“Then he’ll be at the market on Level Three,” put in the other soldier.

“Stuffing his face, no doubt,” groused the first man. “Hristé mou! I’d like to run Shahkulu through with a spear!”

“Hey, hey!” said the sergeant severely. “Keep that to yourself, edáxi?”

Ezio barely heard the last words. He was already on his way to the market, one floor below.

SIXTY

Apart from the fact that its hall was deep underground, the market was much as any other—stalls selling meat, vegetables, spices—whose odors were everywhere, and even denser than they would have been in the open air—clothes, shoes—whatever the people needed. And there were little tavernas and wine shops. Near one of them, in an open space, a drunken scrap had broken out—evidently over a light-skinned whore, a bony older woman who sat elegantly on a chair at one of the wine-shop tables, clearly enjoying the spectacle.

A circle had formed around the two men who were throwing punches at one another, the bystanders egging them on with ragged shouts of encouragement. Ezio joined the circle’s outer edges:

“Give him one!”

“Hit him!”

“Kill the bastard!”

“Is that all you’ve got?”

“Blood! Blood!”

“Mangle him!”

Among the watchers, most of whom were as drunk as the brawlers, was a fat, red-faced soldier with a scruffy beard and a receding chin, holding a wineskin and roaring along with the rest of them. Ezio had already noticed the unclasped leather wallet on his belt and could see the bow of a large iron key protruding from it. He glanced around and saw the three guards from the painted hall approaching through the market on the far side.

No time to lose. He sidled up to the fat soldier from behind and plucked the key from the wallet just as his fellow soldiers hailed him by name.

Nikolos would have a lot of explaining to do, thought Ezio, as he made his way back to the Second Level and the tunnel from which the stench had emanated—the tunnel which, he guessed, led to the west gate.

SIXTY-ONE

“You took your time,” said Dilara in a harsh whisper, as Ezio unlocked the west gate from the inside and let her in.

“You’re welcome,” muttered Ezio, grimly.

But Dilara then did exactly as Ezio had expected, and retched, her hand shooting to her face. “Aman Allahim! What is that?”

Ezio stepped back and indicated a pile of dead bodies, stacked in a broad niche just inside the doorway. “Not everyone was taken prisoner.”

Dilara rushed forward toward the heap, but then stopped short, staring. “Poor men! God keep them!”

Her shoulders dropped as her spirits sank. She seemed a little more human, under the fierce façade she maintained. “That Türkmeni renegade Shahkulu did this, I know,” she continued.

Ezio nodded.

“I’ll kill him!”

And she ran off. “Wait!” Ezio called after her, but it was too late. She was already gone.

Ezio set off after her and found her at last in a secluded spot overlooking a small public square. He approached with care. She had her back to him and was staring at something happening in the square, still invisible to him.

“You aren’t very good at cooperation,” he said as he came up.

She didn’t turn. “I’m here to rescue what remains of my men,” she said coldly. “Not to make friends.”

“You don’t have to be friends to cooperate,” said Ezio, drawing closer. “But it would help to know where your men were, and I can help you find them.”

He was interrupted by an anguished scream and hurried up to join the Turkish spy. Her face had hardened.

“Right there,” she said, pointing.

Ezio followed the direction of her finger and saw, in the square, a number of Ottoman prisoners seated on the ground, their hands bound. As they watched, one of them was thrown to the ground by Byzantine guards. There was a makeshift gallows nearby, and from it another Ottoman hung from his wrists, with his arms bent behind him. Near him stood Shahkulu, instantly recognizable despite the executioner’s mask he wore. The man screamed as Shahkulu delivered blow after blow to his body.

“It’s Janos,” Dilara said to Ezio, turning to him at last. “We must help him!”

Ezio looked closely at what was going on. “I have a gun, but I can’t use it,” he said. “The body armor he’s wearing is too thick for bullets.” He paused. “I’ll have to get in close.”

“There’s little time. This isn’t an interrogation. Shahkulu is torturing Janos to death. And then there’ll be another. And another . . .”

She winced at each blow and each scream.

They could hear the laughter and the taunts of Shahkulu’s men.

“I think I can see how we can do this,” said Ezio. He unhooked a smoke bomb from his belt. “When I throw this, you go around to the right. See if you can start cutting the bonds of your men under cover of the smoke from this bomb.”

She nodded. “And Shahkulu?”

“Leave him to me.”

“Just make sure you finish the rat.”

Ezio pulled the pin from the bomb, waited a moment for the smoke to start to gush, and threw it toward the gallows with a careful aim. The Byzantines thought they had made sure of all the opposition and were not expecting an attack. They were taken completely by surprise.

In the confusion, Ezio and Dilara bounded down the slope and into the square, splitting to right and left. Ezio shot down the first guard to come at him and smashed another’s jaw with the bracer on his left forearm. Then he unleashed his hidden-blade and moved in fast toward Shahkulu, who’d drawn a heavy scimitar and was standing his ground, twisting to the left and right, unsure of where the attack would come from. The moment his attention was diverted, Ezio leapt at him and plunged his blade into the top of his chest between the jawline of the mask and his body armor. Dark blood bubbled forth around his fist as he kept the blade where it was.

Shahkulu fell, Ezio holding on to him and falling with him, ending up kneeling over the man, whose struggles were losing their violence. His eyes closed.

“Men who make a fetish out of murder deserve no pity,” Ezio said, his lips close to the man’s ear.

But then Shahkulu’s eyes sprang open in a manic stare, and a mailed fist shot to Ezio’s throat, gripping it tightly. Shahkulu started to laugh crazily. As he did so, the blood pumped out faster from his wound, and Ezio rammed the blade in harder and twisted it viciously as he did so. With a last spasm, Shahkulu thrust Ezio from him, sending him sprawling in the dust. Then his back arched in his death agony, a rattle sounded in his throat, and he fell back, inert.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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