “But you need Milan or good as your army is, you won’t have the resources to outlast them. Because it’ll take time.”
A smile passed over Zlatan’s face that struck Alessandro as exceedingly odd, but he couldn’t quite pinpoint why he found it so. “You really know how to fight, you know. If you decided to actually do that more often, like he does—” Zlatan nodded at Alessandro “—you wouldn’t have any problems.”
Paolo looked sharply up at him, but Zlatan had already risen and turned towards the adjoining bath. He picked up his sword as he crossed the room, but left the boots and wrist-guards.
“So start figuring out how to do all that, and get me out of Rome the moment they pick a damned Pope,” Zlatan called over his shoulder. “But don’t ask Sandro for too much help—he fights too often when he really doesn’t have to.”
Alessandro rolled his eyes, dismissing that as part of Zlatan’s usual insolence, and turned over. He put his arm down on the other side of Paolo so he wouldn’t elbow the man as he sat up. “So there’s a way, after all. And he doesn’t have to give you up.”
“He—” Paolo started, still staring after Zlatan.
Then he shivered, but when Alessandro tried to pull up the sheets, Paolo caught his hand. The other man held onto it for a long moment, looking at Alessandro, and then he slid his fingers down to cup Alessandro’s elbow, urging him up. The daily bathing routine at least did them the favor of preoccupying Zlatan for long periods of time, Alessandro thought.
Though clearly that wasn’t what Paolo was thinking, since once Alessandro was near enough, he simply put his hands on Alessandro’s shoulders and stared at him again.
“He still didn’t say what it is he wants,” Paolo finally said. His fingers kneaded at Alessandro’s shoulders a little before dropping to the elbows. “Don’t forget to watch out for yourself, Sandro.”
* * *
By the time the Conclave began, Paolo had managed to negotiate deals with Della Rovere and Borgia, who in turn promised to placate Sforza for the time being. Alessandro would’ve thought Borgia would drive the harder bargain, given Cesare’s injured pride, but it seemed that Rodrigo was willing to take the Papacy at any cost.
Zlatan let Alessandro go back into Rome once more, secretly and with a heavy escort, to attend the burial of his brother and family. He made a point of mentioning that at the same time, he’d be working with Paolo the entire day, but that seemed to be a side-thought, considering how he could’ve leveraged the situation against Alessandro. And he did in fact tell Alessandro where the valuables taken from his brother’s palazzo were being held, and when the wait for the papal elections to end grew too much and Alessandro resorted to testing that promise, he was ushered into the storerooms without delay.
He’d kept a room in Fernando’s house, but his duties hadn’t seen him use it very often and so there was nothing of his own waiting for him. What was there simply served as a painful reminder of what he’d lost.
“You’ve been in here for hours and hours. Still don’t want any of it?”
Alessandro flinched, then carefully set down the silver salver he’d been examining. “Don’t you ever have the decency to knock?”
“If I knocked, I’d never know what was going on.” Zlatan left the door ajar so his shadow stretched further and further over Alessandro. Then he turned, moving out of the light so instead it glittered and sparkled from all the treasures around them.
It hurt Alessandro’s eyes. He turned on his heel and walked out, then continued along the hall till he found a window. There he stopped, looking out at the rolling green hills, which looked as if they’d never seen any form of privation. He stiffened when he heard footsteps approaching, but didn’t bother trying to leave.
“So what am I supposed to do with all that?” Zlatan asked. “There’s a lot and it’s bulky to haul around.”
“Whatever you want. Use it to bribe Della Rovere—there are some good pieces in it and he’s an art-lover.” Alessandro stepped backwards, then turned to face the other man. He shrugged off the disbelief in Zlatan’s face. “I buried the people who used those things. Without them, they’re meaningless.”
After another look at him, Zlatan nodded and moved to lean against the wall by the window. “I hear that Borgia’s got a majority. But he’s going another day because he wants a unanimous vote.”
The image of Cesare Borgia strutting about the Lateran Palace suddenly came into Alessandro’s head and it was some moments before he could banish it. He swallowed away the taste of bile, pressing one fist against the wall.
“We’re leaving tonight,” Zlatan abruptly said. “For Milan. Il Moro already has an army coming to meet me, and I don’t trust Borgia to keep his promises beyond his coronation, or whatever you call that ceremony.”
Alessandro acknowledged that with a nod and continued to stare out the window. That should come as a relief to Paolo, and not only because it would finally fulfill his vow; he’d been exhausted by the diplomatic miracles Zlatan had demanded he work and frequently came back from a meeting to fall asleep in Alessandro’s lap.
“You’re that attached to him? His goals, your goals? Cesare Borgia’s gotten himself at least another year of life, thanks to his advice.” Zlatan pushed at Alessandro’s arm, making it clear he wanted an answer this time.
“You’re like a child,” Alessandro said coldly. “You want everything to dance for you.”
The other man’s eyes flashed and he straightened up, his hand going to his sword. But then he snorted, and turned to put both palms flat against the windowpanes. They were large enough to span nearly four squares, and when he took them away, left behind a faint outline. “Children know what they want, and most of them know when they can’t have it, too. It’s odd how people forget that when they grow up.”
“I don’t understand why you talk about not being able to have anything. False humility doesn’t suit you.” Alessandro wrapped his hand around his wrist, then grimaced: his palm was cold and damp. He rubbed it off on his hip. “Especially when you’re so good at guessing other’s wants, and taking them for yourself.”
Zlatan looked at him. Then he—Alessandro tried to slip away, but the other man jerked him back by the arm so he stumbled. He grabbed for the sill, for balance, and Zlatan seized that wrist and pulled it up to press Alessandro’s hands against the window, where his own had been a moment ago. He pushed up against Alessandro’s back, his breath heavy on Alessandro’s neck.
“Take? When it’s so much easier to just let people give?” Zlatan hissed. His mouth tickled Alessandro’s nape, brushing across it and then up to just below Alessandro’s ear. “That’s what Paolo does for me, you know. If you were capable of pushing him just a little, he’d do it for you, too.”
Alessandro cursed him and yanked at his hands, but Zlatan’s grip held. He closed his eyes, but saw the wrong things and opened them again, only to stare at the man’s fingers covering his own. “Is that what you like?”
“Pushing? It’s something I’m good at.” The tip of Zlatan’s nose pressed in behind Alessandro’s ear. Something wet and warm flicked at the earlobe and Alessandro bit his lip. “He’s different since you came, though. He won’t when you’re in the room. Sometimes he won’t even when you’re not in the room. He doesn’t push back, but he won’t give either. It’s a little annoying.”
