Master? Altaïr wondered. Brothers? Just who did these men answer to? Acre had more layers than an onion.
‘What does he intend?’ asked the friar.
‘The less you know, the better. Just do as you’ve been instructed. Deliver this letter to the Master.’ He passed it to the friar and Altaïr smiled, already flexing his fingertips. He stood from the bench and followed. One lift later the scroll was his, and he sat once again to read it.
Work continues in the Chain District of Acre though we are concerned about William’s ability to see this through to the end. He takes his duties a bit too seriously, and the people may reject him when the time comes. Without the aid of the treasure, we can ill afford an uprising, lest it recall the King from the field. And then your plan will be for nothing. We cannot reclaim what’s been stolen unless the two sides are united. Perhaps you might prepare another to take his place – simply as a precaution. We worry that our man in the harbour will become increasingly unstable. Already he talks of distancing himself. And this means we cannot rely on him should William fall. Let us know what you intend that we might execute it. We remain ever faithful to the cause.
He folded the letter and pushed it into his robes. Something to show Al Mualim, perhaps. Then again, maybe not. So far Altaïr felt Al Mualim had been less than open with him regarding his targets. Perhaps this was part of his test. Perhaps.
A group of servants hurried past. The juggler juggled; he had a bigger crowd now. Not far away a speaker had taken up position in the shade of a tree and was talking against King Richard.
Next Altaïr’s attention was arrested by a young man with a close-trimmed black beard who seemed to be appealing to citizens as they passed, at the same time keeping an eye on a pair of city guards stationed a short distance away.
‘William de Montferrat cares nothing for the people of Acre,’ he was saying. Altaïr loitered to listen, careful not to catch his eye. ‘While we starve, the men inside his keep want for nothing. They grow fat upon the fruits of our labour. He brought us here to rebuild, he said. But now, far from home, and the grace of our king, his true plan becomes apparent. He steals our sons, sending them into battle against a savage enemy. Their deaths are all but guaranteed. Our daughters are taken to service his soldiers, robbed of their virtue. And he compensates us with lies and empty promises of a better morrow – of a land blessed by God. What of now? What of today? How much longer must we go without? Is this truly the work of God – or of a selfish man who seeks to conquer all? Rise up, people of Acre. Join us in our protest.’
‘Be quiet,’ called a woman passer-by, gesturing in the direction of guards who were peering along the street, perhaps aware that rabble-rousing was afoot.
‘You’re a fool,’ agreed another, harshly. He turned away with a dismissive wave of the hand. Nobody in Acre wanted to witness William’s anger, or so it seemed.
‘Your words will see you hanged,’ whispered another, who slunk away.
Altaïr watched as the rebel cast a wary glance, then stepped into the crowd and joined another man there. ‘How many have you called to our cause?’ he asked.
‘I fear they are all too afraid,’ answered his companion. ‘None would heed the call.’
‘We must keep trying. Find another market. Another square. We must not be silenced.’
With a final backwards glance at the soldiers, they moved off. Altaïr watched them go, satisfied he had discovered all that he needed to know about William de Montferrat.
He took a final look at the citadel, towering over the marketplace, the black beating heart of Acre. In there, somewhere, was his target, he thought, and with William dead, the people of Acre would know less tyranny, less fear. The sooner that happened, the better. It was time to revisit Jabal.
The Bureau leader was, as ever, in a jovial mood. His eyes twinkled as he greeted Altaïr.
‘I’ve done as I was asked,’ said Altaïr. ‘I’ve armed myself with knowledge. I know what I must do to reach Montferrat.’
‘Speak, then, and I will judge.’
‘William’s host is large and many men call him master. But he is not without enemies. He and King Richard do not see eye to eye.’
Jabal raised an eyebrow. ‘It’s true. They’ve never been close.’
‘This works to my advantage. Richard’s visit has upset him. Once the King has left, William will retreat into his fortress to brood. He’ll be distracted. That is when I will strike.’
‘You’re sure of this?’
‘As sure as I can be. And if things change, I’ll adapt.’
‘Then I give you leave to go. End the life of de Montferrat that we may call this city free.’ Jabal handed him the feather.
‘I’ll return when the deed’s been done,’ answered Altaïr.
Altaïr returned to the citadel, expecting it to be just as he had left it. But there was something different now – something he detected as he wove through the streets and came closer to it. It was in the air. Excitement. Expectation. He heard gossip concerning Richard’s visit. He was in the fortress now, the citizens said, holding talks with de Montferrat. Apparently the King was furious with him over his treatment of the three thousand held hostage when the Crusaders had retaken the city.
Despite himself, Altaïr felt a thrill. Richard the Lionheart’s reputation came before him. His bravery. His cruelty. So to see him in the flesh …
He moved through the marketplace. The crowds were thicker now as word spread that Richard had arrived. Acre’s citizens, whatever their opinions of the English King, wanted to see him.
‘He comes,’ whispered a woman nearby. Altaïr felt himself carried by the crowd, and for almost the first time since entering the city he was able to hold up his head. The crowds were his disguise and, anyway, the guards were too occupied with the King’s imminent arrival to take any interest in him.
Now the mob surged forward, taking Altaïr with it. He allowed himself to be enclosed by bodies and carried towards the decorated stone gates, where the flags of the Crusaders fluttered in the breeze, as though they, too, were keen to see Richard. At the gates, the soldiers warned the crowds to move back and those at the front began calling for those at the rear to stop pushing forward. Still more citizens arrived, though, surging towards the raised area in front of the main gates. More guards formed a shield around the entrance. Some had their hands on the hilts of their swords. Others brandished pikes menacingly, snarling, ‘Back with you,’ at the seething, complaining crowd.