Then: “The cart’s ablaze!” I shouted, this time in what I hoped was an approximation of the voice and accent of a Corsican rebel, and at the same time I moved forward out of the shadows, clasping my Genoese corpse, and let him drop as though he were a fresh kill.

“The cart’s ablaze!” I repeated, and now turned my attention to Lucio, who had just arrived at the barn. “We’ve got to get out of here. Lucio, come with me.”

I saw two of the rebels exchange a confused look, each wondering who I was and what I wanted with Lucio. There was the report of musket fire, and wood splintered around us. One of the rebels fell, a musket ball embedded in his eye, and I dived on the other one, pretending to shield him from the musket fire but punching the knife blade into his heart at the same time. It was Lucio’s companion, I realized, as he died.

“He’s gone,” I said to Lucio, rising.

“No!” he shouted, tearful already. No wonder they’d considered him fit only for feeding livestock, I thought, if he was going to dissolve into tears the first time a comrade was killed in action.

By now the barn was ablaze around us. The other two rebels, seeing that there was nothing they could salvage, made their escape and ran pell-mell across the yard towards the hillside, melting into the dark. Other rebels were making their escape, and across the yard I saw that Genoese soldiers had put torches to farm buildings as well.

“I must wait for Miko,” called Lucio.

I gambled that Miko was his Assassin bodyguard. “He’s otherwise engaged. He asked me, a fellow member of the Brotherhood, to take care of you.”

“Are you sure?”

“A good Assassin questions everything,” I said. “Miko has taught you well. But now is not the time for lessons in the tenets of our creed. We must go.”

He shook his head. “Tell me the code phrase,” he said firmly.

“‘We work in the dark to serve the light.’”

And at last I seemed to have established enough trust to persuade Lucio to come with me, and we began to make our way down the hillside; me, gleeful, thanking God that at last I had him; him, not so sure. Suddenly, he stopped.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I can’t do it—I can’t leave Miko.”

Great, I thought.

“He said to go,” I replied, “and to meet him at the bottom of the ravine, where our horses are tethered.”

Behind us at the farmyard, the fires raged on and I could hear the remnants of the battle. The Genoese soldiers were clearing up the last of the rebels. Not far away was the sound of a clattering stone, and I saw other figures in the darkness: a pair of rebels escaping. Lucio saw them, too, and went to call to them, but I clamped a hand over his mouth.

“No, Lucio,” I whispered. “The soldiers will be after them.”

His eyes were wide. “These are my comrades. They are my friends. I need to be with them. We need to ensure that Miko is safe.”

From high above us drifted the sound of pleading and screaming, and Lucio’s eyes darted as though trying to deal with the conflict in his head: did he help his friends above or join those escaping? Either way, I could see he had decided that he didn’t want to be with me.

“Stranger . . .” he began, and I thought, “Stranger,” now, eh?

“I thank you for all that you have done to help me and I hope that we can meet again in happier circumstances—perhaps when I can express my gratitude even more thoroughly—but at the moment I’m needed with my people.”

He stood up to go. With a hand on his shoulder I brought him down to my level again. He pulled away with his jaw set. “Now, Lucio,” I said, “listen. I’ve been sent by your mother to take you to her.”

At this he reared back. “Oh no,” he said. “No, no, no.”

Which wasn’t the reaction I’d been expecting.

I had to scramble across rock to catch him up. But he began to fight me off. “No, no,” he said. “I don’t know who you are, just leave me alone.”

“Oh, for the love of God,” I said, and silently admitted defeat as I grabbed him in a sleeper hold, ignoring his struggles and applying pressure, restricting the flow to his carotid artery; not enough to cause him permanent damage but enough to render him unconscious.

And as I threw him over my shoulder—a tiny slip of a thing, he was—and carried him down the hill, careful to avoid the last pockets of rebels fleeing the Genoese attack, I wondered why I hadn’t simply knocked him out in the first place.

iii

I stopped at the ravine edge and lowered Lucio to the floor, then found my rope, secured it and lowered it into the darkness below. Next I used Lucio’s belt to tie his hands, looped the other end under his thighs and tied it so that his limp body was slung across my back. Then I began the slow climb down.

About halfway down, the weight became unbearable, but it was an eventuality I’d prepared for, and I managed to hang on until I reached an opening in the cliff face that led into a dark cave. I scrambled in and pulled Lucio off my back, feeling my muscles relax gratefully.

From ahead of me, in the cave, came a noise. A movement at first, like a shifting sound, and then a click.

The sound an Assassin’s hidden blade makes when it is engaged.

“I knew you’d come here,” said a voice—a voice that belonged to Miko, the Assassin. “I knew you’d come here because that’s what I would have done.”

And then he struck, came shooting forward from within the cave, using my shock and surprise against me. I was already drawing my short sword and had it out as we clashed, his blade slicing at me like a claw and meeting my sword with such force that it was knocked out of my hand, sent skittering to the lip of the cave, and into the blackness below.

My sword. My father’s sword.

But there was no time to mourn it, for the Assassin was coming at me a second time and he was good, very good. In a confined space, with no weapon, I had no chance. All I had, in fact, was . . .

Luck.

And luck is all it was, that, as I pressed myself against the cave wall, he had miscalculated slightly, enough to overbalance a fraction. In any other circumstances, against any other opponent, he would have recovered immediately and finished his kill—but this wasn’t any other circumstances and I wasn’t any other opponent, and I made him pay for his tiny error. I leaned into him, grabbed his arm, twisted and helped him on his way, so that he, too, sailed out into the blackness. But he held on, pulled me with him, dragged me to the edge of the cave so that I was screaming in pain as I tried to stop myself being dragged out into open space. Lying flat on my belly, I looked out and saw him, one arm grabbing mine, the other trying to reach for the rope. I could feel the brace of his hidden blade, brought my other hand forward and began fumbling with the fastenings. Too late he realized what I was doing and abandoned trying to catch hold of the rope, instead focusing his efforts on trying to stop me from unfastening the brace. For some moments our hands flapped at each other for possession of the blade, which, as I opened the first catch, suddenly slipped further up his wrist and sent him lurching to one side, his position even more precarious than before, his other arm pinwheeling. It was all I needed, and with a final shout of effort I unclipped the last fastening, wrenched the brace free and at the same time bit into the hand that gripped my wrist. A combination of pain and lack of traction was enough to dislodge him at last.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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