The casual, drawling way Zlatan said that—Alessandro went very still. He felt the dig of the windowsill against his thighs and the nip of the jagged metal strips holding the panes of glass together, the hot regular blow of Zlatan’s breath against his neck, the coldness in his core. “Are you giving Milan back to him, after you take it off the Sforzas? As a…regency, or however you’ll have it?”
Zlatan shifted up against Alessandro, slow and hard. “How much do you care?”
Alessandro looked blindly at the window, breathing hard. Then he shuddered, forcing himself to relax against the other man. He bent his head.
A moment later, he lifted it. His hands were free, the pressure against his back was gone…he stared at the ripply, distorted reflection in the glass, then swerved about to find Zlatan almost a yard away, absently tidying his clothes.
“Well, so you don’t think of offering that trade, but you’ll say yes if someone makes you,” Zlatan muttered. “I wouldn’t look so disgusted the next time Paolo walks after me.”
“From you, when you’re the one who doesn’t turn it down?” Alessandro rasped. He clutched at the sill, his head still spinning.
Zlatan arched an eyebrow, then turned away with a sarcastic flip of the hand. “What did I just do? And don’t throw him in my face—he actually wants it. Haven’t seen that from you yet.”
He walked away, leaving Alessandro to stare at his back.
* * *
“What?” Paolo said. “I thought we were stopping at—”
“No,” Alessandro said flatly.
The men ringed around them shifted closer, while Zlatan sighed and looked heavenwards. By the time they’d received the news that Borgia had been duly elected, they had already been boarding ships at Ostia, courtesy of Della Rovere’s intervention. Paolo had been preoccupied with nailing down the final details that would allow them to march through Genoa to Milan—exorbitant prices were charged, thanks to Zlatan’s insistence on speed—and Alessandro had been distracted as well, so neither of them had really paid attention when they’d put into port for the night. Not till Zlatan had had them dragged onto the dock in early evening and told them to put on blindfolds.
“There are two ways we can do this. You can get on those horses, and cover your eyes—I promise the men won’t lead you under a lowhanging branch or something like that—or I can have you tied to the saddles and then blindfold you.” Zlatan paused for a few seconds. “Well?”
A few minutes later, Alessandro was hanging onto his saddlehorn for dear life as his horse trotted away into the utter blackness. He prided himself on his riding skills, but the disorientation of not being able to see was overwhelming.
“God,” Paolo said, sounding nauseated. “Where are we going?”
Alessandro breathed a sigh of relief, thankful that he could at least roughly locate the other man. He wished he dared reach out and try for touch, but he suspected that as usual, Zlatan would’ve inserted himself between them.
His guess was confirmed when Zlatan laughed. “If I told you that, what would be the point of the blindfolds? Sandro, relax. You’re going to strangle your horse if you keep squeezing him like that.”
“I don’t need you to reassure me about my riding,” Alessandro snapped.
Paolo breathed in sharply, and he wasn’t the only one. They rode on in silence for several minutes before Zlatan finally replied, voice clipped, “Have it your way.”
And then they continued in silence. Human silence, at least—once Alessandro was somewhat accustomed to his sightlessness, he could make out the wind, rustling grass, the occasional rasping branch. Lowing cows and a softer, muffled tread from the horses, so they had moved out of the town. But despite that, it was unnerving not to hear anything more than the other men’s breathing. Once or twice Paolo started to speak, but he was hushed so sharply that Alessandro didn’t try it himself, though at times he would’ve been glad even to hear Zlatan’s mocking voice.
He tried to keep some track of the turns they took, but they rode for so long and so quietly that he lost his place twice, and finally he simply gave up altogether. Alessandro sank low in the saddle, till he almost had his nose in the horse’s redolent mane, and tried not to let the various ominous explanations for their current situation crowd too closely.
When they finally stopped, his legs and arms were so stiff that he couldn’t get down on his own and had to be helped. He swayed when his feet finally touched the ground, then snatched off the blindfold.
Red-yellow light burst at him, then shrank to handheld torches. One of them loomed near Zlatan’s profile, which to Alessandro’s dazed eyes seemed carved from red marble. The other man was grinning, but at something beyond…Alessandro turned, and saw Paolo drop to his knees with a cry of pure happiness, throwing his arms around two small boys.
Their mother wasn’t far behind, and in a moment Paolo had disappeared beneath them. Something stung in Alessandro’s chest, like a harp-string tuned too tightly and then plucked. He breathed in—Paolo’s rapturous face briefly appeared, turned three-quarters towards him—and breathed out, and the pressure dissolved away into a real smile, the first one since Ravenna that hadn’t hurt Alessandro in some way to make.
“See your family, then go to war. If you can,” Zlatan muttered.
Alessandro blinked, then turned, but the other man had his back to him. He looked over Zlatan’s shoulder, and then spun in a slow circle to take in their surroundings: a small monastery, one of hundreds that dotted the countryside to no great distinction.
“I’m feeling generous, not stupid.” Zlatan favored Alessandro with a pointed look before walking forward and telling everyone to go inside.
* * *
The interior of the place did show some signs of patronage: in a pinch it would make an excellent fortress. Otherwise it was starkly bare, with only the quarters used by Maldini’s wife and sons showing any hint of personal taste and comfort.
Adriana was a lovely, calm-natured woman, who managed to both restrain her children without seeming to do so and who served a late dinner to Zlatan with polite grace and not a flicker of anything else. At first Alessandro thought perhaps Paolo had fed her some story, but then Paolo introduced them and the flash that went through her eyes before she controlled herself spoke to too much intelligence for that. But nonetheless she treated him just as warmly as she did Paolo.
Still, Alessandro didn’t feel comfortable in staying and slipped away at the first opportunity. He should have known better, considering how highly Paolo rated her.
She found him walking up and down a small loggia, and called his name, then came forward with a cloak in her outstretched hand. “The night chills can be quite severe.”
Alessandro felt perfectly fine, but he took it anyway. “Thank you.”
“I rather think it should be the other way around.” Adriana dropped her gaze, as if she regretted being so outspoken, but her voice continued as strongly as before. “Paolo’s mentioned you many times before, and I—I want to you to know how grateful I am to know that he’s had someone with him, in these difficult times.”
The way she said that was a strong hint, and when she raised her head, she looked at Alessandro clearly and steadily and knowingly. He briefly had to drop his own gaze under it. “He’s been a friend to me since childhood. It was nothing.”
“It was hardly that,” she replied, a spark of amusement in her voice. “You’re just like he said—too modest.”
Alessandro looked at her again, then smiled as he turned to gaze out over the balustrade. “And you’re—”
“Worth the trouble, after all?” Adriana recognized, understood and forgave in the same glance.
