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Fortitude

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Île Saint-Louis, 17th October, 1794

The packet was a heavy weight in Arno’s coat pocket. The letters were written on thick, quality paper, and the quick flick-throughs revealed minimal ink bleed. Arno had read a little of them, but English had never been his strong suit in his studies. He understood perhaps one in three words, and those either from their similar French or German counterparts, or from half-remembered lessons. His hand strayed to his pocket, and he frowned. Would the letters be enough to secure favour with the Brotherhood?

The carriage pulled to a stop, and Arno hesitated for a few moments before he climbed out. The café hadn’t changed much within six months, and there was a part of him that was glad for it; the part of him that still mourned for Élise felt it like a stab. He had been so excited about the renovations, had told her about the process of repairing both the building and the business, and the happiness he had gained in seeing the community thrive for it. She had smiled whilst he talked about it, asked questions about the repairs. Long years with her had let him learn to difference between when she feigned interest in topics and ones that genuinely excited her. This had been genuine. He couldn’t stop the memories from welling up, and for a moment he couldn’t breathe. His head was full of Élise — her smell, her laugh and her voice — Don’t get caught — the glint of her hair in the sun, the way she looked over her shoulder to him when he called her name, the teasing and the little jokes they had shared, the taste of her on his lips, the balloon ride and the press of her body, her skin against his …

I love you, Arno Victor Dorian.

His name clanged like bells in his ears, ringing forth in her voice.

Arno, Arno, ARNO.

Arno braced himself on his knees, fighting a sudden wave of sickness rising in his gut. Hot tears stung his eyes, and he distantly heard the carriage driver ask, “Citoyen?”

Wait for me! Élise!

Arno straightened himself, swallowing against the pain in his throat. The Guillotine Gun was a heavy, uncomfortable weight on his back. “That is all,” he said emotionlessly.

The driver touched the reins to the horses, and the carriage moved off. Arno flexed his fingers, took a breath, and went to Café Théâtre’s door. The café was used to the Assassins coming and going at irregular hours. As such, the attic window was always unlocked, and a kettle set over the kitchen hearth with a selection of tea nearby. At least, that was how Arno had left the place. He didn’t think he had the energy, or the want, to climb the building, but he did have a key to the front door. The lock clunked. The hinges of all the café’s doors had been kept deliberately squeaky in the event of anyone attempting a break-in, and they seemed so loud as he opened the door. The café floor was deserted, the little tables shining with the fresh coat of wax that was applied nightly. He stumbled to the table Élise had sat at when he had asked her hurriedly to come here. He fell in one of the chairs and slumped forwards, uncaring when his disturbance made the feet squeal across the floor.

He barely flinched when he heard the click of a pistol. There was a woman standing in the door by the counter, the pistol held up and at the ready. She faltered when she saw him. “Arno?” Charlotte Gouze hadn’t changed either, her dark hair plaited out of the way for bed. She had a motherly air about her, and for no small reason; she couldn’t seem to help fussing about every Assassin that came under the roof, making sure each one of them was as comfortable as possible and that she was always there should the need for her arise. Arno was glad to see her.

“Madame Gouze,” he said quietly.

She put her pistol on the bar and hurried over the floor to him, touching him on the arm. “Good God, what are you doing here? I thought you’d left the country.”

“I’m not finished with France yet,” he said. “Am I still welcome here?”

“Any time,” she said, and sat down in the opposite chair. “My God. How are you?”

Far from well. “Tired,” he said.

“From the journey? I heard a carriage, and that’s what woke me.”

“From everything.” He leaned across the table. “Madame,” he said, “I must be frank: I have a request for the Council.”

Madame Gouze’s eyes hardened. “What sort of request?”

“I wish to petition them. I want to rejoin the Brotherhood.”

“Arno,” she said with a sigh that sounded to him frustratingly pitiful, “do you want to do this again? They said no before.”

“A year ago.”

“And a year’s difference won’t change their minds.”

“Oh, we’ll see.” He took out the leather wallet with the letters and held it up for her inspection. “Tell them I have information they will be very interested to hear.” He placed them on the table. “Letters penned by a Templar Grand Master,” he said. “Speaking of peace between us.”

She looked him up and down fondly, then pursed her lips. “I’ll have a hot meal and bath prepared for you at once.”

Arno nodded slightly. “Merci.” She would pass his message along, of that he was sure.

