But at length his patience paid off, and the men he was following arrived at a crossroads in the lanes which broadened out into a little square with a coffee shop on each corner. In front of one stood the big captain with the grizzled beard. The beard was as much a mark of his rank as his resplendent uniform. He was clearly no slave.
Ezio crept as close as he could, to hear what was being said.
“Are you ready?” he asked his men, and they nodded their assent. “This is an important meeting. Make sure I am not being followed.”
They nodded again and split up, disappearing into the Bazaar in different directions. Ezio knew they would be looking for any sign of an Assassin in the crowds, and for one heartstopping moment one of the soldiers seemed to catch his eye, but then the moment passed, and the man was gone. Waiting as long as he dared, he set off in pursuit of the captain.
Barleti hadn’t gone far before he came to another Janissary, a lieutenant, who to the casual eye would have just seemed to be window-shopping in front of an armorer’s establishment. Ezio had already noticed that Janissaries were the only people not to be badgered by the traders.
“What news?” Barleti said as he drew level with the soldier.
“Manuel has agreed to meet you, Tarik. He’s waiting by the Arsenal Gate.”
Ezio pricked up his ears at the name.
“An eager old weasel, isn’t he?” Tarik said flatly. “Come.”
They set off, out of the Bazaar, and into the city streets. It was a long way to the Arsenal, which was situated on the north side of the Golden Horn, farther to the west, but they showed no sign of taking any kind of transport yet, and Ezio followed them on foot. A matter of a couple of miles—and he would have to be careful when they took the ferry across the Horn. But his task was made easier by the fact that the two men were engrossed in conversation, most of which Ezio managed to catch. It was not hard to blend in, in the streets of Constantinople, crowded with people from all over Europe and Asia.
“How did Manuel look? Was he nervous? Or cagey?” Tarik asked.
“He was his usual self. Impatient and discourteous.”
“Hmn. I suppose he has earned that right. Have there been dispatches from the sultan?”
“The last news was a week ago. Bayezid’s letter was short and full of sad tidings.”
Tarik shook his head. “I could not imagine being at such odds with my own son.”
Ezio followed the two Janissaries to a building close by the Arsenal Gate. Waiting for Tarik and his lieutenant was a large, plump, expensively dressed man in his late fifties, sporting a full grey beard and waxed mustaches. His feathered turban was encrusted with jewels, and there was a jeweled ring on each of his pudgy fingers. His companion was thinner, sparely built, and, to judge from his dress, hailed from Turkmenistan.
Ezio, having selected a suitable place to make himself invisible, hiding discreetly among the heavy branches of a tamarind tree that grew close by, paid close attention as preliminary greetings were exchanged and learned that the plump dandy was—as he’d suspected—Manuel Palaiologos. Given what he’d heard from Yusuf about Manuel’s ambitions, this meeting would be an interesting one to listen in on. Palaiologos’s companion, also his bodyguard, as became apparent as the introductions were made, went by the name of Shahkulu.
Ezio had heard of him. Shahkulu was a rebel against the Ottoman rulers of his country, and the rumors were that he was fomenting revolution among his people. But he also had a reputation for extreme cruelty and banditry.
Yes, this meeting would indeed be interesting.
Once the niceties—always elaborate, in this country, Ezio had noticed—had been dealt with, Manuel gestured to Shahkulu, who entered the building behind them—a kind of guard post, now evidently deserted—and from it brought a small but heavy wooden chest, which he placed at Tarik’s feet. The Janissary lieutenant opened it and began counting the gold coins with which it was filled.
“You may verify the amount, Tarik,” Manuel said in a voice as plummy as his body, “but the money stays with me until I have seen the cargo for myself and ascertained its quality.”
Tarik grunted. “Understood. You are a shrewd man, Manuel.”
“Trust without cynicism is hollow,” intoned Palaiologos, unctuously.
The Janissary had been counting fast. Soon afterward, he closed the chest. “The count is good, Tarik,” he said. “It’s all here.”
“So,” said Manuel to Tarik. “What now?”
“You will have access to the Arsenal. When you are satisfied, the cargo will be delivered to a location of your choosing.”
“Are your men prepared to travel?”
“Not a problem.”
“Poi kalà.” The Byzantine princeling relaxed a little. “Very good. I will have a map drawn up for you within a week.”
They parted company then, and Ezio waited until the coast was clear before he climbed down from the tree and made his way with all possible haste to the Assassins’ headquarters.
It was dusk when Ezio returned to the Arsenal and found Yusuf already there waiting for him.
“One of my men claims he saw a shipment of weapons brought in here earlier. So we got curious.”
Ezio pondered this. It was as he had suspected. “Weapons.” He paused. “I would like to see them for myself.”
He scanned the outer walls of the Arsenal. They were well guarded. The main gate looked impregnable.
“Short of killing everyone in sight,” Yusuf said, following his Mentor’s thoughts, “I’m not sure how you will get inside.”
The square behind them was still teeming with life—people hurrying home after work, coffee bars and restaurants opening their doors. Suddenly, their attention was drawn to an altercation that had broken out near the main gate in the Arsenal walls, between a trader and three Janissaries, who were harassing him.
“You have been warned twice,” one of the Janissaries, a sergeant, was saying. “No merchants near the Arsenal walls!” He turned to his men. “Take this stuff away!”
The privates started to pick up the trader’s crates of fruit and carry them away.
“Hypocrites!” the man grumbled. “If your men didn’t buy my produce, I wouldn’t be selling it here in the first place!”
The sergeant ignored him, and the soldiers went on with their work, but the trader hadn’t finished. He went right up to the sergeant, and said, “You are worse than the Byzantines, you traitor!”