“Much more than that,” Alessandro said. “I…I’m honored to have been allowed to meet you, madam.”
She smiled, but this time there was more than a hint of bitterness to it, and her eyes were touched with the hardships of the past four years. “All I ask is that he tells me. I think you know how he can talk, with those who don’t matter to him and those that do.”
“You’re a very sensible woman.” Alessandro happened to glance at his hand again and belatedly remembered the cloak, which he now threw around his shoulders. “Paolo’s fortunate to have you.”
“Is he the fortunate one? I have to admit, at first I wasn’t so accepting. I knew he married me for political reasons and the love came later, and so I’m always afraid of losing it. But then I thought: object and lose a good father, a loving husband…a man who’ll sacrifice his honor to ensure our lives…I don’t think there is much sense there. There was only one real choice,” Adriana quietly replied. She looked down, absently tightening her own cloak about her shoulders. “So I thank you, and if you can continue to give him some sort of aid, I’ll be eternally grateful. But Alessandro, I would like my husband for tonight.”
It was put as a request, but her voice carried echoes of both a command and a plea. Which Alessandro could understand better than she probably knew, perceptive as she was. “Of course. It’s not even a question.”
Adriana thanked him again—this time with relief—and withdrew back inside. A few minutes later, Alessandro returned as well, but only to kiss Paolo on the cheek and ask to retire. The other man looked up at him, eyes glittering with something very like an apology, but then Paolo’s younger son pulled at his knee and Paolo instantly turned to him, and Alessandro took the opportunity to join Zlatan’s men in the halls.
Even away from their commander, they were reserved and cautious, but Alessandro knew enough about soldiering to speak their language. They refused to tell him anything remotely related to what was going on, but they did cut him into a dice game; he didn’t have any cash with him so they wagered bits of old gossip about the nobility of every city save Milan and Rome.
At some point Paolo and his family left to go to bed, and Alessandro went back into the dining room to find it completely abandoned. He stood there a moment before pouring himself a glass of wine and asking the nearest guard if he could go to the library. He needed to rest, but he wasn’t yet tired enough that the empty side of the bed wouldn’t bother him.
The lamps were lit in the library and their oil was second-rate so the air was slightly smoky and pungent. It wasn’t a large one, but large enough so that he didn’t notice Zlatan till he’d already shut the door.
The other man was seated on a work-table, one leg braced on the edge and supporting his book as the other one hung down, its foot nearly flat on the floor. His hand paused over the pages as Alessandro came up to the other side of the table, then continued underlining words. Occasionally his lips would move silently.
Alessandro gazed around till he spotted a likely gap in one of the shelves. He read the titles of the books on either side of it. “Astrology?”
Zlatan’s mouth quirked. “I like looking at the pretty pictures.”
“I’ve seen you read other times, so you’re not fooling anyone. You’re an educated—”
“Peasant?” Paper whispered and leather creaked as Zlatan flipped the book towards Alessandro, then resettled it on his knee. “Prophecies, actually. Lots of doom and hellfire for everybody.”
It was on the tip of Alessandro’s tongue to snap something insulting regarding superstition, but at the last moment he changed his mind. Instead he took up a perch on the other end of the table and swirled his wine, watching the sediment move sluggishly around the bottom. “I was surprised that a little monastery like this has that sort of book. Usually they’re more narrow-minded.”
Zlatan turned the page, then irritably flipped it back. Then he clapped the book shut and made as if to toss it over his shoulder, stopping when his and Alessandro’s eyes met. He paused, eyes sparking, before setting the book down with exaggerated care. “So this time you’re lonely and bored? What the hell did you do when you thought he was dead?”
Alessandro had to choke back his first response, his hands curling against the desk and around the goblet stem. He looked at his wine, then abruptly drank rather more than he normally would’ve preferred. “It’s not actually your birth that grates, you know. It’s how you take all these gifts of civilization and spit on them even while you use them. You don’t seem to appreciate anything.”
“Oh, I appreciate plenty,” Zlatan drawled, his eyes moving up and down Alessandro. Then he grinned and sat back. “It’s just I know they’re not really gifts. They’re all bought and paid for with men’s blood and sweat, though I doubt most of you bluebloods ever look at that, since it’s not yours, after all.”
“Is that the slave speaking?” Alessandro retorted. He realized it was the wrong thing to say before he’d even finished and vainly sucked in the last word.
Zlatan’s eyes flashed and he—Alessandro had barely begun to jerk away before the other man had stretched himself over the table’s length. Fingers burned his hand and he stilled, held his breath. He stared into the hot center of the other man’s gaze.
After a moment, Zlatan merely curled his fingers around Alessandro’s glass and pulled it away, taking his own long draught. Then he dropped the goblet back on the table, letting it spin towards Alessandro so the dregs nearly slopped over the rim. “I should really cut your head off, like they’d do in Egypt. But I don’t—I don’t know if you’d call that civilization, or mercy. It’d at least keep you from looking like an idiot, moping around waiting for him.”
“There are some things in life worth waiting for. I don’t know if you’re…old enough to have made acquaintance with that yet,” Alessandro said, slow and careful.
He earned himself a sharp, humorless bark of laughter, a kind he’d never heard from Zlatan before. “You want to lecture me on waiting. God’s death, I thought I hated Egypt but Italy’s even worse. It’s so damn confusing, with—”
Though Alessandro waited, the other man never finished or explained. Instead Zlatan leaned forward and traced the embossing on the binding of the book between him. He flicked up a bit of gilt with his thumbnail and lifted his hand to look at it, twisting his wrist so the light caught the gold.
“Thank you for letting Paolo see his family again.” Alessandro finished his wine, then set the goblet down on a nearby chair.
“He already thanked me. And I turned it down, if you want to know,” Zlatan said. He swiped his thumb over his mouth, and when he took his hand down, the fleck of gold was gleaming from his lower lip.
“I guessed. I’m thanking you on my own behalf, and to get it out of the way.” Then Alessandro pushed himself over the table, sliding the book to the side, till he’d drawn himself up in front of the other man. He leaned forward, hesitated, and then leaned the rest of the way to press his mouth to that sparkling spot.
He closed his eyes, and kept them closed. After the first few seconds Zlatan’s fingers slid into his hair, pulling hard so Alessandro tipped his head. Their lips were crushed together so hard that his mouth didn’t want to follow the motion and it was approaching the point of pain when Zlatan abruptly backed off. Then his mouth came down again, and again, and he put his other hand to Alessandro’s shoulder and pushed them down.
