When Ezio came to, he was lying on his back somewhere, and the world was rocking beneath him. Not violently, but steadily. It was almost comforting. He stayed where he was for a moment, eyes still closed, feeling a breeze on his face, not quite wanting to come back to whatever reality was waiting to confront him, smelling the sea air.
The sea air?
He opened his eyes. The sun was up, and he could see an unbroken expanse of blue sky. Then a dark shape came between the sky and him. A head and shoulders. A concerned face, looking down at him.
“You’re back. Good,” said the big man.
Ezio started to sit up, and as he did so the pain from his wound hit him. He groaned and put a hand to his side. He felt bandages.
“Flesh wound. Not too deep. Nothing to make a fuss about.”
Ezio raised himself. His next thought was for his kit. He looked around swiftly. There it was, neatly stashed in his leather bag, and it looked untouched. “Where are we?” he asked.
“Where do you think? At sea.”
Painfully, Ezio stood and looked about him. They were in one of the fishing dhows, cutting steadily through the water, the sail above his head fat with wind. He turned, and could see Larnaka, a speck on the coastline of Cyprus, on the distant horizon behind them.
“You saved my life. I saved yours.”
“It’s the Law. Pity though. After what you did to me, you had it coming.”
The man had had his back to him, working the tiller, but now he turned to Ezio. For the first time Ezio had a good look at his face and recognized him instantly.
“You wrecked my ships, curse you. I’d been stalking the Anaan for days. That prize would have taken me back to Egypt a rich man. Instead, thanks to you, they made a galley slave of me. Me!” The big man was indignant.
“Egypt? You’re not a Berber then?”
“Berber be damned. I’m a Mamluk though I may not look like one dressed in these rags. Soon as we get there, I’m treating myself to a woman, a decent plate of kofta, and a good suit of clothes.”
Ezio looked around him again, stumbling then regaining his balance as an unexpected wave chopped aslant the bow.
“Not much of a seaman, are you?”
“Gondolas are more my line.”
“If you wanted to kill me—”
“Can you blame me? It was the only reason I hung around in that cesspool of a Venetian port after I’d escaped. I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw you. I’d almost given up—I was looking for a way out myself, down there.”
Ezio grinned. “I don’t blame you.”
“You chucked me in a tank and left me to drown!”
“You could swim well enough. Any fool could see that.”
It was the big man’s turn to grin. “Ah! I might have known I couldn’t appeal to your compassion by pretending that I couldn’t.”
“You repaid your debt to me, you saved my life. But why did you bring me with you?”
The big man spread his hands. “You were wounded. If I’d left you, they’d have come for you, you wouldn’t have lasted the night. And what a waste of my effort that would have been. Besides, you can make yourself useful on this tub, landlubber though you are.”
“I can look after myself.”
The big man’s eyes grew serious. “I know you can, effendi. Maybe I just wanted your company—Ezio Auditore.”
‘You know my name.”
“You’re famous. Vanquisher of pirates. Not that that would have saved you after killing a team of watchmen and trying to escape.”
Ezio thought about that. Then he said, “What do they call you?”
The big man drew himself up. His dignity belied the galley slave’s rags he still wore. “I am Al-Scarab, scourge of the White Sea.”
“Oh,” said Ezio wryly. “Pardon me.”
“Temporarily on my back foot,” Al-Scarab added ruefully. “But not for long. When we get there, I’ll have a new ship and crew within a week.”
“When we get where?”
“Didn’t I tell you? The nearest port worth anything, that’s also in Mamluk hands—Acre.”
The time had come.
It was hard to leave, but his mission was imperative, and it called Ezio urgently onward. His time in Acre had been one of rest and recuperation, forcing himself to be patient as his wound healed, for he knew his quest would come to nothing of he were not fully fit for it. And meeting Al-Scarab, disastrous as it would have been if things had gone differently, had shown him that if any guardian angel existed, he had one.
The big pirate, whom he had bested in the battle aboard the Anaan, had proved himself to be more than just a lifesaver. Al-Scarab had extended family in Acre, and they welcomed Ezio as the rescuer of their cousin and as his brother-in-arms. Al-Scarab said nothing of his defeat in the Anaan incident and enjoined Ezio on pain of unmentionable retribution to follow suit. But the escape from Larnaka was boosted into a fight of epic proportions.
“There were fifty of them . . .” Al-Scarab would start his story, and the number of perfidious Venetian assailants they’d been obliged to fight off had reached ten times that number by his tenth telling of the tale. Openmouthed and wide-eyed, his cousins listened spellbound, and never breathed a word about any of the inconsistencies that crept in. At least he didn’t throw in a sea monster, Ezio thought, drily.
One thing that was not invention were the warnings that came from Al-Scarab’s family of the dangers Ezio would have to be prepared for in his onward journey. They tried hard to persuade him to take an armed escort with him, but this Ezio steadfastly declined to do. He would ride his own road. He would not subject others to the perils he knew he must face.
Soon after his arrival at Acre, Ezio took the opportunity to write a long-overdue letter to his sister. He chose his words with care, conscious that this might be the last time he would ever communicate with her.
xx novembre MDX
My dearest sister Claudia—
I have been in Acre a week now, safe and in high spirits, but prepared for the worst. The men and women who have fed and sheltered me here also give me warning that the road to Masyaf is overrun by mercenaries and bandits not native to this land. What this could mean, I fear to guess.
When I first set out from Roma ten months ago, I did so with a single purpose: to discover what our father could not. In the letter you know of, written the year before my birth, he makes a single mention of a library hidden beneath the floors of Altaïr’s former castle. A sanctum full of invaluable wisdom.