He stood and trudged up the stairs, ignoring two Assassins as they came out of another room to stare at him in his Raiders rags. He heard their mutters as he made his way along the corridor to his old room, watching from out the window the glow of a fire near Notre-Dame. He was glad that his room hadn’t changed much in his absence. The furniture was covered in dust cloths, and he shrugged the Guillotine Gun from his back, glad to be rid of the weight. He went to the bed, falling on it in an exhausted heap without bothering to remove the sheet. His beard scratched, and he sent for a razor, brush, and a cake of shaving soap when the serving girl came up with the first bucket of hot water for the bath. He was impatient for the beard to go as he ate the dinner brought up for him — a bowl of thin garbure he didn’t taste and a heel of bread to sop the rest of it up. He thanked the maids when they removed the dust sheets and left the bath ready for him, and he stripped himself of the Raider rags and threw them aside without any thought, though he placed his hidden blade on the nightstand, making a note to polish and sharpen it later.

He scrubbed himself pink, embarrassed by the grey colour the water turned as he shifted the sweat and dirt from his skin. The herbs embedded in the soap were a pleasant scratch, and he worked it into his hair, grimacing at the tangles he found. The heat of the bath made him feel lethargic, and he got out as soon as he was done, firstly for the fact he didn’t want to sit in his filth for a moment more than he had to, and secondly because he feared he would stave off shaving until the morning. Arno wrapped a towel about his waist, standing before the pitcher and bowl underneath the mirror, and took some of the shaving soap onto the brush, working it into a lather in a ceramic bowl.

He almost wished he would nick himself with the razor as he scraped it over his skin, rinsing and wiping it on a hand towel before repeating the action. By the time he finished, nothing had happened.

Too good with a blade in hand. He shivered with a suppressed laugh. Élise’s journal had mentioned over the years how it would have only been a matter of time until he learnt of the Assassins; the blood was too strong in him. The skills it brought seemed to extend to everything.

He washed the last of the lather away, folded the razor up, and stared warily at himself in the mirror. He looked like death. His cheekbones stood sharp against his face, his eyes ringed by circles dark as bruises, his hair, though now clean, was snarled and in need of trimming. The marks Germain had left on him with the Sword stood stark and an angry red against his skin, each of them shaped like a lightning strike; he didn’t know if they would disappear, and suspected they wouldn’t. Overall, Arno didn’t recognise himself; he was a stranger in his own skin. He chuckled dryly as the thought of Léon crossed his mind, and how he had been able to look at Arno, blood-spattered and nursing a hell of a hangover, and think for a second how he could have saved France when he could barely save himself.

He hadn’t gone directly back to Paris after leaving Franciade. He’d gone to Versailles, determined to tie up the loose ends that had been left there. To finish the business Élise had detailed in her letter to him. After Ruddock’s betrayal and Frederick Weatherall’s offer to let him stay, Arno had tried. He had lasted little more than a month before he ran, too close to Élise’s life for comfort, and the ghost of her he saw in Weatherall and Hélène had seen him redress in the clothes he had donned in disguise in Franciade and pack in the middle of the night. The wound left by her death had still been raw, and his grief had turned into want for action. So here he was, returned to Paris with the letters in hand. Ruddock had hoped to use them to regain entry to the Brotherhood, and his crimes — betrayal, taking jobs under the table, consorting with the enemy, and threatening the safety of members of the Brotherhood — were far worse than Arno’s. If the letters had offered the hope for him to regain his position …

He didn’t know anymore. This path was the only one he could see for himself now. It wouldn’t let him think about Élise.

Arno tipped the water from the wash basin out into the garden, hurrying back inside to the warmth, and ran a comb through his hair if only so he wouldn’t have to think about the tangles in the morning. His eyes fell to the Raider rags. He considered them for a second, then left them where they were. He would burn them in the morning. He barely had the energy to slip a night shirt on, and fell asleep half-under the coverlet.


Arno slept deeply, far more deeply than he had ever since Élise’s death. Perhaps it was being in a familiar place once more, but evidently the night hadn’t been peaceful as he had first thought, for he woke with tears on his cheeks from a dream he couldn’t remember. He lay still for a moment, feeling them slide over his skin before he reached to wipe them away. He turned over onto his side, listening to the familiar sounds of the café. He could hear the morning shuffle of customers downstairs, the traffic of the street outside, the quiet murmur of the Seine, and Colignon humming to himself as he trimmed the hedges in the rooftop garden. The smell of coffee permeated the building, and Arno’s stomach rumbled.

