“Thank you, Mentor.”

Altaïr then turned to two Assassins who had detached themselves from the larger group, all now in full readiness for the battle ahead and already riding out.

“Prepare the catapults,” he ordered, “and watch for my signal.”

They bowed their assent and ran off to do as he bid.

“Stay close,” Altaïr commanded the Polo brothers.

“We must make our way to the village immediately, Father,” Darim said. “I think you had better remain with Niccolò and Maffeo. I will clear the path ahead.”

“Take care, Darim. And keep an eye on the trebuchets.” Altaïr looked over to where the massive sling-mounted catapults were being pulled into place by their crews.

Darim smiled. “If they hit me, they will hit a dozen Mongols at the same time.”

“Khan Hulagu is not an enemy to be trifled with.”

“We are ready for him.”

Altaïr turned to his guests. “Come,” he said.

They mounted the horses that had been readied for them and rode out of the fortress at an easy pace, taking a route well clear of the main battle, which had been joined on the slopes of the nearby foothills.

“Will you hold them?” asked Niccolò, unable to disguise the nervousness in his voice.

“For as long as necessary,” Altaïr reassured him, calmly. “I envy you your journey,” he continued. “Byzantium is a splendid city.”

Niccolò smiled—a bit tightly, for he was more than a little aware of the danger they were in, however little mind Altaïr seemed to be making of it. But he’d been in tough corners before, and he knew what Altaïr was trying to do—make light of it. He played the game: “You prefer the ancient name, I see. Have you ever been there?”

“Long ago. When you Venetians diverted the Frankish Crusaders to attack it instead of Jerusalem.”

“Constantinople was Venice’s greatest trade rival then. It was a great coup.”

“It opened Europe to the east in more ways than one.”

“The Mongols will never get that far,” said Niccolò, but his voice was nervous.

Altaïr didn’t pick him up on that. Instead, he said, “That little conflict in 1204 prevented me from bringing the Creed to Europe.”

“Well, with luck—and patience—we will finish what you started.”

“If you have the chance, the view from the top of Haghia Sofia is the best in the city.”

“How does one get to the top?”

Altaïr smiled. “With training and patience.” He paused. “I take it that, when you get away from here, you won’t try the overland route there? That you’ll be sailing to Byzantium?”

“Yes—as the saying goes. We’ll ride to Latakia and get a ship there. The roads in Anatolia are fogged by memories of the Crusades.”

“Ah,” said Altaïr, “the deepest passions can be the most deadly.”

“Do visit us if you are able, Altaïr. We will have plenty of space for you and your entourage.”

“No,” said Altaïr. “Thank you, but that is no country for old men, Niccolò. I will stay here, as I always must now.”

“Well, should you change you mind, our door is always open.”

Altaïr was watching the battle. The trebuchets had been brought into play and found their range. The stones they were hurling into the Mongol ranks were wreaking havoc.

A rider detached himself from the main body of Assassin cavalry and came toward them at a gallop. It was Darim.

“We will rest briefly at the village,” said Altaïr to him as he rode up. “You seem to have the enemy in check.”

“But for how long, Father?”

“I have every faith in you. After all, you are not a boy any longer.”

“I am sixty-two years old.”

“You make me feel quite ancient,” Altaïr joked. But Darim could see the pallor on his cheeks and realized how tired his father really was.

“Of course, we will rest, and see our friends off properly.”

They rode round to the village stables, and the Polo brothers made haste to transfer their belongings to the packhorses provided for them, together with the two fresh mounts for their journey westward to the coast. Altaïr, finally able to rest, slumped a little and leaned against Darim for support.

“Father—are you hurt?” asked Darim in a voice of concern.

He escorted him to a bench under a tree.

“Give me a moment,” panted Altaïr, reluctant to give in to the pain he felt. He sat heavily and took a breath, looking back to the castle. An aged man, he thought, was nothing but a paltry thing, like a tattered cloak upon a stick; but he had at least let his soul clap its hands and sing.

“The end of an era,” he whispered.

He looked at his son, and smiled.

Then he took the bag the aide had handed him earlier and removed its contents. Five obsidian discs, intricately carved. He stacked them neatly. “When I was very young,” he said, “I was foolish enough to believe that our Creed would bring an end to these conflicts.” He paused. “If only I had possessed the humility to say to myself, I have done enough for one life. I have done my part.”

With an effort, he rose to his feet.

“Then again, there is no greater glory than fighting to find the truth.”

He looked across the village, and beyond it, to the battle. Niccolò Polo came up. “We are ready,” he said.

“A last favor, Niccolò,” said Altaïr, giving him the stone discs. “Take these with you and guard them well. Hide them, if you must.”

Niccolò gave him a quizzical look.

“What are these—artifacts?”

“They are indeed artifacts of a kind. They are keys, each one of them imbued with a message.”

Niccolò examined one closely. He was puzzled. “A message—for whom?”

Altaïr took the key in his hand. “I wish I knew . . .”

He raised the key high. It began to glow. He closed his eyes, lost in concentration.

SIXTY-EIGHT

Ezio once more became aware of where he was. The light in the cabin resumed its normal comfortable dimness. He smelled the cedarwood of its walls and fittings, saw the dust motes in the sunlight coming through the porthole, and heard the sounds of running feet on the decks, the cries of the sailors, and the creak of the yards as the sails were hoisted.

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