The note showed no signs of having been intercepted, the thin parchment only creased where it had been neatly folded. Still, Ezio considered teaching the young prince a bit of subtlety in his summoning techniques.
Just after maghrib in the north tower. I will be meditating and hope you are able to join me.
At least it was not signed. Ezio sighed and held the parchment over a candle flame.
The floorboards creaked in the doorway behind him. Too light a step for someone not trained in stealth but too heavy for an attempt at such.
“Missives from a young admirer, I take it?”
Ezio chuckled. “Schemes to involve me in more politics, more like.”
“So you are planning to respond? I suppose you will need assistance.” Yusuf stepped more fully into the room, incense smoke swirling around his familiar form. “Do you really believe there is something of worth in this princeling of yours?”
“He understands justice, Yusuf. That is more than I can say for most men twice his age.”
“Ah, but you’ve said it. He is young yet.”
Ezio studied his friend in the dim light. The lines on his face, the hints of gray at his temples—all were quite well disguised by the amusement that always seemed close at hand, but not hidden entirely. “Tell me, Yusuf. Why are you still an assassin?”
“The easy answer is that one never really retires.” Yusuf grinned. “But perhaps I understand justice as well. I’d like to think so.” He clapped a hand on Ezio’s shoulder, the pauldron there clinking with the force. “Also, I cannot lie. I quite enjoy outwitting imperial guards.”
Ezio smiled and picked up his crossbow to peer at the whipcord for signs of fraying. “Then in the name of justice, let us go give some janissaries the slip.”
“So you’ll do it?”
Suleiman’s one-handed grip on Ezio’s bicep tightened a little. Ezio tried not to let such youthful enthusiasm for political intrigue sway him, and ultimately failed. “Allow me to make sure I understand. You want me to act as a guard during this party while attempting to prevent your uncle’s assassination?”
Suleiman nodded. “The only problem is that I cannot supply you with a uniform before tomorrow night. We seem to have run out of them with the new recruits that were hired yesterday.”
“I suppose I could manage to acquire my own.” Realizing he’d all but agreed to the job, Ezio sighed. “How do you know that this is their plan?”
“The exact words overheard were ‘His Highness will be dealt with tonight.’”
“And why do you not simply convince your uncle to stay home?”
“For one thing, I do not want him to find out I have ways of…acquiring information. It is not something he needs to know.” Suleiman’s lips thinned. “Also I cannot appear weak, and neither can my uncle. A true leader does not hide from his enemies.”
Ezio grudgingly held back any lectures he might have given. “I suppose I can understand the philosophy. I have never made it a habit to ignore my enemies.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “One more thing. Why do you ask me to do this and not one of your countrymen?”
“Don’t forget that my countrymen are the ones plotting against my family.” A corner of Suleiman’s lips twitched up. “And do you think I forget what you did for me on a similar…eventful occasion?”
“I had help then.”
“So bring help.”
Suleiman’s hand was still on Ezio’s arm. The men here tended to be somewhat more…tactile than the men in Italy. But Ezio had been friends with Leonardo da Vinci for decades. Tactile usually didn’t bother him. “And all you must do in the meantime is exercise your princely charm.”
Suleiman’s face brightened and then fell again at a dizzying rate. “I tire of politicians. So much meaningless chatter. It has been months since I discussed academics, books, science.”
Ezio chuckled. “You would enjoy the company of an old friend of mine.”
He was very glad the bulk of this outing would take place at night. Turkish sunsets were magnificent, unless one was attempting to remain unseen. The light off the surface of the Golden Horn shone straight into Ezio’s right eye as he crossed the plank of wood that connected the dock to the enormous barge already filling with party guests. The skirts of the janissary’s robe were cumbersome, snagging on splinters in the plank and swirling heavily. He was forced to lend a sort of respect to anyone who managed to put up a decent fight in them.
As the barge masters pushed off from the dock and began a meandering course into deeper waters, Ezio scanned the crowds, patrolling slowly along the perimeter, purposely roughening his steps, pace confident and arms swaying carelessly. The average guard would assume this was a pointless assignment, an exercise in stroking the egos of the ones who paid them, as surely no danger could befall anyone on a boat in the middle of the channel.
Suleiman was near the aft side of the barge with Prince Ahmet, smiling and nodding politely to a group of older noblewomen. Ezio slipped up behind a woman swathed in bright blue fabric and flashed the agreed-upon hand signal to the prince across the circle. Suleiman gave an almost imperceptible nod.
