Part Seven: Painful Lessons
The Italian grandmaster waited until noon the next day before, dressed in his hood and hidden blades, he passed through the Imperial Gate and back into Topkapi. The expansive Courtyard was hilly and green; he had not had the chance to truly appreciate it the night before when he was stalking minstrels and stealing their clothes. He passed Aya Irini, the first church built in Constantinopoli and now converted to the Janissary armory, and walked up to the Salutation Gate. He needed an official pass to get in from this point forward, and his eagle quickly picked out a courier leaving the palace and, slightly bumping into him, retrieved the document necessary to get himself into the Second Courtyard.
Now empty of people and in broad daylight, Ezio had a greater respect for the design of the palace and the subtle psychology at work. There was a pragmatism that the buildings were almost entirely two stories; instead of announcing ego it suggested getting work done, and since this was the home of the Sublime Porte, it effused a sense of efficiency and sobriety. No, the arrogance came instead in the sheer scope of the grounds, and Ezio could better appreciate it without the pressures of the previous night, on top of now being well fed and prepared for what was to come. He walked up to the well-guarded Felicity Gate, soldiers pressed shoulder to shoulder after the events of last night, and all of them glared bitterly at the hooded man.
"Perdonate, signori," Ezio said politely, then switched back to Turkish, "Shehzade Suleiman is expecting me; we met after some excitement last night. Did he leave word to expect me?"
Nobody spoke or said a word, but Ezio's eagle saw one man quickly disappear to the inner courtyard, and so he waited. Inside of a half hour an official came up and allowed Ezio in; he escorted the grandmaster through the water gardens and into the impressive audience chamber that dominated the space. Suleiman, instead of being seated inside the throne room, was at one of the many colonnades, in the shade; he quickly detached himself from his spot and moved to greet Ezio.
"Buongiorno," the prince said.
"Meharba," Ezio countered. "How are you holding up?"
Suleiman gave a small, almost shy smile. "You were quite correct that I needed time. I am embarrassed to admit that I quite fell apart over the course of the night."
"A strong man allows himself to fall apart when he needs to, so that he won't at an inopportune time," Ezio said, nodding sagely. "I have learned this lesson the hard way. Now, where would you like to begin?"
The boy looked out to the far side of the courtyard, where the adventure had reached its terrible conclusion. "I can still see the attack," he said softly. "The heat of the crowds, the sense of motion slowing down, and then you, brazenly running forward." He sighed. "I have been taught combat since I was a boy, and when I needed it most the instincts my teachers drove into me were nowhere to be seen. I was vulnerable."
"This, too, I know," Ezio said, curious if Suleiman were leading up to something or not. Yusuf had not provided much education; shehzadem were tightly guarded as children, and the boy's public life was only just starting. The Italian grandmaster did not know if Suleiman knew his father well, had a close relationship with him, or was raised by stewards or governesses or someone else entirely. Was he reaching out for comfort after his ordeal, or was he skillfully manipulating the conversation to make a point? Ezio waited.
The boy glanced at Ezio, a curious purse of his lips, as if to wonder why Ezio was not sharing more, before a more shrewd look passed over his face and he began walking. "It would appear I still have much to learn about the world," he said slowly. "I did some asking last night. Your name is the stuff of legends, and it is very hard to tell what is rumor and what is truth."
"That is to my benefit, Shehzadem, mystery keeps me alive."
"And should mystery be present everywhere?"
"No, not in an ideal world," Ezio replied. "But this is not an ideal world."
"And what would an ideal world look like to you?"
This was a test then. The two men, though thrown together, were too shrewd to trust each other at the get go; and though the graying grandmaster could discern much just from watching the prince, the boy did not yet have those kinds of skills; and so instead the child had derived a test. Ezio knew the dangers of it; though Suleiman was not sultan he was a prince, and could easily order Ezio's execution, and this deep into the palace, there would be nothing Ezio could do to stop it. He would not, however, answer however this boy wanted to be answered. The grandmaster had vowed long ago that no one would own him, not a pope, not a countess, and not a prince. If this burned a bridge, he could deal with it; if it got him killed, he had left word with Yusuf on what to do in regards to Claudia, and the Masyaf secrets would continue to be pursued.
"You ask a difficult question," Ezio answered honestly, "the word 'ideal' means different things to different people, and some ideals are so arbitrary so that an ideal world for everyone is impossible. However, for assassini, or suikastchi as you call us, we would like a world where men and women live together in equality and wisdom, to learn that laws arise not from divinity but from reason and careful contemplation; an ideal world is one where diversity is accepted instead of annihilated, where women are respected instead of treated like objects, where creed does not bring about war, and where our work is no longer necessary."
"A uniquely simple and complex answer," Suleiman replied after a very long pause.
"Then have I passed your test?"
Suleiman blinked, surprised he had been caught. Ezio offered an ironic grin, and the boy smiled slightly again. "You have passed enough that I can trust your word for now. Can you tell me how you came to know there was to be an attack last night?"
And so Ezio went into the gritty details of what had happened, carefully avoiding explaining how Yusuf had learned about the attack, talking very briefly about the Byzantine faction in very broad terms without mentioning the word "Templar," and outlining how they had devised their plan to protect the prince. A scribe and a young, un-promoted Janissary were both present, the soldier confirming what information he could, and outraged at pieces he did not know. Suleiman stayed mostly quiet, absorbing it all with the quiet intellect that made Ezio so careful with his words. The boy's intelligence was obvious given their previous conversation, and the occasional observations he offered were insightful and thought provoking on almost all counts. Other comments were questions on procedure or law, showing he was detail oriented and quick to learn. Ezio couldn't help being impressed by the lad, and wishing a good future for him.
After an exhaustive two hours, the Janissary left to further his investigations, as did the scribe, and they were once again alone. Suleiman spoke.
"Tarik Barleti is a captain in the Janissary corps, the Sultan's elite soldiery. He was also noticeably absent from last night's activities."
"They guard the Sultan, but not his family?" Ezio asked.
"Not very well, evidently. Ezio, do you have time to spare? I would like your opinion on something."
Ezio offered his Florentine irony: "I think I could spare a moment or two."
"Guzel. I have arranged a meeting with my uncle Ahmet and the Janissary captain. The Janissaries are loyal to my grandfather, but they have lately become angry over his choice of the next Sultan."
"Your uncle," Ezio said. Ahmet, the man who was at the party last night but disappeared when things went to hell.
"Exactly. The Janissaries prefer my father, Selim."
Ezio pursed his lips. "You are in a tough spot. Your father is out to make war with your grandfather, but the Janissary soldiers favor your father while your Uncle is the favorite to become sultan. And you, in the middle of it, became a target. That more than explains motive, but how do the Byzantines fit into this? They were the ones who tried to kill you."
"I had hoped you might know," Suleiman said, disappointed.
Ezio shook his head. The young prince rubbed his chin, thinking, and Ezio waited to see what the child would do. At length, the shehzadem looked up. "Would you be willing to help me find out?"
There it was. The offering of an alliance. Ezio liked the boy, but he held true to his promise to Yusuf to keep the assassins separate from family politics. Having said that, Ezio had a vested interest in learning where the Byzantines were and how they were getting their money and their men and their information. There were also the Masyaf keys to worry about, Ezio did not want the Templars to discover the memories that Altaïr had locked away in those discs. Having help from Topkapi would help immensely, and Ezio was not so closed minded that he wouldn't take help when it was offered. "I am tracking them myself," he said, but firmly added, "I can help you as long as our interests run parallel."
