It was. I took out not the first musketeer—he was already making a panicky attempt to reload—but the second, who fell with the knife embedded between his ribs.
In a bound I was over to the first one and punched him in the stomach with my blade hand, so that he coughed and died on the shaft. Blood beads described an arc in the night as I pulled the blade free and span to meet the attack of El Tiburón.
There was no attack, though.
Instead El Tiburón calmed the tempo of the fight, and rather than begin his attack straight away, simply stood and very casually tossed his sword from one hand to the other before addressing me with it.
Fine. At least there wouldn’t be a lot of chat during this bout.
I snarled and came forward, blades cutting half circles in the air, hoping to daze or disorient him. His expression hardly changed, and with fast movements of his elbow and forearm he met my attack easily. He was concentrating on my left hand, the hand that held the sword, and before I even realized he was doing it, my cutlass went spinning from my bloody fingers to the dirt.
My hidden blade was all I had left now. He concentrated on it, knowing it was new to me. Behind him more guards had gathered in the courtyard, and though I couldn’t understand what they were saying, it was obvious: I was no match for El Tiburón; my end was but a heartbeat away.
So it proved. The last of his attacks ended with a smash of the knuckle guard across my chin, and I felt teeth loosen and my head spin as I sank, first to my knees, before pitching forward. Beneath my robes, blood sluiced down my sides like sweat, and what little fight was left in me was leached away by the pain.
El Tiburón came forward. A boot stepped onto my blade and held my arm in place, and dimly I wondered if the blade had a quick-release buckle even though it would do me no good, as the tip of his sword nudged my neck, ready for the final lethal strike . . .
“Enough,” came the cry from the compound door. Squinting through a veil of blood I saw the guards part and Torres step through, followed closely by DuCasse. The two Templars shouldered El Tiburón aside, and with the merest flicker of irritation in his eyes—the hunter denied his kill—the enforcer stepped away. I wasn’t sad to see him go.
I gasped ragged breath. My mouth filled with blood and I spat as Torres and DuCasse crouched, studying me like two medical men examining a patient. When the Frenchman reached for my forearm I half expected him to feel for my pulse but instead he disengaged the hidden blade, unclipped it with practised fingers, then tossed it away. Torres looked at me, and I wondered if he really was as disappointed as he looked, or whether it was theatrics. He took hold of my other hand, removed my Templar ring and pocketed it.
“What is your true name, rogue?” said Torres.
Disarmed as I was, they let me pull myself to a sitting position. “It’s, ah . . . Captain Pissoff.”
Again I spat close to DuCasse’s shoe, and he looked from the gobbet of blood to me with a sneer. “Nothing but a filthy peasant.” He moved to strike me, but Torres held him back. Torres had been looking around the courtyard at the bodies, as though trying to assess the situation.
“Where is The Sage?” he asked. “Did you set him free?”
“I had nothing to do with that, much as I wish I did,” I managed.
As far as I was concerned The Sage had either been sprung by Assassin friends or staged an escape himself. Either way, he was out—out of harm’s way and in possession of the one secret we all wanted: The Observatory location. My trip was a wasted one.
Torres looked at me and must have seen the truth in my eyes. His Templar affiliations made him my enemy, but there was something in the old man I liked, or respected, at least. Perhaps he saw something in me, a sense that maybe we weren’t so different. One thing I knew for certain was that if the decision had been left to DuCasse, I’d have been watching my guts drop to the compound floor; instead, Torres stood up and signalled to his men.
“Take him to the ports. Send him to Seville with the treasure fleet.”
“To Seville?” queried DuCasse.
“Yes,” replied Torres.
“But we can interrogate him ourselves,” said DuCasse. I heard the cruel smile in his voice. “Indeed . . . it would be a pleasure.”
“Which is exactly why I intend to entrust the job to our colleagues in Spain,” said Torres firmly. “I hope this is not a problem for you, Julien?”
Even fogged by pain I could hear the irritation in the Frenchman’s voice.
“Non, monsieur,” he replied.
Still, he took a great pleasure in knocking my lights out.
When I awoke I was on the floor of what looked like the lower deck of a galleon. A large galleon, it was, the kind that looked like it was used to transport . . . people. My legs were gripped by iron bilboes—big, immovable manacles that were scattered all around the deck, some empty, some not.
Not far away I could make out more bodies in the gloom of the deck. More men back there, at a guess maybe a dozen or so, shackled just as I was, but in what sort of shape it was difficult to tell from the low groans and mumblings that reached my ears. At the other end of the deck was piled what I took to be the captives’ possessions—clothes, boots, hats, leather belts, packs and chests. In among them, I thought I saw my robes, still dirty and bloody from the fight in the prison compound.
You remember my saying how lower decks had their own smell? Well, this one had a different smell altogether. The smell of misery. The smell of fear.
A voice said, “Eat it fast,” and a wooden bowl landed with a dull thump by my bare feet before the black-leather boots of a guard retreated. I saw sunlight from a hatch and heard the clip-clop of a ladder being climbed.
Inside the bowl sat a dry flour biscuit and a splodge of oatmeal. Not far away sat a black man, and, like me, he was eyeing the food dubiously.
“You hungry?” I asked him.
He said nothing, made no move to reach for the food. Instead he reached to the manacles at his feet and began to work at them, on his face an expression of profound concentration.
At first I thought he was wasting his time, but as his fingers worked, sliding between his feet and the irons, his eyes went to me. Though he said nothing, I thought I saw in them the ghost of painful experience. His hands went to his mouth and for a moment he looked like a cat cleaning itself, until the same hand dipped into the oatmeal, mixing the goo inside with saliva and then using it to lubricate his foot in the manacle.