“No, it is not my fight,” Ezio agreed. “But where does one end, and the next begin?”
Ezio stood once again at the foot of the great fortress of Masyaf.
Much had happened since he had last been there, and, in the wake of Ottoman conquests in the region, the castle was deserted. A solitary eagle flew overhead, but there was no sign of any human activity. The castle stood alone and silent, guarding its secrets.
He started up the long, steep path that followed the escarpment sloping up to the outer gates. After he had been walking for some time, he stopped and turned, concerned for his companion, who had fallen a little way behind, out of breath. He waited for her in the shade of an ancient, scarred tamarind.
“Such a climb!” panted Sofia, catching up.
Ezio smiled. “Just imagine if you were a soldier, burdened by a suit of armor, laden with supplies.”
“This is tiring enough. But it’s more fun than sitting in a bookshop. I just hope Azize is managing OK back there.”
“Have no fear. Here.” He passed her his water canteen.
She drank, gratefully, then said: “Has it been deserted long?”
“The Templars came and tried to break into its secret places, but they failed. Just as they failed—in the end—to secure the keys which, together, would have given them access. And now . . .”
They were silent for a moment as Sofia took in the grandeur of her surroundings. “It is so beautiful here,” she said at last. “And this is where your Brotherhood began?”
Ezio sighed. “The Order began thousands of years ago, but here, it was reborn.”
“And its levatrice was the man you mentioned—Altaïr?”
Ezio nodded. “Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad. He built us up, then set us free.” He paused. “But he saw the folly of keeping a castle like this. It had become a symbol of arrogance, and a beacon for all our enemies. In the end, he came to understand that the best way to serve justice was to live a just life. Not above the people we protect but with them.”
Sofia nodded, then said, lightly, “And the mandate for the menacing hoods—was that Altaïr’s idea as well?”
Ezio laughed softly.
“You mentioned a Creed, earlier,” Sofia went on. “What is it?”
Ezio paused. “Altaïr made a great . . . study, throughout the latter years of his long life, of certain . . . codes, which were vouchsafed him. I remember one passage of his writings by heart. Shall I tell you it?”
“Altaïr wrote: Over time, any sentence uttered long and loud enough, becomes fixed. Provided, of course, that you can outlast the dissent and silence your opponents. But should you succeed, and remove all challengers, then what remains? Truth! Is it truth in some objective sense? No. But how does one ever achieve an objective point of view? The answer is that one doesn’t. It’s literally, physically impossible. Too many variables. Too many fields and formulae to consider. The Socratic method understood this. It provided for an asymptotic approach to truth. The line never meets the curve at any finite point. But the very definition of the asymptote implies an infinite struggle. We inch closer and closer to a revelation, but never reach it. Not ever . . . And so I have realized that, as long as the Templars exist, they will attempt to bend reality to their will. They recognize that there is no such thing as an absolute truth, or, if there is, we are hopelessly underequipped to recognize it. And so, in its place, they seek to create their own explanation. It is the guiding principle of what they call their New World Order: to reshape existence in their ‘own’ image. It’s not about artifacts. It’s not about men. These are merely tools. It’s about concepts. Clever of them, for how does one wage war against a concept? It is the perfect weapon. It lacks a physical form yet can alter the world around us in numerous, often violent, ways. You cannot kill a Creed. Even if you kill all its adherents, destroy all its writings—that provides a reprieve at best. Someday, someday, we shall rediscover it. Reinvent it. I believe that even we, the Assassins, have simply rediscovered an Order that predates the Old Man of the Mountain . . . All knowledge is a chimera. It all comes back to time. Infinite. Unstoppable. It begs the question, what hope is there? My answer is this: We must reach a place where that question is no longer relevant. The struggle itself is asymptotic. Always approaching a resolution but never reaching it. The best we can hope for is to smooth the line a bit. Bring about stability and peace, however temporary. And understand, Reader, it will always and forever be only temporary. For as long as we continue to reproduce, we will give rise to doubters and challengers. Men who will rise up against the status quo for no other reason, sometimes, than that they have nothing better to do. It is Man’s nature to disagree. War is but one of the many ways in which we do so. I think many have yet to understand our Creed. But such is the process. To be mystified. To be frustrated. To be educated. To be enlightened. And then at last, to understand. To be at peace.”
Ezio fell silent. Then he said: “Does that make sense?”
“Grazie. Yes, it does.” She gazed at him as he stood, lost in thought, his eyes on the fortress. “Do you regret your decision? To live as an Assassin for so long?”
He sighed. “I do not remember making any decision. This life—it chose me.”
“I see,” she replied, dropping her eyes to the ground.
“For three decades I have served the memory of my father and my brothers, and fought for those who have suffered the pain of injustice. I do not regret those years, but now—” He took a deep breath, as if some force greater than himself had released him from its grip, and he moved his gaze from the castle to the eagle, still soaring, soaring. “Now it is time to live for myself, and let them go. To let go of all of this.”
She took his hand. “Then let go, Ezio. Let go. You will not fall far.”
It was late in the afternoon when they arrived at the outer bailey gate. It stood open, and already, climbing plants were weaving their way around its pillars. The winch mechanisms above were festooned with creepers. They crossed to the inner bailey and there, too, the gates were open, and within, the courtyard showed signs of a hasty departure. A half-laden, abandoned supply wagon stood near a huge, dead plane tree under which a broken stone bench rested.
Ezio led the way into the keep and down a staircase into the bowels of the castle, carrying a torch to light them as he led the way down a series of dismal corridors, until, at last, they stood before a massive stone door made of some smooth, green stone. Its surface was broken by five slots, arranged in a semicircle at shoulder height.