Suleiman didn't quite snort, he was too dignified for that, but he offered an honest, "I will take what I can get," and that line was very telling. The shehzadem had nowhere else to turn and felt desperate indeed if a half-promise from a man he had known less than twenty-four hours garnered such a sincere response. Did he trust no one on the grounds? No, Ezio realized, probably not, because not only had Byzantines snuck into the palace, but the Janissaries were caught completely flat-footed. What was supposed to be a safe haven had turned into a battlefield, and that kind of thing struck very close to home; Ezio could personally attest to that. Suleiman was as Ezio was when he had lost his family, and again when Monteriggioni had been attacked: violated, confused, lost, and desperate for answers and the feeling of safety again. Empathy welled up in the aged grandmaster, and he privately hoped their interests stayed aligned for a long time.
"There is a hatch at the top of the Tower of Justice which leads to a secret room. Go there, wait, and watch. I will join you when I can."
"Bene, I will see you there."
It took the better part of an hour to get to the secret room. Once Ezio was on the roofs of the massive complex, he was invisible to guards, and he spent his time enjoying the climb. The hatch opened easily, and Ezio found an ornately grilled portal overlooking an expansive room that he assumed was the one of the parts of the imperial council. The meeting was already underway, Suleiman was there, as was his uncle, the bearded Ahmet, and the man Ezio didn't recognize must have been Tarik Barleti.
"Heed my nephew, Tarik," Ahmet was saying, "Your incompetence borders on treason. And to think that our Janissaries were outshone by an Italian lute player! Preposterous!"
"An inexcusable failing, efendim," Barleti said, standing perfectly straight. He wore a closely fitted helmet and an ornate cloak, flanked by two subordinates. "I will conduct a full investigation."
"I will conduct the investigation, Tarik," Suleiman said firmly. "For reasons that should be obvious."
The captain of the Janissaries immediately bowed his head in submission to the correction. "Evet, Shehzadem." Then he looked up, and a softer gaze briefly crossed his grizzled features. "You have your father's wisdom," he said, somewhat warmly.
"And his impatience," Suleiman replied, trying to press the point and look authoritative. The boy let the moment hang, as he seemed to like to do, before turning to Ahmet.
"Uncle, I am relieved to see you safe," he said softly.
"Likewise, Suleiman," the other prince replied, nodding. "May Allah protect you."
"I must begin my investigation," Suleiman said, "If you will excuse me."
"Of course," Ahmet said, rising. The three men moved to leave, but the bearded prince lingered. "Tarik Bey... a word?"
The grizzled Janissary captain turned back around, stood – if possible – even more stiffly now that he was alone with a man he did not favor. His gaze drifted off to nothing, not even meeting Ahmet's eye.
"What was the purpose of this attack, I wonder?" Ahmet posited. "To make me look weak? An ineffective steward of this city?" The prince stepped forward, shorter than the Janissary but still managing to look menacing. He lifted an accusatory finger. "If you had a hand in this mess, Tarik, you have made a grave mistake. My father has chosen me as the next Sultan, not my brother."
Tarik's response was very telling. "Ahmet," he said in a conciliatory tone that was anything but conciliatory. "I am not depraved enough to imagine the conspiracy you accuse me of." Still his gaze did not meet the shehzadem, and Ezio realized it was not military training, but a deliberate and subtle means of snubbing Ahmet. He hated Ahmet, and was willing to risk the danger of insulting him to prove the point.
Ahmet's eyes narrowed. "What have I done to earn such contempt from the Janissaries?" he demanded, spreading his hands wide in confusion. "What has my brother done for you that I have not?"
A long, heavy pause drew out. Then,
"May I speak freely?"
Military gaze locked on nothing, Tarik said: "You are weak, Ahmet. Pensive in times of war and restless in times of peace. You spent your time trying to get the Janissaries on your side when you were supposed to be fighting Shakulu, and your play at politics cost Hadim Ali Pasha his life. And, no sooner does the fighting settle between your brother and the sultan, that you take over Konya and declare yourself sultan of Anatolia to stir up more trouble. You lack passion for the traditions of the ghazi, the tribal holy warriors, yet you speak of fraternity in the company of infidels. You would make a decent philosopher, Ahmet, but you will be a poor Sultan."
The shehzadem was shaking with rage. "You may show yourself out," he hissed.
The men left, and Ezio leaned back from the ornate grill, pensive.
"Quite a family, eh?"
Ezio nodded, having already sensed when the prince discreetly entered the secret room.
"It is not everyday someone who is not sultan watches a meeting out the Golden Window," Suleiman said, pointing to the grated portal. "I suppose it should be an honor, but the subject matter inhibits such a feeling."
The Italian grandmaster leaned against a wall, crossing his arms. "You wanted my opinion, si? Your uncle lacks sway over the men he will soon command. He is frustrated and ambitious, and worse he is arrogant and petty. I agree with the bey, he would make a poor sultan. Barleti, however, is just as dangerous."
The young shehzade nodded, face pensive. "Tarik is a hard man, proud and capable but ambitious. And he admires my father greatly; he is steadfastly loyal and has very strong opinions."
"... But he failed to secure this palace against a Byzantine invasion," Ezio countered. "That alone is worth our attention. Why was he away from his post? How did the Byzantines get past his men – presumably the most highly trained soldiers in your army?"
"Precisely," Suleiman said. "At this moment I cannot trust the Janissaries to perform their investigation, and because of the Byzantine infiltration I cannot trust the members of the Sublime Porte. It would seem that you are all I have."
Ezio nodded. "Where should we begin?"
"For now, keep an eye on Tarik and his Janissaries. They spend much of their free time in and around the Kapalicharshi."
Another order. "I will start there when I can," Ezio said. He needed to impress upon Suleiman that he may be forced to trust Ezio, but he did not own Ezio. "Can you get past your father's inherited impatience and wait until I am ready to make a report?"
Suleiman gave another small, shy smile. "I do not have a choice, do I?"
Ezio smirked. "You do not."
Ezio gave a full report to Yusuf about what had happened at the palace, and the next day he took the Order's secretary Azize to the old Polo trading post to talk to the Venetian bookseller. She had not discerned anything, but Ezio spent an hour there browsing the books and buying a few that Azize found particularly interesting.
After that he checked in on Piri to learn more about bombs and, frankly, for some interesting conversation, and after that he checked in on various assassins. Meryem had finally moved from the slate to practical applications and was improving. The masons Tahir and Kadmus had cleared away one of the old cisterns and created an impressive playground with the remaining rubble. Kasim was once again dogging him for favor, and Ezio alternated between using the timid Sila and the sour Fusun. From the former he had yet to get to open up, from the latter he began to get the sense that her sour disposition was just her nature rather than any intentional dislike to any one person. Yusuf introduced him to his contacts at the bazaar, and Ezio began taking note of when and where the Janissaries arrived at the grand market.
It was one afternoon that he stopped by Piri's to get another lesson on bomb making.
"Turkish smoke bombs," the cartographer asked, "Have you used them before?"
"Should I?" Ezio countered. "I have used smoke bombs before, with varying results."
Piri smiled. "But not like ours. We have a special recipe for deep, dark clouds. Throw one of these and your eyes are useless. You must rely on your hearing, and... any other senses you may have cultivated."
Ezio raised an eyebrow and entered fully Florentine tones. "Other senses? What could that mean?"