Home, a small part of him whispered. Home.

He sat up with a groan, still feeling exhausted. Sunlight streamed in through the crack in the curtains, and he padded towards them, squinting against the glare. The clock told him it was nearly ten. “Damn,” he muttered, running his hands down his face. Breakfast would have been long finished by this point, and he was entertaining thoughts of how best to slip down to the kitchens and crossing as few people as possible when he saw the folded paper that had been slipped under his door.

He tensed, worried about how deep he’d been sleeping, and how much his guard had relaxed, to not have woken up at the knocks that were sure to have accompanied the note before the messenger gave up. He was usually much more observant about these things. The last time he hadn’t been woken up at a disturbance if he didn’t count the nights he’d spent drunk, it was when he had been with Élise, pressing kisses against down the length of her spine as she slept in his arms. He picked it up, tapping it against his palm in the effort to delay. He’d recognised the handwriting on the front.

Breakfast later, he decided finally, unfolding it. It turned out to be more of a note than a letter, but Arno was satisfied either way.

 

Monsieur Dorian,

We have learnt as of last night you have taken up residence in Café Théâtre once again and seek petition. We have conferred and agreed to meet with you at six o’clock this coming evening.

— The Council

 

Merci, Madame. Arno dressed, tucked the letter away in a pocket, and ventured downstairs to see if there was anything fresh to eat.

Luckily, there was the morning’s bread left, and a bit of soft goat’s cheese. He sat down with both that and a cup of coffee to begin drawing up his arguments for being let back into the Brotherhood.

I found and dismantled the Templar branch in Paris, Arno wrote. I brought an end to the tyranny they imposed over Paris. I killed their Grand Master, and retrieved the Piece of Eden he claimed for himself and sought to use for destructive purposes. I found a second Piece of Eden beneath the town of Saint-Denis, now called Franciade, and sent it to Cairo for safekeeping.

I obtained the name of another, an unknown interested in the Pieces: the Lady Eve.

Arno paused, placing the end of the pen against his lips. He stared at the name. The Lady Eve. Before he had set off to find Élise’s contact Ruddock following the events at Franciade, he had questioned raiders as he had made his way to the surface with the Head of Saint Denis under his arm, demanding after the Lady Eve. None of them had heard of her, and so he’d left them to the bats and other creatures of the dark the Head had called, disgusted and frustrated. He’d looked for the officer who had hired Rose too, but it was as if he didn’t exist. Arno could find no trace of him, much less a record, and he had searched thoroughly.

Arno napped for some hours after nothing came of the worrying, and when he woke, pink stained the horizon. He wandered to the kitchen for food, trying to be as unnoticed as possible as he sorted through the pantry, and settled for some small autumn apples he found. He didn’t taste them as he went back upstairs; nothing much had tasted of anything for him lately. He found the café’s cat, an overweight orange beast of an animal called Saint Michel, curled up in his desk chair, and gently shooed him away. He came back ten minutes later, and Arno sighed when he made it clear he wasn’t going anywhere, and scratched the cat’s ears absent-mindedly with his free hand whilst he got back to work.

He tried to think of arguments the Council may have come up with to refuse him, and he practiced answers. Most of them concerned his reasons for going after targets without informing the Council, explaining the why of his actions. Despite hours of sitting and pacing, by the time quarter to six came about, he hadn’t gotten far. He couldn’t concentrate for the life of him. Distractions kept rearing their heads; first it was the noise of the café, then the noise of the street, then Saint Michel’s claws as he kneaded them in Arno’s leg. Arno shoved the cat off his lap and pressed his knuckles to his forehead, kicking at Saint Michel when he tried to jump back up.

“Bloody cat….”

“Well, well — Dorian,” a voice said. “Look at you.”

Arno startled and turned in his seat. “Verne,” he exclaimed, smiling. He stood and went to embrace the man. When they broke apart, Arno looked him up and down. “Did you finally get your coat fixed?”

Verne turned on the spot, grinning. “The thing’s good as new.”

“Still garishly green; did you get it re-dyed as well?”

