Good, thought Altaïr, hearing the door to the hospital close as the Grand Master left the courtyard. Let him be afraid. Let him feel a little of what he inflicts on others. The image warmed him as he joined the scholars, who were moving through a second door. This one led into the main ward, where straw matting did little to hide the reek of suffering and human waste. Altaïr found himself trying not to gag, noticing several of the scholars move the fabric of their robes to their noses to block it out. From in here came the moaning and Altaïr saw hospital beds that contained men who groaned and occasionally cried out with pain. Keeping his head bent, he peered out from beneath his cowl, seeing de Naplouse approach a bed in which an emaciated man lay restrained by leather bindings.
‘And how are you feeling?’ de Naplouse asked him.
In pain, the patient wheezed, ‘What have you done … to me?’
‘Ah, yes. The pain. It hurts at first, I won’t lie. A small price to pay. In time you’ll agree.’
The man tried to lift his head from the bed. ‘You’re … a monster …’
De Naplouse smiled indulgently. ‘I’ve been called worse.’ He moved past a wooden cage that enclosed another bed, peering in at the … no, not a patient, Altaïr realized. These poor wretches were subjects. They were experiments. Again he fought to control his anger. He glanced around. Most of the guards had congregated at the other end of the ward. Just as in the courtyard, several disoriented patients were stumbling about, and he saw the same cluster of monks, who seemed to hang on de Naplouse’s every utterance while remaining at a respectful distance, talking among themselves as the Grand Master made his rounds.
If he was going to do it – and he was going to do it – then it had to be soon.
But then de Naplouse moved over to another bed, smiling at the man who lay there. ‘They say you can walk now,’ he said kindly. ‘Impressive.’
The man looked confused. ‘Been … so long. Almost forgot … how.’
De Naplouse looked pleased – genuinely pleased. Beaming, he said, ‘That’s wonderful.’
‘I don’t … understand. Why did you help me?’
‘Because no one else would,’ answered de Naplouse, moving on.
‘I owe you my life,’ said the man in the next bed. ‘I am yours to command. Thank you. Thank you for freeing me.’
‘Thank you for letting me,’ replied de Naplouse.
Altaïr faltered a moment. Was he wrong? Was de Naplouse not a monster? Then just as quickly he cast his doubts away, thinking instead of the crazy man’s shrieks of agony as they had snapped his legs, the lifeless patients roaming the hospital. If there were indeed examples of healing here, then surely they were outnumbered by the acts of barbarism.
Now de Naplouse had reached the final bed in the ward. In moments he would leave and Altaïr’s chance would be gone. Resolved, the Assassin cast a look behind him: the guards were still occupied at the end of the hall. He moved out of the assembly of scholars, coming up behind de Naplouse as the Grand Master bent to his patient.
Altaïr’s blade sprang forth and he rammed it home, reaching for de Naplouse and stifling his cry as he arched his back in pain. Almost gently, the Assassin lowered the skewered doctor to the floor. ‘Let go your burden,’ he whispered.
De Naplouse blinked and looked up at him – into the face of his Assassin. But there was no fear in those dying eyes: what Altaïr saw was concern. ‘Ah … I’ll rest now, yes?’ he said. ‘The endless dream calls to me. But before I close my eyes, I must know – what will become of my children?’
Children? ‘You mean the people made to suffer your cruel experiments?’ Altaïr couldn’t keep the disgust from his voice. ‘They’ll be free now to return to their homes.’
De Naplouse laughed drily. ‘Homes? What homes? The sewers? The brothels? The prisons we dragged them from?’
‘You took these people against their will,’ said Altaïr.
‘Yes. What little will there was for them to have,’ gasped de Naplouse. ‘Are you really so naïve? Do you appease a crying child simply because he wails? “But I want to play with fire, Father.” What would you say? “As you wish”? Ah … but then you’d answer for his burns.’
‘These are not children,’ said Altaïr, wanting to understand the dying man, ‘but men and women full grown.’
‘In body, perhaps. But not in mind. Which is the very damage I sought to repair. I admit, without the artefact – which you stole from us – my progress was slowed. But there are herbs. Mixtures and extracts. My guards are proof of this. They were madmen before I found and freed them from the prisons of their minds. And, with my death, madmen will they be again …’
‘You truly believe you were helping them?’
De Naplouse smiled, the light beginning to leave his eyes. ‘It’s not what I believe. It’s what I know.’
He died. Altaïr lowered his head to the stone and reached for Al Mualim’s feather, brushing it with blood. ‘Death be not unkind,’ he whispered.
In the same moment, a cry went up from the nearby monks. Altaïr straightened from the body and saw guards lumbering down the ward towards him. As they drew their swords he leaped up and ran, heading towards a far door, which, he fervently hoped, led to the courtyard.
It opened and he was pleased to see the courtyard before him.
He was less pleased to see Lazy Eye, who barrelled through the open door, his broadsword drawn …
Altaïr drew his own sword and, with the blade at one arm, his sword in the other hand, met Lazy Eye with a clash of steel. For a second the two men were nose to nose, and Altaïr could see up close the scarred skin of the knight’s eye. Then Lazy Eye pushed away, immediately stabbing forward, meeting Altaïr’s sword but readjusting so quickly that Altaïr almost missed the defence. The Assassin danced away, wanting to put space between him and Lazy Eye, who was a better swordsman than he had anticipated. He was big, too. The tendons of his neck stood out, developed from years of wielding the huge broadsword. From behind him Altair heard the other guards arriving, then stopping at a signal from Lazy Eye.
‘I want him,’ growled the giant knight.
He was arrogant, over-confident. Altaïr smiled, savouring the irony. Then he came forward, his blade sweeping up. Grinning, Lazy Eye deflected the blow and was grunting as Altaïr skipped to his left, coming at Lazy Eye from the other side – the side of his damaged eye, his weak spot – and slashing at his neck.