“There’s an entertainment at the palace. A cultural event. An exhibition of paintings—people like the Bellini brothers—and Seljuk artists, too. And there’ll be music.”
“So what’s our plan?”
Yusuf looked at him gravely. “My brother, this is not your fight. There is no need for you to ensnare yourself in Ottoman affairs.”
“Topkapi concerns me. The Templars found one of the keys to Altaïr’s library beneath it, and I’d like to know how.”
“Ezio, our plan is to protect the prince, not interrogate him.”
“Trust me, Yusuf. Just show me where to go.”
Yusuf looked unconvinced, but said: “The rendezvous is at the main gate of the palace. We plan to disguise ourselves as musicians and walk right in with the authentic players.”
“I’ll meet you there.”
“You’ll need a costume. And an instrument.”
“I used to play the lute.”
“We’ll see what we can do. And we’d better place you with the Italian musicians. You don’t look Turkish enough to pass for one of us.”
By dusk, Ezio, Yusuf, and his picked team of Assassins, all dressed in formal costumes, had assembled near the main gate.
“Do you like your getup?” asked Yusuf.
“It’s fine. But the sleeves are cut tight. There was no room for any concealed weapon.”
“You can’t play a lute in loose sleeves. And that’s what you are—a lute player. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“And we are armed. You mark any targets and leave it to us to take them out. Here’s your instrument.” He took a fine lute from one of his men and passed it to Ezio, who tried it, tentatively.
“By Allah, you’ll have to make a better sound than that!” said Yusuf.
“It’s been a long time.”
“Are you sure you know how to play that thing?”
“I learned a few chords when I was young.”
“Were you really ever young?”
“A long time ago.”
Yusuf twitched at his own costume, a green-and-yellow satin number. “I feel ridiculous in this outfit. I look ridiculous!”
“You look just like all the other musicians, and that’s the important thing. Now, come on—the orchestra’s assembling.”
They crossed over to where a number of Italian instrumentalists were milling about, impatient to gain entry to the palace. Yusuf and his men were equipped as Turkish musicians, with tanburs, ouds, kanuns, and kudüms, all instruments which, between them, they could play passably. Ezio watched them being ushered through a side entrance.
Ezio found it agreeable to be among his fellow countrymen again, and dipped in and out of conversation with them.
“You’re from Florence? Welcome! This should be a good gig,” one told him.
“You call this a good gig?” a viol player chipped in. “You should try playing in France! They’ve got all the best people. I was there not six months ago and heard Josquin’s Qui Habitat. It’s the most beautiful chorale I’ve ever listened to. Do you know his work, Ezio?”
“Josquin,” said the first musician, a sackbut player. “Yes, he’s a treasure. There’s certainly no man in Italy to match his talent.”
“Our time will come.”
“I see you’re a lutenist, Ezio,” a man carrying a chitarra said to him. “I’ve been experimenting with alternative tunings lately. It’s a wonderful way to spark new ideas. For example, I’ve been tuning my fourth string to a minor third. It gives a very somber sound. By the way, did you bring any extra strings with you? I must have broken six this month.”
“Josquin’s music’s too experimental for me,” said a citternist. “Believe me, polyphony will never catch on.”
“Remind me,” said the chitarra player, ignoring his colleague’s remark. “I’d like to learn a few eastern tunings before we leave.”
“Good idea. I must say this is a great place to work. The people here are so kind, too. Not like Verona. You can hardly cross the street there these days without getting mugged,” a musician carrying a shawm put in.
“When do we go on?” Ezio asked.
“Soon enough,” replied the cittern player. “Look, they’re opening the gates now.”
The man with the viol plucked critically at his strings, then looked pleased. “It’s a splendid day for music, don’t you think, Ezio?”
“I hope so,” Ezio replied.
They made their way to the gate, where Ottoman officials were checking people through.
Unluckily, when Ezio’s turn came, one of them stopped him.
“Play us a tune,” he said. “I like the sound of a lute.”
Ezio watched helplessly as his fellow musicians filed past. “Perdonate, buon signore, but I’m part of the entertainment for Prince Suleiman.”
“Any old gerzek can carry an instrument around, and we don’t remember you being part of this particular band. So play us a tune.”
Taking a deep breath, Ezio started to pluck out a simple ballata he remembered learning when they still had the family palazzo in Florence. He twanged awfully.
“That’s—forgive me—terrible!” said the official. “Or are you into some new experimental music?”
“You might as well be strumming a washboard, as strings, the racket you’re making,” said another, coming over, amused.
“You sound like a dying cat.”
“I can’t work under these circumstances,” Ezio said huffily. “Give me a chance to get warmed up.”
“All right! And get yourself in tune while you’re at it.”
Ezio willed himself to concentrate and tried again. After a few initial stumbles, this time he managed to make a fair fist of a straightforward old piece by Landini. It was quite moving, in the end, and the Ottoman officials actually applauded.
“Pekala,” said the one who had first challenged him. “In you go, then, and bother the guests with that noise.”
Once inside, Ezio found himself in the midst of a great throng. A wide marble courtyard, partially covered, like an atrium, glittered with light and color under the boughs of tamarinds. Guests were wandering about as servants made their way between them with trays loaded with sweetmeats and refreshing drinks. There were plenty of Ottoman gentry present, as well as diplomats and high-profile artists and businessmen from Italy, Serbia, the Peloponnese, Persia, and Armenia. It was hard to detect any possible Byzantine infiltrators in this sophisticated assembly.