‘Would that you could produce weapons with the same skill as you produce excuses,’ laughed Tamir. Playing to the crowd, he was rewarded by a chuckle – born more of fear than the quality of his humour.
‘I have done all I can,’ insisted the older man. Perspiration was flowing freely from the headband of his turban and his grey beard quivered.
‘It is not enough.’
‘Then perhaps you ask too much,’ tried the merchant.
It was a foolhardy gambit. The crowd-pleasing smile slid from Tamir’s face and he turned cold eyes on the old man. ‘Too much?’ he said, a new chill in his voice. ‘I gave you everything. Without me you would still be charming serpents for coin. All I asked in return was that you fill the orders I bring you. And you say I ask too much?’
He drew his dagger, the blade winking. Those watching shifted uncomfortably. Altaïr looked at the guards, who stood with their arms folded, sabres in their belts, faces expressionless. Nobody in the souk dared move; it was as though a spell had been cast on them all.
A frightened sound escaped the merchant. He dropped to his knees, holding his clasped hands aloft in supplication. His face was etched with pleading; his eyes gleamed with tears.
Tamir looked down at him, a pathetic creature kneeling before him, and spat. The trader blinked phlegm from his eyes.
‘You dare slander me?’ roared Tamir.
‘Peace, Tamir,’ whimpered the old man. ‘I meant no insult.’
‘Then you should have kept your mouth shut,’ snarled Tamir.
Altaïr could see the bloodlust in his eyes and knew exactly what was going to happen. Sure enough, Tamir slashed at the merchant with the tip of his dagger, opening a sagging hole in his tunic that was immediately stained red. The merchant fell back to his heels with a keening screech that cut through the marketplace. ‘No! Stop!’ he squealed.
‘Stop?’ jeered Tamir. ‘I’m just getting started.’ He stepped forward, drove his dagger deep into the man’s stomach and thrust him to the ground where he screamed like an animal as Tamir stabbed him again. ‘You came into my souk,’ he shouted.
‘Stood before my men.’
Stab. A fourth time. The sound like meat being tenderized. The old man was still screaming.
‘And dared to insult me?’
Stab. He punctuated every word with a thrust of his dagger. ‘You must learn your place.’
But now the merchant had stopped screaming. Now he was nothing but a battered, bloody corpse sprawled in the courtyard, his head at an odd angle. One of Tamir’s bodyguards stepped forward to move the body.
‘No,’ said Tamir, out of breath. He wiped his beard with the back of his hand. ‘Leave it.’ He turned to address the crowd. ‘Let this be a lesson to the rest of you. Think twice before you tell me something cannot be done. Now get back to work.’
Leaving the old man’s body where it was – an interested dog already beginning to sniff around it – the spectators resumed their day, activity in the souk gradually building up so that in a few short moments it was as though nothing had happened. As though the old man was forgotten.
Not by Altaïr, though. He found himself unclenching his fists, letting out a long, slow breath, controlling and harnessing his anger. He bowed his head slightly, eyes hidden by his cowl, and stole through the crowd after Tamir, who was walking through the market, his two bodyguards not far behind. Coming closer to him, Altaïr overheard him talking to the traders, each of whom stared at him with wide, terrified eyes, agreeing fiercely with everything they were told.
‘I can’t sell this,’ snapped Tamir. ‘Melt it down and try again. And if it comes out just as poorly it’ll be you who gets melted down next.’
Wide eyes. Nod, nod, nod.
‘I don’t understand what you do all day. Your stall is filled with goods. Your purse should be filled with coin. Why can’t you sell these things? It isn’t difficult. Perhaps, you are not trying hard enough. Do you require motivation?’
The trader was nodding before he realized what was being asked and swiftly amended it to an equally emphatic shake. Tamir moved on. The crowds swirled around him. His bodyguards … Now, was this an opportunity? With the entire market terrified of Tamir, his men had relaxed their guard. They had remained behind at another stall, where they were demanding goods to give as gifts to their wives. Tamir had fresh victims to terrorize.
And now Altaïr slipped between him and the two bodyguards. He tensed, felt the resistance from his blade mechanism on his little finger. Tamir had his back to him, insulting yet another stallholder.
‘You begged me for this position. Swore none could do as well as you. I should –’
Altaïr stepped forward, and – snick – his blade sprang out as he swept one arm round Tamir and used the other to drive the weapon deep.
Tamir made a strangulated sound but did not scream, and for a second he writhed, before going limp. Over his shoulder, Altaïr met the wide eyes of the terrified stallholder and saw the man wrestling with what to do: raise the alarm or … The trader turned his back and moved away.
Altaïr lowered Tamir to the ground between two stalls, out of sight of the bodyguards, who remained oblivious.
Tamir’s eyes fluttered.
‘Be at peace,’ said Altaïr, gently.
‘You’ll pay for this, Assassin,’ rasped Tamir. A fine line of blood ran from his nose. ‘You and all your kind.’
‘It seems you’re the one who pays now, my friend. You’ll not profit from suffering any longer.’
Tamir gave a harsh, shallow laugh. ‘You think me some petty death-dealer, suckling at the breast of war? A strange target, perhaps? Why me, when so many others do the same?’
‘You believe yourself different, then?’ asked Altaïr.
‘Oh, but I am, for I serve a far nobler cause than mere profit. Just like my brothers …’
Again Tamir chuckled weakly. ‘Ah … he thinks I act alone. I am but a piece. A man with a part to play. You’ll come to know the others soon enough. They won’t take kindly to what you’ve done.’
‘Good. I look forward to ending their lives as well.’
‘Such pride. It will destroy you, child,’ said Tamir. And he passed.
‘People have to die for things to change,’ intoned Altaïr, closing the man’s eyes.
He took Al Mualim’s feather from within his robes and stained it with the blood of Tamir, cast a last look at the bodyguards, then moved off, disappearing into the crowds. He was already a ghost when he heard the cry go up behind him.