At the moment of collision, Ezio threw himself off his seat, into the air, and landed on the roof of Ahmet’s coach. He whipped out the hookblade and swung it violently at the two soldiers to his left, slicing into each of them and bringing them down before they could bring their halberds into play. The coachman had spurred his horses on again in an effort to right his carriage, while Sofia’s had already capsized and crashed a short way behind them, in a cloud of dust. They were at the side of a sharp drop, and Ahmet’s wheels went over it, taking his carriage down in turn.

Ezio, thrown clear, staggered to his feet and looked around, but the entire scene was obscured by choking dust. Confused cries came from somewhere—probably the local inhabitants, for as the dust began to clear, Ezio could see the coachman’s body lying prone among some rocks.

There was no sign of Ahmet.

Or Sofia.

Vainly, Ezio called her name.

SEVENTY-TWO

When the dust had settled completely, Ezio was able to get his bearings. The startled villagers stood a little way off, eyeing each other uncertainly at the scene of the crash. Ezio’s baleful glare was enough to keep them at bay, but he knew he’d have to work fast. It wouldn’t be long before the Ottoman troops left in their wake would regroup and follow.

He surveyed the scene. Ahmet lay on his back some dozen feet from the wreck. He was groaning, clearly in great pain. The satchel containing the keys lay nearby. Then, to Ezio’s intense relief, Sofia appeared from behind a patch of shrubbery. She was bruised and shaken but otherwise unhurt. They exchanged a reassuring look, as Ahmet, with an effort, rolled himself onto his stomach and pushed himself up.

Ezio scooped up the satchel and opened it. The keys were undamaged.

Ezio looked at the fallen prince.

“So—what now, Ezio? How does this end?” Ahmet said, catching his breath in pain as he spoke.

Sofia came up behind Ezio and put a hand on his shoulder.

“I am wondering that myself,” Ezio told Ahmet.

Ahmet began to laugh, and couldn’t stop, even though it clearly hurt him to do so. He managed to struggle to his knees. “Well, if you happen to find the answer . . .”

Out of nowhere, half a dozen Byzantine troops appeared. They were heavily armed and took up protective positions around the prince.

“. . . do let us know!”

Ezio grimaced, drawing his sword and signaling Sofia to step back.

“You are a fool, Ezio. Did you really think I’d travel without backup?”

Ahmet was about to laugh again but he was cut off by a hail of arrows, seemingly coming from nowhere, which struck down all the Byzantines in a moment. One arrow struck Ahmet in the thigh, and he fell back, howling in pain.

Ezio was equally taken aback. He knew no Assassins were in the vicinity, and there was no way that another Dilara could have arrived to rescue him.

He whipped round to see, a short distance away, a dozen Janissary cavalry, fitting fresh arrows to their bows. At their head was a regal-looking man of about forty-five, dressed in black and red, with a fur cape and a luxuriant mustache. He held up his hand.

“Hold!” he commanded.

The Janissaries lowered their bows.

The leader and two captains dismounted and made their way toward Ahmet, still writhing on the ground. They paid little heed to Ezio, who watched warily, unsure of his next move. He exchanged another glance with Sofia, who drew close to him again.

With a superhuman effort, Ahmet struggled to his feet, seizing a broken branch to support himself. He drew himself up, but at the same time gave ground to the new arrival.

Noticing the family resemblance between the two men, Ezio began to put two and two together. At the same time, Ahmet began to speak, addressing the Janissaries in a voice he struggled to keep firm and commanding: “Soldiers! Selim is not your master! You serve the sultan! You carry out his command alone! Where is he? Where is our sultan?”

Ahmet had backed his way to a fence on the edge of the cliff overlooking the sea, and there, unable to go any farther, he collapsed against it. The other man had followed and stood over him.

“Your sultan stands before you, brother,” said the man. He put his hands on Ahmet’s shoulders and leaned in close, speaking quietly. “Our father made his choice. Before he abdicated. It was the best thing.”

“What are you going to do, Selim?” Ahmet babbled, noticing the expression in his brother’s eyes.

“I think it will be best to remove all possibility of further dissent, don’t you?”

Selim’s hands leapt to Ahmet’s throat, forcing him back against the fence.

“Selim! Stop! Please!” Ahmet cried. Then he started to choke.

Sultan Selim Osman was indifferent to his brother’s cries. In fact, they seemed to urge him on. Ezio saw that he was pressing down on Ahmet with far more force than was really necessary. Ahmet scrabbled at his brother’s face in a vain attempt to beat him off, and as he did so, the fence, which had been buckling alarmingly under his weight, finally cracked and gave. Selim released his grip at the very moment that Ahmet, with a hollow scream of fear, fell backward over the cliff and down to the black rocks two hundred feet below.

Selim stood looking over the edge for a moment, his face impassive. Then he turned back, and walked over, at an easy pace, to where Ezio remained standing.

“You must be the Assassin, Ezio Auditore.”

Ezio nodded.

“I am Selim, Suleiman’s father. He speaks quite highly of you.”

“He is a remarkable boy, Ekselânslari, with a magnificent mind.”

But Selim’s cordiality had come to an end. His affability had vanished as his eyes narrowed, and his face grew dark. Ezio got a strong sense of the ruthlessness that had got this man to the position of power he now held. “Let us be clear,” said Selim, his face close to Ezio’s. “Were it not for my son’s endorsement, I would have you killed where you stand. We do not need the influence of foreigners here. Leave this land and do not return.”

Unable to restrain himself, Ezio felt rage rise in him at this insult. He clenched his fists, something that did not go unnoticed by Selim, but in that moment Sofia saved his life by putting a restraining hand on his arm.

“Ezio,” she whispered. “Let it go. This is not your fight.”

Selim looked him in the eye once more—challengingly. Then he turned and walked back to where his captains and his troop of cavalry were waiting for him.

Moments later, they had mounted and ridden off in the direction of Constantinople. Ezio and Sofia were left with the dead, and with the gaggle of gawping locals.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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