Altaïr awoke. The desert was cool and still around him. The palm trees rustled slightly in a breeze and the water drip-dripped behind him. He passed a hand across his brow and realized he had been sweating. He laid his head down again, hoping to sleep at least until light.
‘You’ve done well,’ said Al Mualim, the following day. ‘Three of the nine lie dead, and for this you have my thanks.’ His smile faded. ‘But do not think to rest upon your laurels. Your work has just begun.’
‘I am yours to command, Master,’ said Altaïr, solemnly. He was exhausted but grateful that he was beginning to redeem himself in Al Mualim’s eyes. Certainly he had seen a change in the guards. Where before they had looked at him with disdain, now they gave him grudging respect. Word of his success had reached them, no doubt. Al Mualim, also, had awarded him the beginnings of a smile and indicated for him to sit. Sit.
The Master continued: ‘King Richard, emboldened by his victory at Acre, prepares to move south, towards Jerusalem. Salah Al’din is surely aware of this, and so he gathers his men before the broken citadel of Arsuf.’
Altaïr thought of Salah Al’din and tensed. His mind went back to that day, the Saracens at the gates of the fortress …
‘Would you have me kill them both, then?’ he said, relishing the possibility of putting the Saracen leader to his blade. ‘End their war before it begins in earnest?’
‘No,’ snapped Al Mualim, studying him so carefully that Altaïr felt as though his thoughts were being read. ‘To do so would scatter their forces – and subject the realm to the bloodlust of ten thousand aimless warriors. It will be many days before they meet, and while they march, they do not fight. You must concern yourself with a more immediate threat: the men who pretend to govern in their absence.’
Altaïr nodded. He put away his visions of revenge to be inspected another day. ‘Give me names and I’ll give you blood.’
‘So I will. Abu’l Nuqoud, the wealthiest man in Damascus. Majd Addin, regent of Jerusalem. William de Montferrat, liege lord of Acre.’
He knew the names, of course. Each of the cities bore its leader’s pernicious imprint. ‘What are their crimes?’ asked Altaïr. He wondered if, like the others, there would be more to these crimes than met the eye.
Al Mualim spread his hands. ‘Greed. Arrogance. The slaughter of innocents. Walk among the people of their cities. You’ll learn the secrets of their sins. Do not doubt that these men are obstacles to the peace we seek.’
‘Then they will die,’ said Altaïr, obediently.
‘Return to me as each man falls that we might better understand their intentions,’ ordered Al Mualim, ‘and, Altaïr, take care. Your recent work has likely attracted the attention of the guards. They’ll be more suspicious than they’ve been in the past.’
So it appeared. For, days later, when Altaïr strode into the Bureau at Acre, Jabal greeted him with ‘Word has spread of your deeds, Altaïr.’
‘It seems you are sincere in your desire to redeem yourself.’
‘I do what I can.’
‘And sometimes you do it well. I assume it is work that reunites us?’
‘Yes. William de Montferrat is my target.’
‘Then the Chain District is your destination … But be on your toes. That section of the city is home to King Richard’s personal quarters, and it is under heavy watch.’
‘What can you tell me of the man himself?’
‘William has been named regent while the King conducts his war. The people see it as a strange choice, given the history between Richard and William’s son, Conrad. But I think Richard rather clever for it.’
Jabal smiled. ‘Richard and Conrad do not see eye to eye on most matters. Though they are civil enough in public, there are whispers that each intends evil upon the other. And then there was the business with Acre’s captured Saracens …’ Jabal shook his head. ‘In its wake, Conrad has returned to Tyre, and Richard has compelled William to remain here as his guest.’
‘You mean his hostage?’ asked Altaïr. He was inclined to agree with Jabal. It did indeed look like a wise move on Richard’s part.
‘Whatever you call it, William’s presence should keep Conrad in line.’
‘Where would you suggest I begin my search?’
Jabal thought. ‘Richard’s citadel, south-west of here … Or, rather, the market in front of it.’
‘Very well. I won’t disturb you any further.’
‘It’s no trouble,’ said Jabal, who went back to his birds, cooing gently at them.
He was a man unburdened by many worries, thought Altaïr. For that at least, he envied him.
Jabal was right, thought Altaïr, as he made his way through hot, crowded streets tangy with sea air, to the citadel market. There were many more guards about, perhaps double the number since his last visit. Some wore the colours of the Crusaders, and were in full armour. However, if he knew one thing about soldiers it was that they liked to gossip, and the more there were, the more indiscreet they were likely to be. He took a place on a bench, and sat as though to admire the grand citadel with its fluttering pennants, or as if simply to watch the day go by. Not far away an entertainer tried to drum up trade, then shrugged and began anyway, tossing coloured balls into the air. Altaïr pretended to watch him but was listening to a conversation taking place over the way, a couple of Crusaders chattering like washerwomen about William’s sword skills.
As Altair watched, a soldier’s eye was caught by a friar, a tall man in brown hooded robes, who was signalling discreetly to him. The soldier nodded almost imperceptibly, bade his friend goodbye and moved across the market. Watching from beneath his cowl, Altaïr stood and followed as the two men met and moved away from the hustle and bustle to talk; Altaïr positioned himself close by, straining to hear as the friar spoke.
‘Perhaps it was unwise to embrace William. He is old and thinks too much of himself.’
The soldier pursed his lips. ‘His army is large. We’ll have need of them. For now, I’ll go and visit the other brothers. Make sure they have everything they need.’
‘Aye. They must not fall,’ agreed the friar.
‘Fear not. The Master has a plan. Even now he prepares a way to turn our losses to his advantage, should it come to that.’