Gladly, Altaïr reached for his blade, buckling the brace to his wrist and looping the release over his little finger. He tested the mechanism, feeling like an Assassin once more.
Altaïr made his way through the palms and past the stables and traders outside the city walls until he came to the huge, imposing gates of Damascus. He knew the city well. The biggest and holiest in Syria, it had been home to two of his targets the previous year. He cast his gaze up to the surrounding wall and its ramparts. He could hear the life inside. It was as though the stone hummed with it.
First, to make his way in. The success of his mission depended on his ability to move anonymously though the sprawling streets. A challenge from the guards wouldn’t be the best start. He dismounted and tethered his horse, studying the gates, where Saracen guards stood watch. He would have to try another way, and that was more easily considered than achieved, for Damascus was famously secure, its walls – he gazed up once more, feeling small – were too high and too sheer to be scaled from the outside.
Then he saw a group of scholars, and smiled. Salah Al’din had encouraged the learned men to visit Damascus for study – there were many madrasahs throughout the city – and as such they enjoyed special privileges and were allowed to wander unhindered. He moved over and joined them, assuming his most pious stance, and with them drifted easily past the guards, leaving the desert behind as he entered the great city.
Inside, he kept his head down, moving fast but carefully through the streets, reaching a minaret. He cast a swift look around before leaping to a sill, pulling himself up, finding more handholds in the hot stone and climbing higher and higher. He found his old skills coming back to him, though he wasn’t moving as quickly or as surely as he once had. He felt them returning. No – reawakening. And with them the old feeling of exhilaration.
Then he was at the very tip of the minaret and there he squatted. A bird of prey high above the city, looking around himself, seeing the domed mosques and pointed minarets that interrupted an uneven sea of rooftops. He saw marketplaces, courtyards and shrines, as well as the tower that marked the position of the Assassins’ Bureau.
Again, a sense of exaltation passed through him. He’d forgotten how beautiful cities looked from such a height. He’d forgotten how he felt, looking down upon them from their highest points. In those moments he felt released.
Al Mualim had been right. For years now, Altaïr’s targets had been located for him. He would be told where to go and when, his job to kill, nothing more, nothing less. He hadn’t realized it but he had missed the thrill of what it really meant to be an Assassin, which wasn’t bloodshed and death: it was what was to be found inside.
He crabbed forward a little, looking down into the narrow streets. The people were being called to prayer and the crowds were thinning. He scanned the canopies and rooftops, looking for a soft landing, then saw a hay cart. Fixing his eyes on it, taking deep breaths, he stood, feeling the breeze, hearing bells. Then he took a step forward, tumbling gracefully and hitting his target. Not as soft as he had hoped, perhaps, but safer than risking a landing on a fraying canopy, which was liable to tear and deposit him in a heap on the stall below. He listened, waiting until the street was quieter, then scrambled from the cart and began to make his way to the Bureau.
He reached it from the roof, dropping into a shaded vestibule in which tinkled a fountain, plants deadening the sounds from outside. It was if he had stepped into another world. He gathered himself and went inside.
The leader lounged behind a counter. He stood as the Assassin entered. ‘Altaïr. It is good to see you. And in one piece.’
‘You as well, friend.’ Altaïr eyed the man, not much liking what he saw. For one thing, he had an insolent, ironic manner. There was no doubt, also, that he had been informed of Altaïr’s recent … difficulties – and, by the look of him, planned to make the most of the temporary power the situation afforded him.
Sure enough, when he next spoke it was with a barely disguised smirk. ‘I am sorry for your troubles.’
‘Think nothing of it.’
The leader assumed a look of counterfeit concern. ‘A few of your brothers were here earlier …’
So. That was how he was so well informed, thought Altaïr.
‘If you’d heard the things they said,’ the leader continued airily, ‘I’m certain you’d have slain them where they stood.’
‘It’s quite all right,’ said Altaïr.
The leader grinned. ‘Yes, you’ve never been one for the Creed, have you?’
‘Is that all?’ Altaïr found himself longing to slap off the insolent dog’s smile. Either that or use his blade to lengthen it …
‘I’m sorry,’ said the leader, reddening, ‘sometimes I forget myself. What business brings you to Damascus?’ He straightened a little, remembering his place at last.
‘A man named Tamir,’ said Altaïr. ‘Al Mualim takes issue with the work he does and I am meant to end it. Tell me where to find him.’
‘You will have to track him.’
Altaïr bridled. ‘But that sort of work is best left for …’ He stopped himself, remembering Al Mualim’s orders. He was to be a novice again. Conduct his own investigations. Find the target. Perform the kill. He nodded, accepting his task.
The leader continued: ‘Search the city. Determine what Tamir’s planning and where he works. Preparation makes the victor.’
‘All right, but what can you tell me of him?’ asked Altaïr.
‘He makes his living as a black-market merchant, so the souk district should be your destination.’
‘I assume you want me to return to you when this is done.’
‘Come back to me. I’ll give you Al Mualim’s marker. And you’ll give us Tamir’s life.’
‘As you wish.’
Glad to be away from the stultifying Bureau, Altaïr made his way to the rooftops. Once again, he inhaled the city as he stopped to gaze into a narrow street below. A light breeze rippled canopies. Women milled around a stall selling polished oil lamps, chattering wildly, and not far away two men stood arguing. Over what, Altaïr couldn’t hear.
He turned his attention to the building opposite, then away over the rooftops. From there he could see the Pasha Mosque and the site of the Formal Gardens in the south but what he needed to locate was the …
He saw it, the huge Souk al-Silaah – where, according to the leader, he could begin to learn about Tamir. The leader knew more than he was revealing, of course, but was under strict instructions not to tell Altaïr. He understood that: the ‘novice’ had to learn the hard way.