‘Mon Dieu,’ sighed the guard, as he died, and Altaïr stood.
Ahead, the second soldier moved along the wet stone of the dock, shining his tar-dripping torch around himself, trying to chase away the shadows and cringing at every sound. He was beginning to tremble with fear now. The scuttling of a rat made him jump and he turned quickly, his torch held aloft, seeing nothing.
He moved on, peering into the gloom, looking back for his companion … Oh, God, where was he? He had been there a moment ago. The two of them had come to the dock together. Now there was no sight of him – no sound of him. The guard began to shake with fear. He heard a whimper and realized it had come from himself. Then from behind came a noise and he wheeled around quickly, just in time to see his death at his heels …
For a moment or so Altaïr knelt astride the dead guard, listening for reinforcements. But none came and now, as he rose to his feet, he was joined by the other Assassins, dropping from the wall and coming on to the harbour, like him dressed in white robes, peering black-eyed from beneath their cowls. With hardly a sound, they spread out, Altaïr issuing hushed orders and indicating for them to move silently and swiftly along the harbour. Templar guards came running and were dealt with, Altaïr moving among them, leaving the fight to his team and coming to a wall. Worry gnawed at his gut: he had timed the attack badly – the Templars were already on the move. A sentry tried to stop him, but with a slash of Altaïr’s blade he was falling, blood spurting from his open neck. The Assassin used his body as a springboard, scrambling to the top of the harbour wall and crouching there, looking over at the adjacent dock, then out to sea.
His fears were realized. He’d waited too long. Ahead of him, on a Mediterranean Sea golden with the dying light of the sun, there was a small fleet of Templar ships. Altaïr cursed and moved quickly along the harbour into the heart of the docks. From behind him he could still hear the sounds of battle as his men were met by reinforcements. The Templar evacuation continued but he had an idea that the key to their departure might be found within the stronghold itself. Carefully, quickly and silently he made his way to the fortress, which loomed darkly over the docks, remorselessly disposing of the few guards he came across, wanting to disrupt the enemy’s escape as much as he wanted to learn of its intent.
Inside, the grey stone absorbed the sound of his footsteps. Templars were notable for their absence here. The place already had an empty and disused feel. He climbed stone stairways until he came to a balcony and there he heard voices: three people in the middle of a heated conversation. One voice in particular he recognized as he took up position behind a pillar to eavesdrop. He had wondered if he would ever hear it again. He had hoped he would.
It was the woman from the graveyard in Jerusalem; the brave lioness who had acted as de Sable’s stand-in. She stood with two other Templars and, from her tone, was displeased.
‘Where are my ships, soldier?’ she snapped. ‘I was told there would be another fleet of eight.’
Altaïr glanced over. The Templar ships were silhouetted on the horizon.
‘I’m sorry, Maria, but this is the best we could do,’ replied one of the soldiers.
Maria. Altaïr savoured her name even as he admired the set of her jaw, the eyes that shone with life and fire. Again he noticed that quality about her – as though she kept most of her true self back.
‘How do you propose to get the rest of us to Cyprus?’ she was saying.
Now, why would the Templars be relocating to Cyprus?
‘Begging your pardon, but it might be better if you stayed in Acre,’ said the soldier.
Suddenly she was watchful. ‘What is that? A threat?’ she asked.
‘It’s fair warning,’ replied the knight. ‘Armand Bouchart is Grand Master now and he doesn’t hold you in high regard.’
Armand Bouchart, noted Altair. So it was he who had stepped into de Sable’s shoes.
At the centre of the balcony, Maria was bridling. ‘Why, you insolent …’ She stopped herself. ‘Very well. I’ll find my own way to Limassol.’
‘Yes, milady,’ said the soldier, bowing.
They moved away, leaving Maria alone on the balcony where, Altaïr was amused to hear, she began talking to herself. ‘Damn … I was a single heartbeat from knighthood. Now I’m little more than a mercenary.’
He moved towards her. Whatever he felt about her – and he felt something, of that much he was certain – he needed to speak to her. Hearing him approach, she spun round and recognized him instantly. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it’s the man who spared my neck, but stole my life.’
Altaïr had no time to wonder what she meant because with a flash of steel, as swift as a lightning bolt, she’d drawn her sword and was coming at him, attacking him with a speed, skill and courage that impressed him anew. She swapped sword hands, spun to attack him on his weak side, and he had to move fast to defend. She was good, better than some of the men in his command, and for some moments they traded blows, the balcony resounding to the ring and clash of steel, punctuated by her shouts of effort.
Altaïr glanced behind to make sure no reinforcements were arriving. But then again, of course they wouldn’t. Her people had left her behind. Clearly her closeness to de Sable had done her no favours with his replacement.
On they fought. For a heartbeat she had him with his back to the balustrade, the dark sea over his shoulder and for the same heartbeat he wondered whether she could best him and what a bitter irony that might be. But her desperation to win made her careless and Altaïr was able to come forward, eventually spinning and kicking her feet from beneath her, then pouncing on her with his blade held to her throat.
‘Returned to finish me off?’ she said defiantly, but he could see the fear in her eyes.
‘Not just yet,’ he said, though the blade stayed where it was. ‘I want information. Why are the Templars sailing to Cyprus?’
She grinned. ‘It’s been a long, dirty war, Assassin. Everyone deserves respite.’
He fought a smile. ‘The more you tell me, the longer you live. So I ask again, why the retreat to Cyprus?’
‘What retreat? King Richard has brokered a truce with Salah Al’din, and your Order is leaderless, is it not? Once we recover the Piece of Eden, you’ll be the one running.’
Altaïr nodded, understanding. Knowing, too, that there was much about the Order the Templars presumed to know but did not. The first thing being that the Assassins had a leader, the second that they were not in the habit of running from Templars. He stood and pulled her to her feet. Glaring at him, she brushed herself down.