‘The Apple is well hidden,’ he told her, thinking that in fact it was not. It remained in his quarters.
‘Altaïr, consider your options carefully. The Templars would pay a great price for that relic.’
‘They already have, haven’t they?’ said Altaïr, leading her away.
Moments later, he had gathered with his Assassins, the battle on the harbour over, Acre port theirs. Among them was Jabal, who raised his eyebrows at the appearance of Maria and waved for two Assassins to take her away before he joined Altaïr.
‘What’s happening on Cyprus that would concern the Templars?’ mused Altaïr, as they strode along. He had already decided their next destination and there was no time to waste.
‘Civil strife, perhaps?’ said Jabal, palms spread. ‘Their emperor Isaac Comnenus picked a fight with King Richard many months ago, and now he rots in a Templar dungeon.’
Altaïr thought. ‘A pity. Isaac was so easily bent, so willing to take a bribe.’
They stopped at the harbour steps and Maria was led past them, her chin held high.
‘Those days are past,’ Jabal was saying. ‘Now the Templars own the island, purchased from the King for a paltry sum.’
‘That’s not the kind of governance we want to encourage. Have we any contacts there?’ asked Altaïr.
‘One in Limassol. A man named Alexander.’
‘Send him a message,’ said Altaïr. ‘Tell him to expect me within the week.’
He sailed to Cyprus alone – although not quite alone. He took Maria. He had told Jabal that he could use her as Templar bait, but he wrote in his journal that he liked to have her with him; it was as simple and as complicated as that. There had been too few women in his life. Those who shared his bed had done little more than satisfy a need, and he had yet to meet a woman able to stir those feelings found above waist height. Had he met her now? He scratched the question in his journal.
Arriving in Limassol they discovered that the Templars had occupied the island in earnest. As ever the port was soaked in the orange light of the sun and the sandstone shone with it; the blue waters glittered and the gulls wheeling and swooping above their heads kept up a constant noise. But everywhere there were the red crosses of the Templars, and watchful soldiers eyeing a begrudging populace. They lived under the iron gauntlet of the Templars now, their island sold from beneath them by a king whose claim to it was tenuous at best. Most carried on with their lives; they had mouths to feed. A few plucky souls had formed a Resistance, though. It was they who would be most sympathetic to Altaïr’s mission, they he planned to meet.
He made his way from his ship and along the docks. With him came Maria, her hands bound. He’d made sure she had removed any signs identifying her as a Templar Crusader and, to all intent and purposes, she was his slave. This situation, of course, angered her and she wasn’t slow to make it known, grumbling as they passed through the docks, which were quieter than expected. Altaïr was privately amused by her discomfort.
‘What if I started screaming?’ she said, through gritted teeth.
Altaïr chuckled. ‘People would cover their ears and carry on. They’ve seen an unhappy slave before.’
But what people? The docks were strangely empty, and as they came up into the back-streets, they found the highways deserted too. Suddenly a man stepped out of an alley in front of them, wearing scruffy robes and a turban. Disused barrels and the skeletons of empty crates lay about, and from somewhere they could hear water dripping. They were alone, Altaïr realized, just as two more men stepped out of other alleys around them.
‘The port is off-limits,’ said the first man. ‘Show your face.’
‘Nothing under this hood but an ugly old Assassin,’ growled Altaïr, and he raised his head to regard the man.
The thug smirked, a threat no longer, grinning. ‘Altaïr.’
‘Alexander,’ said Altaïr, ‘you got my message.’
‘I assumed it was a Templar trap. Who is the woman?’ He looked Maria up and down, a twinkle in his eye.
‘Templar bait,’ explained Altaïr. ‘She was de Sable’s. Unfortunately she’s a burden.’
Maria fixed him with a gaze: if looks could kill, it would have tortured him viciously first.
‘We can hold her for you, Altaïr,’ said Alexander. ‘We have a secure safe-house.’
She cursed their rotten souls as they made their way to it, such coarse language for an English woman.
Altaïr asked Alexander why there were so few citizens on the streets.
‘Quite a ghost town, eh? People are afraid to leave their homes for fear of breaking some obscure new law.’
Altaïr thought. ‘The Templars have never been interested in governing before. I wonder why now.’
Alexander was nodding. As they walked, they passed two soldiers, who looked at them suspiciously. Altaïr steeled himself against Maria giving them away. She didn’t, and he wondered whether it had anything to do with her having been abandoned by her own side in Acre. Or perhaps … No. He put that thought out of his mind.
They reached the safe-house, a derelict warehouse that Alexander had made his base. There was a storeroom sealed with a barred wooden door but they let Maria remain in the open for the moment; Altaïr checked the rope at her wrists, running a finger between it and her arm to make sure she was comfortable. Now she gave him a look of what he could only describe as appreciative disdain.
‘I won’t assume you’re here out of charity,’ said Alexander, when they were settled. ‘May I ask your purpose?’
Altaïr wanted to act quickly – he wanted to move in on the Templar base at once – but he owed the Cypriot an explanation. ‘It’s a complicated story, but can be summed up easily: the Templars have access to knowledge and weapons far deadlier than anyone could have imagined. I plan to change this. One such weapon is in our hands. A device with the ability to warp the minds of men. If the Templars possess more like it, I want to know.’
Maria piped up from behind them: ‘And we can certainly trust the Assassins to put the Apple, the Piece of Eden, to better use …’
Altaïr suppressed a smile but ignored her, saying to Alexander, ‘Where are the Templars holed up now?’
‘In Limassol Castle, but they’re expanding their reach.’
That had to be stopped, thought Altaïr.