His fingers dragged from there down the center of Alessandro’s chest, roughly undoing the buttons, his nails catching in the undershirt and scratching through the thin fabric. Alessandro opened his mouth and took Zlatan’s tongue into it, moaned and made it welcome as the other man heaved himself about to get over him. His legs were still twisted to the side and he dragged at Zlatan’s upper arms as he tried to swing his knees across. Zlatan grunted, elbowed one over but then shifted to settle between them so they stayed spread. His mouth moved from Alessandro’s mouth down the jawline to the throat, leaving wet seared trails in its wake.
He dealt with their clothing, pulling it apart while Alessandro arched against his mouth. Then the edges of his collar flapped against Alessandro’s hands and Alessandro grabbed them, then slipped his hands past them to bare skin without thinking. His palms burned and he opened his eyes, staring up at the yellow light that slid over Zlatan’s sweat-slicked face. The gold was gone from the man’s mouth, leaving the warm red flesh behind.
“Why are you here?” Alessandro whispered.
“Because I need to be.” Zlatan looked frustrated and resigned and mocking all at once. Something shattered on the floor, and then his fingers, coated in warm oil, were dipping between Alessandro’s legs. He pushed at Alessandro’s legs with his other hand, hissing as Alessandro mapped the scars on his ribs and back and belly, and then bent to sank his teeth in the join of Alessandro’s neck and shoulder just as his fingers breached Alessandro’s body.
Alessandro’s head went back unwilled, and he opened his mouth and went through the motions of gasping without feeling a particle of refreshing air move into his lungs. His fingers gouged at Zlatan’s sides and Zlatan flicked his hand free, wiped the excess oil on Alessandro’s thigh, and then pushed his prick into Alessandro’s body in one smooth, relentless motion. His hands lightly skimmed the bruises on Alessandro’s ribs and sides, then made fresh ones over Alessandro’s hips. He sucked around his teeth, which were still fixed in Alessandro’s shoulder, and when Alessandro jerked and clutched at him with knees and hands, he only increased the pressure till the blood seemed to boil up beneath the skin, seeping from their very pores. It burned higher and higher till a wave of red covered the world. Then a wave of black came, sweeping up Alessandro’s head and as he was dragged into it, he tasted blood in Zlatan’s mouth.
* * *
“No, I don’t need to do what I do to Paolo—not all of it. But well, you know what he looks like. So why shouldn’t I? What else has this damn country given me?” Zlatan was saying. The room was hazy around him, the bookshelves seeming to loom inwards like gigantic claws.
Alessandro’s head hurt, a stabbing pain behind his eyes. The light, dim as it was, made it worse and he tried to shut it away but then he was trapped in flashes of memory playing across the back of his eyelids. Katia, the rest of the family, Borgia smiling, Paolo with the impressions of Zlatan’s hands still on him. “It’s a passing fancy for you, though.”
“Well, passing fancies are better than nothing at all, even if you can’t keep them. Aren’t they?” Zlatan looked down at Alessandro, his hand lying along Alessandro’s cheek. “You’re happy enough taking what you can, instead of trying to hold out for everything.”
“Am I happy?” Alessandro asked. He half-thought he was dreaming.
The other man answered not in words, but in the shift of his expression. He gazed silently at Alessandro a moment longer, then rolled off.
* * *
They left in the morning, with dawn barely cresting the horizon. Paolo was sorely tested to keep his farewells from unduly worrying his children, and then they were blindfolded again for the ride back to the port so he had no chance to notice till then.
It wasn’t much: a sharpening of the gaze, a slight tightening of the jaw. But Alessandro read the signs and accordingly went down to the captain’s cabin—given over to Zlatan—as soon as he could. It wasn’t long before Paolo appeared in the doorway, lips in a thin white line and movements deliberate with the tension in his body.
“What are you doing?” he said without preamble.
Alessandro gestured for him to shut the door. Paolo half-turned and glanced at the knob, then did so rather loudly. It was just as well that there was a sudden large swell at the same moment, and so all the manner of things banged about; Paolo had to brace himself against the wall and Alessandro fell rather than sat on the bunk.
“It wasn’t a bargain struck for you. Not—not that that hasn’t come up a few times before, but he’s rejected the idea every time,” Alessandro said.
“You’ve…done…” The blood came and went in Paolo’s face. He looked around the room before his eyes finally settled on the chair: it and the desk nailed to one wall were the only other pieces of furniture in the room. More than the unevenness of the ship made his step unsteady as he went over and dropped into it. “No, you said you tried. Which—I told you that—but then what was it? Did he threaten you?”
The question was more like a plea, since Paolo was too astute to miss a nuance and too solidly grounded to delude himself. However much he might wish to, and that wish was plain to see on his face. Alessandro had to look away, and he could hear Paolo inhaling sharply before he even answered. “Not for that.”
“Then why?” Paolo asked. His grip on the chair-arms was white-knuckled.
“Because…because when you greeted your family, I saw…and then later, you were looking at your wife…”
“You did it because you were jealous of her?” Paolo incredulously said. “Sandro, you know that you—”
Alessandro raised his head sharply. “No! I’m not—” he took a deep breath, bracing his head against the corner of the bunk, and then looked straight at the other man “—I’m not jealous of her. I—can’t be. But I could be. I can’t begrudge you her, or her you, or however it goes. Not and keep what I have now, and I want that. And…I wanted him. That’s why. I wanted it.”
Paolo looked on the verge of a convulsion, but he exhaled slowly through his nose and somehow kept himself together. He dropped his eyes, then glanced to the side. One of his hands slowly rose so he could press his curled fingers to his mouth.
“It had nothing to do with you. That…I think that’s the only reason why he wanted it then, and not the other times. He has no problem with using people, but he doesn’t seem to like having that done to him,” Alessandro continued. He dug the heels of his hands into his thighs, then made fists and found that his palms were clammy. “This doesn’t change the fact that I stay because of you.”
“But when I go, you think of other things,” Paolo slowly said. He lowered his hand to join the other between his knees, and then bent over so he could press the sides of his fingers to his lips, almost as if he were praying. He shook his head once, and then again before he rose, looking worn and sorry. But not angry, not anymore.
He crossed the room and stood by the bunk for several seconds before Alessandro collected himself enough to shift over. Then Paolo sat down, gripping the top to keep from hitting his head, and slipped his arm around Alessandro’s waist. He rested his head on Alessandro’s shoulder.
“Of all there is, that is the last thing I could begrudge you.” His fingers drew circles over Alessandro’s side. “Even if I could begrudge you a damned thing.”
Then he raised his head and his hands slipped to cup Alessandro’s hips as he pressed Alessandro back against the wall with the force of his mouth. Alessandro sagged against that, then gripped Paolo’s shoulders hard, pulling his leg round so the other man could come closer. He pushed up and Paolo’s fingers slid between his thighs, grinding into a bruise so he winced.