“Arno,” Verne said, putting a hand to his chest in mock outrage, “you hurt me.” Verne was a thin man, with a long but good-natured face. He was taller than Arno by a couple of inches, and his eyes were a pale grey and surrounded by crow’s feet. His forest-green coat was bulky to hide the pistols and knives he’d hidden inside, and Arno’s gaze fell to the shapes of them on his hips.

“And how’s Francesco?”

“He’s in Nice at the moment. Doing some mission down there.”

“Without us? How dreadful for him.”

“Think of the grand surprise he’ll be greeted with upon his return, though! Arno Dorian: back in Paris with a shine in his eye and a plan to keep the city from Templar hands once more.” A muscle in Arno’s jaw twitched, but if Verne had seen it, he didn’t say anything. “The Council’s waiting, Arno.”

“Right. Are you to escort me?”

“Can’t. Something about us being old friends and it not being appropriate for solemn ceremony. I’ll be waiting here, though. For the good news.” He gave Arno a conspiratorial wink. “We’ve all heard about the Sword, and now the Apple. Rumour’s going around that you’ve gotten your hands on a third interesting tidbit.”

“Peace letters.”

“Oh now? They’ve got to take you back for this, Dorian. I’ll be shocked if they don’t.” Verne’s eyes had fallen to the Guillotine Gun, and he took it up, excited. “And where did you get this beauty?”

“An eight-year-old gave it to me and told me to save France,” Arno said. “I humoured him by saving a town.”

Verne considered the Guillotine Gun, and then mused, “Jean’ll like it.”

Arno’s jovial mood dropped like a stone. “Jean,” he said through gritted teeth, “isn’t going to touch it.”

Verne sighed heavily. Where he had been leaning against the doorframe, he shifted his weight and put the Guillotine Gun down. “It’s been a year.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“Arno —”

“If you’re only here to talk about Jean, then leave.”

Verne sighed again. “I haven’t seen you for months,” he said. “I wanted to see how you were. Say I’m sorry.”

Arno tensed, and he barely kept himself from demanding Verne to get out. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Thank you,” he said finally. “I’m fine.”

Verne jerked his head towards the corridor. “Want to spar after you’re done with them? You’re getting a gut.”

Arno made a noise of protest which quickly died when two Assassins came to the doorway, waiting for Verne to step aside. Arno stiffened. He knew the two by sight, but had hardly exchanged two words with them over his years with the Brotherhood. One of them wore grey, the other a faded red. Their hoods were pulled up so only the lower parts of their faces were visible.

The Assassin in grey gestured to him. “The Council are waiting.”

Arno nodded and pulled on his coat and tucked the letters into the inside pocket. Verne was squashed against the doorframe, and he laid a hand on Arno’s shoulder as he passed, giving it a squeeze. “You’ll do fine.”

Arno nodded and touched the bracer on his left wrist as was habit whenever he left his room, and the Assassins closed about him front and behind. A clock struck six somewhere in the distance, and the Assassins moved off. Verne craned his neck to watch Arno go.

The Assassin to Arno’s left said, “This way.”

I know my way around my own bloody café.

They used the café’s door to the Sanctuary. Arno had been forced to surrender his key to the Council upon his expulsion, and it meant that it was the only door in the entire café that he couldn’t access without picking the lock. That it rankled him was an understatement. One of the Assassins opened it, and the rush of stale air hit Arno. For a moment he was back beneath the Temple, and then the catacombs under Franciade; bile rose in his throat, and he swallowed. The Assassins waited for him to go first, and then came up on either side of him. Arno thought for a second they were to grab him, but they just made it difficult for him to do anything other than match their quick pace.

They went in silence, accompanied only by the sounds of dripping water and the echoes of their steps. The man to his right held aloft a lantern to light the way, but Arno knew the tunnel well; he hardly needed it. It was freezing, and Arno watched his breath clouding in the air before him as they went further and further down. The walls became wet as they passed beneath the level of the Seine, and the going became far more slippery. Arno kept his knees loose and his steps light. He was half-hoping for something to happen just to break the tension he and his escorts had brought, but soon the lights of the Sanctuary came into view. Arno took a deep breath when he saw the first flicker of the torches reflecting off the damp in the tunnel, and the wave of heat that came up to greet them. The stone became a lighter grey from the native stone of the tunnel, and Arno could smell faint cooking spices from the barracks kitchens. His stomach rumbled, but no one said a word about it.

