“Why should I tell you?” he sneered.
“Because I’ll kill you if you don’t.”
His arms were bound, but he indicated the interrogation room with his chin. “You’ll kill me if I do.”
I smiled. “Many years ago I met a man named Cutter, an expert in torture and the administration of pain, who was able to keep his victims alive for days on end, but in considerable pain, with only . . .” I flicked the mechanism of the blade and it appeared, glinting cruelly in the flickering torchlight.
He looked at it. “You promise me a quick death if I tell you.”
“You have my word.”
So he did, and I kept my word. When it was over I strode out into the passageway outside, where I ignored Connor’s inquisitive look and collected the second prisoner. Back in the cell I tied him to the chair and watched as his eyes went to the body of the first man.
“Your friend refused to tell me what I wanted to know,” I explained, “which is why I slit his throat. Are you prepared to tell me what I want to know?”
Wide-eyed, he gulped, “Look, whatever it is, I can’t tell you—I don’t even know. Maybe the commander . . .”
“Oh, you’re not the man in charge?” I said breezily, and flicked my blade.
“Wait a minute . . .” he blurted, as I moved in back of him. “There is one thing I know . . .”
I stopped. “Go on . . .”
He told me and, when it was over, I thanked him and drew the blade across his throat. As he died, I realized that what I felt was not the righteous fire of one who performs repellent acts in the name of a greater good but a sense of jaded inevitability. Many years ago, my father had taught me about mercy, about clemency. Now I slaughtered prisoners like livestock. This was how corrupt I had become.
“What’s going on in there?” asked Connor suspiciously, when I returned to the passageway where he guarded the final prisoner.
“This one is the commander. Bring him in.”
Moments later, the door to the interrogation room thumped shut behind us, and for a moment the only sound in the room was that of dripping blood. Seeing the bodies discarded in a corner of the cell, the commander struggled, but, with a hand to his shoulder, I shoved him to the chair, now slick with blood, lashed him to it, then stood before him and flicked my finger to engage my hidden blade. It made a soft snicking sound in the cell.
The officer’s eyes went to it and then to me. He was trying to put on a brave face, but there was no disguising the tremble of his lower lip.
“What are the British planning?” I asked him.
Connor’s eyes were on me. The prisoner’s eyes were on me. When he stayed silent I raised the blade slightly so that it reflected the flickering torchlight. Again, his eyes were fixed on it, and then, he broke . . .
“To—to march from Philadelphia. That city is finished. New York is the key. They’ll double our numbers—push back the rebels.”
“When do they begin?” I asked.
“Two days from now.”
“June the eighteenth,” said Connor from beside me. “I need to warn Washington.”
“See?” I told the commander. “That wasn’t very difficult now, was it?”
“I told you everything. Now let me go,” he implored, but I was again in no mood for clemency. I stood behind him and, as Connor watched, opened his throat. At the boy’s horrified look, I said, “And the other two said the same. It must be true.”
When Connor looked at me, it was with disgust. “You killed him . . . killed all of them. Why?”
“They would have warned the loyalists,” I answered simply.
“You could have held them until the fight was done.”
“Not far away from here is Wallabout Bay,” I said, “where the prison ship HMS Jersey is moored, a rotting ship on which patriot prisoners of war are dying by the thousands, buried in shallow graves on the shores or simply tossed overboard. That was how the British treat their prisoners, Connor.”
He acknowledged the point but countered, “Which is why we must be free of their tyranny.”
“Ah, tyranny. Don’t forget that your leader George Washington could save these men on the prison ships, if he was so minded. But he does not want to exchange captured British soldiers for captured American ones, and so the American prisoners of war are sentenced to rot on the prison ships of Wallabout Bay. That’s your hero George Washington at work. However this revolution ends, Connor, you can guarantee that it’s the men with riches and land who will benefit. The slaves, the poor, the enlisted men—they will still be left to rot.”
“George is different,” he said, but yes, now there was a note of doubt in his voice.
“You will see his true face soon, Connor. It will reveal itself, and when it does you can make your decision. You can judge him.”
17 JUNE 1778
Though I’d heard so much about it, I hadn’t seen Valley Forge with my own eyes, and there, this morning, was where I found myself.
Things had clearly improved, that much was certain. The snow had gone; the sun was out. As we walked, I saw a squad being put through its paces by a man with a Prussian accent, who, if I wasn’t very much mistaken, was the famous Baron Friedrich von Steuben, Washington’s chief of staff, who had played his part in whipping his army into shape. And indeed he had. Where before the men had been lacking in morale and discipline, suffering from disease and malnutrition, now the camp was full of healthy, well-fed troops who marched with a lively clatter of weapons and flasks, a hurry and purpose to their step. Weaving among them were camp followers who carried baskets of supplies and laundry, or steaming pots and kettles for the fires. Even the dogs that chased and played at the margins of the camp seemed to do so with a renewed energy and vigour. Here, I realized, was where independence could be born: with spirit, co-operation, and fortitude.
Nevertheless, as Connor and I strode through the camp, what struck me was that it was largely due to the efforts of Assassins and Templars that the camp had improved in spirit. We had secured the supplies and prevented more theft, and I was told that Connor had had a hand in securing the safety of von Steuben. What had their glorious leader Washington done, except for leading them into that mess in the first place?
Still, though, they believed in him.
All the more reason his mendacity should be exposed. All the more reason Connor should see his true face.
“We should be sharing what we know with Lee, not Washington . . .” I said irritably as we walked.