Paolo went still, then withdrew a little. “You wanted it?”
“Yes.” Alessandro turned his head and buried his face in the other man’s neck, hating the way the flush in his cheeks changed its kind of heat. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s only the truth,” Paolo said heavily. He kissed the side of Alessandro’s face, lips fluttering against the soreness there, before he sighed, his hands stroking up and down Alessandro’s legs. “And whatever I was before, I’m wholly a pragmatist now.”
He slid down under Alessandro’s startled gaze, the top of his head a tousled mess and getting worse as it pressed into Alessandro’s belly. But when Alessandro made to pull him away, the other man pushed his hands back.
“Let me do this for you,” Paolo murmured, and Alessandro did.
* * *
The cabin at night was nearly devoid of any light, but gradually Alessandro managed to make out a few outlines. The frame of the bunk, the head awkwardly cramped into a top corner, the line of Paolo’s body lying next to him. The gleam of Zlatan’s eyes as he looked down on them from his seat on the edge of the mattress.
Alessandro instinctively tightened his arm around Paolo and Zlatan’s teeth flashed as he shook his head. “No, I’m sleepy. Between you and the horse, and oh yes, the campaign I’m in the middle of…”
Though it was a sizable bed for a ship, Alessandro and Paolo alone barely fit in it. With Zlatan now perched on the side, squeezing in half his body, the two of them were forced over so closely that Alessandro doubted he could move without help.
“I’m only looking,” Zlatan said mildly. “I don’t know why you’re getting upset.”
“With you looking tends to lead to upsetting things. If I…” Two fingers suddenly pressed into Alessandro’s belly, and beneath his arm Paolo tensed slightly. He paused and reconsidered.
But before he could form a reply, Zlatan snorted and rolled his head to stare out at the room. “It’s not going to lead to anything. I know when all I can do is just look, because I won’t be getting. I don’t even know how to…never mind. I need to sleep.”
Then he shut his eyes. He shifted his body a few seconds later, rearranging his legs so he was more secure, but it wasn’t long before his breath seemed to genuinely slow and grow shallow.
If he was asleep, that would be the first time Alessandro had ever seen him so—and to judge by the way Paolo still was stiff with wariness, the first time for him as well. Of course Zlatan slept, and in the same bed as them, but for that he came and went while they were too deeply in Morpheus’ clutches to notice. All he ever left was the cooling dent in the sheets.
He could’ve kicked one of them out as well, Alessandro thought, but instead he chose to contort himself. Alessandro resettled his hand on Paolo’s back and happened to brush Zlatan’s arm; Zlatan stirred, then went still again. A light snore whistled from him.
Paolo breathed out, then slipped his arm out from between them and over his head so he could move a few inches closer to Alessandro. He stopped when Zlatan immediately sprawled into the space, but was slowly relaxing against Alessandro mere seconds later. And Alessandro tucked up against him, and went to sleep himself.
* * *
They made port and landed the army without any difficulty, but they were still well within Genoan territory when the first of Sforza’s forces met them. Zlatan knew the condottiere leading them and invited him over for a private meeting to discuss what they could manage between them, and while that was in session, Zlatan’s lieutenants led out his men and killed them to a man. When the other condottiere realized what was going on, he attempted to brain Zlatan with a wine pitcher, and Zlatan cut him in half at the waist.
“I’m not winning any friends like this,” he remarked afterward, overseeing the swift stripping of the field for anything useful.
A stretcher went by them at a run, the bloody man on it screaming and writhing. Alessandro’s horse snorted and nervously stamped its feet so he had to soothe it with a few strokes of its neck. “Were you looking for any?”
Zlatan glanced over, a wry half-smile on his face. “You don’t stop, do you?” Then he turned back to the field below them, edging his horse forward. “Well, it might matter later. I want to get this over with. I don’t want a siege.”
They marched on into Milan’s borders. The news of the battle and its results spread quickly, and town after town on the way anxiously hurried out to offer their surrenders. Curiously enough, Zlatan withdrew almost completely from those meetings and let Paolo handle them all, so it must have seemed as if Paolo was in fact in charge. While he puzzled over that in private, he didn’t hesitate to seize the public opportunity and persuaded Zlatan to pay as they went. No ravaged countrysides, promises of lighter taxation, and they soon had won over most of the land surrounding Milan itself.
But the Sforzas dug in, pulling shut the city gates and vowing to force Zlatan to fight on into the winter if he wanted to take the place. Il Moro and Caterina Sforza hastily patched up their differences, with Caterina sending another army meant to take Zlatan from behind. And they also made several more attempts on Paolo’s life, which didn’t help Paolo’s temper when he tried to restrain Zlatan’s more ruthless impulses.
“You poison their water and they’ll hate you inside the city, and the city matters, not these little towns around it. Their mayors are siding with you as much because Milan under Il Moro’s drained them dry as because of your good treatment of them,” Paolo snapped. He pushed down on the table and leaned forward so Zlatan would look at him. “You want the Sforzas hated, not you. You—”
“So is this fucking they going to revolt against Il Moro and his brat nephew any time soon? Because if we’re sitting here when winter rolls around, then let me tell you that my men are going to hate Milan so much that when we do take the city, I can’t be held responsible for how they do it.” Zlatan banged his hand against the table so quill pens and rulers and an inkwell rattled off into the dirt. “A siege means artillery. We’ll pound the place into pebbles.”
Paolo flinched, then opened his eyes and reset his shoulders. He didn’t move till Zlatan swung himself around the corner, and then he suddenly stepped forward, grabbing Zlatan’s wrist before the other man could touch him. “You are not destroying my city.”
Alessandro started to his feet, but Zlatan had already twisted his arm and Paolo’s arm up behind Paolo. He spun them so Paolo’s back was to Alessandro and trapped Paolo’s other hand against the table.
“I thought you wanted to see one of your sons become Duke of Milan,” Zlatan said softly, gently. He jerked at Paolo, then leaned in to whisper in the other man’s ear.
As much as Alessandro wanted to, he didn’t move forward to try and hear. And it wasn’t simply fear for Paolo’s safety—something was different in the way Paolo was holding himself, even now. His shoulders were still thrown back and his head was straight and unbowed, and in fact Alessandro got the sense that he’d be as upset as Zlatan if interrupted.
“They’re the whole point, not revenge against the Sforzas,” Paolo eventually replied. He spoke with a distinct strain in his voice, but sounded firm and sure. “If either of them are destroyed, then why have I bothered with anything?”