There was another Assassin waiting for them at the mouth of the cave. Arno recognised her, the tiny Jeanette who gave him a small smile of encouragement as she waved them on towards the Council chambers. Faint song stole along the corridor, some raunchy ballad that Arno caught every second word of, but knew by heart from the taverns about some tragic hero from three hundred years ago who’d died in his lover’s arms, which brought his thoughts yet again back to Élise. He hadn’t spent long in the barracks before he’d moved upstairs to the café upon acquiring the deed to it, but even the song made him ache to the point of hurt. He wanted to succeed in this petition. He wanted it more than he could articulate. He’d met Verne, Francesco, and Jean in the barracks, but they hadn’t much spoken to each other until the Council had put them on missions together. Arno hadn’t gotten along well in the group, mainly for strife with Jean-Jacques, and it was only after their first few missions together in which they had worked so well as a team despite the rifts between them that they’d become firm friends, training, eating, and going drinking together. By God they’d been good.

“Monsieur Dorian,” the grey Assassin said quietly from behind him, and Arno only then realised he had stopped to listen. He started to the sweeping double stairs, climbing them two at a time until he came to the Council’s landing. He could see them waiting for him at the end of the short gallery, seated at their table in a semi-circle, the torches surrounding them casting deep shadows over their faces. Sophie Trenet sat at the centre, with Guillaume Beylier on her left and Hervé Quemar to her right. Each of them was unhooded, and their expressions were ones of stone. Arno swallowed as he went to them. They were the only ones on the level, the library and map rooms both deserted. Arno had never seen them so quiet; no matter the hour he had come here in the past, there was always at least one person working, many times with a pot of cold coffee at their elbow and their eyes drooping with exhaustion.

Arno stopped on the marble step, clenching his fists before lowering his chin to his chest and folding his hands behind his back. There was silence for a long while, and slight tremors set into his arms and legs. He didn’t dare correct his position. The Council continued to say nothing.

Trenet finally broke the silence. “Arno Victor Dorian,” she said, and her voice echoed, “you’ve returned.”

Oui, Madame.”

“Charlotte Gouze contacted us late last night to say that you wished to petition us,” she said. “Why?”

Arno felt the weight of the letters in the pocket as he took a breath to steady himself. “I come here to beg of you, Council,” he said, “please. If you would have me back, I will do my best to right the wrongs I committed.”

The Council shifted in their seats. Quemar blew a breath from his lips, crossing his arms and rolling his eyes. Beylier pinned Arno with his gaze, placing his elbows on the table and leaning his chin on his interlocked fingers.

Trenet’s expression became stern. Impatient. “We have given you our answer before — a year ago. We gave you your chances whilst you were with us, and you spurned them. Our decision remains as it was: we will not.”

“Please, listen! I have good reason to ask this of you again. Hear me out, I beg of you.”

“We have heard this talk before,” she said. “As talented as you may be with a blade, you disobeyed our orders numerous times. You sought your own targets and used the Brotherhood as a way to satisfy personal wants. You are a wild card, and we can’t afford that.”

“You’ve agreed to hear my case by inviting me here, so let me speak.”

Trenet said, “Make it worth our time.”

“I was foolish to act as I did. I confess.” Arno’s eyes were burning, but he didn’t dare dry them, nor take them from the floor. “I regret … I regret so much I did. I won’t be the first to proclaim myself an arse and whole-heartedly agree. My actions saw the fragile peace Monsieur de la Serre and Mirabeau worked so hard to build torn asunder. It saw Élise’s —” His throat spasmed, and he couldn’t voice the awful truth of it. “I carry the regret like the heaviest of stones in my chest. I wish to do right. I have come with these, to make this hearing worth your while.” He proffered the letters. “These are the correspondences between Haytham Kenway, the Grand Master of the British Colonial Templar Rite, and his half-sister, an Assassin sympathiser. They spoke of peace between the two of our causes, and the dream they shared is something I would work towards making a reality.”

He placed them on the table then stood back, his hands clasped in front of him. Quemar took the wallet, undoing the tie with what seemed deliberate slowness to Arno before pulling out the first letter. There was silence for a few minutes as he, then Beylier and Trenet, read them.

Eventually, Trenet asked, “Where did you get these?”

“They were left to me,” Arno said. “By Élise. She received them from Jennifer Scott in ’88.”

“These are …” And if Arno didn’t know her better, he would have said she sounded taken aback. Impressed.

