“I’ll fetch you some light. A candle.”
She was back in moments, with a candle and a tinderbox. “Who are you, Messere?” she asked, looking into his eyes.
“Only the most interesting man in your life.”
She smiled, quickly. “Ah! Presuntuoso!”
“Stay here. Let no one into the shop. I’ll be back before you know it.”
Leaving her, he descended the steps, from whose foot a tunnel led deep in the earth.
Ezio found himself in a system of underground cisterns. By the feeble light of the candle, he could make out barrel-vaulted roofs supported by row upon row of slender columns, decorated at their capitals with a variety of symbols, among which Ezio recognized eyes. At their bases, some of them, bizarrely, showed the inverted heads of monstrous Gorgons.
Ezio recognized the place he must be in—the Yerebatan Sarnici. The great system of cisterns built below Constantinople. In his book, Niccolò Polo mentioned it. It had been built as a water-filtration system by Justinian a thousand years earlier. But knowing that didn’t make it feel any less creepy.
He was all but daunted at the vast, cavernous space around him, which he judged, from the echoes the sound his movements made, to be as great as a cathedral. But he remembered that Niccolò had given some indication in The Secret Crusade of where one key might be found. The directions had been deliberately obscure, but Ezio decided to try to follow them, concentrating as he forced his mind to remember the details.
It was hard to make no noise at all, moving through the shallow water that covered the floor of the cistern, but with practice, Ezio managed to reduce this to a minimum. Besides, any sound he made was soon drowned out by the noise of the unsuspecting people he heard up ahead. Evidently, he was not alone in his quest, and he reminded himself that, before he got hold of the book, it had been in the Templars’ possession.
There were lights up ahead as well. Ezio doused his candle and crept forward toward them. Soon, he made out the forms of two Templar foot soldiers, sitting by a small fire in a dark passage. Ezio drew closer. His Greek was good enough to pick up most of what they were saying.
The one who was speaking was in a bad mood and not afraid to let it show. Indeed, he seemed on the edge of hysteria. “Ti distihìa!” he was saying in aggrieved tomes. “What misery! Do you know how long we’ve been searching this filthy cistern?”
“I’ve been here a few weeks,” replied his quieter friend.
“That’s nothing! Try thirteen months! Ever since our Grand Master found that damned key!” He calmed himself a little. “But he hasn’t got a clue what he’s doing. All he knows”—the soldier’s tone became sarcastic—“is that they’re ‘somewhere in the city.’ ”
Hearing this, the other soldier grew more excited himself, sounding overwhelmed at the prospect ahead of them. “This is a very big city . . .”
“I know! That’s what I said myself—under my breath.”
They were interrupted by the arrival of a sergeant. “Get on with your work, you bums! You think you’re paid to sit around on your arses all day?”
Grumbling, the men resumed their task. Ezio shadowed them, hoping to pick up more information. The men were joined by a handful of other soldiers, similarly begrimed and discontented.
But Ezio had to watch his step. Tired and disgruntled the soldiers might have been, but they were well trained, and vigilant.
“Petros!” one called to another. “Make sure we have enough torches for the excavation. I’m tired of stumbling around in the dark.”
Ezio pricked up his ears at the word “excavation,” but as he moved forward again, his sword scabbard scraped against one of the columns, and the vaulted roofs echoed and amplified the slight sound.
The man called Petros darted a look behind him. “There’s someone down here with us!” he hissed. “Keep your eyes open and your hands steady.”
The troops were instantly on the alert, urgently calling to one another in muted voices.
“Do you see anything?”
“Search every corner!”
Ezio retreated farther into the shadows and waited patiently for the panic to die down. At the same time, he made a mental note to be extra careful in the exaggerated acoustic.
Gradually, the guards resumed their search. As he watched, he could see that their actions seemed aimless and that they knew it. But he continued to watch, hoping to detect a pattern, listening to their desultory conversation as he did so.
“It stinks down here.”
“What do you expect? It’s a sewer.”
“I could use a breath of air.”
“Patience! Shift’s up in three hours!”
“Keep it down, you!” barked the sergeant, approaching again. “And keep your ears open. The Lord Jesus knows why they picked you lot for a delicate mission like this.”
Ezio moved forward, past the men, until he came upon a stone embankment, on which two junior officers were standing by a brazier. He listened in to their conversation.
“We’re one step ahead of the Assassins, I know that much,” one was saying to the other.
“The Grand Master has ordered that we make all haste. They may be closer than we think.”
“He must have his reasons. What do these keys look like anyway?”
“Like the one we discovered beneath Topkapi. That’s got to be the assumption.”
The other lieutenant shook himself. “Eight hours of this filth. Apistefto!”
“I agree. I’ve never been so bored in all my life.”
“Yeah. But we’re bound to find the keys soon.”
“In your dreams.”
But the first lieutenant to speak had suddenly glanced round quickly. “What was that?”
“Probably a rat. The Savior knows, there are enough of them down here.”
“All the shadows seem to move.”
“It’s just the firelight.”
“Someone is out there. I can feel it.”
“Watch yourself. You’ll go mad.”
Ezio inched past them, moving as slowly as he could despite wanting to rush, for he dared not let the water around his calves make so much as a ripple. At last he found himself well beyond the two officers and the rest of the Templars, feeling his way along the wall of a dank corridor, much lower and narrower than the pillared halls it led off.
Somehow, it felt right. As soon as the light and noise of the Templars had died out completely behind him, he felt secure enough to relight the candle and drew it from his side satchel along with the tinderbox, praying that he would drop neither as he juggled to strike a spark to light it.