Ezio picked himself up and cleaned his blade on Shahkulu’s cloak. Dilara had already cut some of her men free and Ezio was in time to see her throw herself on the back of the last, fleeing Byzantine survivor, bringing him down and slicing his throat open in one clean movement. She jumped back from the kill, landing like a cat, and turned to her rescued troops.
Ezio gave Shahkulu’s body a kick, to be sure, this time, that he was dead. Dilara was pulling her men to their feet.
“Bless you, Dilara,” said Janos, as she cut him down.
“Can you walk?”
“I think so.”
Ezio came up. “Was yours the detachment that brought the guns for Manuel?”
“Then they must be destroyed.”
She nodded again. “But most of them don’t actually work. The gunpowder’s real enough though—we couldn’t fake that.”
“Bene,” said Ezio. He looked at the Ottomans standing round him. “Get yourselves out of sight until you hear the explosions, then run!”
“Explosions?” said Dilara. “If you do that, all hell will break loose. You will panic the entire city.”
“I’m counting on that,” replied Ezio. “The explosions will destroy whatever good guns there are, and as for the panic, it can only help us.”
Dilara considered this. “All right. I’ll take my men to a place of safety. But what about you?”
“After the explosions have gone off, I’m going after Manuel Palaiologos.”
There were great vaults in the underground city—vast man-made caverns where the gunpowder and arms caches for Manuel’s army were stored. A system of block-and-tackle pulley systems for transporting powder kegs on taut ropeways from one place to another had been set up, and, as Ezio watched from a vantage point in a gallery he had reached on the Fifth Level, he saw groups of Byzantine civilians engaged in just such activity, under the watchful eye of Manuel’s renegade troops. It was a perfect opportunity, and he thanked God that their security was so slack. They were obviously confident that they were under no threat of attack, and he had moved too fast to be overtaken by the discovery of Shahkulu’s corpse and those of his fellow torturers.
He’d replaced his hidden-blade with his hookblade and reloaded his pistol. He got in among a group of workers and watched as a barrel was maneuvered down one of the ropes, between two sets of blocks and tackle. Around them, hundreds of barrels were piled on top of one another, and along the walls, wooden crates of muskets were ranged.
“Steady, now! Steady!” an overseer was shouting. “This is gunpowder, not millet!”
“Got it!” a man operating a winch called back.
Ezio surveyed his surroundings, planning. If he could manage to start one explosion in such a way that it would lead to a chain reaction along the three warehouse vaults he knew there to be . . .
It might just work.
As he roved between the halls, blending in with the workers, he listened carefully to their conversation, to test their mood. And in doing so, he discovered that not all Byzantines were villains. As usual, it was just the ones whose egos were too big, who were too hungry for power, who were to blame for everyone else’s misfortune.
“It could be worse, you know,” one woman was saying to a male fellow worker.
“Worse? Worse than this?”
“Better the turban of the Turk than the tiara of the Pope. At least the Ottomans have some respect for our Orthodox Church.”
“Shh-h! If anyone heard you . . . !” warned another woman.
“She’s crazy!” The man turned to the first woman. “Listen to yourself!”
“OK, so I’m crazy. And if you prefer forced labor, living underground like a mole, then fine!”
The man considered this. “Well, it’s certainly true that I don’t want to go to war. I just want to feed my family.”
Another man, an overseer dressed in Templar uniform, had overheard this, and put in, not altogether unsympathetically: “No one wants war, friend—but what can we do? Look at us! Look how we live! Those Turks took our land. Do you think we should just roll over without a fight?”
“No, no,” said the first man to speak. “I just—I don’t know. I’m just tired of this. We’re all so tired of fighting!”
Amen to that, thought Ezio, as he slipped away between two twenty-foot-high tiers of barrels.
Once he was alone, he broached a barrel at ground level with the point of his scimitar and, after collecting a stream of powder in a leather pouch, laid a trail down the aisle between the rows of barrels to the entrance of the second hall. He did the same thing there, and in the third hall, until the trail reached the arched door leading out of it. Then he waited patiently until all the ordinary workers had moved out of harm’s way for the night.
Only the guards remained.
Ezio made sure his retreat was assured, took up a position a few yards from the exit, unleashed his pistol, and fired into the nearest barrel. Then he turned and ran.
The titanic serial explosions that followed rocked the foundations of the underground city like an earthquake. Ceilings crumbled and fell behind him as he fled. Everywhere, there was smoke, dust, rubble, and chaos.
Ezio reached the great chamber on the Second Level at about the same time as Manuel, who stumbled in, surrounded by a large force of crack guards. Ezio concealed himself behind a buttress, watched, and waited. He was going to finish things tonight if he could. And he’d seen that Manuel was holding the missing Masyaf key—the one the Templars had unearthed beneath the Palace of Topkapi. If he had that with him, then the would-be next emperor of Byzantium must be planning his escape.
“What the hell is going on?” bellowed Manuel, half in anger, half in fear.
“Sabotage, Manuel,” said a Templar captain at his elbow. “You need to take cover.”
A crowd of bawling, panicky people had filled one end of the chamber by then. Ezio watched Manuel as he stuffed the key into a satchel he had slung around his corpulent body, and elbowed the Templar officer aside. “Get out of my way,” he snapped.
He clambered up onto a podium and addressed the crowd, which Ezio joined, edging through the throng, ever closer to his quarry as Manuel spoke.
“Citizens!” Manuel said in a high voice. “Soldiers! Compose yourselves. Do not give in to fear! We are the true shepherds of Constantinopolis. We are the lords of this land. We are Byzantines!” He paused for effect, but if he’d hoped for applause, there was none. So he plowed on. “Kouráyo! Have courage! Stand fast! Do not let anyone break your—”