“Yield, Venetian dog!” the man snarled.
“Your first mistake,” replied Ezio. “Never insult a Florentine by mistaking him for a Venetian.”
The captain’s reply was to bring a savage left-armed blow ringing down toward Ezio’s head, but Ezio was ready for it and raised his own left arm, letting the cutlass blade slide harmlessly the length of the bracer and off into the air. The captain hadn’t expected this and was thrown off balance. Ezio tripped him and flung him headlong into the reservoir in the hold below.
“Help, effendi! I cannot swim!” the captain burbled as he surfaced.
“Then you had better learn,” Ezio told him, turning away to cut at two more pirates, who were almost upon him. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that his own two sailors had succeeded in lowering their buckets on ropes into the reservoir and that now, joined by a handful more of their shipmates, similarly equipped, they were beginning to get the fire under control.
But the most ferocious fighting had moved to the rear of the ship, and there the Ottomans were getting the worst of it. Ezio realized that the Berbers had no desire for the Anaan to burn, for that way they’d lose their prize; so they were letting Ezio’s sailors get on with the job of dousing the fire while they concentrated on taking the ship.
His mind moved fast. They were badly outnumbered, and he knew that the Anaan’s crew, tough men as they were, were not trained fighters. He turned to a stack of unlit torches stowed under a hatchway in the bow. Leaping over and seizing one, he thrust it into the dying flames of the fire, and once it had taken, he threw it with all his force across into the farther of the two Berber ships lying alongside. Then he seized another and repeated the action. By the time the Berbers aboard the Anaan realized what was going on, each of their ships was well ablaze.
It was a calculated risk, but it paid off. Instead of fighting for control of their prey, and realizing that their captain was nowhere to be seen, they panicked and beat a way back to the gunwale, as the Ottomans, taking heart, renewed their own efforts and launched a counterattack, lashing out with sticks, swords, hatchets, bit ends, and whatever else came to hand.
In another fifteen minutes, they had driven the Berbers back to their own ships and cast off from them, cutting the grappling irons free with axes and using poles to push the burning galleys away. The Ottoman captain barked a number of rapid orders, and soon the Anaan was clear. Once order had been reestablished, the crew set about swabbing the decks of blood and stacking the bodies of the dead. Ezio knew that it would have been against their religion to cast any body overboard. He just hoped the rest of the journey wouldn’t take long.
The Berber captain, a soggy mess, was hauled from the reservoir. He stood on the deck, abject and dripping.
“You’d better disinfect that water,” Ezio said to the Anaan’s captain, as the pirate chief was led away in irons.
“We have enough drinking water for our needs in barrels—they will take us as far as Athens,” the captain replied. Then he drew a small leather purse from the pouch at his side. “This is for you,” he said.
“What is it?”
“I’m refunding your fare,” said the captain. “It’s the least I can do. And when we reach Athens, I’ll see to it that your feat is spoken of. As for your onward journey, rest assured that everything will be arranged for you.”
“We shouldn’t have relaxed,” said Ezio.
The captain looked at him. “You are right. Perhaps one should never relax.”
“You are right,” Ezio replied, sadly.
Athens had prospered under the Turks, though as he walked the streets and visited the monuments and temples of the Greek Golden Age, being rediscovered and revered in his own country, and saw with his own eyes the statues and buildings that were inspiring his friends Michelangelo and Bramante in Rome, Ezio understood something of the proud resentment that gleamed unmistakably in the eyes of several of the men and women of the local population. But he was fêted by Ma’Mun, the Ottoman captain’s brother-in-law, and his family, who showered him with gifts and urged him to stay.
His stay was longer than he had wanted it to be in any case since unseasonable storms had boiled up in the Aegean north of Serifos, battering the cluster of islands to the south of Athens and effectively closing the port of Piraeus for a month or more. Never had such tempests been seen at that time of year. Street prophets inevitably muttered about the end of the world, a topic much discussed at the time of the half millennium in 1500. In the meantime, Ezio, having no time for such things and only chafing against the delay, brooded over the maps and notes he had brought with him and vainly tried to glean intelligence on the Templars’ movements in the area and in the region south and east of Greece.
At one celebration in his honor, he made the acquaintance of a Dalmatian princess and had a dalliance with her, but it was no more than that, a dalliance, and his heart remained as isolated as it had been for so long. He had ceased, he told himself, to look for love. A home of his own, a real home, and a family—these held no place in the life of an Assassin Mentor. Ezio had read something, dimly understood, of the life of his remote forebear in the Brotherhood, Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad. He had paid dearly for having a family. And even though Ezio’s own father had managed it, he, too, had paid a bitter price in the end.
But at last—not too soon for the impatient Ezio—the winds and the seas abated and were replaced with the fine weather of spring. Ma’Mun had made all the arrangements for his onward passage to Crete, and the same ship would take him farther—as far as Cyprus. This vessel was a warship, a four-masted kogge, the Qutaybah, with one of its lower decks armed with a line of ten cannon on each side, and more guns in emplacements in the hull fore and aft. In addition to lateen sails, she was square-rigged, European-style, on the mainmast and mizzenmast; and there was an oar deck below the cannon, thirty oars to a side.
Chained to one of them was the Berber captain Ezio had tangled with on the Anaan.
“You will be free from the need to defend yourself on this ship, effendi,” Ma’Mun told Ezio.
“I admire it. It has something of the European design about it.”
“Our Sultan Bayezid admires much that is gracious and useful in your culture,” replied Ma’Mun. “We can learn much from each other if we try.”
“The Qutaybah carries our Athens envoy to a conference at Nicosia, and will dock at Larnaka in twenty days. The captain stops at Heraklion only to take on water and supplies.” He paused. “And I have something for you . . .”