In one movement he drew his sword and rammed it into Osman’s stomach.
With a shout that echoed around the stunned square, the captain folded to the stone, cradling his belly. He writhed on the steps briefly until he died, his death rattle deafening in the shocked hush that blanketed the crowd. Altaïr winced. He hadn’t known Osman, of course, but what he’d seen of him, he’d liked. Another good man had died a needless death.
Bouchart reached down and wiped his sword clean on the arm of Osman’s tunic. ‘If anyone else objects, I invite you to step forward.’
The body shifted slightly and one arm came loose, hanging over the step. Osman’s sightless eyes stared at the sky.
There were no objections.
Suddenly there was a shout from Maria, who had pulled free of her two captors. She ran to the steps and threw herself to her knees in front of the leader. ‘Armand Bouchart,’ she called.
Though he smiled in recognition, it was not the smile of friends meeting. ‘Ah,’ he sneered, ‘an old colleague,’ and he replaced his sword in his belt.
‘Bouchart,’ said Maria, ‘an Assassin has come to Cyprus. I managed to escape, but he cannot be far behind.’
Up on his perch, Altaïr’s heart sank. He’d hoped … No. She was a Templar first. She always would be. Her loyalty was to them.
‘Why, Maria,’ said Bouchart in high spirits, ‘that would make this your second miraculous escape from the Assassins, no? Once when de Sable was the target, and now here on my island.’
Altaïr watched incomprehension join panic on Maria’s face. ‘I am not in league with the Assassins, Bouchart,’ she blurted. ‘Please listen.’
‘De Sable was a weak-willed wretch. Verse seventy of the founding Templar Rule expressly forbids consorting with women … for it is through women that the devil weaves his strongest web. De Sable ignored this tenet and paid with his life.’
‘How dare you?’ she retorted and, despite himself, Altaïr smiled. Any fear Maria experienced was always short-lived.
‘Touched a nerve, did I?’ roared Bouchart, enjoying himself. Then, ‘Lock her up.’
And with that the meeting was over. Bouchart turned and left, leaving the glassy-eyed body of Osman on the steps behind him. Maria was bound and dragged away.
Altair’s eyes went from the receding figure of Bouchart to Maria. He was torn, trying to decide on his next course of action. Bouchart was close. He might not have this chance again. Strike at him when he least expected it.
But then again – Maria.
He let himself down from the rooftop and followed the men as they led her out of the Cathedral Square, presumably towards the gaol. He kept at a safe distance. Then, when they’d turned off into a quieter street, he struck.
Moments later the two guards were dead and Altaïr was approaching Maria where she had been tossed aside, her hands still bound, struggling to get to her feet. He reached for her and she jerked away from him. ‘Get your hands off me,’ she snapped. ‘They consider me a traitor, thanks to you.’
Altaïr smiled indulgently – even though she had alerted Bouchart to his presence. ‘I am only a convenient excuse for your wrath, Maria. The Templars are your real enemy.’
She glowered. ‘I will kill you when I get the chance.’
‘If you get the chance … but then you’ll never find the Apple, the Piece of Eden. And which would curry more favour with the Templars right now? My head or that artefact?’
She looked at him with narrowed eyes, seeing that what he said made sense. She seemed to relax.
For the time being.
Much later they met Alexander again. His face showed his concern as he told Altaïr, ‘Despite his bravado, Bouchart obviously took Maria’s warning seriously.’ At this he shot Maria a look so furious that, unusually, she was lost for words. ‘My sources tell me that after destroying our safe-house he immediately sailed for Kyrenia.’
Altaïr frowned. ‘That’s a shame. I was hoping to meet him.’ He planned to meet him still. ‘What’s the fastest route there?’ he asked.
They travelled as a monk and his companion, able to find space in the hold. Occasionally crew members would descend from the main deck and curl up to sleep there, too, farting and snuffling, paying little attention to the two strangers. As Maria slept, Altaïr found a crate and opened his journal, bringing the Apple out from a pack he wore in his robe.
Free of its swaddling it glowed and he watched it for a moment, then began to write: ‘I struggle to make sense of the Apple, the Piece of Eden, its function and purpose, but I can say with certainty that its origins are not divine. No … it is a tool … a machine of exquisite precision. What sort of men were they who brought this marvel into the world?’
There was a noise behind him. In an instant he had swept up the Apple and covered it once more, hiding it within his robe. It was Maria, stirring from sleep. He closed his journal, stepping over the sleeping bodies of two crew members and crossing the hold to where she sat with her back against a stack of wooden boxes, shivering and yawning. She clasped her knees to her chest, watching as Altaïr sat on the deck beside her. Her eyes were unreadable. For a moment they listened to the creak of the ship, the suck and slap of the sea on the hull. Neither was sure if it was day or night, or how long they had been sailing.
‘How did you find yourself here?’ he asked her.
‘Don’t you remember, holy man?’ she said archly. ‘You brought me.’ She whispered, ‘I’m your consort.’
Altaïr cleared his throat. ‘I mean here in the Holy Land. In the Crusades.’
‘I should be at home with a lap full of crochet and one eye on the gardener?’
‘Isn’t that what English women do?’
‘Not this one. I’m what they call the unusual one in my family. Growing up, I always preferred the boys’ games. Dolls weren’t for me, much to my parents’ continued exasperation. I used to pull their heads off.’
She laughed. ‘My dolls. So, of course, my parents did everything they could to make me less boisterous, and on my eighteenth birthday they gave me a special present.’
‘And what was it?’
He started. ‘You’re married?’
‘I was. His name was Peter, and he was a most pleasant companion, just …’