A Janissary guard detail stood around them at a discreet distance while they played chess. Ezio took up a position where he could watch, unobserved. He wanted to speak with the prince alone. But he was interested in chess—its strategies had taught him many skills to be applied elsewhere—and he watched the progress of the game with interest.
The two players seemed pretty equally matched. After a while, Suleiman, having pondered a move of his uncle’s that put his king in danger, responded by castling.
“That’s not a legal move,” said Prince Ahmet, in surprise.
“It is a European variation—arrocco.”
“It’s interesting, but not exactly fair, when you play by different rules from your opponent.”
“You may think differently when you are sultan,” replied Suleiman, flatly.
Ahmet looked as if he had been slapped but said nothing. Suleiman picked up his king. “Shall I take it back?” he asked.
In response, Ahmet rose to his feet. “Suleiman,” he said, “I know it has been hard on you, watching your father and me quarrel over Bayezid’s throne.”
The young man shrugged. “Grandfather has chosen you, and his word is law—kanun. What is there to argue about?”
Prince Ahmet looked at his nephew in grudging admiration. “Your father and I were close once, but his cruelty and ambition have—”
“I have heard the rumors, Uncle,” Suleiman cut in, hotly.
Embarrassed, Ahmet looked away across the park for a moment before returning his gaze to the chessboard. “Well,” he said finally, “I have a meeting with the council of viziers shortly. Shall we continue another time?”
“Whenever you wish.” Suleiman was cordial.
He rose and bowed to his uncle, who bowed in return, before leaving with his bodyguard. Ezio waited a moment, watching Suleiman as he sat down again, contemplating the chessboard in his turn.
Then he moved forward.
Suleiman saw him approach and gestured to his guards not to hinder his visitor.
“Ezio,” he said.
Ezio came straight to the point. “Tarik has been selling guns to a local miser—Manuel Palaiologos.”
Suleiman’s face darkened. He clenched his fist. “Palaiologos. That is a sad sound in my ears.” Once again, he rose to his feet. “The last Byzantine emperor was Constantine Palaiologos. If this heir of his is arming a militia of some kind, there will be conflict, and it will escalate. All this at a time when my father and grandfather are at odds with one another.” He trailed off and grew thoughtful. Ezio imagined that he must be brooding over one of the hardest decisions he’d ever had to make in his short life.
“Tarik knows where the rifles are headed,” Ezio said. “If I find him first, I can follow the weapons straight to the Byzantines.”
Suleiman looked at him. “Tarik will be with his Janissaries, at their barracks. So, if you want to get close, you will have to ‘become’ a Janissary yourself.”
Ezio smiled. “Not a problem,” he said.
“Güzel,” said Suleiman. “Excellent.” He thought some more, and it was clear that the decision he was coming to caused him distress; but once he’d made it, he was firm. “Get the information you need—then kill him.”
Ezio raised an eyebrow. This was a side of Suleiman he had not seen before. “Are you sure, Suleiman? You told me Tarik and your father were close friends.”
Suleiman swallowed hard, then looked defiant: “This is true. But such naked treason against my grandfather deserves death.”
Ezio looked at him for a moment, then said: “Understood.”
There was nothing more to discuss. Ezio took his leave. When he looked back, Suleiman was studying the chessboard again.
With a little help from Yusuf’s Assassins, Ezio was able to isolate and corner an unsuspecting off-duty Janissary in the Bazaar and relieve him of his uniform. But it was not without a price. The Janissary put up stiff resistance and badly wounded two Assassins before he was overcome; but not before he himself had sustained a mortal wound. It was necessary for Ezio, with Azize’s help, to wash the bloodstains thoroughly from the white garments before he put them on. But then he could pass for a Janissary guard without any question, provided he was careful to keep his beard covered with a white scarf, exposing only his mustache.
As he made his way to the barracks, he was amused and, at the same time, disconcerted at the response he evoked among the local population, both male and female, Ottomans and Byzantines alike, though the reactions were the same mixture among all the nationalities he encountered. Some were apparently admiring, even ingratiating. Others were subtly dismissive, and yet more reacted with fear and uncertainty. It was clear enough that the Janissaries were at best tolerated, at worst loathed. There was not a hint of genuine affection or regard. But from what he could gather, the greatest disdain seemed to be leveled specifically at the Janissaries belonging to Tarik’s barracks. Ezio stored this experience in his memory, certain that it would prove useful at some future date, but for the moment he concentrated on his goal.
He was relieved that his uniform allowed him to pass unhindered and uncontested as he made his way to the barracks, the more so as he was soon to discover that the Assassins’ killing of the Janissary had already been discovered. As he drew close to his destination, he passed a square where a Seljuk herald was announcing the man’s death to a crowd of interested onlookers.
“Dark tidings, citizens of Kostantiniyye,” the herald was proclaiming. “A servant of our sultan has fallen at the hands of a criminal and been stripped of his garments.” He looked round and raised his voice a notch. “Be on the lookout for any suspicious activity.”
Ezio crossed the square as discreetly as possible, but eyes inevitably fell on him. He prayed that he would be able to enter the barracks unchallenged. If they knew about the murder and that the man had been killed for his uniform, they would tighten security faster than a man could say “knife.”
“Woe betide the murderer who took the life of a beloved Janissary,” the herald continued to intone. “This enemy of civilization must be found and brought to justice! If you see something, say something!” He glared around at the crowd impressively and shook his scroll for additional effect, before going on: “Citizens, beware! A killer stalks our streets, a man without conscience, targeting the servants of our sultan. The Janissaries have dedicated their lives to the protection of the empire. Return the favor they have done us and find this killer before he strikes again!”