I saw him swallowed up by the dark and prayed he wouldn’t hit my horse when he landed. But nothing came. No sound of a landing, nothing. The next thing I saw was the rope, taut and quivering, and I craned my neck, strained my eyes to search the darkness and was rewarded by the sight of Miko, some distance below, very much alive, and beginning to climb up towards me.
I pulled his blade to me and held it to the rope.
“If you climb much higher the fall will kill you when I cut the rope,” I called. He was already close enough so that I could look into his eyes when he stared up at me, and I could see the indecision in them. “You shouldn’t suffer such a death, friend,” I added. “Start your descent and live to fight another day.”
I began to saw slowly at the rope, and he stopped, looked down into the dark, where the bottom of the ravine was not in sight.
“You have my blade,” he said.
“To the victor the spoils.” I shrugged.
“Perhaps we will meet again,” he said, “and I can reclaim it.”
“I sense that only one of us will survive a second meeting,” I said.
He nodded. “Perhaps,” he said, and soon had shimmied down into the night.
The fact that I now had to climb back up, and had been forced to surrender my horse, was awkward. But rather that than face the Assassin again.
And for now we are resting. Well, I am resting; poor Lucio remains unconscious. Later, I will hand him over to associates of Reginald, who will take him in a covered wagon, make the passage across the Mediterranean to the south of France and then to the chateau, where Lucio will be reunited with his mother, the decypherer.
Then I’ll charter a ship to Italy, being sure to be seen doing it, referring to my “young companion” once or twice. If and when the Assassins come looking for Lucio, that’s where they’ll concentrate their efforts.
Reginald says I’m no longer needed after that. I am to melt away in Italy, leave no trace, no trail to follow.
12 AUGUST 1753
I began the day in France, having doubled back from Italy. No small undertaking; it’s all very well writing it down, but one doesn’t simply “double back” from Italy to France. My reason for being in Italy was to misdirect the Assassins when they came looking for Lucio. So, by returning to France, to the very place where we were holding Lucio and his mother, I was endangering not just my recently accomplished mission but everything Reginald had been working for these past years. It was risky. It was so risky, in fact, that if I thought about it, the risk took my breath away. It made me wonder, was I stupid? What kind of fool would take such a risk?
And the answer was, a fool with doubt in his heart.
One hundred yards or so from the gate, I came upon a lone patrol, a guard dressed as a peasant, with a musket slung across his back, who looked sleepy, but was alert and watchful. As we drew up to him our eyes met for a moment. His flickered briefly as he recognized me, and he jerked his head slightly to let me know I was free to pass. There would be another patrol, I knew, on the other side of the chateau. We came out of the forest and followed the tall perimeter wall until we came to a large, arched wooden gate inset with a smaller wicket gate, where a guard stood, a man I recognized from my years spent at the chateau.
“Well, well,” he said, “if it isn’t Master Haytham, all grown-up.” He grinned and took the reins of my horses as I dismounted, before opening the wicket gate, which I stepped through, blinking in the sudden sunlight after the comparative gloom of the forest.
Ahead of me stretched the chateau lawn, and walking across it I felt a strange crawling sensation in my belly that I knew to be nostalgia for the time I had spent at this chateau in my youth, when Reginald had . . .
. . . continued my father’s teachings? He’d said so. But of course I now know he’d been misleading me about that. In the ways of combat and stealth, perhaps, he had done so, but Reginald had raised me in the ways of the Templar Order, and taught me that the way of the Templar was the only way; and that those who believed in another way were at best misguided, at worst evil.
But I’d since learnt that Father was one of those misguided, evil people, and who’s to say what he would have taught me as I grew up. Who’s to say?
The grass was unkempt and overgrown, despite the presence of two gardeners, both of whom wore short swords at their waists, hands going to the hilts as I made my way towards the front door of the chateau. I came close to one of them, who, when he saw who I was, nodded. “An honour finally to meet you, Master Kenway,” he said. “I trust your mission was successful?”
“It was, thank you, yes,” I replied to the guard—or gardener, whatever he was. To him I was a Knight, one of the most celebrated in the Order. Could I really hate Reginald when his stewardship had brought me such acclaim? And, after all, had I ever doubted his teachings? The answer was no. Had I been forced to follow them? Again, no. I’d always had the option to choose my own path but had stayed with the Order because I believed in the code.
Even so, he has lied to me.
No, not lied to me. How had Holden put it? “Withheld the truth.”
And, more immediately, why had Lucio reacted that way when I told him he was to see his mother?
At the mention of my name, the second gardener looked at me more sharply, then he too was genuflecting as I made my way past, acknowledging him with a nod, feeling taller all of a sudden and all but puffing out my chest as I approached the front door that I knew so well. I turned before I knocked, to look back across the lawn, where the two guards stood watching me. I had trained on that lawn, spent countless hours honing my sword skills.
I knocked, and the door was opened by yet another similarly attired man who also wore a short sword at his waist. The chateau had never been this fully staffed when I had lived here, but then again, when I lived here, we never had a guest as important as the decypherer.
The first familiar face I saw belonged to John Harrison, who looked at me then did a double take. “Haytham,” he blustered, “what the hell are you doing here?”
“Hello, John,” I said equably, “is Reginald here?”
“Well, yes, Haytham, but Reginald is supposed to be here. What are you doing here?”
“I came to check on Lucio.”
“You what?” Harrison was becoming somewhat red-faced. “You ‘came to check on Lucio’?” He was having trouble finding his words now. “What? Why? What on earth do you think you’re doing?”