In an instant, Ezio sprang forward and, seizing the Byzantine by his bony wrist and forcing him backward just as he was in the act of moving in for the kill, drove the shard four inches deep into the man’s left eye. The Byzantine stopped as if he had been frozen in motion, then the janbiyah fell from his hand and clattered onto the marble floor. He himself crumpled to the ground immediately afterward.

The crowd fell silent, forming a circle around Ezio and Suleiman at a respectful distance. The guards tried to intervene, but Suleiman stayed them with a gesture.

The prince sheathed his own dagger and took a small breath. Then he took a step toward Ezio—a signal honor from a prince, which the crowd acknowledged with a gasp.

“It is good to see you again, mio bel menestrello. Did I say that right?”

“ ‘My handsome minstrel.’ Very good.”

“It is a pity about your lute. So much more beautiful an instrument than a sword.”

“You are right. But it does not save lives.”

“Some would argue with that.”

“Perhaps. In other circumstances.” The two men exchanged a smile. “I hear you are a governor as well as a prince. Is there anything you do not do?”

“I do not talk to strangers.” Suleiman bowed—a slight inclination of the head only. “I am Suleiman Osman.”

“Auditore, Ezio . . .” Ezio bowed in his turn.

One of the white-clad guards approached then. A sergeant. “Forgive me, my prince. On behalf of your uncle, we must have your assurance that you are uninjured.”

“Where is he?”

“He awaits you.”

Suleiman looked at him coldly. “Tell him that, thanks to this man, I am uninjured. But no thanks to you! You! The Janissaries! The elite guard, and you fail me, a prince of the royal house, like this! Where is your captain?”

“Tarik Barleti is away—on an errand.”

“On an errand? Do you really wish to show yourselves such amateurs in front of this stranger?” Suleiman drew himself up as the guard, a muscular giant who must have weighed all of three hundred pounds, trembled before him. “Clear this body away and send the guests home. Then summon Tarik to the Divan!”

Turning back to Ezio as the man scuttled off, Suleiman said: “This is embarrassing. The Janissaries are the bodyguard of the sultan.”

“But not of his family?”

“On this occasion, it would appear not.” Suleiman paused, giving Ezio an appraising look. “Now, I don’t wish to impose on your time, but there is something I would like your opinion on. Something important.”

Yusuf was signaling to Ezio from the edge of the crowd, now slowly dispersing.

“Allow me simply the time to change out of this costume,” Ezio said, nodding discreetly to his friend.

“Very well. There’s something I need to arrange first in any case. Meet me by the Divan when you are ready. My attendants will escort you.”

He clapped his hands and departed the way he had come.

“That was quite a performance,” Yusuf said, as they made their way out of the palace in the company of two of Suleiman’s personal attendants. “But you’ve given us an introduction we would never have dreamed possible.”

“The introduction,” Ezio reminded him, “is mine.”

THIRTY-ONE

Suleiman was already waiting when Ezio joined him outside the Divan—the council chamber—of the palace, a short time later. The young man was looking composed and alert.

“I have arranged a meeting with my uncle, Prince Ahmet, and Captain Tarik Barleti,” he announced without preamble. “There is something I should explain first. The Janissaries are loyal to my grandfather, but they have become angry over his choice for the next sultan.”

“Ahmet.”

“Exactly. The Janissaries favor my father, Selim.”

“Hmn,” said Ezio, considering. “You are in a tough spot. But tell me—how do the Byzantines fit into this?”

Suleiman shook his head. “I was hoping you might be able to give me some guidance on that. Would you be willing to help me find out?”

“I am tracking them myself. As long as our interests do not conflict, it would be an honor to assist you.”

Suleiman smiled enigmatically. “Then I must accept what I can get.” He paused. “Listen. There is a hatch at the top of the tower you see over there. Go up and lift the hatch. You will be able to see and hear everything that is said in the Divan.”

Ezio nodded and immediately took his leave, while Suleiman turned and entered the Divan himself.

By the time Ezio had reached his vantage point, the discussion in the council chamber below him had already begun and was already becoming heated. The three men involved sat or stood around a long table, covered with Bergama carpets. Behind the table, a tapestry depicting Bayezid, flanked by his sons, hung on the wall.

Ahmet, a vigorous man in his midforties, with short, dark brown hair and a full beard, currently bareheaded and changed into rich garments of red, green, and white, was in the middle of a tirade: “Heed my nephew, Tarik. Your incompetence borders on treason. To think that today your Janissaries were outshone by an Italian lute player! It is preposterous!”

Tarik Barleti, the lower half of his battle-scarred face lost in a grizzled beard, looked grim. “An inexcusable failing, efendim. I will conduct a full investigation.”

Suleiman cut in. “It is I who will conduct the investigation, Tarik. For reasons that should be obvious.”

Barleti nodded shortly. “Evet, Sehzadem. Clearly you have your father’s wisdom.”

Ahmet shot the captain a furious glance at that, while Suleiman retorted: “And his impatience.” He turned to his uncle, his tone formal. “Sehzad Ahmet, I am at least relieved to see that you are safe.”

“Likewise, Suleiman. May God protect you.”

Suleiman, Ezio could see, was playing some kind of long game. As he watched, the young prince rose and summoned his attendants.

“I will take my leave of you now,” he announced. “And I will make my report on this disgraceful incident very soon, you may be sure of that.”

Accompanied by his retinue and guard, he strode from the Divan. Tarik Barleti was about to follow suit, but Prince Ahmet detained him.

“Tarik bey—a word?”

The soldier turned. Ahmet beckoned him to approach. His tone was cordial. Ezio had to strain to catch his words.

“What was the purpose of this attack, I wonder? To make me look weak? To make me appear an ineffective steward of this city?” He paused. “If that was your plan, my dear captain; if you had a hand in this mess, you have made a grave mistake! My father has chosen me as the next sultan, not my brother!”

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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