"Word gets around, Ezio. That you are a special sort of man, with strange gifts. Word has it that you captured a man from Istanbul some years ago in a city of towers using only your eyes; you spotted him across the city at a distance no one could fathom. And Yusuf talks about a scribe you sent over here to learn about my maps. He was so green it didn't take long to learn that you had skills no one could hope to match."
Damn his luck. Was his life an open book? "Keep it to yourself," he said, more than a little petulant.
"Of course," Piri said. "But, if you want to test the usefulness of that bomb, I suggest checking in with one of our suppliers. A shipment of his was raided by bandits, a handy test for you."
Ezio blinked. "Is it not convenient that you have a challenge ready for me?"
"No," Piri replied. "It is that you conveniently arrived so I didn't have to send for Yusuf."
And so for three days Ezio was traipsing about the western slums of Constantinopoli with his omnipresent escorts until he found the bandit camp. More than slightly put out by all the work in the humid air, he threw the smoke bomb without really expecting anything or making a plan around it. He was shocked, then, when the smoke bomb turned the entire narrow alley into a blanket of fog. He looked to Fusun in surprise, and she offered a deadpan, "What?"
He had recaptured the supplies in less than ten minutes.
Later that week he was chatting with Sofia, the book lender, after she had explained what little she had discerned.
"I am curious," he said slowly, still flattered by the way she flirted with him, "How is it that you came to man this shop unattended?"
"It belonged to my parents. They died on Little Judgment Day, and so I took over. I already knew I would live life as a spinster by then, and so I decided I would live it in the best way possible."
It was the most refreshing, awe-inspiring comment she could have made, and Ezio thought of her often for the rest of the month.
Claudia, he wrote,
I have made the acquaintance of an Ottoman prince named Suleiman. He is a clever young man, with a fortitude uncommon for his age. His family is large and deeply complicated: his father and uncle are fighting over who will inherit the throne while the sultan is still alive to curry favor. There has been a threat on Suleiman's life but Yusuf and I were able to quell it before things got out of hand. The prince has named me an ally after the attack, he knows there are deep waters around him and wishes to learn how dark they might be. He means well, for a boy, and I rather like him. Even if he had not charged me with investigating the attempt on his life I would do so anyway to learn why the Byzantines had arranged it.
On his suggestion, I shall be investigating some wayward Janissaries who may be in league with the Templars. With luck they shall lead me straight to the core of the Templar's leadership. With a name Yusuf and his men will have a wider swath of information and possible courses to pursue to end the Templar threat.
Meanwhile, the Venetian Sofia Sartor continues to help me find the hidden Masyaf keys. She is a diligent woman, full of passion and vigor, and I enjoy her company immensely. Thirty-five and a spinster, she has lived here until the Ottoman-Venetian War back in '99. I wonder if Antonio or Teodora ever came across her...? Her parents ran the bookshop she now owns, and she has decided to live life "in the best way possible," following her passion. There are so few women out there in the world that are like her, and she is a breath a fresh air in a stagnant, unhappy world..
… But I dare not tell her the purpose of my stay here, nor of my true vocation. Those who do not volunteer in our struggle, should not be forced to fight it...
September dawned with a massive thunderstorm that, with heavy to intermittent rain all day, kept everyone inside. Ezio didn't relish the idea going out in the warm rain to send off his most recent letter to Claudia. All the moisture made the air feel sticky so he instead stayed in the cistern where it was blissfully cooler to start checking in on how various dens were doing, as they tended to at the beginning of each month. Yusuf was still going over names for den leaders, but there just weren't enough Assassins who were fully enough trained to remain in a fixed location. Ezio agreed that it was difficult, and started his usual suggestions. Perhaps bringing in potentials for extra training that they needed? But they were still active Assassins and needed throughout the city.
Ezio let out a sigh. "But how are the dens doing overall?"
Yusuf let out a bark of a laugh. "Very well, Usta da Firenze! In fact, our dens outside the Constantinian wall are finally getting messages through."
Ezio nodded. The Constantinian wall, which their derelict mosque was butt up against, marked the old city that had been where the Byzantines had seated their power for centuries. Outside Istanbul continued and Yusuf had almost as many dens outside the Constantinian walls as he had inside. Those dens, thankfully, had not faced as much strife from Vali's betrayal as those closer to Topkapi and the power of the Ottomans had, and seemed to have returned to their usual routine quickly.
"In fact," Yusuf smiled broadly as he always did, "their new trades are giving them better access to word from outside Istanbul. And with all we've done bringing Ottoman guards to nests of Byzantines, they don't even have to bribe as much as they used to."
Ezio frowned right into his beard.
"Your Assassins have been coming through the Constantinian wall to give us information by bribing Ottomans? Not disguised as their trades to deliver goods deeper into the city?"
Yusuf's smile seemed to grow even wider. "Ah, using trades that Vali knew about?"
Ezio bit back a growl as he remembered the rogue Assassin who had turned Templar. With the Constantinian wall too high to scale, even with roofs up against it, and no way to disguise one's way in, the only way would have been to bribe. Especially with the tunnels between the cisterns still unsafe after the Little Judgment. Tahir and Kadmus were doing good work within the Assassin's headquarters, and would likely be done with most major repairs by the end of the year, but it would be another year after that before they could tackle the underground tunnels.
Yusuf's smile grew again. "No usta, it seems you have some mail."
To this, at least, Ezio smiled. A letter from Claudia would be most welcome when he was, yet again, in such a foul mood. He could add his response to the letter he had just finished composing. "Have it sent to the library," Ezio said softly, standing from the fire. "I'd prefer to read it in private."
Eyes twinkling, Yusuf agreed.
Ezio soon saw why when Obelius brought in not one letter, but several. Ezio accepted them, not sure why there were so many. Perhaps Machiavelli or Leonardo or Alighiero or Federica had sent regards through Claudia? She was the only one to know where he was.
The first letter he opened was not from Italia at all. It was from Bursa, where a local Turk and ally had been driven to hiding. The local Assassins wanted help in providing protection and an escort for his family to Konstantiniyye.
Frowning, Ezio opened another letter, this one from Lisbon. Emboldened by the colonization efforts, the Templars had started sending "missionaries" as far as India. They needed an Assassin from outside the country to infiltrate the court and start collecting intelligence and mapping movements. Algiers was also having issues as the Spanish king had taken the local king, Samis el Filipe, hostage. The local king was too well guarded in a fortified jail and sought a way to get a line of communication into the prison. The amir, however, was willing to turn a blind eye to Assassins if they could convince an Ottoman privateer named Heyreddin Baba Oruch to chip away the Spanish influence in the area.
Ezio balked. The pirate Red Beard Barbarossa was needed to remove the Spanish from Africa?
Then he growled.
There was only way that anyone would know that he had settled, even temporarily, to Istanbul.
The Turkish Assassin's laughter echoed through the cistern.
The next day, after Ezio had stopped swearing so loudly and vociferously that nearly every Assassin in the headquarters was blushing, he sat down with Yusuf to discuss the pleas for help. Both agreed that some of the Assassins who had been promoted to fill in some of the numbers after the Little Judgment, could use this as a chance to see who was truly a good Assassin, and thus get a den, and who needed more training. It would grant them experience and a chance to work with more established Assassins like they couldn't in Istanbul. Both Ezio and Yusuf went through the lists and went about making assignments.
