Shahkulu replied, a note of menace in his voice: “When the Palaiologos line is restored, Manuel, do not forget who it was that helped you bring it back.”
Manuel looked at him keenly, small eyes glittering coldly amid the folds of flesh. “Of course not, my friend! I would not dream of betraying a man of your influence. But you must be patient. Nova Roma was not built in a day!”
Shahkulu grunted noncommittally, and Manuel turned to the captain of his escort. “I am satisfied. Take me to my ship.”
“Follow me. There is a passage to the west gate by which we can avoid the fighting,” said the captain.
“I hope and expect you will soon have that under control.”
“As we speak, Prince.”
“If one single item here is damaged, the money stays with me. Tell Tarik that.”
Ezio watched them go. When he was satisfied that he was alone, he descended to the chamber and made a quick inspection of the crates, lifting the lid of one that had been unsealed.
Rifles. One hundred or more.
“Merda!” Ezio breathed.
His thoughts were interrupted by a brazen clang—surely the west gate banging shut after Manuel’s departure. Immediately afterward, the sound of boots on stone approaching. The Janissaries would be returning to reseal the opened crates. Ezio pressed himself against the wall, and, as the soldiers entered, cut them down. Five of them. If they’d been able to enter together, instead of one at a time, the story might have been different. But the narrow corridor had turned out to be his friend.
He passed back the way he had come. In the quadrangle, the battle was over, leaving the usual vile aftermath of combat. Ezio walked slowly past a sea of bodies, mostly still, some writhing in their last agonies, while the only sound was the keening of women as they knelt by the fallen, in the pitiless wind that blew through the yawning gateway.
With his head bowed, Ezio strode from the place. The price paid for the knowledge he had gained seemed very high indeed.
It was high time to return to Sofia’s bookshop. He hurried there straightaway.
The shop was still open, and lights within burned brightly. When she saw Ezio enter, Sofia took off her eyeglasses and got up from the worktable in the inner room, where the map he’d discovered in Yerebatan was spread out, amid several open books.
“Salute.” She greeted him. Closing the door behind him and pulling down the blinds. “Time I closed for the day. Two customers all afternoon. I ask you. It’s not worth staying open for the evening trade.” Then she saw the expression on Ezio’s face and led him to a chair, where he sat, heavily, as she fetched him a glass of wine.
“Grazie,” he said gratefully, glad she didn’t start asking questions.
Instead, she said, “I’m closing in on two more books—one near Tokapi Saray, and the other in the Bayezid District.”
“Let’s try the Bayezid first. The Topkapi will be a dead end. It was there that the Templars discovered the key they have.”
“Ah—sì. They must have found it by chance, or by other means than ours.”
“They had Niccolò’s book.”
“Then we must thank the Mother of God that you rescued it from them before they could use it further.”
She returned to the map, seated herself before it, and resumed writing. Ezio leaned forward and, producing the copy of Empedocles, placed it on the table by her. The second key that he had found had already joined the first, under secure guard, at the Assassins’ headquarters in Galata.
“What do you make of this?” he said.
She picked it up carefully, turning it over reverently in her hands. Her hands were delicate but not bony, and the fingers were long and slender.
Her jaw had dropped in wonder. “Oh, Ezio! È incredibile!”
“A copy of On Nature in this condition? In its original Coptic binding? It’s fantastic!” She opened it carefully. The coded map within no longer glowed. In fact, Ezio could see that it was no longer visible.
“Amazing. This must be a third-century transcription of the original,” Sofia was saying, enthusiastically. “I don’t suppose there’s another copy like this in existence.”
But Ezio’s eyes were restlessly scanning the room. Something had changed, and he could not yet put his finger on what it was. At last, his gaze came to rest on a boarded-up window. The glass was gone from its panes.
“Sofia,” he said, concerned. “What happened here?”
Her voice took on a slight irritation though clearly overridden by her excitement. “Oh, that happens once or twice a year. People try to break in, thinking they will find money.” She paused. “I do not keep much here, but this time they succeeded and made off with a portrait of some value. No more than three hours ago, when I was out of the shop for a short time.” She looked sad. “A very good portrait of me, as it happens. I shall miss it, and not just for what it is worth. I’m certainly going to find a very safe place for this,” she added, tapping the Empedocles.
Ezio was still suspicious that there might be more behind this painting theft than met the eye. He roamed through the room, looking for any clues it might afford him. Then he came to a decision. He was rested enough for the moment, and he owed this woman a favor. But there was more to it than that. He wanted to do whatever he could for her.
“You keep working,” he said. “I will find your painting for you.”
“Ezio, the thief could be anywhere by now.”
“If the thief came for money, found none, and took the portrait instead, he should still be in this district, close by, eager to get rid of it.”
Sofia looked thoughtful. “There are a couple of streets near here where a number of art dealers do business . . .”
Ezio was already halfway to the door.
“Wait!” she called after him. “I have some business in that direction. I’ll show you the way.”
He waited as she locked the On Nature carefully in an ironclad chest by one wall, then followed her as she left the shop and locked the door firmly behind her.
“This way,” she said. “But we part company at the first turning. I’ll point you in the right direction from there.”
They walked on in silence. A few dozen yards down the street, they came to a crossroads, and she halted.
“Down there,” she said, pointing. Then she looked at him. There was something in her clear eyes that he hoped he wasn’t imagining.