I present the truth, Connor, that you may do with it as you will.
EXTRACTS FROM THE JOURNAL OF CONNOR KENWAY
16 SEPTEMBER 1781
“Father!” I called. The bombardment was deafening, but I had fought my way through it to the West Tower where his quarters were to be found, and there in the passageway leading to the Grand Master’s chambers, I found him.
“Connor,” he replied. His eyes were flinty, unreadable. He held out his arm and engaged his hidden blade. I did the same. From outside came the thunder and crash of cannon fire, the rending of stone and the screams of dying men. Slowly, we walked towards one another.
With one hand behind his back, he presented his blade. I did the same.
“On the next cannon blast,” he said.
When it came, it seemed to shake the walls, but neither of us cared. The battle had begun and the sound of our chiming steel was piercing in the passageway, our grunts of effort clear and present. Everything else—the destruction of the fort around us—was background noise.
“Come now,” he taunted me, “you cannot hope to match me, Connor. For all your skill, you are still but a boy—with so much yet to learn.”
He showed me no quarter. No mercy. Whatever was in his heart and in his head, his blade flashed with its usual precision and ferocity. If he was now a warrior in his autumn years, beset by failing powers, then I would have hated to have faced him when he was in his prime. If a test is what he wanted to give me, then that is what I received.
“Give me Lee,” I demanded.
But Lee was long gone. There was just Father now, and he struck, as fast as a cobra, his blade coming within a hair’s breadth of opening my cheek. Turn defence into attack, I thought, and replied with a similar turn of speed, spinning around and catching his forearm, piercing it with my blade and destroying the fastening of his.
With a roar of pain he leapt back and I could see the worry cloud his eyes, but I let him recover, and watched as he tore a strip from his robe with which to bandage the wound.
“But we have an opportunity here,” I urged him. “Together we can break the cycle, and end this ancient war. I know it.”
I saw something in his eyes. Was it some spark of a long-abandoned desire, some unfulfilled dream remembered?
“I know it,” I repeated.
With the bloodied bandage between his teeth, he shook his head. Was he really that disillusioned? Had his heart hardened that much?
He finished tying the dressing. “No. You want to know it. You want it to be true.” His words were tinged with sadness. “Part of me once did as well. But it is an impossible dream.”
“We are in blood, you and I,” I urged him. “Please . . .”
For a moment I thought I might have got through to him.
“No, son. We are enemies. And one of us must die.” From outside there came another volley of cannon fire. The torches quivered in their brackets, the light danced on the stone and dust particles rained from the walls.
So be it.
We fought. A long, hard battle. Not one that was always especially skilful. He came at me, with sword blade, fist and even at times his head. His fighting style was different from mine, something more rough-formed about it. It lacked the finesse of my own, yet was just as effective and, I soon learnt, just as painful.
We broke apart, both breathing hard. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth then crouched, flexing the fingers of his injured forearm. “You act as though you have some right to judge,” he said, “To declare me and mine wrong for the world. And yet everything I’ve shown you—all I’ve said and done—should clearly demonstrate otherwise. But we didn’t harm your people. We didn’t support the Crown. We worked to see this land united and at peace. Under our rule all would be equal. Do the patriots promise the same?”
“They offer freedom,” I said, watching him carefully, remembering something Achilles once taught me: that every word, every gesture, is combat.
“Freedom?” he scoffed. “I’ve told you—time and time again—it’s dangerous. There will never be a consensus, son, among those you have helped to ascend. They will differ in their views of what it means to be free. The peace you so desperately seek does not exist.”
I shook my head. “No. Together they will forge something new—better than what came before.”
“These men are united now by a common cause,” he continued, sweeping his bad arm around to indicate . . . us, I suppose. The revolution. “But when this battle is finished they will fall to fighting among themselves about how best to ensure control. In time, it will lead to war. You’ll see.”
And then he leapt forward, striking down with the sword, aiming not for my body but my blade arm. I deflected, but he was quick, span and struck me backhanded with his sword hilt above the eye. My vision clouded and I staggered back, defending wildly as he tried to press home his advantage. By sheer dumb luck I hit his injured arm, gaining a howl of agony and a temporary lull as we both recovered.
Another cannon boom. More dust dislodged from the walls, and I felt the floor shake. Blood coursed from the wound above my eye, and I wiped it away with the back of my hand.
“The patriot leaders do not seek to control,” I assured him. “There will be no monarch here. The people will have the power—as they should.”
He shook his head slowly and sadly, a condescending gesture that, if it was supposed to appease me, had exactly the reverse effect. “The people never have the power,” he said wearily, “only the illusion of it. And here’s the real secret: they don’t want it. The responsibility is too great to bear. It’s why they’re so quick to fall in line as soon as someone takes charge. They want to be told what to do. They yearn for it. Little wonder, that, since all mankind was built to serve.”
Again we traded blows. Both of us had drawn blood. Looking at him, did I see an older version of myself? Having read his journal, I can look back now and know exactly how he saw me: as the man he should have been. How would things have been different if I’d known then what I know now?
I don’t know is the answer to that question. I still don’t know.
“So because we are inclined by nature to be controlled, who better than the Templars?” I shook my head. “It is a poor offer.”
“It is truth,” exclaimed Haytham. “Principle and practice are two very different beasts. I see the world the way it is—not as I wish it would be.”