Later that week Kasim was, to Ezio's annoyance, his escort in the city. It wasn't that Kasim was a bad Assassin. Far from it, he was competent and capable. But he was always looking for praise, and Ezio refused to give it. One didn't become an Assassin for praise, but to make the world better. As long as Kasim kept showing off, no matter how good he was, Ezio would not give him a larger ego. But Kasim's dogged determination to do well in front of Il Mentore, Usta da Firenze, was tiresome. The air was still thick from the summer, but not as much as the height of the season, and Ezio was checking in with various dens as Yusuf kept training back at headquarters.
Ezio finally motioned that he had finished and headed out to the streets. He was starting to think him always having an escort was getting silly. He had spent six months here and while he may not know every back alley and narrow street the way he did in Firenze or Roma, and even Venezia, he was far more comfortable here than he was when he'd first arrived. At the very least, he didn't need Kasim as a guide.
"Usta," Kasim said softly as they once more took to the streets. "I have heard troubling rumors."
Of course he has, Ezio resisted any and all urges to grimace. Just because Kasim was annoying didn't mean what he said was invalid. "Tell me."
"We have reason to believe a rogue Orthodox Deacon is planning to murder the Patriarch of Konstantiniyye." Ezio slowed and frowned, looking to Kasim's earnest face. The Orthodox Church had once been part of the Catholic Church, but the regional and cultural difference had come to a head almost five centuries previous, when, in 1053, the Patriarch of Constantinopoli had closed all Latin churches, fed up with the Papacy. The following year, when word had reached Roma, the Pope sent a representative who ended up so insulted by said Patriarch, he excommunicated him. Soon everyone was excommunicating each other and the Orthodox Church went its own way from the Catholic. Where the Catholic Church followed the words of Jesus as interpreted by the Pope, in simplified terms, the Orthodox was far less centralized. Each country was its own division of Orthodox, with a ruler for the country, and each country's leader formed a sort of council. The Orthodox here in Instanbul was all Greek Orthodox, as the prior rulers had been Greek. The Church was an important part of holding the remaining Greek population together with messages passed down from each disciple of peace. To take out the Patriarch would be easily interpreted as a lack of acceptance of the Ottomans of such a foreign religion, despite the Ottomans welcoming in the Jews and Moorish from Spain and not kicking out any other religions. The Greeks felt their loss of power most keenly and such a murder would not help. It would also set the Ottomans against the Greeks, as the Greek Orthodox was the first millet, or non-Islamic group in an Islamic community to be given rights, under Ottoman rule. The Patriarch was in charge of the Greeks and with Greeks fighting back after the loss of their leader, the Ottomans would have an excuse to be rid of them.
"Do we know who this rogue Deacon is?" Ezio asked.
Kasim shook his head. "Not yet. Clues have been sparse."
"We need names first," Ezio said, taking off down the streets at a brisk walk. "It would not serve our cause to eliminate every holy man between Bursa and Belgrado. Come, we will investigate."
They headed to the Greek section of the city where, to Ezio's surprise, many of the Orthodox Church were celebrating Paraklesis.
"What exactly is Paraklesis?" Ezio asked softly of Kasim from the small alley where they watched the long procession.
"A service for the welfare of the living," Kasim replied promptly. "Do you wish for me to translate?" he asked eagerly.
"Hayir," Ezio replied firmly. Instead he watched, his eagle aware, as many deacons of what looked like different churches led a large throng of parishioners down the streets, chanting and singing. They stood quietly for some time, watching.
Kasim seemed to get anxious and didn't care for the waiting. "What is our plan, Usta?"
Ezio smiled. "The Orthodox millet in the city is too small to hide big secrets," Ezio explained. "Especially in this part of the city, so close to Topkapi. We will ask the clergy some questions and, if necessary, make them answer."
There, Ezio stepped forward to join to procession, Kasim shadowing behind him, until he came to a clergyman near the outskirts of the procession and looking very tired. An old man, bald and easily in his seventh decade, wiped his forehead of sweat and Ezio had no problem offering a hand and guiding him to a bench to relax on.
The thanks he gave was in Greek and despite Ezio's slow (tediously slow) learning of a few Greek words, it was all just noise to his ears. Kasim was instantly by his side and the translation was already on the tip of his lips, but Ezio ignored him.
"Good evening, holy one," he said in the most polite form of Turkish he knew.
"Ah, I should have known," the old clergyman replied. "Now that this city is Ottoman, everyone speaks Turkish."
Ezio shrugged. "I learned Turkish many years ago from a friend. Since arriving I've tried to learn some Greek as well, but I fear there are only so many languages a person can learn in their lifetime."
The Greek laughed. "True. I know only three other languages, myself. I tried a fourth, but it would not stick. How many do you know?"
"Five, including my native tongue."
Ezio sat beside him and started to hold a pleasant conversation as the procession slowly passed. The clergyman was grateful for some time off his feet and, once he learned that Ezio was Italian, happily tried to debate Orthodox and Catholicism. Ezio complied with what he'd known and grown up with, but stated frankly that he didn't care for religion.
"Religion gives us guides on how to be kind to each other, how to help one another. Those messages I will always abide," Ezio explained. "But after seeing the Borgia, I think man will always be flawed in how he approaches religion because man is flawed. So since every man will interpret the Bible differently, I will follow the teachings I believe."
The clergyman chuckled. "You are an interesting child," he said, sitting back. "I have not had such a good debate for some time."
"You're welcome," Ezio replied. The procession was now well down the street, outside the listening range of any deadly deacons. Ezio glanced around the street to find any source of danger and found it clear.
He turned back to the clergyman, his face far more sober and serious.
"There are rumors," he said softly, putting a hand to the clergyman's arm, "that your Patriarch is in danger from a rogue Deacon. Does that stir any ideas?"
The clergyman immediately spat to the ground. "Ah yes," he replied with the same severity. "We have heard those rumors too. And the name behind them is always Cyril of Rhodes."
"The Patriarch cast him out some years ago for gross misdeeds. Almost a decade now," the clergyman sighed and shook his head in disappointment. "He is banished. Anathema. If you see him in the city, you can be sure he intends to do harm, Suikastchi."
Ezio smiled. "You are truly a sharp old man," he complimented. "Perhaps you might describe him so that this Anathema stays gone?"
The old clergyman smiled.
Almost an hour later with perhaps one of the best descriptions of a target that Ezio had ever been given, he and Kasim were once more following the Paraklesis procession, looking anew at all the deacons and clergymen who were heading the various churches.
Kasim, by Ezio's side, was almost vibrating with energy, eager to show his prowess.
Ezio elbowed him. Hard. "Hold fast. There are a number of holy men here."
"I know what to do, Usta," Kasim replied, reigning himself in. Slightly. "And if I see an opportunity to eliminate him, I will take it. I shall look from the roofs. They provide a better angle."
Ezio hesitated, but let the over-eager Assassin go. Ezio, being on ground level, was hoping he'd be closer and could prevent Kasim from being over-eager. Humility would do the young Assassin well, if Ezio could ever provide a large enough dose of it to stick.
Still, Ezio continued moving up steadily along the procession, trusting his Eagle to spy in the crowds the flicker of gold that always indicated what he wanted. He was about half-way up the procession when he spied the deacon he wanted, a lone man in a mass of singing and chanting, none around him willing to speak to him at all.
Ezio started to sneak through the crowds, eyes locked onto the deacon.
From high above, however, a voice cut through the chant and bustle of the crowd, echoing down the walls of the buildings around him.
"I have him, Usta!"
Ezio watched as Kasim leapt from the roofs, in full spectacle of every single innocent person around him. Many screamed and separated, pushing back from what they saw as a possible suicide attempt. A good tactic to isolate a target, perhaps, but Ezio could see the trajectory and where it was going far too well.
