Altaïr almost fell, tasting blood and cursing himself. He had underestimated his opponent. A novice mistake. The orator looked frantically around himself as though seeking the best escape route. Altaïr shook the pain from his face and came forward, holding his fists high and catching the orator on the temple before he could move off. For some moments the two traded blows in the alley. The orator was smaller and faster, and caught Altaïr high on the bridge of his nose. The Assassin stumbled, blinking away tears that split his vision. Sensing victory, the orator came forward, throwing wild punches. Altaïr stepped to the side, went low and swept the orator’s feet from beneath him, sending him crashing to the sand, the breath whooshing out of him as he landed on his back. Altaïr spun and dropped, sinking his knee directly into the speaker’s groin. He was gratified to hear an agonized bark in response, then stood, his shoulders rising and falling heavily as he collected himself. The orator writhed soundlessly in the dirt, mouth wide in a silent scream, his hands at his crotch. When he managed a great gasping breath, Altaïr squatted, bringing his face close to him.
‘You seem to know quite a bit about Tamir,’ he hissed. ‘Tell me what he’s planning.’
‘I know only the stories I tell,’ groaned the speaker. ‘Nothing more.’
Altaïr scooped up a handful of dirt and let it trickle through his fingers. ‘A pity. There’s no reason to let you live if you’ve nothing to offer in return.’
‘Wait. Wait.’ The orator held up a trembling hand. ‘There is one thing …’
‘He is preoccupied as of late. He oversees the production of many, many weapons …’
‘What of it? They’re meant for Salah Al’din presumably. This does not help me – which means it does not help you …’ Altaïr reached …
‘No. Stop. Listen.’ The orator’s eyes rolled and sweat popped on his brow. ‘Not Salah Al’din. They’re for someone else. The crests these arms bear, they’re different. Unfamiliar. It seems Tamir supports another … but I know not who.’
Altaïr nodded. ‘Is that all?’ he asked.
‘Yes. Yes. I’ve told you everything I know.’
‘Then it’s time for you to rest.’
‘No,’ began the orator, but there was a snick that sounded as loud as the breaking of crockery in the alley as Altaïr released his blade then drove it through the orator’s sternum, holding the dying man as he shuddered, pinned by the blade, blood foaming from the corners of his mouth and his eyes glazing. A quick death. A clean death.
Altaïr laid him on the sand, reached to close his eyes, then stood. His blade slid back into place, and he pushed the body behind a stack of stinking barrels, then turned and left the alley.
‘Altaïr. Welcome. Welcome.’
The leader smirked as he walked in, and Altaïr regarded him for a moment, seeing him shrink a little under his gaze. Did he carry the smell of death? Perhaps the Bureau leader had detected it upon him.
‘I’ve done as you asked. Now give me the marker.’
‘First things first. Tell me what you know.’
Fresh from taking a life, Altaïr reflected that it would be a small matter to add to his day’s tally. He itched to put the man in his place. But no. He had to play his part, no matter how much of a charade he thought it was.
‘Tamir rules the Souk al-Silaah,’ he said, thinking of the merchants talking in hushed tones, the fear on their faces when they spotted Tamir’s orator. ‘He makes his fortune selling arms and armour, and is supported by many in this endeavour: blacksmiths, traders, financiers. He’s the main death dealer in the land.’
The other nodded, hearing nothing he didn’t already know. ‘And have you devised a way to rid us of this blight?’ he asked superciliously.
‘A meeting is being arranged at Souk al-Silaah to discuss an important sale. They say it’s the largest deal Tamir has ever made. He’ll be distracted with his work. That’s when I’ll strike.’
‘Your plan seems solid enough. I give you leave to go.’
He reached below his desk and retrieved Al Mualim’s marker. A feather from one of the Master’s beloved birds. He placed it on the desk between them. ‘Let Al Mualim’s will be done,’ he said, as Altaïr took the marker, stowing it carefully within his robe.
Soon after sunrise he left the Bureau and made his way back to the Souk al-Silaah. When he arrived at the market all eyes seemed to be on a sunken ceremonial courtyard in its centre.
He soon saw why: there stood the merchant Tamir. With two glowering bodyguards at his rear, he commanded the courtyard, towering over a trembling man who stood before him. He wore a chequered turban, smart tunic and leg wrappings. His teeth were bared beneath a dark moustache.
As Altaïr made his way round the outside of the crowd he kept an eye on what was happening. Traders had moved from behind their stalls to see too. The Damascus that either hurried between destinations or stood lost in conversation had come to a temporary standstill.
‘If you’d just have a look …’ said the man cringing before Tamir.
‘I’ve no interest in your calculations,’ snapped Tamir. ‘The numbers change nothing. Your men have failed to fill the order – which means I have failed my client.’
Client, thought Altaïr. Who might that be?
The merchant swallowed. His eyes went to the crowd looking for salvation. He found none there. The market guards stood with blank expressions and unseeing eyes while the spectators simply stared, agog. Altaïr was sickened by them, all of them: the vultures watching, the guards who did nothing. But most of all Tamir.
‘We need more time,’ pleaded the merchant. Perhaps he realized that his only chance lay in persuading Tamir to be merciful.
‘That is the excuse of a lazy or incompetent man,’ returned the black-marketeer. ‘Which are you?’
‘Neither,’ responded the merchant, wringing his hands.
‘What I see says otherwise,’ said Tamir. He raised a foot to a low wall and leaned on his knee. ‘Now, tell me, what do you intend to do to solve this problem of ours? These weapons are needed now.’
‘I see no solution,’ stammered the merchant. ‘The men work day and night. But your … client requires so much. And the destination … It is a difficult route.’