Tamir, the first of the nine: Al Mualim had been quietly satisfied, looking from the blood-stained feather on his desk to Altaïr and praising him, before giving him his next undertaking.
Altair had bowed his head in assent and left the Master. And the next day he had gathered his supplies and set off once more, this time for Acre – a city held as tightly by the Crusaders as Damascus was by Salah Al’din’s men. A city wounded by war.
Acre had been hard-won. The Christians had retaken it after a prolonged and bloody siege lasting almost two years. Altaïr had played his part, helping to stop the city’s water supply being poisoned by the Templars.
He had been unable to do anything about the poisoning that did occur, though: corpses in the water had spread disease to Muslim and Christian alike – both inside and outside the city walls. Supplies had run dry, and thousands had simply starved to death. Then more Crusaders had arrived to construct more machines, and their attacks had punched holes in the city walls. The Saracens had fought back for long enough to repair the breaches, until Richard the Lionheart’s army simply wore the Muslims down and they offered surrender. The Crusaders had moved in to claim the city and take its garrison hostage.
Negotiations between Salah Al’din and Richard for the release of the hostages had commenced, the finer points of which had been muddied by a disagreement between Richard and the Frenchman Conrad de Montferrat, who was unwilling to hand over hostages taken by French forces.
Conrad had returned to Tyre; Richard was on his way to Jaffa where his troops would meet those of Salah Al’din. And left in charge was Conrad’s brother, William.
William de Montferrat had ordered the Muslim hostages put to death. Almost three thousand were beheaded.
And so it was that Altaïr found himself conducting his investigations in a city scarred by its recent history: of siege, disease, starvation, cruelty and bloodshed. A city whose residents knew suffering all too well, whose eyes hid sorrow and whose shoulders were stooped with sadness. In the poor areas he encountered the worst of the suffering. Bodies wrapped in muslin lined the streets, while drunkenness and violence was rife in the ports. The only area of the city not to reek of despair and death was the Chain District, where the Crusaders were based – where Richard had his citadel and William his quarters. From there the Crusaders had pronounced Acre the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and had used it to stockpile supplies before Richard had set off on the march to Jaffa, leaving William in charge. So far his reign had simply exacerbated the city’s problems, which were all too evident – and pressed in on Altaïr as he made his way through the streets. He was grateful to complete his investigations and make his way to the Assassins’ Bureau. There the leader, Jabal, sat cooing gently to a pigeon he held. He looked up as Altaïr entered the room.
‘Ah, Altaïr,’ he said pleasantly. ‘A little bird told me you’d be paying a visit …’
He smiled at his own joke, then opened his hands to set the pigeon free. Instead it merely alighted on the counter where it puffed out its chest feathers and began walking to and fro as though mounting an avian guard. Jabal watched it with amused eyes, then adjusted himself on his seat to regard his visitor.
‘And who is the poor unfortunate that Al Mualim has chosen to taste your blade, Altaïr?’ he asked.
‘Al Mualim has ordered the execution of Garnier de Naplouse.’
Jabal started. ‘The Grand Master of the Knights Hospitalier?’
Slowly Altaïr nodded. ‘Indeed. And I have already determined when and how to strike.’
‘Share your knowledge with me, then.’ Jabal looked impressed, and with good reason.
Altaïr began: ‘He lives and works within his Order’s hospital, north-west of here. Rumours speak of atrocities committed within its walls.’
As Altaïr told him what he knew, Jabal nodded thoughtfully, considering his words and asking at length, ‘What is your plan?’
‘Garnier keeps mainly to his quarters inside the hospital, though he leaves occasionally to inspect his patients. It’s when he makes his rounds that I will strike.’
‘It’s clear you’ve given this some thought. I give you leave to go.’ And with that he handed Altaïr Al Mualim’s marker. ‘Remove this stain from Acre, Altaïr. Perhaps it will help cleanse your own.’
Altaïr took the marker, fixed Jabal with a baleful look – was every Assassin to be made aware of his shame? – then left, making his way across the city’s rooftops until he had sight of the hospital. There he stopped, catching his breath and gathering his thoughts as he looked down upon it.
Altaïr had given Jabal a truncated version of his findings; he had hidden his true feelings of disgust from the Bureau leader. He’d learned that de Naplouse was Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Hospitalier. Originally founded in Jerusalem – their aim to provide care for ailing pilgrims – the Knights had a base in one of Acre’s most deprived areas.
And there, according to what Altaïr had learned, de Naplouse was doing anything but providing care.
In the Hospitalier district he had overheard two members of the Order talking about how the Grand Master was turning ordinary citizens away from the hospital, and the people were close to violence because of it. One had said that he feared a repeat of a scandal that had taken place at Tyre.
‘What scandal?’ his friend had asked.
The man had leaned in close to his companion to finish and Altaïr had been forced to listen hard. ‘Garnier once called that city home,’ the man had said, ‘but he was exiled. It’s said he was experimenting on its citizens.’
His companion had looked a little sick. ‘What sort of experiments?’
‘I don’t know the details, but I worry … Has he begun again? Is that why he locks himself away in the Hospitalier fortress?’
Later, Altaïr had read a scroll that he had pickpocketed from an associate of de Naplouse. The Hospitalier had no intention of healing his patients, he read. Supplied with subjects from Jerusalem, he was conducting tests – tests for some unknown master – aimed at inducing certain states in his subjects. And Tamir – the recently deceased Tamir – had been charged with finding arms for the operation.
One particular phrase in the letter caught his eye: We should endeavour to reclaim what has been taken from us. What did that mean? Puzzling over it, he continued his enquiries. The Grand Master allowed ‘madmen’ to wander the grounds of the hospital, he heard, and he discovered the times at which the archers covering the walkways above the hospital left their posts; he learned that de Naplouse liked to make his rounds without a bodyguard and that only monks were allowed passage.