Altaïr decided to follow Shalim. Now they were both hunting Maria, and Altaïr wanted to make sure he was around if Shalim found her first.
Not that Shalim was looking especially hard at the moment. Markos had told Altaïr that all Shalim had in common with his father was the fact that he served the Templars and had a fierce temper. In place of religious fervour he had a taste for wine and enjoyed the company of prostitutes. Following him, Altaïr saw him indulge in both. He kept a safe distance as Shalim and two of his bodyguards stalked the streets of Kyrenia like a trio of little despots, angrily upbraiding citizens and merchants, abusing them, taking goods and money in preparation for a visit somewhere.
To a brothel, it seemed. Altaïr watched as Shalim and his men approached a door where a drunk was pawing one of the local whores. Either the man was too stupid or too inebriated to recognize that Shalim’s mood was dark, because he lifted his leather flask in greeting to the tyrant, calling, ‘Raise a mug, Shalim.’
Shalim did not break stride. He rammed the flat of his hand into the drunk’s face so that his head rebounded off the wall behind him with a hollow clunk. The leather flask dropped and the man slid down the wall to a sitting position, his head lolling, hair matting with blood. In the same movement Shalim grabbed the prostitute by the arm.
She resisted. ‘Shalim, no. Please don’t.’
But he was already dragging her off, looking back over his shoulder and calling to his two companions, ‘Have your fun, men. And round up some women for me when you’re finished.’
Altaïr had seen enough. Shalim wasn’t looking for Maria, that much was certain, and he himself wasn’t likely to find her by following Shalim to wherever he was going with his whore: bed or a tavern, no doubt.
Instead he returned to the market district, where Markos was aimlessly wandering between the stalls, his hands clasped behind his back, waiting for news from Altaïr.
‘I need to get close to Shalim,’ he told Markos, when they’d repaired to the shade, looking for all the world like two traders passing the time of day out of the hot sun. ‘If he is as stupid as he is brash, I may be able to get some secrets out of him.’
‘Speak to one of the monks near the cathedral.’ Markos chuckled. ‘Shalim’s wayward lifestyle demands frequent confessions.’
So it was that at the cathedral Altaïr found a bench beneath a flapping canopy and sat watching the world go by, waiting until a lone white-robed monk passed him, inclining his head in greeting. Altaïr returned the gesture, then said in a low voice, so that only the monk could hear, ‘Does it not trouble you, brother, to suffer the sins of such a vile man as Shalim?’
The monk stopped. Looked one way then the other. Then at Altaïr. ‘It does,’ he whispered, ‘but to oppose him would mean death. The Templars have too much at stake here.’
‘You mean the archive?’ said Altaïr. ‘Can you tell me where it is?’
Altaïr had heard about this archive. Perhaps it held the key to the Templars’ activities. But the monk was shaking his head and moving away as, suddenly, a small commotion erupted. It was Shalim, Altaïr saw, with a start. He was mounting an orator’s platform. He no longer had the prostitute with him and he seemed a good deal less drunk than he had been previously.
‘Men and women of Cyprus,’ he announced, as his audience assembled, ‘Armand Bouchart sends his blessing, but with a stern provision that all who foment disorder with their support of the Resistance will be caught and punished. Those who seek order and harmony, and pay obeisance to the Lord through good work, will enjoy Bouchart’s charity. Now, let us work together as brothers to rebuild what hate and anger have torn down.’
This was most odd, thought Altaïr. Shalim looked rested and fresh-faced, not how Altaïr would have expected him to appear in view of his recent activities. That Shalim had had all the makings of a man who planned to spend the rest of his day drinking and whoring. This one? He was like a different man – not just in looks but in his manner, his bearing and, judging by the content of his speech, his entire philosophy. And this Shalim had no bodyguards with him either. This Shalim Altaïr could easily overcome, perhaps in one of the alleyways off a main avenue of Kyrenia.
When Shalim stepped down from his platform and moved off, leaving the cathedral behind him and taking to the golden streets, Altaïr followed in pursuit.
He wasn’t sure how long they’d been walking when suddenly the giant St Hilarion Castle was looming over them and he saw that Shalim was heading inside. Sure enough, when he reached the huge castle gates he stepped inside a wicket door, disappearing from sight. Altaïr cursed. He had lost his target. Still, the castle was a hive of activity, and even now the doors were opening, both gates swinging back to allow a palanquin carried by four men to come out. It was clearly empty – they were able to jog along quickly – and Altaïr followed them to the sun-dappled harbour where they set down their burden and stood waiting, their arms folded.
Altaïr waited too. He took a seat on a low harbour wall and sat with his elbows on his knees, watching the palanquin and the waiting servants, the merchants and fishermen, the beautiful ships rocking gently in the wash, hulls knocking against the harbour wall. A group of fishermen wrestling with a huge net stopped suddenly, looked over to one of the ships and grinned. Altaïr followed their gaze to see a number of women appear in the sheer silk and chiffon of courtesans and make their way on to the harbour with self-conscious, dainty steps. The fishermen leered and some washerwomen tutted as the women crossed the dock with their heads held high, knowing exactly the attention they commanded. Altaïr watched them.
Among them was Maria.
She was dressed as a courtesan. His heart lifted to see her. But what was she doing? She had escaped Shalim’s clutches only to step back into danger, or so it seemed. She and the other women climbed aboard the palanquin. The servants waited until they were aboard, then picked it up and turned with it, carrying it much more slowly than before, each man bent beneath its weight, heading out of the harbour and, if Altaïr was right, towards St Hilarion Castle. Where, no doubt, Shalim was already rubbing his hands with glee.
Altaïr turned to follow, scaling the wall of a nearby building, then making his way across the roofs, jumping from one to another, tracking the palanquin, which was below him. As it approached the castle gates he waited, crouching. Then, timing his jump, he dropped on to its roof.