The two of them stood there for several seconds in silent. Then Zlatan’s fingers loosened so Paolo could slip his wrist free; Zlatan briefly caught Alessandro’s gaze as he moved away from Paolo.
“Well, you want it that way, then we’ll have to fight Caterina’s army. And we’ll have to lose,” Zlatan muttered, turning back to the table. He toed up a compass, then stooped and picked it up. The slender thing flashed as he spun it between his fingers. “Or look like it, anyway. Then they let her in and we fall on her rear and hope we can get inside fast enough.”
Paolo stepped back a pace, but still faced him. “Do you not think you can do that?”
Zlatan looked up quickly, his eyebrows rising and falling. A sour smile touched his mouth. He rolled the shoulder nearest Paolo, laughing quietly and grimly. “Oh, I can do it, but it’s nice that you ask, your liege. Can practically smell your throne, can’t you?”
Then he turned to go, but Paolo moved swiftly to stop him again. “What did you mean by that—no, what did you mean? Is it—”
“Not your family,” Zlatan snorted. He tried to shake Paolo off, and when Paolo wouldn’t allow himself to be left, jerked up his hand as if he meant to hit Paolo. Then he stopped, staring—Paolo hadn’t flinched.
After a moment, Zlatan lowered his hand. His gaze briefly wandered past Paolo’s shoulder to Alessandro.
“I don’t think you meant Sandro either,” Paolo said.
“Do you.” Zlatan pulled his arm out of Paolo’s hand and straightened his clothing. He gave Paolo a mildly chastising look before he reached out, as if he meant to do the same to Paolo. When Paolo pushed his hands away, he smiled humorlessly again. “I meant it’s a hell of a lot nastier for me to do it that way. Not that that matters to you.”
Paolo still had his back to Alessandro so his expression wasn’t visible, but from the way Zlatan paused again, it must have been a study. Alessandro could see his hands, and how they rose almost to graze Zlatan’s shoulders before Paolo pulled back.
“I don’t want you dead. You’ve been…kind, actually.” The word he’d chosen seemed to surprise Paolo as much as it did Zlatan.
Zlatan gazed at Paolo for several seconds, clearly struggling to understand; he looked twenty-three then, and not viciously sarcastic and efficient and vulgar. Then he turned away, shrugging. “You might not be all that bad a duke yourself,” he said. “But then, I fight for a living. We’ll see if Death’s kind too and lets me find out about that.”
He pushed past Paolo and walked out of the tent, yelling for Henrik. Alessandro watched him go, then looked up to find Paolo doing likewise. The other man blinked, then sighed and crouched down to pick up the rest of the things that had fallen from the table.
“You could say the same for me,” Alessandro remarked, coming over to help. “I’ve let that go lately, but it is what I am, what I do. God when he made me clearly didn’t intend for me to be a good dinner host.”
Paolo stopped with a ruler in his hand. Then he glanced up at Alessandro, an argument clearly springing readily to his mouth, but as he continued to look, his eyes changed. He swallowed hard enough for Alessandro to see the cords of his throat momentarily pull taut and concave.
“No.” His voice had thickened. “Is that what you want?”
“Then if you also want it, I’ll talk to him,” Paolo said.
Alessandro nodded again, and tossed up his handful so he could encircle Paolo’s wrist with his fingers. He rubbed at the bruises starting up where Zlatan had gripped, then kissed them.
* * *
It took quite a deal of persuasion on both their parts, but when Caterina Sforza’s forces arranged themselves beneath the walls of Milan, Zlatan gave Alessandro a place in the army’s front line, only a few yards from him.
“You’re still an idiot,” Zlatan said, his horse fretting as the smell of gunpowder drifted over from the artillery. “Maldini’s had the chance to watch one of the greatest generals who’ve ever fought over your miserable cities, but he’s never led men into battle himself. What the hell is he going to do if a cannonball takes off your head?”
“Just because you’ve looked at maps of Caesar’s campaigns…what? What’s the worry about me generaling?” Alessandro flexed his left hand, which was just healed from the cut it’d taken in Rome. At least his head finally felt unbruised.
Zlatan glanced around them, then sidled his horse up so the very end of his breath tickled Alessandro’s cheek. He grinned. “I’m not an idiot. Paolo’s going to be Duke of Milan, and once he gets it he’s going to keep it. You really think I’m going to let him lord it over me? I had plenty of that with the Saracens, thank you.”
“But your army…” Alessandro stammered.
“Oh, he can have them. I already talked to my lieutenants and the important ones, Henrik and Olof and Marco, they all like the idea of settling down a bit, being a standing force with regular pay and not a for-hire one. And I told you, I hate Italy.” Then he whirled away, galloping back to his place in the line, and the horns were blaring orders before Alessandro had the time to call after him.
* * *
It was bloody and merciless. Caterina had sent some artillery along—not as good as what Zlatan had taken from D’Este, but it did its business well enough. And then Sforza’s men went wild when they saw Materazzi and Henrik pulling back the army and fell with a vengeance on the wounded who couldn’t make it with the rest. Alessandro saw Il Moro himself riding his horse over the bodies from the iron grip of Materazzi, who wouldn’t let him go back.
“Christ’s blood, you killed plenty of them! Henke—goddamn it, somebody hit him on the head—”
“Where’s Zlatan?” Alessandro snarled, wrenching at his arms. He drove his heels into the ground to slow them, and when a cannonball crashed into a tree about thirty yards to the left to send everyone to the ground, he nearly slipped away from them. “He—”
Henrik appeared out of nowhere to tackle Alessandro down by the waist. Then quick as lightning he was up on his feet, dragging Alessandro with him as Materazzi latched onto Alessandro’s other side. “His horse fell. Move--move, sir. We don’t have much time to get the counter-charge ready.”
“What?” Alessandro said. Shock made him go limp, and he vaguely registered Materazzi swearing as they stumbled. “What?”
“Sir, if we’re going to take the city—” Henrik heaved him up into a saddle, then slapped a sword into his hand “—it has to be now.”
Alessandro stared at him. Then at the sword, and then out at Milan’s distant walls. The sounds of battle had died down and he could hear—he could hear cheering. The bastards, he thought viciously, and then gaped at himself.
“Milan, sir.” Henrik had gotten onto his own horse and was flipping the blood and gore off his own sword. “Are we taking it?”
“Yes,” Alessandro croaked. He swallowed, shook himself, blinked back the stinging in his eyes. There was no time for it, and there would be no waste, if he had anything to say about it. “Yes, we are. Rally the men.”
* * *
Paolo dropped into the nearest chair and looked about the room as if he wished it’d simply disappear. “My God, I’m home,” he said. Then he slowly let his head fall back onto the top of the chair. “Sandro?”
