By way of reply, the Janissary sergeant whacked him with a hard fist. He collapsed, groaning, holding his bleeding nose.
“Hold your tongue, parasite!” growled the sergeant.
He turned away to supervise the continuing confiscation of the fruit, while a woman from the crowd rushed up to help the injured trader. Yusuf and Ezio watched as she helped him to his feet, staunching the blood from his face with a handkerchief.
“Even in times of peace,” said Yusuf grimly, “the poor are always under siege.”
Ezio was thoughtful, thinking of similar circumstances in Rome not so long ago. “Perhaps if we inspire them to vent their anger, that will help our cause.”
Yusuf looked at him. “You mean—recruit these people? Incite them to rebel?”
“It need only be a demonstration. But, with enough of them on our side . . .”
The two men watched as the Janissaries, unimpeded, proceeded to carry off what was left of the man’s stock, leaving his stall completely bare. They disappeared through a wicket in the main gate.
“Feigning solidarity to push your own agenda,” said Yusuf with a hint of contempt. “What a gentleman!”
“It’s not pretty, I know. But it will work, believe me.”
“Whatever works.” Yusuf shrugged. “And I see no other way of effecting a break-in here.”
“Come—there’s a big crowd here, and it looks as if that trader is pretty popular. Let’s go and do some canvassing among the people.”
For the next half hour and more, Ezio and Yusuf worked the crowd, hinting and persuading, cajoling and inspiring the ordinary working people around them, whom they found to be very open to the idea of putting an end to their oppression. All they had needed, it seemed, was someone to fire them up. Once a sufficient number had gathered into a mob, Ezio addressed them. The fruit trader stood by his side, defiant now. Yusuf had seen to it that most of the men and women had armed themselves in one way and another. The fruit trader held a large curved pruning knife.
“Fight with us, brothers,” Ezio declaimed. “And avenge this injustice. The Janissaries are not above the law! Let’s show them we won’t stand for their tyranny.”
“Yes!” several voices roared.
“It makes me sick to see the kind of abuse they hand out,” Ezio continued. “Doesn’t it you?”
“Will you fight with us?”
By then, a detachment of armed Janissaries had issued forth from the Arsenal Gate, which was firmly closed behind them. They took up positions in front of it, swords drawn, and faced the mob, whose mood had reached the boiling point. Undaunted by the soldiers’ show of strength—indeed, incensed by it—the crowd, whose volume grew by the minute, surged forward toward the gate. Whenever a Janissary was rash enough to close with people in the front rank, he was overcome by the sheer weight of numbers and either hurled aside or crushed under advancing feet. Soon afterward, the crowd was milling about at the gate itself, with Ezio and Yusuf keeping just enough command to direct their improvised strike force to batter it open.
“Down with the Janissaries!” shouted a hundred voices.
“You are not above the law!” yelled a hundred more.
“Open the gate, you coward, before we tear it down!”
“That gate won’t stay closed for long,” said Ezio to Yusuf.
“The people are doing you a favor, Mentor. Return it and keep them safe from harm.”
As Yusuf spoke, two detachments of Janissary reinforcements bore down on the crowd from right and left, having emerged from side gates in the north and south walls.
“This calls for close-quarters fighting,” Ezio said, as, accompanied by Yusuf, he unleashed his hookblade and his hidden-blade, and threw himself into the fray.
Encouraged by the professional skills of the two Assassins, the men and women on each flank of the crowd turned bravely to face the Janissary counterattack. As for the Janissaries, they were taken aback to encounter such firm resistance from such an unexpected quarter, and they hesitated—fatally—and were repulsed. In the meantime, those working on the gate were rewarded to see the firm planks of its doors first groan, then give, then buckle, then crumble. With a mighty crack, the main crossbeam holding the gate shut from within snapped like matchwood, and the gate fell back, its doors hanging drunkenly from their massive iron hinges.
The crowd roared with one voice, like a great triumphant beast, and as they poured into the Arsenal, individual voices could be heard raised above the rest:
“Justice or death!”
The defending Janissaries within were powerless to prevent the onrush but, with their greater discipline, managed to hold it in check as ferocious fighting broke out in the Arsenal’s main quadrangle. Through it all, Ezio slipped like a wraith, into the inner confines of the fortress-like edifice.
Far from the shattered gate, deep within the western sector of the Arsenal, Ezio came at last to the place he was looking for. It was quiet there, for most of the fighting men in the Arsenal garrison were engaged in the quadrangle, and the handful of guards he did encounter, if he could not slip past them unnoticed, he swiftly dispatched. He would have to sharpen his hookblade once his work there was done.
He made his way down a long stone corridor, so narrow that no one could enter the chamber at its end with any hope of surprising those within. Ezio approached slowly, soft-footed, until he came to an iron ladder fixed to the wall near the chamber’s entrance, which led to a gallery overlooking it. Strapping his sword scabbard to his leg so that it would not clatter, he climbed up, swiftly, and with as little noise as a flower makes when it opens. From his vantage point, he stared grimly at the scene taking place below him.
Manuel and Shahkulu stood in the middle of the chamber, surrounded by a jumble of large crates, some of them open. A small Janissary guard unit stood at attention just inside the door. If Ezio had tried to enter, he would have fallen victim to an ambush. Softly, he breathed a sigh of relief. His instincts and experience had saved him, this time.
Manuel paused in his examination of the contents of the crates. The angle of vision available to Ezio did not allow him to see what they were, though he could guess.
“Twenty years in this city, living like a cipher,” Manuel was saying. “And now, at last, everything is falling into place.”