The palanquin lurched as the men below adjusted to the new weight. Altaïr had gambled on them being too tyrannized even to look up – and he had been right. They merely shouldered the extra weight and walked on. And if the courtesans inside had noticed, they said nothing either, and the procession crossed safely over the castle threshold and came into a courtyard. Altaïr looked around him, seeing archers on the ramparts. Any moment now he’d be spotted. He dropped off and hid behind a low wall, watching as Maria was taken from the transport and escorted away, leaving the courtyard by a small door.
He scrambled up to the roof of an outhouse. He would have to make his way inside the long way round. But one thing he knew. Now he’d found her he wasn’t going to lose her again.
On a wide, baking-hot balcony, Maria was ushered in to meet the owner of St Hilarion Castle. One of them, at least. Unknown to Altaïr, Shalim had a twin brother, Shahar. It was Shahar whom Altaïr had seen delivering the speech on charity, which would have answered the Assassin’s question as to how a man who had spent the evening drinking and whoring could look so invigorated the next day.
Maria, on the other hand, was acquainted with both twins and, though they were identical, knew how to differentiate them. Of the two Shalim was dark-eyed and bore the looks of a man with his lifestyle; Shahar seemed the more youthful of the two. It was him she approached now. He turned to face her and lit up, smiling, as she crossed the balcony towards him, resplendent in her courtesan’s outfit, fetching enough to catch any man’s eye.
‘I didn’t expect to see you again.’ He leered. ‘How can I help you, little fox?’
He walked past her and back into the hall.
‘I’m not here to be flattered,’ snapped Maria, despite appearances to the contrary. ‘I want answers.’
She stayed at his heels, and when they reached the hall, he eyed her, bemused yet lecherous. She ignored his look. She needed to hear for herself what Altaïr had told her.
‘Oh?’ said Shahar.
‘Is it true what I have heard,’ she pressed, ‘that the Templars wish to use the Apple, the Piece of Eden, for ill? Not to enlighten the people, but to subdue them?’
He smiled indulgently as though explaining things to an adorable but simple-minded child. ‘People are confused, Maria. They are lambs begging to be led. And that’s what we offer: simple lives, free of worry.’
‘But our Order was created to protect the people,’ she persisted, ‘not to rob them of their liberty.’
Shahar curled his lip. ‘The Templars care nothing for liberty, Maria. We seek order, nothing more.’
He was walking towards her. She took a step back. ‘Order? Or enslavement?’
His voice had taken on a darker tone as he replied, ‘You can call it whatever you like, my dear …’
He reached for her, his intentions – his all-too obvious intentions – interrupted only by Altaïr bursting into the room. Shahar wheeled, exclaiming, ‘Assassin!’ He grabbed Maria by the shoulders and tossed her to the floor – she landed painfully. Altaïr decided he would make the bully pay for that.
‘My apologies, Shalim, I let myself in,’ he said.
Shahar grinned. ‘So you’re looking for Shalim? I’m sure my brother would be happy to join us.’
From above there was a noise and Altaïr looked up to a gallery where Shalim was approaching, smiling. Then two guards came through the open door, ready to pounce on Maria who, standing now, whirled, snatched one guard’s sword from its sheath and used it against him.
He screamed and crumpled just as she spun and, dropping to one knee, thrust again, disposing of the other. In the same moment Shalim bounded down from the gallery, landing in the middle of the hall next to his brother. Altaïr had a moment to see the two side by side, and was amazed by how close in looks they were. Next to him stood Maria, her newly acquired sword dripping with blood, shoulders heaving, the two of them against the twins. Altaïr felt his chest fill with something that was partly pride and partly something he preferred not to name. ‘Two of them,’ he said, ‘and two of us.’
Yet again, however, Maria sprang a surprise. Instead of fighting by his side she simply made a contemptuous sound and darted through the door left open by the guards. Altaïr had a moment to wonder whether he should follow, and then the brothers were upon him and he was fighting for his life against the two skilled swordsmen.
The fight was long and brutal and the twins began confidently, sure that they would swiftly overwhelm the Assassin. After all, there were two of them and both were adept with a blade; rightly, they expected to wear him down. But Altaïr was fighting with a bellyful of anger and frustration. He no longer knew who was friend and who foe. He had been betrayed – men who were supposed to be friends had turned out to be enemies. Those he thought might become friends – or more than friends – had spurned the hand of friendship he offered to them. He knew only that he was fighting a war in which more was at stake than he knew, involving powers and ideologies he had yet to understand. He had to keep fighting, to keep struggling, until he reached the end.
And when the slain bodies of the twins at last lay at his feet, their arms and legs at twisted, wrong angles, their dead eyes wide, he took no pleasure or gratification in his victory. He merely shook the blood from his sword, sheathed it and made his way to the balcony. From behind him he heard more guards arriving as he stood on the balustrade with his arms outstretched. Below him was a cart and he dropped into it, then disappeared into the city.
Later, when he returned to the safe-house, Markos was there to meet him, eager to hear the tale of the brothers’ demise. Around them, members of the Resistance were embracing, overjoyed at the news. At last the Resistance could regain control of Kyrenia. And if Kyrenia, then surely there was hope for the whole island.
Markos beamed at him. ‘It’s happening, Altaïr. The ports are emptying of Templar ships. Kyrenia will be free. Maybe all of Cyprus.’
Altaïr smiled, encouraged by the joy in Markos’s eyes. ‘Stay cautious,’ he advised.
He remembered that he was still no closer to discovering the location of the archive. The Templars’ departure was telling him something. ‘They wouldn’t leave their archive undefended,’ he said, ‘so it cannot be here.’
Markos considered. ‘Most of the ships that left here were headed back to Limassol. Could it be there?’