"Stop!" he bellowed, surprising those around them. "That is not our target!"
But Kasim never retracted his blade. He landed on a simple deacon, blade biting deeply into the man's neck, letting him crumple down to the ground.
All around them, people screamed and pushed away, crying and sobbing. Cyril of Rhodes easily blended into the panic, and disappeared with the crowds.
From above, people started to poke their heads out of the windows, some with a morbid curiosity stayed tucked in alleys, others simply cowered in fear, unable to believe that they had just witnessed a murder.
"Idiota! Salak! Ilive! Pezzo di merda bastardo!" he berated in three languages, stalking up to Kasim. He let his voice echo and reverberate, so there was no doubt of what he was saying. "Brash fool! You killed an innocent man! Aptal! Stupido! We go after murderers! Killers! We never harm the innocent!" Ezio knew that it wouldn't take long for the Ottoman guards to arrive, and this was not what he wanted them to see, Assassins killing innocent people. So the best he could do was hope that any around who knew Turkish would understand the mistake and the berating that was happening.
Kasim remained pale, shocked, and silent, uncomprehending. Ezio could see the moment when he finally understood what had just happened as he turned green and collapsed to his knees.
The Florentine Assassin had wanted this Turkish Assassin to learn humility.
But not like this.
"I... I have no excuse, Usta," Kasim gasped softly. He lowered his head further. "Forgive me."
Ezio crossed his arms, standing tall and disapprovingly.
"Even if I do," he replied quietly, his eyes flicking to those around them at what they considered a safe distance, "many others will not."
With a great sob, Kasim buried his face in his bloody hands. "Nor should they..."
Ezio let the moment hang, let this, a lesson he would rather not have given in this manner, sink in. "Take up his body and bring him to the shore. This is your burden to bear."
"Evet," Kasim sobbed. "Of course."
None accosted them. Kasim, his face streaked in blood and tears, tried to stop his quiet sobbing as Ezio played guide instead, leading Kasim through the alleys and side streets until they reached the Halich where Ezio paid a boatman to loan them his boat, no questions asked.
"Commit this poor man to the sea," he told Kasim. "Then meditate on your mistake."
"Evet, Usta," Kasim whimpered, wiping more tears and blood across his face. "May the shame I feel never fade."
Ezio did not join Kasim in the boat. Instead he stepped back and let Kasim have the silence of being alone with the corpse and his failure.
"You are a harsh task-master," the clergyman from earlier said softly behind Ezio. The grandmaster had been aware of the old holy man trailing them and merely nodded.
"I wish such a lesson didn't come at such a cost."
Ezio walked in the rain through Galata until he returned to the derelict mosque and the more welcoming cistern and tunnels beneath. It was well past nightfall, Ezio had spent a good part of the evening with the clergyman, both as a reprieve to quietly deal on his own with the loss of innocent life that always cut through him so deeply and also learning that the clergyman intended to let the Greeks know that Cyril of Rhodes was the target.
Yusuf greeted him with a somber frown. Kasim was already back and locked in a small chamber with a hookah to better meditate. Meryem had joined him, still grieving her own mistake, and Ezio simply nodded, too tired to get the story. Yusuf clearly knew the pertinent details so Ezio let it be.
There was more light rain the following morning, as Ezio quietly set out of headquarters by himself. He headed alone and unaccompanied into the city, making his way to Topkapi and sneaking his way in there. The pass Suleiman had given him before still let him into the first courtyard, but Ezio didn't wish to go through the bother of getting the passes necessary to get into the second courtyard or beyond. So he found a secluded corner and climbed to the roofs, careful of his footing in the light rain, and headed along the tiles into the palace proper. Slipping into the palace from a window that had been opened to try to tempt in a breeze, Ezio took a moment to let out a breath. That had been more of a challenge than he thought. The Janissaries were indeed well trained.
Still, once inside Topkapi palace, it was easy to ghost along, hiding when necessary until he came to a busier hall and then asked, in a thickened Italian accent, where Principe Suleiman was, because Ezio was his new Italian teacher and Ezio had gotten lost on his way.
The clerk he first spoke to scoffed and gave only the barest of directions that lead to the third courtyard, but the next was much kinder and offered to show the way. Suleiman was in a small study, surrounded by books and scrolls, bent over a map of the Mediterranean, fingers hovering over cities and trade lines and a compass on hand to help measure distances.
"Shehazade," the clerk politely interrupted, bowing, "your Italian teacher is here for your lessons."
Suleiman stiffened, slightly, having been caught unaware, and turned. "Italian teacher...?"
Ezio stepped forward. "Principe, I believe we last left off comparing masculine and feminine particles. We were looking at the example of 'la bella menestrella' and 'il bel menestrello'."
Suleiman kept a properly schooled face to show nothing to the bowed clerk, but the slight widening of the eyes was enough to tell Ezio that the prince was surprised to see him.
Still, Suleiman recovered quickly and gave a slight bow of the head. "Grazie, mio insegnante." Suleiman smiled. And with a twinkle in his eye, he smiled more broadly and asked, "Did I say that right?"
"One refers to a teacher as maestro, but otherwise, molto bene."
The clerk left them to their "lesson" and Ezio sat down with the prince. The rain outside had stopped, but the sky was still covered with thick clouds.
"When you said you'd find me, I was not sure I believed you." Suleiman started setting aside his notes and maps. "Or so soon."
Ezio kept watching the clouds outside, collecting his thoughts and Suleiman seemed to understand and sat back, staying quiet.
"You are very young," Ezio said softly. "And you have just become a governor." The old Assassin sighed and looked to the young prince. "There will be a time. It comes to all of us, when we make a mistake so large it seems to encompass us. I pray that whatever your mistake is, that it does not come at the price of others."
Suleiman listened, somberly, and nodded heavily, and Ezio couldn't help but wonder if this boy had ever had such advice before. Surely from his father? But Ezio pushed it aside.
"You saw that there is more than just me, correct?"
"One of my younger, brasher apprentices did something very stupid," Ezio explained. "He has made his mistake that has and will encompass him for the rest of his life. The cost was a life of an innocent."
Suleiman looked down, allowing the moment to settle. "Why have you come to tell me this?"
"Because I don't know how much you know of everything that goes on in this vast city," Ezio replied. "Because I want you to know that we value life, even as we take it, and that we work hard to know who is innocent and who isn't. But even with all our care, mistakes can and will be made. And we must live with them."
"You don't. And I hope you never will," Ezio replied. Standing, he gave a small bow. "I've said what I wanted. I'll be on my way."
He started to leave, but Suleiman stood quickly. "Wait!"
Ezio paused, turning just enough to see the young prince.
"I-" Suleiman paused to compose himself. "Have you learned anything yet?"
Ezio smiled. Still a prince used to giving orders, no matter how polite. And while a good cover and excuse to keep Ezio around to probe and figure out more of Ezio's mysteries, Ezio had been through plots and intrigues too long to not see it.
"When I have the time," he replied, giving a warm smile.
Suleiman frowned, disappointed, before smiling again. "And what about my Italian lesson?"
Ezio chuckled. "Keep your sentences straight with the male and female particles and we'll see how you improve."
And Ezio was gone.
