Altaïr said nothing. What could he say? I acted rashly? Killing the old man was an act of arrogance?
‘Your insolence knows no bounds,’ bellowed Al Mualim. ‘Make humble your heart, child, or I swear I’ll tear it from you with my own hands.’
He paused, his shoulders rising and falling as he took hold of his anger. ‘The second tenet is that which gives us strength,’ he continued. ‘Hide in plain sight. Let the people mask you so that you become one with the crowd. Do you remember? Because, as I hear it, you chose to expose yourself, drawing attention before you’d struck.’
Still Altaïr said nothing. He felt the shame squat in his gut.
‘The third and final tenet,’ added Al Mualim, ‘the worst of all your betrayals: never compromise the Brotherhood. Its meaning should be obvious. Your actions must never bring harm upon us – direct or indirect. Yet your selfish act beneath Jerusalem placed us all in danger. Worse still, you brought the enemy to our home. Every man we’ve lost today was lost because of you.’
Altaïr had been unable to look at the Master. His head had remained on one side, still smarting from the slap. But as he heard Al Mualim draw his dagger he looked at last.
‘I am sorry. Truly, I am,’ said Al Mualim. ‘But I cannot abide a traitor.’
No. Not that. Not a traitor’s death.
His eyes widened as they went to the blade in the Master’s hand – the hand that had guided him since him childhood. ‘I am not a traitor,’ he managed.
‘Your actions indicate otherwise. And so you leave me no choice.’ Al Mualim drew back his dagger. ‘Peace be upon you, Altaïr,’ he said, and plunged it into Altaïr’s stomach.
And it was. For a few precious moments when he was dead, Altaïr was at peace.
Then … then he was coming round, gradually recovering a sense of himself and of where he was.
He was on his feet. How could he be on his feet? Was this death, the afterlife? Was he in Paradise? If so, it looked very much like Al Mualim’s quarters. Not only that, but Al Mualim was present. Standing over him, in fact, watching him with an unreadable gaze.
‘I’m alive?’ Altaïr’s hands went to where the knife had been driven into his stomach. He expected to find a ragged hole and feel wet blood but there was nothing. No wound, no blood. Even though he’d seen it. Felt it. He’d felt the pain …
‘But I saw you stab me,’ he managed, ‘felt death’s embrace.’
Al Mualim was inscrutable in return. ‘You saw what I wanted you to see. And then you slept the sleep of the dead. The womb. That you might awake and be reborn.’
Altaïr shook a fog away from his mind. ‘To what end?’
‘Do you remember, Altaïr, what it is the Assassins fight for?’
Still trying to readjust, he replied, ‘Peace, in all things.’
‘Yes. In all things. It is not enough to end the violence one man commits upon another. It refers to peace within as well. You cannot have one without the other.’
‘So it is said.’
Al Mualim shook his head, cheeks colouring again as his voice rose. ‘So it is. But you, my son, have not found inner peace. It manifests in ugly ways. You are arrogant and over-confident. You lack self-control and wisdom.’
‘Then what is to become of me?’
‘I should kill you for the pain you’ve brought upon us. Malik thinks it’s only fair – your life in exchange for that of his brother.’
Al Mualim paused to allow Altaïr to understand the full significance of the moment. ‘But this would be a waste of my time and your talents.’
Altaïr allowed himself to relax a little more. He was to be spared. He could redeem himself.
‘You have been stripped of your possessions,’ continued Al Mualim. ‘Your rank as well. You are a novice – a child – once more. As you were on the day you first joined the Order. I am offering you a chance of redemption. You’ll earn your way back into the Brotherhood.’
Of course. ‘I assume that you have something planned.’
‘First you must prove to me you remember how to be an Assassin. A true Assassin,’ said Al Mualim.
‘So you would have me take a life?’ asked Altaïr, knowing his forfeit would be far more rigorous.
‘No. Not yet, at least. For now you are to become a student once again. ‘
‘There is no need for this. I am a Master Assassin.’
‘You were a Master Assassin. Others tracked your targets for you. But no more. From today on, you will track them yourself.’
‘If that is what you wish.’
‘Then tell me what it is that I must do.’
‘I hold here a list. Nine names adorn it. Nine men who need to die. They are plague-bringers. War-makers. Their power and influence corrupt the land – and ensure the Crusades continue. You will find them. Kill them. In doing so you’ll sow the seeds of peace, both for the region and for yourself. In this way, you may be redeemed.’
Altaïr took a long, deep breath. This he could do. This he wanted – needed – to do.
‘Nine lives in exchange for mine,’ he said carefully.
Al Mualim smiled. ‘A most generous offer, I think. Have you any questions?’
‘Where shall I begin?’
‘Ride for Damascus. Seek out the black-market merchant named Tamir. Let him be the first to fall.’
Al Mualim moved to his cage of carrier pigeons, took one and cupped it gently in his palm. ‘Be sure to visit the city’s Assassin Bureau when you arrive. I’ll dispatch a bird to inform the rafiq of your arrival. Speak with him. You’ll find he has much to offer.’
He opened his hand and the bird disappeared through the window, as though snuffed out.
‘If you believe it best,’ said Altaïr.
‘I do. Besides, you cannot begin your mission without his consent.’
Altair bridled. ‘What nonsense is this? I don’t need his permission. It’s a waste of time.’
‘It’s the price you pay for the mistakes you’ve made,’ snapped the Master. ‘You answer not only to me but to all of the Brotherhood now.’
‘So be it,’ conceded Altaïr, after a pause long enough to communicate his displeasure.
‘Go, then,’ said Al Mualim. ‘Prove that you are not yet lost to us.’
He paused, then reached for something from beneath his desk that he pushed across to Altaïr. ‘Take it,’ he said.