“They’re still looking for the body. A few have said they saw him in the second charge, but…you should hear them. You really should.” Alessandro laughed. The sound was raw and harsh, and echoed painfully about the acres of empty space that surrounded them. “The way they tell it, he was like Saint James at Clavijo. Swooped in, cut down Caterina Sforza’s general, and then rose into heaven. As if they’d let him in.”
The chair creaked as Paolo gripped the arm-knobs, twisting them with white-knuckled hands. “He left me an army. I just had Henrik and the rest in—they got down on their knees and swore an oath, and then Materazzi said Adriana and the children will be here in two days. They must have been sent for just before the battle.”
“I could kill him right now,” Alessandro muttered. He looked around, then down at himself and all the blood matting his clothes. He could feel it drying in his hair and on his hands. “I could kill him.”
His right hand looked almost black, it was so thickly coated. He rubbed at it, and then angrily snapped it in the air when that failed to reveal any skin, any sign that he was still made of flesh and not of…of…something touched his hand and he pulled it away. It followed, and then Paolo yanked at his arm, shaking him.
“Sandro. Sandro.” Paolo took hold of Alessandro’s shoulder, then held on silently through all the twisting and cursing till finally Alessandro was still, breathing as if he’d run from Rome to here.
He couldn’t look at Paolo, and the other man didn’t force him. After a moment, Paolo slid his hand down to Alessandro’s back and half-pushed, half-pulled Alessandro…somewhere. They went through a few chambers. Paolo said a few things, low and half-hearted, more as if he needed to fill the silence than anything else. Both of them absently yanked at pieces of clothing till they were down to undershirt and hose, casting them off wherever the garments had become too stifling. Then Paolo turned a knob and pivoted around so he could use his back to force the door open without having to take his hand off Alessandro’s arm.
“You need to wash yourself off,” Paolo was saying.
Alessandro looked up, and in the middle of the room was Zlatan, tall and whole, and holding a dripping pinkish rag with a face like a fox caught in the henhouse.
Paolo must have turned, since the next Alessandro knew, he was being jarred into the jamb as Paolo stumbled against him. “You—”
“Shouldn’t you two be fucking away in the ducal bedroom, or whatever it’s called?” Zlatan said, as if they were in the wrong.
“You bastard—” Alessandro started.
He said more, but he didn’t hear any of it because he’d lunged at the other man and his body outsped the words, with only their jumbled echoes managing to ring in Alessandro’s ears. But they were harsh—he could feel that in the way his throat burned and convulsed on him so he could barely breathe. After the first step he couldn’t see either, and so didn’t know what had slewed him round by the waist, but he fought it. He dragged himself forward as much as it hauled him sideways; his arm and then his knee cracked against stone and he started to fall.
“Christ—” Zlatan’s face blurred in and out, and then blurred back in and stayed till its outline sharpened. He had Alessandro by the wrists and was shoving them away, but the weight around Alessandro’s waist skewed it. A narrow line of stone struck Alessandro’s hip so his feet went out from under him again.
He teetered, then fell. Water billowed up around him, bubbles blistered past his face, and then his head broke the surface. He gasped and reached blindly out, touched the edge and was curling his fingers over it when someone seized his wrist and yanked him to fall half-over it.
“Christ,” Zlatan said again, voice a little shaky. “It’s a good thing I’m already dead.”
Alessandro blinked furiously till the water had cleared from his eyes, and then found he was looking into Paolo’s stunned face. The other man had dropped to a knee beside the tub and he was the one who’d pulled Alessandro up from the water.
Then Alessandro slowly turned his head, and Zlatan was there. Sagging against the tub, one hand hovering halfway between them. Alessandro snatched at it and his fingers closed around solid flesh; he slapped Zlatan on the hip, and he felt the sting of the impact in his hand and Zlatan hissed and jerked away.
“You’re alive,” Paolo said.
“No, I’m dead. And I took a lot of trouble over it, so—” Too late Zlatan turned back, but Alessandro had already gotten a good grip on his arm.
He yanked the other man down and Zlatan’s lips were real enough too, warm and salty and then pressing back against Alessandro’s mouth. The water had mixed with the dried blood and so disgusting clumps of the stuff were sliding down Alessandro’s face, but Zlatan either didn’t notice or didn’t care, his hand dropping to curve under Alessandro’s jaw as he leaned in further, his tongue caressing before his teeth bruised.
Paolo moved, his hand loosening on Alessandro’s wrist, and Alessandro started, then pulled the other man back as he swung away from Zlatan. For a moment he felt resistance, but then Paolo’s eyes widened and he suddenly slid forward, then flipped over the edge of the tub and disappeared under the water. Alessandro exclaimed something and thrust his arms into the water. A moment later he had Paolo up, and he had barely realized how relieved he was before he was climbing on top of the other man, holding Paolo’s head in his hands and kissing him as if that way Alessandro could draw his breath.
He didn’t know how long they went on like that, but when they did break apart, Paolo was flushed and breathless, his eyes dark as the heart of a great oak’s leafy mass. The other man stared at Alessandro, his hands tightly fitted to Alessandro’s shoulders, and then they turned almost in the same moment.
Zlatan was still there, perched on the rim with one leg braced on the floor. The grin was there as well, openly appreciative, but there was a sharp edge of wistfulness to it. “You really should see yourself, Sandro. All that shit in your hair…I thought you were trying to strangle me at first.”
“No, I…” Alessandro took a breath “…I was trying to break your neck.”
Paolo dropped his right arm so it loosely circled Alessandro’s waist, then hooked his left over the edge so he could turn more comfortably. “What do you mean, you’re dead?”
“I mean I’m dead. Il Mago fell in battle and his last wishes were that his army follow the true duke of Milan, Paolo Maldini.” The raised eyebrows and the twitching of his mouth undermined Zlatan’s sober tone. “You’re the diplomat so I might not have this right, but I think this means you can also do whatever you want about Borgia. He made his deal with me, not you.”
“So what are you doing here, alive? You make a very bad dead man,” Alessandro said. He reached behind Paolo to get a handhold on the tub, then hitched himself up so he could see Zlatan better.
Zlatan rolled his eyes. “Always so fucking critical…well, I was going to sneak out when night fell. But I was filthy—I had a good death, took plenty with me—and so I thought I’d wash off first.”
“In my house?” Paolo asked. His otherwise expressionless tone had a light strain of injury and an even lighter thread of amusement running through it.
The amusement was reciprocated, but then Zlatan looked away, the planes of his face smoothed by sobriety. “You did say you had a bath here. And I thought you two would be busy celebrating. Since you’re free now and have everything you want.”
