Above him, Altaïr allowed himself a smile. The method of his entrance was testament to how slack and lazy de Montferrat’s men had become. And as for his half-asleep archers …
‘Why do you say this?’ asked one of de Montferrat’s men. They bristled, all of them. Altaïr used the sudden eruption of noise as cover to crab to one side, wanting to position himself above his quarry, very, very carefully moving around the courtyard walls. Now he could see what most of the men below did not. From a door at the opposite end of the courtyard more guards had appeared dragging two men. They wore the outfits of Crusaders but were prisoners.
‘I see the way you train,’ de Montferrat was shouting down below. ‘You lack conviction and focus. You gossip and gamble. Tasks set to you are left unfulfilled or poorly performed. This ends today. I will not suffer further degradation at Richard’s hands. Whether or not you see it – and you should – this is your fault. You’ve brought shame upon us all. Skill and dedication are what won us Acre. And they will be required to keep it. I have been too lenient, it seems. But no more. You will train harder and more often. If this means missing meals, missing sleep – so be it. And should you fail in these tasks, you will learn the true meaning of discipline … Bring them forward.’
Altaïr had reached his position without being spotted. He was close enough now to look down on de Montferrat’s balding head and see the flecks of spittle fly from his mouth as he shouted at his men. If one of those below was to look up for any reason he might be spotted, but all attention was now on the area in front of de Montferrat’s table, where the soldiers had been dragged before him, frightened and shame-faced.
‘If I must make examples of some of you to ensure obedience,’ announced de Montferrat, ‘so be it,’ and he turned to the captives. ‘The two of you stand accused of whoring and drinking while on duty. What say you to these charges?
Through wet mouths they mumbled pleas and apologies.
De Montferrat scowled at them. Then, with a wave of his hand, he ordered their execution.
Their throats were cut and they spent their last moments watching their own blood gush on to the stone of the courtyard. De Montferrat gazed at them, gurgling and flapping on the ground, like dying fish. ‘Disregard for duty is infectious,’ he said, almost sadly. ‘It shall be rooted out and destroyed. In this way, we may prevent its spread. Am I understood?’
‘Yes, my lord,’ came the murmured reply.
‘Good, good,’ he said. ‘Return to your duties, then, filled with a new sense of purpose. Stay strong, stay focused – and we will triumph. Falter, and you will join these men. Be sure of it. Dismissed.’
He waved them out of his sight, which cheered Altaïr. Out of sight was where he wanted the men, too. He watched as de Montferrat began sifting through papers on the table, hissing with exasperation, his ill-temper clearly not exhausted. Altaïr crept forward, as close as he dared to the edge of the roof. He saw the two bodies, blood still spreading. Further away, most of the men seemed either to have congregated at the entrance to the keep or were leaving for the outer curtain, no doubt keen to put as much distance between themselves and de Montferrat as possible.
Below him de Montferrat tutted in displeasure, still rattling through the papers, unable to find what he was looking for. He groaned as a wad of them slid from the table to the ground. About to call for assistance he thought better of it and bent to retrieve them. Perhaps he heard the snick of Altaïr’s blade in the split-second between Altaïr leaping from the walkway above and embedding it in his neck.
Then the Assassin was straddling the Acre leader’s body, his hand over his mouth so as not alert others in the courtyard. He had just moments, he knew, whispering, ‘Rest now. Your schemes are at an end.’
‘What do you know of my work?’ croaked de Montferrat.
‘I know that you were going to murder Richard – and claim Acre for your son, Conrad.’
‘For Conrad? My son is an arse, unfit to lead his host, let alone a kingdom. And Richard? He is no better, blinded as he is by faith in the insubstantial. Acre does not belong to either of them.’
‘Then to whom?’
‘The city belongs to its people.’
Altaïr fought the now-familiar sense of his world taking an unexpected lurch. ‘How can you claim to speak for the citizens?’ he said. ‘You stole their food. Disciplined them without mercy. Forced them into service under you.’
‘Everything I did, I did to prepare them for the New World,’ replied de Montferrat, as though such things should be obvious to Altaïr. ‘Stole their food? No. I took possession so that, when the lean times came, it might be rationed properly. Look around. My district is without crime – save that committed by you and your ilk. And as for conscription? They were not being trained to fight. They were being taught the merits of order and discipline. These things are hardly evil.’
‘No matter how noble you believe your intentions, your acts were cruel and cannot continue,’ said Altaïr, though he felt less certain than he sounded.
‘We’ll see how sweet they are,’ said de Montferrat, fading fast, ‘the fruits of your labours. You do not free the cities, as you believe, but damn them. And in the end, you’ll have only yourself to blame. You who speak of good intentions …’
But he never finished
‘In death, we are all made equals,’ said Altaïr, staining the feather. He scaled the wall behind him and was on the walkway, darting across to the outer curtain. Then away. As if he had never been there.
Altaïr felt weary of the task. Tired and increasingly vexed. Each long ride exhausted him further but he was commanded to visit Al Mualim after every kill. And on each occasion the Master was enigmatic, demanding details from him yet holding so much back.
So it would prove on the next occasion they met. ‘Word has reached me of your success,’ Al Mualim said. ‘You’ve my gratitude – and that of the realm. Freeing these cities from their corrupt leaders will no doubt promote the cause of peace.’
‘Can you really be so sure?’ asked Altaïr. For his own part, he was sure of less and less.
‘The means by which men rule are reflected in their people. As you cleanse the cities of corruption, you heal the hearts and minds of those who live within.’
‘Our enemies would disagree,’ said Altaïr, his mind going to those whose eyes he had closed.