He took two steps back, shook the tension from his arms, drew a deep breath, then jumped.
Safely across, he crouched for a moment, listening to the chatter from the lane below. He watched a group of guards as they passed, leading an ass with a cart that sagged beneath the weight of many stacked casks. ‘Make way,’ the guards were saying, shoving citizens from their path. ‘Make way for we come with supplies bound for the Vizier’s Palace. His Excellency Abu’l Nuqoud is to throw another of his parties.’ Those citizens who were shoved aside hid scowls of displeasure.
Altaïr watched the soldiers pass below him. He had heard the name, Abu’l Nuqoud: the one they called the Merchant King of Damascus. The casks. Altaïr might have been mistaken, but they looked as though they contained wine.
No matter. Altaïr’s business lay elsewhere. He straightened and set off at a jog, barely pausing for the leap to the next building and then the next, feeling a fresh surge of power and strength with each jump. Back to doing what he knew.
Seen from above, the souk was like ragged hole that had been punched into the city’s rooftops so it was easy to find. The biggest trading centre in Damascus, it lay in the centre of the city’s Poor District in the north-east and was bordered on all sides by buildings of mud and timber – Damascus turned into a swamp when it rained – and was a patchwork of carts, stands and merchants’ tables. Sweet scents rose to Altaïr on his perch high above: perfumes and oils, spices and pastries. Everywhere customers, merchants and traders were chattering or moving quickly through the crowds. The city’s people either stood and talked or hurried from one place to the next. There was no in-between, it seemed – not here, anyway. He watched them for a while, then clambered from the rooftop and, blending into the crowds, listened.
Listening for one word.
The three merchants were huddled in the shade, talking quietly but with all kinds of wild hand movements. It was they who had said the name, and Altaïr sidled over towards them, turning his back and hearing Al Mualim’s tutelage in his head as he did so: ‘Never make eye contact, always look occupied, stay relaxed.’
‘He’s called another meeting,’ heard Altaïr, unable to place which of the men was speaking. Who was the ‘he’ they mentioned? Tamir, presumably. Altaïr listened, making a mental note of the meeting place.
‘What is it this time? Another warning? Another execution?’
‘No. He has work for us.’
‘Which means we won’t be paid.’
‘He’s abandoned the ways of the merchant guild. Does as he pleases now …’
They began discussing a large deal – the biggest ever, said one, in hushed tones – when suddenly they stopped. Not far away an orator with a close-trimmed black beard had taken his place at his stand, and was now staring at the merchants with dark, hooded eyes. Threatening eyes.
Altaïr stole a glance from beneath his cowl. The three men had gone pale. One scuffed at the dirt with his sandal; the other two drifted away, as though suddenly remembering an important task at hand. Their meeting was at an end.
The orator. One of Tamir’s men, perhaps. Evidently the black-marketeer ruled the souk with a firm hand. Altaïr drifted over as the man began to speak, drumming up an audience.
‘None knows Tamir better than I,’ he announced loudly. ‘Come close. Hear the tale I have to tell. Of a merchant prince without peer …’
Just the tale Altaïr wanted to hear. He drifted closer, able to play the part of an interested observer. The market swirled around him.
‘It was just before Hattin,’ continued the speaker. ‘The Saracens were low on food, and in desperate need of resupply. But there was no relief in sight. Tamir drove a caravan in those days between Damascus and Jerusalem. But recent business had been poor. It seemed there were none in Jerusalem who wanted what he had: fruits and vegetables from nearby farms. And so Tamir left, riding north and wondering what would become of his supplies. Soon they would surely spoil. That should have been the end of this tale and the poor man’s life … But Fate intended otherwise.
‘As Tamir drove his caravan north, he came across the Saracen leader and his starving men. Most fortunate for them both – each having something the other wanted.
‘So Tamir gave the man his food. And when the battle was finished, the Saracen leader saw to it that the merchant was repaid a thousand times.
‘Some say, were it not for Tamir, Salah Al’din’s men would have turned on him. It could be that we won the battle because of that man …’
He finished his speech and let his audience drift away. On his face was a thin smile as he stepped away from the stand and moved into the market. Off, perhaps, to another stand to make the same speech exalting Tamir. Altaïr followed, keeping a safe distance, once again hearing his tutor’s words in his head: ‘Put obstacles between yourself and your quarry. Never be found by a backwards glance.’
These skills: Altaïr enjoyed the feeling they brought as they returned to him. He liked being able to shut out the clamour of the day and focus on his quarry. Then, abruptly, he stopped. Ahead of him the orator had bumped into a woman carrying a vase, which had smashed. She began remonstrating with him, her hand out demanding payment, but he curled a cruel lip and drew back his hand to strike her. Altaïr found himself tensing, but she cowered away and he sneered, lowering his hand, walking on, kicking bits of broken pot as he went. Altaïr moved on, past the woman, who now crouched in the sand, weeping and cursing and reaching for the shards of her vase.
Now the orator turned off the street and Altaïr followed. They were in a narrow, almost empty lane, dark mud walls pressing in on them. A shortcut, presumably, to the next stand. Altaïr glanced behind him, then took a few quick steps forward, grasped the speaker by the shoulder, spun him around and jammed the tips of his fingers beneath his ribcage.
Instantly the orator was doubled up, stumbling back and gasping for breath, his mouth working like that of a grounded fish. Altaïr shot a look to make sure there were no witnesses, then stepped forward, pivoted on one foot and kicked the orator in the throat.
He fell back messily, his thawb twisted around his legs. Now his hands went to where Altaïr had kicked him and he rolled in the dust. Smiling, Altaïr moved forward. Easy, he thought. It had been too …
The orator moved with the speed of a cobra. He shot up and kicked out, catching Altaïr square in the chest. Surprised, the Assassin staggered back as the other came forward, mouth set and fists swinging. He had a gleam in his eye, knowing he’d rocked Altaïr, who dodged one flailing punch only to realize it was a feint as the orator caught him across the jaw with his other fist.