Prince Ahmet Osman.
Ahmet had seen Ezio, too, and directed his oarsmen to make their way toward him. When he came within speaking range, he called mockingly to the Assassin.
“Poor Manuel. The last of the Palaiologi.”
Ezio was too surprised to speak for a moment. Then he said: “News travels fast.”
“The Assassins aren’t the only ones with spies.” He shrugged. “But I should not have left Manuel in charge of our Masyaf expedition. He was an arrogant man. Impossible to keep in line.”
“You disappoint me, Ahmet. Why the Templars?”
“Well, Ezio—or should I keep up the pretense and continue to call you ‘Marcello’?—it is like this: I am tired of all the pointless blood feuds that have pitted father against son and brother against brother. To achieve true peace, mankind must think and move as one body, with one master mind.” He paused. “The secrets in the Grand Temple will give us just that. And Altaïr will lead us to it.”
“You delude yourself! Altaïr’s secrets are not for you! And you will never find the Grand Temple!”
Ezio noticed that Ahmet was looking past him, and, turning, he saw a number of Byzantine troops edging toward where he stood on the jetty.
“In any case, I am not interested in arguing morals and ethics with you, Assassin. I am here for the Masyaf keys.”
Ezio smiled mockingly and produced the key he had just taken from Manuel, holding it up. “Do you mean to say there are more than just this one?”
“So I have heard,” replied Ahmet, urbanely. “But perhaps I should ask someone who may be even better informed than you. Sofia Sartor. Have I got the name right?”
Ezio was immediately troubled though he tried not to let it show. “She knows nothing! Leave her be!”
Ahmet smiled. “We shall see.”
He motioned to his men, who started to steer the raft away.
“I will kill you if you touch her.”
“I know you’ll try, my dear Ezio. But I doubt if you’ll succeed.” He raised his voice, addressing the men onshore. “Kill him now and get the key. Then bring it to me immediately.”
“Won’t you stay and watch the show?” said Ezio, coldly.
“I have far too much respect for my own safety,” replied Ahmet. “I know your reputation, and I’ve seen an example of your work here today. Cornered, as you are, I imagine you’re doubly dangerous. Besides, I detest violence.”
The raft sailed off, leaving Ezio to face the Byzantine troops ranged against him. He considered his options.
But there were no options.
He was at the end of the jetty, with no means of retreat, and there was no way he could make an escape by swimming. There must have been twenty or thirty of them. Some carried muskets that had escaped his destruction of the warehouses. The captain of the detachment came close.
“Give us the key, kyrie,” he said sarcastically. “I do not believe you have a choice.”
Musketeers flanking him raised their weapons.
Ezio looked at them. This time he knew he was beaten. He had his pistol, capable of two shots at most, his hidden-blade, and his scimitar. But at the very moment even he could make his quickest move, the muskets would send their balls straight through him. Perhaps they’d fire anyway. It would be the simplest way to get the key. Maybe he’d have time to hurl it into the lake before he fell.
Ezio could only pray that Yusuf would never let the other four keys fall into Templar hands and that Sofia would be spared needless torture, for he had kept her ignorant of their whereabouts for safety’s sake.
But he had clearly not been careful enough.
Well, everyone’s road had to end somewhere.
The captain raised his hand, and the musketeers’ fingers curled around their triggers.
The muskets fired. Ezio threw himself flat on the jetty.
Arrows from behind and above them fell on the Byzantine soldiers like rain. In seconds, all Prince Ahmet’s soldiers lay dead or wounded by the lake’s edge.
One ball had seared Ezio’s hood, but otherwise he was unscathed, and he thanked God that age hadn’t slowed his reactions. When he got to his feet, it was to see Dilara standing at the other end of the jetty. From vantage points at the top of the stairway that led down to it, her men were descending, and those who’d already reached ground level were moving among the Byzantines, checking the dead and tending the wounded.
“Can’t leave you alone for a minute,” said Dilara.
“So it would seem,” said Ezio. “Thank you.”
“Get what you came for?”
“Then we’d better get you out of here. You’ve raised hell, you know.”
“Looks like it.”
She shook her head. “It’ll take them years to recover from this. If they recover at all. But there’s enough kick left in them to send you flying if they find you. Come on!”
She started back up the stairs.
“Wait! Should I take a boat out of here?”
“Are you mad? They’ll be waiting for you where the river comes out into the open. It’s a narrow gorge. You’d be dead meat in a moment, and I don’t want to see my work here wasted.”
Ezio followed her obediently.
They climbed back up through several levels, then took a street winding away to the south. The smoke there had cleared somewhat, and the people who were about were too preoccupied with putting out fires to pay them much attention. Dilara set a very brisk pace, and, before long, they’d arrived at a gateway similar to the one Ezio had opened on the west side of the city. Dilara produced a key and opened the ironclad wooden door.
“I’m impressed,” said Ezio.
“So you should be. Tell them in Kostantiniyye that they can rest easy that their people here are doing a good job.”
Ezio squinted against the sunlight that poured in through the door, which seemed blinding after the dimness of the underground city. But he saw a road winding away to the south, with the dismal little village of Nadarim hunched in its path.
“Your horse is saddled and freshly fed and watered in the stables there. Food and drink in the saddlebags. You can pick her up without danger. The village has been liberated, and they’ve already started whitewashing the buildings—Allah knows it needed cheering up, and now it’s broken free of its oppressors,” said Dilara, her nostrils flaring in triumph. “But get out of here now. It won’t be long before news reaches Ahmet of what’s happened. He won’t dare come back himself, of course, but you can be sure he’ll send someone after you.”