The stink of death was on his breath as he pulled Altaïr closer to him. ‘You cannot stop us,’ he managed. ‘We will have our New World …’
He died, a thin trail of blood trickling from his mouth.
‘Enjoy the silence,’ said Altaïr, and dipped his feather into the Merchant King’s blood.
He needed to see Al Mualim, he decided. The time for uncertainty was over.
‘Come, Altaïr. I would have news of your progress,’ said Al Mualim.
‘I’ve done as you’ve asked,’ replied the Assassin.
‘Good. Good.’ Al Mualim looked hard him. ‘I sense your thoughts are elsewhere. Speak your mind.’
It was true. Altaïr had thought of little else on the return journey. Now he had the opportunity to get it off his mind. ‘Each man I’m sent to kill speaks cryptic words to me. Each time I come to you and ask for answers. Each time you give only riddles in exchange. But no more.’
Al Mualim’s eyebrows shot up in surprise – surprise that Altaïr should address him in such a way. ‘Who are you to say “no more”?’
Altaïr swallowed, then set his jaw. ‘I’m the one who does the killing. If you want it to continue, you’ll speak straight with me for once.’
‘Tread carefully, Altaïr. I do not like your tone.’
‘And I do not like your deception,’ replied Altaïr, more loudly than he had intended.
Al Mualim darkened. ‘I have offered you a chance to restore your lost honour.’
‘Not lost,’ countered Altaïr. ‘Taken. By you. And then you sent me to fetch it again, like some damned dog.’
Now the Master drew his sword, eyes flaring. ‘It seems I’ll need to find another. A shame. You showed great potential.’
‘I think if you had another, you’d have sent him long ago,’ said Altaïr, who wondered if he was pushing his mentor too far, but carried on anyway. ‘You said the answer to my question would arise when I no longer needed to ask it. So I will not ask. I demand you tell me what binds these men.’
He stood prepared to feel the point of Al Mualim’s sword, hoping only that the Master considered him too valuable. It was a gamble, he knew.
Al Mualim seemed to consider the options also, his sword wavering, light glancing off the blade. Then he sheathed it and seemed to relax a little.
‘What you say is true,’ he said at last. ‘These men are connected … by a blood oath not unlike our own.’
‘Who are they?’
‘Non nobis, Domine, non nobis,’ he said. Not unto us, O Lord.
‘Templars …’ said Altaïr. Of course.
‘Now you see the true reach of Robert de Sable.’
‘All of these men – leaders of cities – commanders of armies …’
‘All pledge allegiance to his cause.’
‘Their works are not meant to be viewed on their own, are they?’ said Altaïr, thinking. ‘But as a whole … What do they desire?’
‘Conquest,’ replied Al Mualim, simply. ‘They seek the Holy Land – not in the name of God but for themselves.’
‘What of Richard? Salah Al’din?’
‘Any who oppose the Templars will be destroyed. Be assured they have the means to accomplish it.’
‘Then they must be stopped,’ said Altaïr, with resolve. He felt as though a great weight had lifted from him.
‘That is why we do our work, Altaïr. To ensure a future free of such men.’
‘Why did you hide the truth from me?’ he asked the Master.
‘That you might pierce the veil yourself. Like any task, knowledge precedes action. Information learned is more valuable than information given. Besides … your behaviour had not inspired in me much confidence.’
‘I see.’ Altair lowered his head.
‘Altaïr, your mission has not changed, merely the context within which you perceive it.’
‘And armed with this knowledge, I might better understand those Templars who remain.’
Al Mualim nodded. ‘Is there anything else you want to know?’
Altaïr had solved the mystery of the Brotherhood to which his targets had referred. But there was something else … ‘What about the treasure Malik retrieved from Solomon’s Temple?’ he asked. ‘Robert seemed desperate to have it back.’
‘In time, Altaïr, all will become clear,’ said Al Mualim. ‘Just as the role of the Templars has revealed itself to you, so too will the nature of their treasure. For now, take comfort in the fact that it is not in their hands, but ours.’
For a moment Altaïr considered pressing him on the subject but decided against it. He had been lucky once. He doubted it would happen a second time. ‘If this is your desire …’ he said.
The atmosphere in the room relaxed as Altaïr turned to go. His next destination was Jerusalem.
‘Altaïr – before you go?’
‘How did you know I wouldn’t kill you?’
‘Truth be told, Master, I didn’t.’
Stupid Altaïr. Arrogant Altaïr. He was in trouble. Majd Addin lay dead at his feet, the wood slowly staining with his blood. At his back were the accused, lashed to stakes and hanging from them, limp and bloody. The square was emptying of spectators, but not of Majd Addin’s guards, who were advancing on him. Approaching the platform. Beginning to climb the steps at either end while blocking him from jumping at the front. With fierce eyes they were slowly hemming him in, their swords raised, and if they felt fear it didn’t show. That their leader had been publicly cut down by an Assassin at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall gallows had not thrown them into panic and disarray as Altaïr had hoped. It hadn’t instilled in them a mortal fear of the Assassin who now stood before them, his blade dripping with Addin’s blood. It had given them resolve and a need to exact revenge.
Which meant that things hadn’t gone according to plan.
Except … the first of the guards darted forward, snarling, his job to test Altaïr’s mettle. The Assassin retreated, parrying the strikes of the Saracen’s blade, steel ringing in the near-empty square. The guard pressed forward. Altaïr glanced behind to see others advancing and replied with an attack of his own, forcing the Saracen back. One, two, thrust. Forced hurriedly to defend, the guard tried to skip away, almost backing into one of the bodies hanging from the stakes. Altaïr glanced down and saw his chance, coming forward once again, launching a wild attack aimed at panicking his opponent. Blade met blade and, sure enough, the Saracen was forced messily backwards and into the pool of blood on the platform – just as Altaïr had intended. He slipped, his footing lost, and for a second his guard was down – enough time for Altaïr to dart inside his sword arm, impaling him in the chest. He gurgled. Died. His body slipped to the wood, and Altaïr straightened to face more attackers, seeing doubt and maybe a little fear in their eyes now. The Assassin’s mettle had been duly tested and he had not been found lacking.