It was a long week. Kasim didn't seek him out at all, indeed even seemed to avoid Ezio on some level as he dealt with his shame and grief. Yusuf spoke with Kasim and Ezio let himself fade to the background. He had spent over a decade building and leading the Assassins of Roma and he was accustomed to being there for them in their highs and lows. But that was not the case here in Istanbul. Here he was a visiting master, a legend, but not their leader. Even as he had struggled since the Little Judgment to lead and provide for them, Yusuf and his amiable, affable, charismatic nature made every Assassin seek him out for advice of this sort.
Ezio was suddenly homesick. He missed Claudia and Federica, Machiavelli and the assassins. He missed the hills and fields of Monteriggioni, the warmth of Firenze, the canals of Venezia, the ancient ruins of Roma. The food, the wine, the scents, the sounds. The openness.
Gone for well over a year and suddenly all Ezio wanted to do was go home. So he did the next best thing.
The week had varied clouds and sunshine before once again settling to a light rain. Ezio had spent his spare time pounding around Galata and the Venetian Quarter, looking for just what he wanted. There were no restaurants in Istanbul, but there were food vendors. And, most importantly, wine sellers. By the end of the week, he knew just who had what he wanted. So, starting in the late afternoon, he went from vendor to seller to shop to get exactly that. Obelius took him to a small inn that was a den and he used the small kitchen to cook. Ezio never claimed to be a good cook. Claudia had learned more than him of food preparation, but he had cooked for Petruccio to make him feel better. All three of them: he, Claudia, and Federico, would make small meals or snacks in hopes of raising Petruccio's spirits when he was ill, and their mother, Maria, who ran a bakery from their home, made sure they knew how to make bread.
By the time he was done, he had a passable dish of cacio de pepe; simple pasta with sheep cheese, a Roman favorite.
The food was tucked into a basket, the wine bought on the way, as Ezio went to the one place in the city where he was guaranteed intelligent and engaging conversation in proper Italian.
Sofia was surprised when she greeted them.
"Ezio! I wasn't expecting you," she smiled brightly. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Ezio offered his own smile, just glad to be in her presence, and said, "You've been working very hard on that map. I thought you needed a break."
Her answering smile was radiant.
Obelius disappeared back into the city and Sofia took Ezio up to the second floor, just as overflowing with books as downstairs, and set a table overlooking the front entrance. Evening settled, the fire down below was warm and inviting and the patter of rain was relaxing. When she saw the wine, Sofia gave a lovely little giggle.
"Why Ezio, are you planning on getting me drunk?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Only as drunk as I get myself," he replied lightly, pouring.
"Well, men do have a lower tolerance than women," was her coy reply. "When I was nine, my uncle was visiting and brought his son, who was ten. We both were able to break into my parent's wine, don't ask me how, and he was drunk long before I was even tipsy."
For the first time in what felt like ages, Ezio laughed, deep and full throated as he pictured Sofia, somewhat wobbly, dragging her drunk cousin away from the wines.
This was, by far, what he needed.
They talked and flirted over the meal, then went down to the sitting area by the fire to finish the wine with a nightcap.
It was very late, well past all the Muslim prayers when they finally started to wind down. Ezio was pleasantly relaxed and Sofia was still smiling.
"Thank you, Ezio," Sofia said softly. "I didn't realize how much I needed a break."
"I'm glad I could help," he replied with a soft, gentle smile. He had needed the break as well, but kept that to himself. He didn't want to think or talk about it at the moment, too content as he was. He let the moment be, settling into the quiet. He didn't want to leave. To go back to the Assassins and their cistern headquarters. It was far too comfortable here.
But, with a sigh, he stood.
"I mustn't keep you," he said.
Sofia looked disappointed, a frown removing the usual quirk of her lips that was always smiling. "It's very late, Ezio," she said. "I wouldn't mind if you spent the night."
Ezio blinked, thinking he heard a certain invitation, but decided he really had drunk too much wine. "My thanks, but I have responsibilities and must be on my way."
Sofia walked him to the door.
"Be safe, Ezio," she said, her brow just barely pinching in worry.
Ezio chuckled. "There is nothing out there I fear."
Sofia's lips were quirking into that hint of a smile again. "Always so mysterious, whenever you come by."
"A habit hard to break."
Sofia looked into his eyes and he felt she could see his very soul. Then she looked away. "I'll be seeing you," she said finally, opening the door.
The time spent with Sofia was a wonder, and Ezio felt all the better for it. Yusuf noted his lighter step and the few more smiles he gave that were more sincere than ironic and told him flatly that whatever he had done needed to be done more regularly.
"Now, Usta, I'll be meeting with Kizzy this afternoon-"
"And will be there until morning I'm sure."
Yusuf grinned widely. "I hope so! But Piri has sent word about a Greek merchant who's been getting harassed at the Kapalicharshi."
Ezio narrowed his eyes. "And one of our journeyman won't handle it?"
Yusuf offered his usual grin. "Ah, but don't you remember, most of them are observing the Janissaries, per your little mission from our Shehzadem."
"True. Very well."
So Ezio and Obelius were once more on the streets of the southern half of Istanbul. Obelius was a Greek Assassin, his grandfather being one of the few Assassins who had struggled to exist under the Byzantium rule and had trained, briefly, with Ezio's own father. Barely over seventeen, the young Assassin had been one of the journeymen Yusuf had promoted after the Little Judgment had so devastated their numbers. It was clear that he'd had to grow up fast over the course of his life. He conducted himself in a somber, serious tone, but his youth would burst through when emotional over something. He could vacillate from loud anger to bubbling laughter if his mood was strong enough, but always worked to revert to that somber seriousness he needed to survive his quick maturation. He would settle with age and experience. In a sad way, Ezio was reminded of himself after watching half his family die. He had worked hard to be the man of the house but his own teenage volatility and grief would peak through. Zio Mario had helped temper his outbursts and Ezio did what he could to do the same for Obelius.
Arriving at Piri's small closet of a room at the Kapalicharshi, the old sailor was not at his maps, for once, instead at a small desk that was unburied from the last time Ezio had been there two weeks prior, and he was setting up bombs.
"Ah, Lothario, welcome back."
"We understand a merchant has been getting harassed?" Ezio asked.
"Evet," Piri nodded. "An honest man. He has stopped by from time to time for conversation. We were on the same ship for a few years and he was always a straight-forward man."
"Then we should ensure that he is no longer targeted."
Piri nodded. "He told me he was going to stay home for a few days. After some of the turmoil he's faced I don't blame him. But I doubt he'll be left alone, even at home. The Byzantines see him as too much of a sympathizer to us Ottomans."
Ezio nodded. "Still, I doubt he'd like to see his countrymen killed."
Obelius let out a dark chuckle. "If he's anything like me, he'd love to see his abusers slaughtered. But the everyday citizens? No."
Ezio frowned, not liking the darker undertone, and wondered what his childhood had been like to make him grow up so fast and so bitter.
"Then try this," Piri said, handing over the bombs he had just been making. "Caltrop bombs. A non-lethal method of stopping pursuers."
"I like the sound of that," Ezio smirked.
"Heh." Piri walked around to the table, looking at his maps again. "When I first sailed with my Amca Kamal more than two decades ago, we had quite a lot of fun with these in many rowdy ports. In Rodos, for instance, it was so easy to lure the Hospitaliers from their palace posts, right into a patch of caltrops. And to see them dancing in the street in a full suit of armor. Nothing is more undignified. Try it. You'll see."
"We'll keep that in mind."
Obelius took the bombs and put them in his pouches. Ezio nodded to the old sailor. "We'll ensure your old friend's safety."
"Teshekkurler," Piri thanked them.
