“And the first to do so, evidently, which is why your head is still on your shoulders. Our two countries are at war, are they not?”
“The whole of Europe is at war, señor. I sometimes wonder if anybody knows who is fighting whom.”
Vedomir chuckled and his eyes danced. “You’re being disingenuous, my friend. I think we all know your King George’s allegiances, as well as his ambitions. Your British Navy is said to think itself the best in the world. The French, the Spanish—not to mention the Swedes—disagree. An Englishman in Spain takes his life in his hands.”
“Should I be concerned for my safety now, señor?”
“With me?” He spread his hands and gave a crooked, ironic smile. “I like to think I rise above the petty concerns of kings, my friend.”
“Then whom do you serve, señor?”
“Why, the people of the town, of course.”
“And to whom do you pledge allegiance if not to King Ferdinand?”
“To a higher power, señor.” Vedomir smiled, closing the subject firmly and turning his attention to the wrappings of cheese I’d placed by the hearth. “Now,” he went on, “you’ll have to forgive my confusion. This cheese. Is it from the Republic of Genoa or is it English cheese?”
“It is my cheese, señor. My cheeses are the best wherever one plants one’s flag.”
“Good enough to usurp Varela?”
“Perhaps to trade alongside him?”
“And what then? Then I have an unhappy Varela.”
“Such a state of affairs might be of no concern to you, señor, but these are the matters that vex me daily. Now, let me taste this cheese before it melts, eh?”
Pretending to feel the heat, I loosened my neck scarf then took it off. Surreptitiously, I reached into my shoulder bag and palmed a doubloon. When he turned his attention to the cheese I dropped the doubloon into the scarf.
The knife glittered in the candlelight as Vedomir cut off a chunk of the first cheese, holding the piece with his thumb and sniffing at it—hardly necessary; I could smell it from where I sat—then popped it into his mouth. He ate thoughtfully, looked at me, then cut off a second chunk.
“Hm,” he said, after some moments. “You are wrong, señor, this is not superior to Varela’s cheese. It is in fact exactly the same as Varela’s cheese.” His smile had faded and his face had darkened. I realized I had been found out. “In fact, this is Varela’s cheese.”
His mouth was opening to shout for help as I twirled the silk into a garrotte with a flick of my wrists and leapt forward with crossed arms, dropping it over his head and around his neck.
His knife hand arced up, but he was too slow and caught unawares, and the knife thrashed wildly at the silk above our heads as I secured my rumal, the coin pressing in on his windpipe, cutting off any noise. Holding the garrotte with one hand, I disarmed him, tossed the knife to a cushion then used both hands to tighten the rumal.
“My name is Haytham Kenway,” I said dispassionately, leaning forward to look into his wide-open, bulging eyes. “You have betrayed the Templar Order. For this you have been sentenced to execution.”
His arm rose in a futile attempt to claw at my eyes, but I moved my head and watched the silk flutter gently as the life left him.
When it was over I carried his body to the bed then went to his desk to take his journal, as I had been instructed. It was open, and my eye fell upon some writing: “Para ver de manera diferente, primero debemos pensar diferente.”
I read it again, translating it carefully, as though I were learning a new language: “To see differently, we must first think differently.”
I stared at it for some moments, deep in thought, then snapped the book shut and stowed it in my bag, returning my mind to the job at hand. Vedomir’s death would not be discovered until morning, by which time I would be long gone, on my way to Prague, where I now had something to ask Reginald.
18 JUNE 1747
“It’s about your mother, Haytham.”
He stood before me in the basement of the headquarters on Celetna Lane. He had made no effort to dress for Prague. He wore his Englishness like a badge of honour: neat and tidy white stockings, black breeches and, of course, his wig, which was white and had shed most of its powder on the shoulders of his frock coat. He was lit by the flames from tall iron cressets on poles on either side of him, while mounted on stone walls so dark they were almost black were torches that shone with halos of pale light. Normally he stood relaxed, with his hands behind his back and leaning on his cane, but today there was a formal air about him.
She’s ill, was my first thought, and I instantly felt a hot wave of guilt so intense I was almost giddy with it. I hadn’t written to her in weeks; I’d hardly even thought about her.
“She’s dead, Haytham,” said Reginald, casting his eyes downward. “A week ago she had a fall. Her back was badly hurt, and I’m afraid that she succumbed to her injuries.”
I looked at him. That intense rush of guilt was gone as quickly as it had arrived and in its place an empty feeling, a hollow place where emotions should be.
“I’m sorry, Haytham.” His weathered face creased into sympathy and his eyes were kind. “Your mother was a fine woman.”
“That’s quite all right,” I said.
“We’re to leave for England straight away. There’s a memorial service.”
“If you need . . . anything, then please don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Your family is the Order now, Haytham. You can come to us for anything.”
He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “And if you need . . . you know, to talk, then I’m here.”
I tried not to smile at the idea. “Thank you, Reginald, but I won’t need to talk.”
There was a long pause.
He looked away. “Is it done?”
“Juan Vedomir is dead, if that’s what you mean.”
“And you have his journal?”
“I’m afraid not.”
For a moment his face fell, then it grew hard. Very hard. I’d seen his face do that before, in an unguarded moment.
“What?” he said simply.
“I killed him for his betrayal of our cause, did I not?” I said.