“Do you remember we came here for my eighth birthday?” I said, wanting, somehow, to put off the moment when I learnt the identity of the person I would have to kill. “Do you remember what happened outside, the hot-headed suitor prepared to dispense summary justice on the street?”
He nodded. “People change, Haytham.”
“Indeed—you have. You’ve been mainly preoccupied with your investigations into the first civilization,” I said.
“I’m so close now, Haytham,” he said, as if the thought of it shrugged off a weary shroud he’d been wearing.
“Were you ever able to decypher Vedomir’s journal?”
He frowned. “No, worst luck, and not for want of trying, I can tell you. Or should I say ‘not yet,’ because there is a decypherer, an Italian Assassin affiliate—a woman, would you believe? We have her at the French chateau, deep within the forest, but she says she needs her son to help her decypher the book, and her son has been missing these past few years. Personally, I doubt what she says and think she could very well decypher the journal herself if she chose. I think she’s using us to help reunite her with her son. But she has agreed to work on the journal if we locate him and, finally, we have.”
“Where you will soon be going to recover him: Corsica.”
So I’d been wrong. Not an assassination. I would be minding a child.
“What?” he said, at the look on my face. “You think it below you? Quite the opposite, Haytham. This is the most important task I have ever given you.”
“No, Reginald”—I sighed—“it’s not; it simply appears that way in your thinking.”
“Oh? What are you saying?”
“That perhaps your interest in this has meant you have neglected affairs elsewhere. Perhaps you have let certain other matters become out of control . . .”
Perplexed, he said, “What ‘matters’?”
He looked surprised. “I see. Well, is there something you want to tell me about him? Something you’ve been keeping from me?”
I indicated for more ales and our waitress brought them over, set them down with a smile then walked away with her hips swaying.
“What has Braddock told you of his movements in recent years?” I asked Reginald.
“I have heard very little from him, seen him even less,” he replied. “In the last six years we’ve met just once, as far as I can recall and his communications have become increasingly sporadic. He disapproves of my interest in Those Who Came Before and, unlike you, has not kept his objections to himself. It appears we differ greatly on how best to spread the Templar message. As a result, no, I know very little of him; in fact, if I wanted to know about Edward, I dare say I’d ask someone who has been with him during his campaigns—” He gave a sardonic look. “Where might I find such a person, do you think?”
“You’d be a fool to ask me,” I chortled. “You know full well that, where Braddock is concerned, I’m not an especially impartial observer. I began by disliking the man and now like him even less, but in the absence of any more objective observations, here’s mine: he has become a tyrant.”
“Cruelty, mainly. To the men suffering under him, but also to innocents. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, for the first time, in the Dutch Republic.”
“How Edward treats his men is his business,” said Reginald with a shrug. “Men respond to discipline, Haytham, you know that.”
I shook my head. “There was one particular incident, Reginald, on the last day of the siege.”
Reginald settled back to listen: “Go on . . .” as I continued.
“We were retreating. Dutch soldiers were shaking their fists at us, cursing King George for not sending more of his men to help relieve the fortress. Why more men had not arrived I don’t know. Would they have even made any difference? Again, I don’t know. I’m not sure any of us who were stationed within those pentagonal walls knew how to contend with a French onslaught that was as committed as it was brutal, and as ruthless as it was sustained.
“Braddock had been right: the French had dug their parallel trench lines and begun their bombardment of the city, pressing close to the fortress walls, and they were on them by September, when they dug mines beneath the fortifications and destroyed them.
“We made attacks outside the walls to try to break the siege, all to no avail until, on 18 September, the French broke through—at four in the morning, if memory serves. They caught the Allied forces quite literally napping, and we were overrun before we knew it. The French were slaughtering the entire garrison. We know, of course, that eventually they broke free of their command and inflicted even worse damage on the poor inhabitants of that town, but the carnage had already begun. Edward had secured a skiff at the port, and had long since decided that, were a day to come when the French broke through, he would use it to evacuate his men. That day had arrived.
“A band of us made our way to the port, where we began to oversee the loading of men and supplies on to the skiff. We kept a small force at the port walls to keep any marauding French troops back, while Edward, I and others stood by the gang-board, overseeing the loading of men and supplies on to the skiff. We took some fourteen hundred men to the fortress at Bergen op Zoom, but the months of fighting had depleted numbers by about half. There was room on the skiff. Not lots of it—it wasn’t as though we could have taken a great many passengers; certainly not the numbers who needed to evacuate from the fortress—but there was space.” I looked hard at Reginald. “We could have taken them, is what I’m saying.”
“Could have taken whom, Haytham?”
I took a long pull on my ale. “There was a family who approached us on the port. Included in their number was an old man who could barely walk, as well as children. From among them came a young man, who approached us and asked me if we had room on the boat. I nodded yes—I saw no reason why not—and indicated to Braddock, but instead of waving them aboard as I expected, he held up a hand and ordered them off the port, beckoning his men to board the boat more quickly. The young man was as surprised as I was, and I opened my mouth to protest, but he got there before me; his face darkened and he said something to Braddock that I didn’t catch, but was obviously an insult of some kind.
“Braddock told me later that the insult was ‘craven.’ Hardly the most insulting affront, certainly not worth what happened next, which was that Braddock drew his sword and plunged it into the young man where he stood.