Obelius and Ezio took to the roofs soon after leaving. The merchant's home was almost an hour's walk through the streets and the higher road would be faster. Piri had given precise directions and descriptions of the home and also what the merchant looked like and it didn't take long to find the home in question under the partly cloudy sky.
It was a wide street, though not a proper thoroughfare, and the home in question was already under assault. Byzantines, brazenly wearing their red armor in the Ottoman city, were pounding on the door, shouting, leaving the pedestrians to give a wide berth to avoid any trouble.
"I have been tolerant with you!" Obelius translated the captain's shouts. "But my patience has its limits!"
"Evet, Usta!" A caltrop bomb quickly exploded at the feet of the Byzantines leaving them bouncing and indeed, almost dancing as Piri had suggested. Both Ezio and Obelius were swiftly dropping with hidden blades extended into the Byzantine necks.
With such visible executions, the citizens around who had given such a wide berth started screaming and running, and a nearby patrol of guards came running.
"Merda," Ezio cursed. "We must hurry!"
"Of course!" Obelius shouted, both taking off down the streets.
Unfortunately, one of the patrolling Ottomans seemed to have as much speed as a thief or assassin, catching up. Before Ezio could even shout an order Obelius had dropped another caltrop bomb and they ducked down an alley and up a ladder, leaving the Ottomans struggling as they tripped over the spiked balls and quickly shredded their leather boots.
Having escaped the Ottomans, Ezio took a moment to steady his breathing and turned to the somber teenager. "Piri Reis won't have to worry about his friend anymore."
Obelius smiled. "Indeed."
October brought comfortable temperatures and comfortable air. Light rain splattered about the cloudier skies, making days outside a guess; capricious and never certain. More letters came, this time another missive from Bursa with and update, as well as more information: Janissaries were selling access to viziers that were visiting from the Sublime Porte, and that gave further credence to Suleiman's worry about the loyalty of the Janissaries to the sultan, and further brought into question their connection to the Byzantines. Ezio did not take it at face value, however; corruptions existed on every level, and one did not always connect to the other. The lower levels of skullduggery did not bother him too much, but that was only if it didn't connect higher up the chain of command, and that remained to be seen. Yusuf's assassins reported that the Janissaries centralized in three locations: the First Courtyard in Topkapi, where they were quartered; the Hippodrome, where they trained; and the Kapalicharshi, where they spent their free time. This was not enough room to house all of them, but Ezio wanted a better feel of the structure of the army before he started tracing lines of influence. That took time, in spite of the young prince's impatience, and however pressed Ezio was in routing out the Byzantines and their influence for the keys to Masyaf, he was not his younger, brasher self.
With that thought in mind, he went south to one of the dens to get another report on the Janissaries.
Meryem was there, eyes alight.
"Promising news, Usta," she said, pulling her hood over her head. "The actress Lysistrata is making a public performance under a stage name."
Ezio blinked at the news. "Hmm. She knows it is wiser to stay hidden, but her vanity is getting the better of her. This is telling, it will give us an advantage."
Meryem nodded. "Follow me. We will get her this time."
The two moved out into the streets, Meryem changing her gate and tugging at her armor until she looked more like a man in her bearing. Her face was tight, eyes hard and fists digging so deep into her palms Ezio realized she was in no frame of mind to do this mission successfully. He asked the first question that came to mind.
"Which is easier for you, being a woman or being a man?"
Meryem startled at the question, completely disjointing her thoughts. "Uh, a woman," she said, regathering herself. "Without question."
"Why?" he asked. "You are covered from head to toe, hidden from the world in your culture, you do not participate in the world as you should, you do not participate in social gatherings. Why would you prefer that?"
Meryem offered him a confused look. "Because it is easier," she said again. "I do not know how women in your country are treated, Usta, but there is no judgment here. My parents, when they lived in Spain... I heard stories how how women were judged by their beauty, their very dowries were used as bribery to sell off an unattractive woman. Covered as we are here, men must instead judge us by other standards when they see us. It also makes us invisible, how can someone identify me when I am, as you say, covered head to toe? You praise me on my invisibility, but there is very little to it as a woman. I work much harder when I must be a man, because you men constantly have to prove how masculine you all are. Your sense of competition makes life very tedious, and I much rather gossiping with other women to get my information."
"And is that how you learned of Lysistrata?" Ezio asked.
"Why, yes," she said.
"You possess a wisdom few understand," Ezio said. "I look forward to watching you teach it to others."
They walked a ways further, Meryem's eyes wide as she slowly absorbed Ezio's praise, and her shoulders and stance slowly relaxed. Good. The pair reached the port, taking to the roofs and spying one of the plazas overlooking the docks flooded with people. Lysistrata, flanked by two men in heavy Byzantine armor, spoke to the crowd in passion, gesticulating, moving, theatrical in everything she did. In the crowd were more Byzantines, the plaza was flooded with red.
"She is bold," Meryem said, "You must admit that."
Ezio shook his head. "Boldness is often a sign of weakness. A true master never takes unnecessary risks. I learned this lesson the hard way many years ago."
"Will you wait here, or should we do this together?" Meryem asked.
"As I said, no unnecessary risks. We go together. And if you do not get her, I will." Meryem nodded, but Ezio touched her shoulder. "No mistakes. Take your time, and plan your attack."
"Evet, Usta," she replied, her voice hard, tightness returning to her face. She was not coiled, however, there was a confidence in her that Ezio had been waiting to see. "I will wait an entire year if I have to."
The grandmaster smiled. "I hope it does not come to that," he said with a hint of Florentine irony. "I am a busy man."
They split up after that, trailing along the roofs. Ezio took out the Templar riflemen; the last thing they needed were bullets being shot into the crowds. From above he could see Meryem, a hijab and shawl covering her assassin armor and making her once again a woman, slowly weaved through the crowds, utterly invisible. Ezio left her to her task, finishing up with the men on the roofs and then joining her in the crowds. Hooded and shifting to the gate of an older man (and he did not acknowledge that he was, in fact, an older man), he shuffled through the crowds, equally invisible. He made his way to the front, listening to the actress' speech. She was artful, to be expected of her profession; she spoke of bearing indignities, childish demands, and being hidden and quiet. There was a metaphor in there, a subtext Ezio did not know since he had not heard the entire speech. His eagle drew his gaze to his left, and he saw Meryem out of the crowd and climb a crane. A few people spotted her and pointed, but Lysistrata saw her doom too late, as Meryem leapt with textbook precision and assassinated her.
Shock fell over the crowd for a brief moment, everyone frozen.
"You do your duty well, Assassin..." Lysistrata grunted, willing to turn her very death into a stage performance, "but you do it with such coldness that I almost pity you. The lives you fight to protect are dull, weak, and lacking luster. What a bland world it will be if you Assassins get your way."
Meryem shook her head, leaning forward. "The world reflects the colors in our own souls. If your world is as dull as you say, then I pity you, for my world is vibrant in color and culture, tradition and progress. That is the world I am making. Huzur ichinde yatsın," she added, giving last rites.
"Make for the mosque! Make for the mosque!"
"Run, keep my head down and run!"
"I'm not part of this!"
The Byzantine guards broke from their stupor and wielded massive battle axes. There was no more time left, and Ezio lifted his hidden gun, cursing as he fired into the faceplate of one even as Meryem realized the danger and plunged her hidden blade into the second.
