Suddenly he clapped his hands. The music stopped, conversation ended.
‘Welcome. Welcome,’ he announced. ‘Thank you all for joining me this evening. Please, eat, drink. Enjoy the pleasures I have to offer.’
With that he swept his hand and the fountain in the courtyard’s centre sprang to life, gushing with what Altair first thought was coloured water. Then came an unseemly dash, and he realized what it was: the wine shipment he’d heard about. Here it was. As he watched, two men approached the fountain, dipped their goblets into the foaming liquid, then toasted one another before hurrying off. More guests arrived, dipping their goblets, while servants stood dispensing cups to those who wanted them. It was as if the Merchant King wanted every single one of his guests to sup from the fountain, and he waited until the stampede had receded before continuing.
‘I trust everything is to your satisfaction?’ he asked, with a raised eyebrow.
Indeed it was. Goblets were raised and there was a roar of approval, the guests tongues loosening swiftly under the influence of the wine.
‘Good, good.’ Nuqoud grinned, to reveal bits of food plastered to his teeth. ‘It pleases me to see you so happy. For these are dark days, my friends, and we must enjoy this bounty while we still can.’
Close to Altaïr, the toasting men returned from a second visit to the wine fountain and were gulping from their filled goblets, stifling giggles as Nuqoud continued: ‘War threatens to consume us all. Salah Al’din bravely fights for what he believes in, and you are always there to support him without question. It is your generosity that allows his campaign to continue.’
Altaïr noticed, though he was almost certainly the only one of those in the courtyard to do so, that the galleries along on one side were beginning to fill with guards. He looked closer. Archers.
Nearby the men were still gulping their wine, as Nuqoud began to speak again. ‘So I propose a toast, then,’ he said. ‘To you, my dear friends, who have brought us to where we are today. May you be given everything you deserve.’
‘To your health,’ came the cry, as the partygoers drank freely from their cups.
‘Such kindness,’ Nuqoud was saying above them. ‘I didn’t think it in you. You, who have been so quick to judge me, and so cruelly.’
Sensing a change in him the crowd murmured its confusion.
‘Oh, do not feign ignorance. Do you take me for a fool? That I have not heard the words you whisper behind my back? Well, I have. And I fear I can never forget. But this is not why I called you here tonight. No. I wish to speak more of this war – and your part in it.
‘You give up your coin, quick as can be, knowing all too well it buys the deaths of thousands. You don’t even know why we fight. The sanctity of the Holy Land, you’ll say. Or the evil inclination of our enemies. But these are lies you tell yourselves.
‘No. All this suffering is born of fear and hate. It bothers you that they are different. Just as it bothers you that I am different.’
Altaïr’s gaze went to the archers in the galleries. Feeling a twinge of disquiet he moved to his side to inspect the galleries on the other side of the courtyard. There, too, the bowmen had lined up. He swung round. It was the same behind them. They were not drawing their bows. Not yet, anyway. But, if Altaïr was right, the moment wouldn’t be long in coming. And when it did they had the whole courtyard covered. He moved closer to one of the surrounding walls. Not far away, a man began spluttering and coughing, setting his companion off in more fits of laughter.
‘Compassion. Mercy. Tolerance,’ continued Nuqoud, from the balcony. ‘These words mean nothing to any of you. They mean nothing to those infidel invaders who ravage our land in search of gold and glory. And so I say enough. I’ve pledged myself to another cause. One that will bring about a New World – in which all people might live side by side in peace.’
He paused. Altaïr watched the archers tense. They were about to open fire. He pressed himself against the wall. The man was still coughing. He was bent double now, his face red. His companion went from looking concerned to coughing also.
‘A pity none of you will live to see it,’ finished Nuqoud.
More guests began to splutter. Some were holding their stomachs. Of course, thought Altair. Poison. Around him some guests had fallen to their knees. He saw a corpulent man in golden robes frothing, his eyes rolling up in their sockets as he lurched to the ground and lay dying. The archers had readied their bows now. At least half of the partygoers were in the death throes, but there were plenty who had not supped the wine and were scrambling for the exits.
‘Kill anyone who tries to escape,’ ordered the Merchant King, and his archers opened fire.
Leaving the carnage behind, Altaïr scaled the wall to the balcony and crept up behind Nuqoud. There was a guard at his side, and Altaïr dispatched him with a slash of his blade. The man fell, twisting, his throat opening, spraying blood across the tiles of the balcony. Nuqoud spun to see Altair and his expression changed. Watching the massacre in the party below, he had been smiling, enjoying the show. Now, Altaïr was gratified to see, he felt only fear.
Then pain, as Altaïr sank the blade into his neck above the clavicle.
‘Why have you done this?’ gasped the huge man, sinking to the smooth stone of his balcony.
‘You stole money from those you claim to lead,’ Altaïr told him. ‘Sent it away for some unknown purpose. I want to know where it’s gone and why.’
Nuqoud scoffed. ‘Look at me. My very nature is an affront to the people I ruled. And these noble robes did little more than muffle their shouts of hate.’
‘So this is about vengeance, then?’ asked Altaïr.
‘No. Not vengeance, but my conscience. How could I finance a war in service to the same God that calls me an abomination?’
‘If you do not serve Salah Al’din’s cause, then whose?’
Nuqoud smiled. ‘In time you’ll come to know them. I think, perhaps, you already do.’
Puzzled once again, Altaïr asked, ‘Then why hide? And why these dark deeds?’
‘Is it so different from your own work? You take the lives of men and women, strong in the conviction that their deaths will improve the lot of those left behind. A minor evil for a greater good? We are the same.’
‘No.’ Altaïr shook his head. ‘We are nothing alike.’
‘Ah … but I see it in your eyes. You doubt.’