He broke off, as he noticed Ezio approaching. Some sixth sense must have triggered an alarm within him, for he swore sharply to himself and jumped nimbly from the podium, hurrying away toward an exit at the back of the hall, yelling to his bodyguards as he did so, “Stop that man! The tall one in the peaked hood! Cut him down!”

Ezio thrust his way through the confused mob and started off in pursuit of Manuel, dodging and knocking down Templar guards as he did so. At last he was free of them and risked a glance behind him. They were as confused as the townsfolk, looking in every direction but the one in which he’d gone, shouting challenges, barking orders, and running off determinedly before checking themselves. Manuel himself had scuttled off too fast for any of his men to have had time to follow him. Only Ezio’s sharp eyes had not let him out of his sight.

For such a portly person, Manuel could certainly move. Ezio rushed down a long, dimly lit corridor-street, pausing only to glance down side turnings to assure himself that his quarry had not turned off; then he caught a glimpse, far up ahead, of a shimmering silk robe catching the torchlight as Manuel scrambled up a narrow stone stairway cut into the rock, ascending to the First Level. The man who would be king was seeking the quickest way out, his munitions gone and his army in complete disarray.

Ezio stormed after him.

He cornered him at last in an empty house, carved out of the living rock on the First Level. Manuel turned to face him with a curious smile playing on his lascivious lips.

“Are you here for the Masyaf key?” he asked. “Is that it? Have you come to rob us of two years of effort—to recover what the Assassins threw away?”

Ezio did not reply but eyed him warily. There was no telling what tricks this man might still have up his sleeve.

“You wage a losing battle, Assassin!” Manuel continued, though something of desperation was creeping into his voice. “Our numbers are growing, and our influence is expanding. We are hidden in plain sight!”

Ezio made a step closer.

“Stop and think for a moment,” Manuel said, holding up a beringed hand. “Think about the lives you have disrupted today—the anarchy you have sown here! You! You take advantage of a poor and displaced people, using us to further your own vain quest! But we fight for dignity, Assassin! We fight to restore peace to this troubled land.”

“Templars are always quick to talk of peace,” Ezio replied. “But very slow to concede power.”

Manuel made a dismissive gesture. “That is because power begets peace. Idiot! It cannot happen in reverse. These people would drown without a firm hand to lift them up and keep them in line!”

Ezio smiled. “And to think you are the monster I came here to kill.”

Manuel looked him in the eye, and Ezio had the disquieting impression that the man was resigned to his fate. There was a curious dignity about the plump, dandified figure, with his flashing jewels and his beautifully tended mustache. Ezio unleashed his blade and stabbed Manuel deep in the chest, finding himself helping the man down as he sank to his knees. But Manuel didn’t fall. He supported himself on the back of a stone bench and looked at Ezio calmly. When he spoke, his voice sounded exhausted.

“I should have been Constantine’s successor. I had so many plans. Do you know how long I waited?”

“Your dream dies with you, Manuel. Your empire has gone.”

Though clearly in pain, Manuel managed to sound amused. “Ah, but I am not the only one with this vision, Assassin. The dream of our Order is universal. Ottoman, Byzantine . . . these are only labels, costumes and fa-çades. Beneath these trappings, all Templars are part of the same family.”

Ezio found himself losing patience, and he was aware of time passing. He was not out of there himself, yet. “Enough prattling. I am here for the Masyaf key.”

He stooped and took the satchel Manuel still had slung round his shoulder. Manuel suddenly looked much older than his fifty-eight years. “Then take it,” he said in pained amusement. “Take it and seek your fortune. See if you get within a hundred leagues of the Masyaf Archive before one of us finishes you off.”

Then his whole body stiffened, and he stretched his arms as if waking from sleep, before pitching forward into a blackness without dimension and without sound.

Ezio looked at the body for a moment, thinking his own thoughts, then rifled swiftly through Manuel’s satchel. He took nothing but the key, which he transferred to his own side pouch, throwing the satchel down by Manuel’s side.

Then he turned to go.

SIXTY-FOUR

The upper levels of the underground city had been sealed off by Templar and Byzantine troops, loyal to their officers and unsure of what might happen next. It would not be long before Manuel’s body was discovered, and Ezio decided that his best—and perhaps his only—means of escape would be by way of the underground river system that occupied the Eleventh Level of the complex.

The lower levels of the Derinkuyu were like a hell on earth. Smoke and fumes filled the underground streets, and fires had broken out in pockets on levels both below and above the warehouses where Ezio had destroyed Manuel’s armory and munitions dump. Fallen ceilings and walls had blocked many routes, and Ezio had to make frequent detours. Several times, as he passed piles of rubble, he could see protruding from the debris the limbs of those crushed by collapsing stonework. He tried, and failed, to close his mind to the consequences of what he had done. Soldiers and citizens alike wandered about in a kind of daze, scarves and handkerchiefs pressed to their faces, eyes streaming. Ezio, himself fighting to breathe at times, doggedly pressed on downward by a series of ramps, corridors, and stairways cut into the rock, until he reached the lowest level of all.

It was clearer here, and the dank smell of water in a confined space had begun to reach him even as he arrived at the Ninth Level.

Because of the tumult and confusion caused by the explosions, Ezio had been able to pass through the city unmolested, and he stood alone on a jetty by an artificial underground lake. Far away to what he imagined must be the south, for it was difficult to keep one’s bearings down there, he saw a glimmer of light where the river feeding the lake led away from it again toward the open air. It had to be a long way away and far downhill from the site of Derinkuyu, but Ezio had no time to ponder this, because, setting off from another jetty perhaps twenty yards distant, he saw a raft, manned by a half dozen Byzantine sailors. But it was the passenger who really caught Ezio’s attention. An elegant, bearded man standing on the after deck.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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