"Run!" Ezio shouted, and the journeyman needed no other instruction, she was already flying up the stairs, Ezio hot on her heels and letting her take the lead through the narrow alleys and steps and finally up a ladder to the endless wooden shingles of the city. A light rain began to fall, and Ezio spied a sky garden to hide in. The two disappeared into its depths, panting. An Ottoman guard was shouting somewhere, and Ezio shoved Meryem to the floor, pressing on top of her and holding his breath. Several footfalls blew past them, curses in Greek and Turkish, and then, finally, silence. The light patter of the rain was relaxing, and Ezio risked getting up to his knees and peeking out. They were clear. Sighing, he leaned back against the garden. "That was excellent," he said.
Meryem flushed. "Teshekkür ederim," she said, a little embarrassed at the praise.
They waited out the passing storm, and an hour later they were back in the den and Ezio was being escorted back to Galata and the underground cistern. Yusuf was in another meeting with Hayri, Cenk, and Kizzy, the four guilds still learning how to work around and support each other. Dogan, strong and silent as always, was at Yusuf's shoulder and absorbing everything in perfect detail. When they let out, Ezio pulled the Turkish master aside with an important question.
"What is your ceremony for promoting assassins?" he asked.
Yusuf blinked, taken aback slightly by the question. "We haven't had time for ceremonies," he said, "After Little Judgment Day we were struggling to survive."
"Can you make the time now?"
Yusuf grinned. "Evet, and I think we should make it very special."
So it was that by the end of the week the entire guild was packed into the hideout. The children watched by Romani, and the heads of the other guilds standing in their best: Kizzy in her fancy robes, Cenk in his best armor, and Hayri clean and freshly shaved. By them were others: Obelius, who was already an assassin, Fusun, and others. And, too, there was Meryem, journeyman. They stood not in the cistern, but in the abandoned mosque, brazier at the head of the column. The crowds were spread out into rows – roughly – and Yusuf and Ezio walked up the aisle. Yusuf wore a clean uniform, and Ezio had his clothes cleaned and starched, his small additions of armor burnished and gleaming in the firelight. Incense normally burning in hookah filled the air, tendrils of smoke enticing everyone. There was no talking, no whispering, and when the two masters reached the guild heads and others, everyone instinctively straightened.
"Laa shay'a waqi'un moutlaq bale kouloun moumkine," Yusuf said, the normal grin in his voice gone, the solemnity of the moment hanging in the air. "The wisdom of our Creed is revealed in these words. We work in the dark, to serve the light. We are Assassins."
"Where men hold power over others, we remind them that they are merely men," Ezio said. "Where women are treated as things, we show them they are equal; where nobility are bigoted, we teach them real nobility; where people are owned, we reveal the freedom of choice; where justice is ignored, we fight for what is right; where ignorance is prevalent, we imbue knowledge. We are Assassins."
Kizzy stepped forward first, and Yusuf took the brazier and burned her finger, Ezio following it up with a basin of water and, one by one, the men and women assembled at the head of the mosque were inducted into the Order.
"Since Little Judgment Day," Yusuf said, "We have been moving from one crisis to the next. Life has always gotten in the way; daily pressures, schemes, assaults and defense. 'It can be put off,' we think, 'We can afford to wait.' But now, the wait is over. So many of you have been Assassins for over two years, but now the entire Order knows it. Many of you had proven your skills, and are ready for the Leap. And some of you," he eyed the other guild heads, "are still new to it all; but know that all of you, every single one of you, is valued in this Order. We welcome you to the Brotherhood, and we rejoice to receive you."
"Were other men blindly follow the truth, remember..."
"Nothing is true."
"Where other men are limited by morality or law, remember..."
"Everything is permitted."
"Hichbir shey doğru, her sheye izin vardır." Nothing is true, everything is permitted. Ezio, even after so many months in the Ottoman Empire was not used to hearing the phrase in Turkish, but it was beautiful to hear; the rhythm and cadence of the Turkish language gave it a sense of poetry that his native Italian didn't seem to provide. Yusuf disappeared to the roofs with the new and old Assassins to perform the Leap of Faith, and Ezio watched the novices and apprentices, the journeymen and assassins talking amongst themselves, sharing stories and aspirations, awe and marvel at what was the only true ceremony of the Order. The weight of it left all of them hushed and hopeful, looking to the future and seeing only good things.
Ezio was envious, in a way, because he had lost sight of that hope, of that dedication to a future of sunshine and flowers. He had seen too much, done too much, and it was the loss of that that made him frown and disappear into the shadows. When had it disappeared? When had his outlook on the future turned so dark? When had he realized that chaos was the eventual outcome of... of everything? Cesare Borgia? The fall of Monteriggioni? The death of his father and brothers? Dark thoughts permeated even something as sacred as watching assassins being inducted into the Order, and Ezio worried about how pernicious his depression was.
It was well past midnight, Ezio ruminating over a glass of wine, when Yusuf appeared and sat with him in the library. Silence spread between them, dim candlelight casting deep shadows on both of their faces.
"Ezio," Yusuf said softly. "What is it you're looking for?"
The greying grandmaster scoffed. "I wish I knew," he said. "I can only hope Altaïr's hidden library holds the answers."
Yusuf rested his head on his hand, crossing his legs. "Wisdom doesn't come from a book, Usta da Firenze. It comes from life. You need to live more."
"... Sometimes I wonder if I've lived enough."
The Turk's eyes narrowed. "That is a dangerous way to think, Ezio."
"I know. It nearly got me killed at Masyaf." He sipped his wine. "I know the melancholy that surrounds me. I am fighting against it as best I know how."
Silence settled over them again, long and deep, before Yusuf reached over and patted Ezio's knee.
"Don't worry, Usta da Firenze. We'll straighten you out."
Ezio smiled, softly, and the two men went to bed.
Author's Notes: Oh, look, a time killing chapter. But in spite of that a lot happens here. Were we the only one's who thought Kasim's master assassin mission was devastating? Every time we play the game we make a point of putting women in all the dens, except that one because we want a guy to be the one who breaks into peaces like that. Er, that probably says something about us somehow... o.O'
We also have a few small memories with Suleiman and Sofia respectively. The next major memory sequences don't happen for a bit, so we occasionally spin their plates as necessary - especially for Sofia because of how her memories will be different. And as a side note: silly Ezio! She totally was giving and invitation; you must really be depressed if you thought you were just imagining it!
But the highlight for us, as it has been whenever it happens, if the induction ceremony. The traditions haven't changed all that much from Italy, but Yusuf gets to really shine in this moment, because he's the one who gives it the weight and meaning instead of Ezio. He also gets to shine because he's the only one who really sees the depression Ezio is suffering from, and like a good friend he does what he can. Anything to endear him at this point, right? :P
Muslim Lesson: While bilal and imam take care of the day to day rigors of Islamic faith, for the scholarly side we have sheikh and ustadh. Ustadh are the men and women who teach children and converts about Islam. The two of us as children remember going to church in the evenings after school and were taught how to be catholic, there were children's workbooks to be filled out and quizzes and everything; that's what the ustadh do. Sheikh, literally translated to "old man," are men and women who are considered deeply versed in the Qu'ran and the Hadith and make a study of it. A famous American sheikh is Sh. Hamza Yusuf. Our beta gave us a bunch of his youtube videos, you can look him up yourself.
For our fic, Azize is an ustadzah. Yusuf playfully calls her a sheikh.
Next chapter: Author's do backflips with the kitchen-sink-plot, a Sofia memory is covered, and an assassin is seriously injured. Meh, anything to kill time, right? :D