Then it appeared to Ezio that he saw the earth from afar again, engulfed in a gargantuan solar flare, trapped in a web of gigantic fireballs; then, unthinkably, the world shifted from its axis, rolling over. The elegant city, the refined, sophisticated collection of tall buildings and manicured parks, was riven with gaping wounds as the earth split and cracked under it, ripping down previously untouched edifices and smashing them to pieces. The few remaining people in the remains of the streets screamed, one last despairing cry of agony, as the shift in the earth’s poles left the planet’s surface vulnerable to the deadly radiation of solar flares. The last structures were swept away like houses of cards in the wind.
And then—just as suddenly as it had started—all became quiet. The northern lights ceased just as a candle’s flame dies when a man blows it out, and, almost immediately, the wind calmed. But the devastation was complete. Almost nothing had been spared. Fires and smoke, darkness and decay, held illimitable dominion over all.
Through the miasma, Jupiter’s voice came to Ezio. Or to someone like him. Nothing was certain anymore:
Listen. You must go there. To the place where we labored . . . Labored, and lost. Take my words. Pass them from your head into your hands. It is how you will open the Way. But be warned. Much still remains in flux. And I do not know how things will end—either in my time, or yours.
The dust storms were clearing, the molten lava was cooling. Time accelerated as tiny shoots broke through the ground and reestablished themselves. The entrance to an underground vault opened, and people of the First Civilization emerged, and they, in turn, began to rebuild. But their numbers were few and did not increase.
Over many centuries they diminished, until there were only a few hundred left, then a few dozen, then none...
What they had rebuilt was claimed by the conquering forests. Their new buildings disappeared in their turn, devoured by time. A low-hilled, richly forested landscape enveloped those great expanses not covered by plains. And then, people—but different from the First Comers. Humans now. Those whom the First Comers had created as slaves would now, free, become their heirs. Some indeed had been taken as lovers by the First Comers, and from them a small line of people with more than human powers had emerged.
But the true inheritors were the humans. The first in this unknown land were men and women with deeply tanned skins and long, straight, black hair. Proud peoples who hunted strange, dark brown, wild cattle, riding bareback on tough ponies, using bows and arrows. People who lived in separate tribes and fought one another but with little bloodshed.
Then more people came. Paler people, whose clothes were different and covered them more fully. People who came on ships from Europe, across the Mare Occiden-talis. People who hunted down the others and drove them from their lands, establishing in turn their own farms, villages, and, again at last, towns and cities to rival those of the lost civilization, which had disappeared into the earth many millennia before.
Mark this and remember. It is never your choice to give up the fight for justice. Even when it seems that it can never be won, that all hope is lost, the fight, the fight ensures the survival of justice, the survival of the world. You live balanced on the edge of a cliff, you cannot help that. Your job is to ensure that the balance never tips too far to the wrong side. And there is one more thing you can do that will make certain it never does: You can love.
Ezio clung to the desk. Next to him, Altaïr still sat in his chair. Nothing had moved on the desktop, not a sheet of parchment had stirred, and the stump of candle burned with a steady light.
He did not know how he had got from the recess to the desk, but now he retraced the few steps. The Apple still rested on its pedestal within the alcove, cold and dead. He could hardly make out its contours in the gloom. Its dust-covered box, he noticed, lay on the desktop.
He gathered himself together and crossed the great chamber again, making for the corridor that would lead back to the sunlight, and to Sofia.
But at the entrance to the great library, he turned once more. Far away now, as it seemed, he looked for one last time at Altaïr, sitting for eternity in the ghost of his library.
“Farewell, Mentor,” he said.
Reaching the outer doorway, Ezio found the lever by the lintel and pulled it. Obediently, the green door slid down into the ground. And there was Sofia, reading a book, waiting for him.
As he emerged, she smiled at him and stood, and came to him and took his hand.
“You came back,” she said, unable to disguise the sheer relief in her voice.
“I promised I would.”
“Have you found what you sought?”
“I have found—enough.”
She hesitated. “I thought—”
“I thought I’d never see you again.”
“Sometimes our worst premonitions are the least reliable.”
She looked at him. “I must be mad. I think I like you even when you’re being pompous.” She paused. “What do we do now?”
Ezio smiled. “We go home,” he said.
Eternal light, you sojourn in yourself alone.
Alone, you know yourself. Known to yourself,
you, knowing, love and smile on your own being.
Ezio was quiet for much of the journey back to Constantinople. Sofia, remembering Selim’s dire warning, questioned the wisdom of his returning there at all, but he merely said, “There is still work to be done.”
She wondered about him—he seemed so withdrawn, almost ill. But when the golden domes and white minarets once again appeared on the northern seaboard, his spirits lifted, and she saw the old gleam back in his dark grey eyes.
They returned to her shop. It was almost unrecognizable. Azize had modernized it, and all the books were ranged neatly on their shelves, in impeccable order. Azize was almost apologetic when she handed Sofia back the keys, but Sofia had mostly noticed that the shop was full of customers.
“Dogan wishes to see you, Mentor,” Azize said as she greeted Ezio. “And be reassured. Prince Suleiman knows of your return and has provided you with a safe-conduct. But his father is adamant that you should not remain long.”
Ezio and Sofia exchanged a look. They had been together awhile, ever since she had insisted on accompanying him on his journey to Masyaf—a request which he’d agreed to, to her surprise, with no objection at all. Indeed, he had seemed to welcome it.
With Dogan, Ezio made sure that the Turkish Assassins had a firm base in the city, with Suleiman’s tacit agreement and under his unofficial protection. The work had already started in purging the city and the empire of any last trace of renegade Ottomans and Byzantines, now leaderless, following the deaths of Ahmet and Manuel; and the Janissaries, under Selim’s iron hand, knew no more dissent within their ranks. There was no need of any since their preferred prince had made himself their sultan.