“I am enough.” Ezio looked around. “Where are your people?”
Dilara spat. “Captured by Byzantines over a week ago. I was dressed to look like a slave and managed to escape. But the others . . .” She trailed off, shaking her head. Then darted him a glance. “Are you a capable fighter?”
“I like to think so.”
“When you’ve made up your mind, come and find me. In the town, over there. I’ll be waiting by the west gate to the underground city.”
She flashed her teeth at him and whisked away, fast as a lizard.
Ezio equipped himself with his pistol on his left wrist, his hidden-blade on his right, and a brace of smoke bombs clipped to his belt. He kept the hookblade in his pack.
He found Dilara waiting at the appointed place two hours later. The gate she had mentioned was large, iron-bound, and shut.
She greeted him curtly and began without further preamble: “The Byzantines took my men into this cave system some days ago. From what I can tell, this gate is the least protected of the lot. Every so often, the soldiers bring refuse through here, but it is deserted most of the time.”
“So—we sneak in, free your men, and lead them out through here?”
“Exactly . . .”
Ezio tried the door. It didn’t budge. He turned to Dilara with a disappointed smirk, feeling sheepish.
“I was going on to say, after you unlock it from the inside,” Dilara concluded, drily.
“Come with me.”
She led the way to where they had sight of another, larger gate, made of a huge circular stone that could be rolled open and closed in a stone track. It opened as they watched. Soldiers emerged and formed ranks before marching off on patrol.
“The main entrance is there, at the foot of that hill. But it is well guarded.”
“Wait here,” said Ezio.
“Where are you going?”
“I need to get a feel for this place.”
“You’ll need a guide.”
“It’s a warren. You see those towers?”
“Ventilator shafts. And water conduits. There are eleven floors of the city, and they go down three hundred feet.”
“You’re an arrogant man.”
“No. I am cautious. And I am not unprepared. I know this place was made by Phrygians fifteen hundred years ago, and I know a little of its geography.”
“Then you’ll also know what’s down there: an underground river system at the very bottom, and above it, on ten more levels, churches, schools, shops, stores, stables even; and room for fifty thousand people.”
“Big enough to conceal a garrison, in fact.”
Dilara looked at him. “You’ll need a guide,” she repeated.
“I need somebody here.”
“Then go with God,” she said. “But be quick. As soon as the patrols have all come out, they’ll roll the gate closed again. With luck, you’ll be able to get in with the supply wagons over there. I’ll wait by the west gate.”
Ezio nodded and silently took his leave.
He blended in with the local Byzantine people, who seemed less than happy with the new military presence in their midst, and managed to pass through the gate, walking alongside an oxcart, without difficulty.
The torchlit interior illuminated yellowish beige walls of soft volcanic rock, besmirched with the soot of ages, and yet the air was fresh. The streets—if you could call the broad, grimy corridors that—were alive with soldiers and citizens, jostling one another as they went about their business, and Ezio made his way among them, penetrating ever deeper into the underground city’s interior.
At last, on the second level belowground, he came upon a spacious hall, with a barrel-vaulted roof and decorated with faded frescoes. He made his way along one of the galleries and looked down on the figures in the main room twenty feet below him. The acoustic was good, and he was easily able to hear what the two men there were saying to one another.
He had recognized them immediately. The portly figure of Manuel Palaiologos, and the gaunt one of Shahkulu. Near them, a group of guards stood at attention. Ezio noted a broad tunnel leading off westward—possibly a route to the west gate Dilara had shown him earlier.
“How soon before my soldiers are trained to use those guns?” Manuel was asking.
“A few weeks at most,” replied the dour Türkmeni.
Manuel looked thoughtful. “The main Janissary force will know I have betrayed them by now. But do they have the resources for retribution?”
“Doubtful. The sultan’s war with Selim commands most of their attention.”
Manuel began to laugh—but his laugh quickly turned to coughing and gagging. “Ah!” he gasped. “What the hell is that smell? Have the ventilators been blocked?”
“Apologies, Manuel. Perhaps the wind has changed. Some of the Ottoman prisoners we took a week or so ago turned out to be . . . so fragile. We had to put them somewhere after they met with their unfortunate . . . accident.”
Manuel was almost amused by this but also worried. “Shahkulu, try to moderate your anger. I know that the sultan humiliated your people. But there is no need to spit on men who are below us.”
“Humiliated my people!” Shahkulu shouted. “He tried to crush us as if we were so many roaches! That is why I sided with Ismail of Persia and took the name ‘Shahkulu’—servant of the Shah. Under that name, I will prevail against whatever the Seljuks try to throw against the Turkmen people, and those of us who follow the Safavid, and the law of Shia.”
“Of course, of course—but nevertheless, get rid of the evidence,” said Manuel, taking his leave, a scented handkerchief pressed to his nose.
Shahkulu sullenly watched him go, then snapped his fingers at the remaining bodyguards. “You three—gather the corpses and dump them outside on the western dunghill.”
The sergeant of the guard looked nervous. “Shahkulu, I don’t have the key to the west gate,” he stammered.
Shahkulu exploded with rage. “Then find it, idiot!” he bellowed, storming off.
Left alone, the guards looked at one another.
“Who has the key? Any idea?” said the sergeant, testily. He didn’t like being called an idiot in front of his men, and he didn’t like their smirks, either.
“I think Nikolos has it,” said one of them. “He’s on leave today.”