The knight’s throat opened and blood poured from the wound as he sank to his knees. From behind Altaïr there was a surprised cry so he started running, crashing through a collection of crazy men, who had gathered to watch, then sprinting across the courtyard, past the well and under the arch into Acre.
He stopped, scanning the roofline. Next he was vaulting a stall, the angry merchant shaking his fist as he scaled a wall behind him and took to the roofs. Running, jumping, he left the nightmare hospital behind him and melted into the city still mulling over de Naplouse’s last words. The artefact he had spoken of. Briefly Altaïr thought of the box on Al Mualim’s desk, but no. What possible connection would the Hospitalier have with that?
But if not that, then what?
‘Garnier de Naplouse is dead,’ he had told Al Mualim, days later.
‘Excellent.’ The Master had nodded approvingly. ‘We could not have hoped for a more agreeable outcome.’
‘And yet …’ started Altaïr.
‘What is it?’
‘The doctor insisted his work was noble,’ said Altaïr. ‘And, looking back, of those who were supposedly his captives, many seemed grateful to him. Not all of them, but enough to make me wonder … How did he manage to turn enemy into friend?’
Al Mualim had chuckled. ‘Leaders will always find ways to make others obey them. And that is what makes them leaders. When words fail, they turn to coin. When that won’t do, they resort to baser things: bribes, threats and other types of trickery. There are plants, Altaïr – herbs from distant lands – that can cause a man to take leave of his senses. So great are the pleasures they bring that men may even become enslaved by them.’
Altaïr nodded, thinking of the glazed patients. The crazy man. ‘You think these men were drugged, then? Poisoned?’
‘Yes, if it truly was as you describe it,’ Al Mualim said. ‘Our enemies have accused me of the same.’
Then he had given Altaïr his next task, and Altaïr had wondered why the Master smiled when he told him to complete his enquiries then report to the Assassins’ Bureau rafiq in Jerusalem.
Now, walking into the Bureau, he knew why. It was because it amused him to think of Altaïr once more crossing paths with Malik.
The Assassin stood up from behind the desk as Altaïr entered. For a moment the two regarded each other, neither hiding his disdain. Then, slowly, Malik turned, showing Altaïr where his arm had once been.
Altaïr blanched. Of course. Damaged in the fight with de Sable’s men, the best surgeons in Masyaf had been unable to save Malik’s left arm – and so had been forced to amputate.
Malik smiled the bittersweet smile of victory that had come at too high a price, and Altaïr remembered himself. He remembered that he had no business treating Malik with anything but humility and respect. He bowed his head to acknowledge the other man’s losses. His brother. His arm. His status.
‘Safety and peace, Malik,’ he said at last.
‘Your presence here deprives me of both,’ spat Malik. He, however, had plenty of business treating Altaïr with disdain – and evidently intended to do so. ‘What do you want?’
‘Al Mualim has asked –’
‘That you perform some task in an effort to redeem yourself?’ sneered Malik. ‘So. Out with it. What have you learned?’
‘This is what I know,’ answered Altaïr. ‘The target is Talal, who traffics in human lives, kidnapping Jerusalem’s citizens and selling them into slavery. His base is a warehouse located inside the barbican north of here. As we speak, he prepares a caravan for travel. I’ll strike while he’s inspecting his stock. If I can avoid his men, Talal himself should prove little challenge.’
Malik curled his lip. ‘ “Little challenge”? Listen to you. Such arrogance.’
Silently Altaïr rebuked himself. Malik was right. He thought of the orator in Damascus whom he had misjudged and who had almost bested him.
‘Are we finished?’ he asked, showing none of his thoughts to Malik. ‘Are you satisfied with what I’ve learned?’
‘No,’ said Malik, handing Altaïr the feather, ‘but it will have to do.’
Altaïr nodded. He looked at where Malik’s sleeve hung loose and was about to say something before he realized that no words would atone for his failures. He had cost Malik too much ever to hope for forgiveness from him.
Instead, he turned and left the Bureau. Another target was to feel the kiss of his blade.
Shortly afterwards Altaïr was stealing into the warehouse where the shipment was being prepared, looking around and not liking what he found.
There were no guards. No acolytes.
He took two steps forward, then stopped. No. What was he thinking? Everything about the warehouse was wrong. He was about to spin and leave when suddenly the door was shut and there was the unmistakable sound of a bolt slamming home.
He cursed and drew his sword.
He crept forward, his senses gradually adjusting to the gloom, the damp, the smell of the torches and …
Something else. A livestock smell that Altaïr thought was more human than animal.
Meagre flames from the torches threw light on walls that ran dark and slick, and from somewhere came a drip-drip of water. The next sound he heard was a low moan.
Eyes slowly adjusting, he edged forward, seeing crates and barrels and then … a cage. He moved closer – and almost recoiled at what he saw. A man was inside it. A pathetic, shivering man, who sat with his legs pulled to his chest and regarded Altaïr with plaintive, watery eyes. He raised one trembling hand. ‘Help me,’ he said.
Then, from behind, Altaïr heard another sound and wheeled to see a second man. He was suspended from the wall, his wrists and ankles shackled. His head lolled on his chest and dirty hair hung over his face, but his lips appeared to be moving as though in prayer.
Altaïr moved towards him. Then, hearing another voice from his feet, he looked down to see an iron grille set into the flagstones of the warehouse floor. Peering from it was the frightened face of yet another slave, his bony fingers reaching through the bars, appealing to Altaïr. Beyond him in the pit the Assassin saw more dark forms, heard slithering and more voices. For a moment it was as though the room was filled with the pleading of those imprisoned.
‘Help me, help me.’
An insistent, beseeching sound that made him want to cover his ears. Until, suddenly, he heard a louder voice: ‘You should not have come here, Assassin.’