“This fabric chafes. It is enough to make me want to assassinate someone.”
Ezio sincerely hoped Yusuf was the only person here who could approach him that silently. “At least you are not holding a lute this time.”
“But if I were, I could sing my miseries.” Yusuf had his back to Ezio, facing the crowd, but still managed to throw his voice over his shoulder. “I’m sure Prince Suleiman would rather you not be swaddled so.”
“What do you mean?”
“I saw how he looked at his 'handsome minstrel.’”
Before Ezio could respond to that in a dignified manner, Ahmet extracted himself from the group and headed in the direction of a servant holding a tray of drinks, and Yusuf tensed. “Do not look, but there is a sinister man headed our way, and I cannot see both of his hands.”
It was Ezio’s opinion that most nobles had a sinister air, but he trusted Yusuf’s judgment. There was only one flaw in this observation: the assassin was heading away from his supposed target. Which could only mean one thing: Suleiman was wrong. Disastrously wrong.
The loss of heat at his back told him Yusuf planned to confront the would-be assassin, and sure enough, there came an official-sounding “Excuse me, sir” and then a shout and the sounds of a scuffle. A woman shrieked, and the entire party seemed to turn as one to stare at the fight, which gave the second assassin the perfect opportunity to slip over the rail of the boat and make for Suleiman’s group. All of Ezio’s escape routes were now choked by panicked nobles and servants, and there was no telling how many more conspirators were lurking in the shadows. Risking Suleiman in the confusion while Ezio attempted to fend off the second man was not a viable option. Within a moment or two, he had made the decision to do a very indecorous thing.
In two strides, he had reached Suleiman’s side and grabbed the prince’s arm. “Can you swim?” he shouted.
Suleiman’s confusion quickly gave way to wide-eyed understanding as he followed the direction of Ezio’s gaze to the cowled figure making its way determinedly through the crowd—only to be knocked off its feet by a screaming nobleman.
“Yes,” Suleiman shouted back, and put up no fight as Ezio dragged him to the rail of the boat and over it.
The sound of the splash was sure to have been lost in the ruckus, but just to be sure, Ezio hauled the spluttering prince in the direction of another boat nearby. Light glinted off the water, but the moon was only a crescent. Ezio hoped their silhouettes were as indistinguishable as he’d thought they would be.
When they reached the boat, a small merchant ship that appeared to contain only the minimum maintenance crew, Ezio clung to one of the low beams of the hull. Suleiman clung to Ezio, one arm around his neck and one gripping his shoulder. It was not the most comfortable position, but at least it was warmer than the seawater.
Concealed, Ezio hoped, in the shadows, they waited for what seemed like hours for the panic on the barge to subside a bit and for the barge itself to begin its float back to the dock. No pursuit was in evidence, so if they had been noticed, at least the killers were not determined enough to attempt a sea battle.
Suleiman broke the silence, his warm breath ghosting over Ezio’s neck. “What now?”
“Now we—ah.” A tiny passenger boat was heading their way, its oars barely making a sound on the waves. When it was about ten yards away, a soft birdcall sounded from its bow. Ezio grinned and returned the call, glad as ever for Yusuf’s forethought.
Ezio barely waited until he had climbed into the boat to strip off his soaked, heavy janissary robes in disgust. He did not miss the way Suleiman watched this small outburst, needing to be prompted to take the blanket one of Yusuf’s assassins held out for him.
“So when they said ‘His Highness,’” Suleiman began, looking sheepish, or at least as sheepish as one of royal bearing can look.
“They did not refer to your uncle,” Ezio finished.
Suleiman shook his head and sighed. “How do you suppose your friend is faring?”
“He is a good actor. He probably convinced them he was in charge and also that you were never on the boat.”
“Ha!” Suleiman grinned. “You assassins lead exciting lives.” His expression turned wistful as he watched the dock approach. “Thank you for what you’ve done for me. I know you cannot always be saving princes.”
“I also saved the student I met before I set foot in Constantinople. I liked him.”
“I can safely say that he is also grateful.” The boat bumped up against the dock, and Suleiman stood with not a trace of unsteadiness to climb out. “I hope we can both call on your services again if need be, since it seems there are more sharks in the water than we supposed. But we promise not to abuse the privilege.”
“Of course. But your highness.” The prince turned to look back at Ezio, the moonlight limning his head in white. “I refuse to wear any more costumes.”