The captain looked at him. “Your forebear Altaïr had the Apple of Eden in his control for sixty years, Ezio. He gained much more than what you call wisdom. He learned . . . everything!”
Ezio thought about that fleetingly. He knew the Apple was safely buried in a church crypt in Rome—he and Machiavelli had seen to that. But his attention was drawn back immediately by a sharp gasp of pain from the captain. Blood had been streaming from his untended wounds all the time they had been speaking. Now the man had the death pallor on him. A curiously peaceful expression came over his face, and he lay back as a huge long, last, sighing breath escaped him.
Ezio watched him for a moment. “You were a real bastardo ,” he said. “But—for all that—Requiescat in Pace.”
He leaned forward and gently closed the man’s eyes with his gloved hand.
The waterwheel hammered on. Otherwise, there was silence.
Ezio picked up the book and turned it over in his hands. On its cover, he saw an embossed symbol, its gilding long since faded. The emblem of the Assassin Brotherhood. Smiling slightly, he opened it to the title page:
LA CROCIATA SEGRETA
MASYAF, giugno, MCCLVII
COSTANTINOPOLI, gennaio, MCCLVII
As he read, Ezio drew in a breath.
Constantinople, he thought. Of course . . .
The breeze freshened, and Ezio looked up from Niccolò Polo’s book, open on his lap as he sat under an awning on the afterdeck of the large, broad-bellied baghlah, as it cut through the clear blue water of the White Sea, both lateens and jib set to take full advantage of a favorable wind.
The journey from Latakia on the Syrian coast had first taken him back to Cyprus. The next port of call had been Rhodes—where his attention had been caught by the arrival on board of a new passenger, a beautiful woman of perhaps thirty wearing a green dress that perfectly accorded with her copper-gold hair. Then on through the Dodecanese north toward the Dardanelles, and, at last, the Sea of Marmara.
Finally, the voyage was drawing toward its close. Sailors called to each other as passengers lined up along the gunwale to watch as, a mile distant, glittering in the sharp sunlight, the great city of Constantinople rose on the port bow. As he watched, Ezio tried to identify parts of the city from the map of it he had bought in the Syrian port before embarkation. Near him stood an expensively dressed young man, an Ottoman, probably still in his teens but also clearly acquainted with the city. Ezio had struck up a nodding acquaintance with him. The young man was busy with a mariner’s astrolabe, taking measurements and making notes in an ivory-bound copybook, which hung on a silk cord from his belt.
“What’s that?” Ezio asked, pointing. He wanted to have as much knowledge of the place as possible before landing. News of his escape from the Templars at Masyaf would not be far behind, and he’d need to work fast.
“That’s the Bayezid Quarter. The big mosque you can see was built by the sultan about five years ago. And just beyond it you can see the roofs of the Grand Bazaar.”
“Got it,” said Ezio, squinting in the sun to focus and wishing that Leonardo had got around to making that instrument he was always talking about—a kind of extendable tube with lenses—which would make distant things seem closer.
“Watch your sleeve purse when you go to the Bazaar,” advised the young man. “You get a pretty mixed bag of people there.”
“Like in any souk.”
“Evet.” The young man smiled. “Just over there, where the towers are, is the Imperial District. That grey dome you can see is the old church of Haghia Sofia. It’s a mosque now, of course. And beyond it, you see that long, low, yellow building—more of a complex of buildings, really—with two low domes close together and a spire? That’s Topkapi Sarayi. One of the first buildings we erected after the conquest, and we’re still working on it.”
“Is Sultan Bayezid in residence?”
The young man’s face darkened slightly. “He should be—but no—he is not. Not at the moment.”
“I must visit it.”
“You’d better make sure you have an invitation first!”
The breeze slackened, and the sails rippled. The sailors furled the jib. The master brought the ship’s head around slightly, bringing another aspect of the city into view.
“You see that mosque there?” the young man continued, as if anxious to take the conversation away from Topkapi Palace. “That’s the Fatih Camii—the first thing Sultan Mehmed had built, to celebrate his victory over the Byzantines. Not that there was much of them left by the time he got here. Their empire was already long dead. But he wanted his mosque to surpass Haghia Sofia. As you can see, he didn’t quite make it.”
“Not for want of trying,” said Ezio diplomatically, as his eyes scanned the magnificent building.
“Mehmed was piqued,” the young man continued. “The story goes that he had the architect’s arm cut off as a punishment. But, of course, that’s just a legend. Sinan was far too good an architect for Mehmed to want to damage him.”
“You said the sultan was not in residence,” Ezio prompted, gently.
“Bayezid? No.” The young man’s troubled look returned. “A great man, the sultan, though the fire of his youth has been replaced by quietness and piety. But, alas, he is at odds with one of his sons—Selim—and that has meant a war between them, which has been simmering for years now.”
The baghlah was sailing along under the southern walls of the city and soon rounded the corner north into the Bosphorus. Shortly afterward, a great inlet opened out on the port side, and the ship steered into it, over the great chain that hung across its mouth. It had been lowered, but could be raised to close the harbor in times of emergency or war.
“The chain has been in disuse since the conquest,” the young man observed. “After all, it did not stop Mehmed.”
“But a useful safety measure,” Ezio replied.
“We call this the Haliç,” said the young man. “The Golden Horn. And there on the north side is the Galata Tower. Your Genoese countrymen built it about a hundred and fifty years ago. Mind you, they called it the Christea Turris. But they would, wouldn’t they? Are you from Genoa yourself?”
“I’m a Florentine.”
“Ah well, can’t be helped.”
“It’s a good city.”
“Affedersiniz. I am not familiar enough with your part of the world. Though many of your countrymen live here still. There’ve been Italians here for centuries. Your famous Marco Polo—his father, Niccolò, was trading here well over two hundred years ago, with his brother.” The young man smiled, watching Ezio’s face. Then he turned his attention back to the Galata Tower. “There might be a way of getting you to the top. The security people might be persuaded. You get the most breathtaking view of the city from there.”