“Élise wished to continue her father’s work and unite the Assassin and Templar causes in peace,” Arno said. “After the new direction the Order took upon Germain’s ascension, she wished to see the letters to bring those who had been scattered upon the fracturing of power and bring them back to her cause. She left them to another, a British man named Ruddock. I killed him and took them from him upon learning that he sought to destroy them.”

“Ruddock?”

“A disgraced Assassin. His claim to them was to use them to help him regain entrance to his Brotherhood.”

“And you come forth to step into his shoes after you murdered him?” Quemar asked.

Arno cursed him silently, but Beylier said, “We’ll contact the English and find out about this Ruddock from them. If you speak true, Dorian, then you’ve done us a great service by delivering these to us.”

Arno’s breathing eased, and he said a silent prayer of thanks for Beylier. Quemar, on the other hand, appeared less than satisfied with Arno’s explanation.

Trenet put the letters aside and folded her hands together. Arno fidgeted under her gaze, and she said to the Assassins standing behind Arno, “Leave us.”

“Madame.”

The Assassins saw Arno out, and they took refuge in the joint library and map room. Arno traced the surface of the globe there, running his fingers along the mountings. He lingered, holding the Assassins in the corner of his eye; they had retreated against the bookcases, the grey one leaning against the frame and the red watching Arno carefully. Arno closed his eyes, breathing deeply and opened himself to the senses of the Vision. His Vision was called weak, but it allowed him to see others through walls, and to hear their conversations. Granted, he couldn’t hold it for long, but the Assassins had helped him sustain the Vision for far longer than he’d been able to use it when he’d first been recruited. He often wondered what it would be to have a powerful form of it.

He stilled, listening to the Council’s conversation. They had stood and were arguing quietly amongst themselves. The letters lay on the table between them.

“The Brotherhood is in desperate need of more recruits,” Trenet was saying.

“So you would take back one who has proved time and again how reckless he is?” Quemar asked. “How he doesn’t listen to the authority he swore himself to?”

“Dorian is a skilled Assassin; we need more like him,” Beylier said. “And he possesses the Vision —”

“They are not valid enough reasons!” Quemar exclaimed, rounding forcibly on the darker man. “He disobeys, Guillaume! Acts without thought of consequence! Having a person as like to listen to our orders as to ignore them is a disaster waiting to happen. We’ve seen that disaster unfold time and time again, and I will put my foot down about it. If it’s his Vision you’re after: fine! Then we will find others with his Vision, and stronger forms of it, too.”

“We will not find others with the Vision easily,” Beylier said. “You know as well as I the blood is dying out; Dorian has been the only one since his father.”

Quemar said, “There will always be more; Sophie has her suspicions about the Fontaine girl, for one. What has been will be again.”

“And the letters?” Trenet asked icily.

A pause. Arno’s shoulders were knotted with the effort to keep his concentration, but the Vision was slipping. His head throbbed, and he had to relax lest he pass out. The voices of the Council faded back to indistinct murmurs. Several more minutes passed.

“He seems … contrite.” Beylier had spoken loud enough for his voice to naturally carry back to Arno.

A snort from Quemar. “Contrite … Ha! It can be easily acted.”

“Why are you so eager to see Dorian put out again?”

“Why? Why? I don’t trust him! You’ve seen yourselves how he swears up and down that he will not act out of line again, and then he turns around and does so. He is a Templar sympathiser, and no matter if we want peace with them, we need to know that he is firmly with us.”

“He is,” Beylier said, “simply because he has come back to us, and not gone to them.”

The thought hadn’t occurred to Arno. He couldn’t imagine belonging to the Templars. His chin fell to his chest, and he squeezed his eyes shut.

“Quietly, now,” Trenet said. There was another lapse in the conversation, and then came the sound of the leather wallet being dropped on the table. “But these … they are invaluable. And they still belong to Dorian.”

Arno’s insides were churning, and he strode to the furthest end of the room, closing his eyes and taking long, deep breaths.

“So he will donate them if we let him rejoin? That’s blackmail in its finest form.”

“Bargaining.”

“Call it what you may, they are still underhanded tactics”

Arno strained to listen to the barracks song, mouthing along the words and closing his eyes. He pressed his back to the wall and slid down it. He was shivering.

“Dorian.”