Paolo gazed at him, then twisted a little to look at Alessandro. His hand spread over Alessandro’s back, rippling the floating folds of Alessandro’s undershirt. Then he moved his head a little, resting his cheek against Alessandro’s as Alessandro bowed his head till his brow nearly touched Paolo’s shoulder.
“We are,” he said, so soft that the water lying mere inches from his mouth didn’t stir.
Zlatan sucked in a breath, then exhaled even more loudly. He spat out something guttural and bitter and raw, something not in Italian, and then: “Shit.”
Alessandro lifted his head, then stopped as fingers pushed roughly into his hair. They gathered up a handful, twisted it and then flipped the strands free so their tips splattered against the water.
“You’re even dirtier than I was,” Zlatan snorted. “You’d better make it fast.”
He put his hand on Alessandro’s shoulder and pushed him aside, then curled his fingers around the back of Paolo’s neck. Paolo stiffened at the first tug, but was rising just as Zlatan pulled at him again. Their mouths met but Paolo hesitated with his hands before finally laying them against Zlatan’s side. Then Zlatan’s shoulders, and then they dragged back to gouge at Zlatan’s back as one of them began to moan.
Alessandro stared, struck into stone by the sight, till Zlatan had stripped Paolo to the waist. Paolo’s shirt made a sharp smacking sound as it hit the floor, startling Alessandro. He swore at Zlatan, then plunged his head into the water, scrubbing furiously at it.
By the time he’d scraped and scratched the gore from his skin and hair, Zlatan had Paolo out of the tub and on the floor, on his knees and facing the tub with his arms over the rim. His face was buried in Paolo’s neck so it couldn’t be seen, but Alessandro could see Paolo’s face, could see every wince and wide-eyed gasp as Zlatan pressed himself over and over again, slow and steady, to the other man’s back.
He’d never asked for that from Paolo, never felt the need to or the lack of not, but as he watched, he thought that for this he owed Zlatan a thanks. Even if he still never asked—he knew now, knew fully that side of Paolo and found it as beautiful as the rest.
Alessandro came up on the other side of the tub and seized Paolo’s hands so the other man blinked, saw him, and then he bent and gave up his mouth all through the sudden stiffness, the shaking and then the final hoarse cry as Paolo collapsed onto the rim. He was still kissing the other man when the hand pulled at his arm, and even as he clambered out onto the floor, he twisted and Paolo turned so their lips remained sealed together.
And so Paolo returned the favor, lying beneath them and letting Alessandro have mouth and hands when he needed it, but giving the rest up. Zlatan didn’t hesitate to take it but neither did he abuse it, and when it was Alessandro’s turn to fall, he did so knowing he would be caught.
* * *
“I,” Zlatan said, “Am dead. Dead means Paolo has an army and if you listen to Henrik, Sandro, a good enough general to deal with Borgia and Caterina Sforza and whoever else who also likes this fucking country. Dead means you can go after anyone you’d like, since I signed off on all the bargains.”
“You still haven’t found anything you like here?” Alessandro rolled over onto one elbow and discovered more twinges and aches than he really cared to deal with, and so let himself lay in that position, with only his head braced up. He looked at the other man.
After a moment, Zlatan shook his head and resumed pulling on his riding boots. Once he’d finished with that, he sat down on the rim of the tub and glanced around the room, absently ruffling his wet hair. “You’re just saying that because you had a nice fuck. Dead also means you aren’t throwing a fit because I’m fond of Paolo’s ass, and he isn’t acting the statue because yours isn’t bad, either.”
Paolo drew himself up on one hip and gazed coolly at Zlatan. “You’re being very silly right now.”
“Oh, am I?” Zlatan said, almost snarling. Then he laughed, looking away. “I’ll give you this: Italy can show you what you want, all right. But it never lets you keep it, not without giving something else up. What, I stay and swear allegiance to you, in return for parts? I’ve sworn myself to too many men already—the last was the last, and he was me swearing to myself that when I die I’ll still be my own man.”
“Again?” It was a poor jab, and anyway not even proper for the moment. But Alessandro didn’t know what else to say—no, there was one thing. “Then why were you here in the first place?”
Zlatan slowly turned to look at him, solemn-faced but eyes glittering. “I was keeping a promise. To the man who freed me.”
Paolo sat up straighter, half-hiding his wince. “It must have been a weighty one,” he said.
He and Zlatan measured each other with their gazes for several seconds before Zlatan smiled again. Then he rose from the tub, taking a moment to pull at his unbuttoned doublet before he walked over to Alessandro.
“And he’s dead now too, so I really didn’t want to disappoint him,” Zlatan remarked. He pushed at Alessandro’s shoulder, then again, and kept his hand there when Alessandro finally moved. “He was my business, Paolo. I’m not telling you any more about it.”
Then he stooped and retrieved his wrist-guards from where Alessandro had been sitting. He stayed crouching while he shook off the water and strapped them on, and so it was simple for Alessandro to reach out and put a hand on his arm. “Where are you going?”
“Sweden. Home. I haven’t been back since I was a child.” Zlatan stopped with his right wrist-guard half-on, staring at the buckles. Then he finished pulling the strap through and raised his head, looking clear-eyed at Alessandro. “So give me a kiss already. I’m years late now.”
Alessandro drew in air sharply, then had his throat close on him in a snarl when he tried to breathe out. He hesitated and the other man began to stand so he lunged, pulled Zlatan down and gave the man his damn kiss. Gave it to him and then more.
And though Zlatan took it hungrily, in the end he gave it back.
* * *
“Tomorrow my wife will be here,” Paolo said, looking over the rail. He grimaced, then pushed away and walked back to Alessandro. “I wish I were bringing her to a happy, restful life but Milan needs so much work…Sandro, are you staying?”
Alessandro looked up at him, surprised. “Of course. I fought for this place—I won’t leave it now. Or you, or your family.”
Paolo blinked hard, then leaned forward. But there were too many people near, and in the end he simply passed by Alessandro with only a feather-light touch across Alessandro’s back. “I would’ve understood if you didn’t.”
“But I am, so why think about if I didn’t?” Alessandro asked. After a moment, he turned and fell in slightly behind the other man, and smiled when Paolo slowed till they were abreast of each other. “That clever bastard does need to go home, I think, but he’s too hot-blooded for that cold climate. I give him two years at the most.”
“If nothing goes wrong here, that’s when I was thinking of sending you.” A touch of laughter played around Paolo’s mouth. “It will be different, though. I’m not sure how to do it.”
“You have enough time to think about it, and I’ve seen what you can do with no time at all.” Alessandro eased ahead of the other man to unlock the doors, then pushed them open. The sunlight flooded over them, washing everything clean.