Arno opened his eyes. It had been close on ten minutes since he’d last heard anything from the Council by his count, and his escorts were standing over him. The one dressed in grey held an arm back towards the Council’s chamber. “They’re waiting.”

Arno stood. He bowed upon the marble step, and once again kept his head down.

“We’ve come to a decision,” Trenet said. Beylier nodded, and Quemar Arno couldn’t read. “Arno Dorian, you’ve caused too much damage and displayed such recklessness and disobedience that we cannot let you rejoin the Brotherhood.”

Arno’s breath caught in his throat. There was a roar in his ears.

No

“Master, but I —”

Trenet held up her hand. “I’m not your master,” she said, firmly, but with a hint of regret. “Your gifts are lauded, your contributions admired, and we are in desperate need of more like you. So we will gladly take your council, and any help or information, you can offer us. But we will not restore your place in the Brotherhood.”

“I wish redemption —”

“We’ve heard this song and dance before with François de la Serre,” Quemar cut across. “If it is truly redemption and a place in this Brotherhood you seek, then earn it.”

Arno’s eyes widened, and Beylier nodded. “If you would let us finish, Monsieur Dorian?”

Arno bowed his head, and Quemar continued, “Finding Pieces of Eden is well enough, but the true problem is thus: you have not take our Creed to heart. People have been finding Pieces of Eden and keeping them safe for centuries, but that does not make them Assassins, nor Templars for that matter. It’s the cause that makes you something. If you take it up and prove that you fight for us and not your own ends, then we will reconsider your case. And when you understand our Creed to its bones, we will re-discuss.”

It was final, but Arno wanted to continue arguing. He’d dismantled the entire corrupt Templar influence in Paris, had brought in two Pieces of Eden, and now the letters that were a true way to seek peace between the factions … and it still wasn’t enough. He felt like yelling.

“So, you would continue what you had me doing before,” he sneered. He was angry and frustrated, and the bitter disappointment was clouding his mind. “There to call on whenever you require my services? Like you did when I went to rescue Citoyen Paton? To kill Marcourt and Roux and the Jacobins? To do how many little chores for you like retrieving Mirabeau’s secrets or lost paintings when you have need of my gifts?”

“You had do your best to watch your tongue,” Trenet said coldly, “or you might find our offer revoked.”

When you cease leading me on like a donkey to a carrot.

“Do not think us stupid, boy,” Quemar said. “Each of those missions we offered you presented the opportunity for you to find out more about Germain’s movements. You didn’t do them for hope of redeeming yourself, or for the Creed, but for closing your jaws about Germain’s throat for personal reasons.” That much was true at least, and the words stung. Those times the Brotherhood had come to him for his Vision, Arno had accepted the missions for the opportunity for information they had presented. Paton hadn’t turned up anything, and neither had ransacking Marcourt’s, Roux’s, or even Mirabeau’s papers and relics. But the Jacobins … that he had done for his want to kill, blinded as he’d been by rage and grief over Élise’s death. As if sensing his discomfort, Quemar seized the opportunity to keep talking. “So, we will start with a clean slate. We do need your gifts, but they are not enough to assure entry to the Brotherhood. Consider this … an extended interview.”

“We offer this to you for performing services of great value to us,” Beylier said, “and for goodwill to your father’s memory, and his achievements with the Brotherhood.”

“So will you accept?” Trenet finished.

Arno hesitated for the briefest of moments before he bowed. “I accept.” It was as Élise had written in her journal: he was, and always would be, an Assassin. He couldn’t help it.

The Council nodded, Beylier in particular seeming pleased.

“There will be conditions,” Trenet said. “Firstly, that you will come here only if summoned, and during these summonings, you will be escorted at all times. You may continue you use your hidden blade, but you will be forbidden the use of your robes unless we permit them on a mission. And finally, you will log your activities for report and evaluation should you come across anything that suggests a threat to this Brotherhood. If you truly wish to be a part of us, you need to first prove to our satisfaction that you can and will obey orders. Do I make myself clear?”

Oui.

The conditions felt strangling, and Arno knew that he would break them a few times before the Council would be satisfied, but, well, what would it hurt them if they didn’t know about everything he did?

He was dismissed, and the two that frog-marched him before the Council snapped back to his side. Arno walked before them, his shoulders hunched, and when they came to Café Théâtre’s door, he turned to them, gave a mocking bow, and closed it in their faces.