That night, there was a great commotion in the encampment, and in the morning the brightly coloured pavilion belong to the great Salah Al’din was taken down, and he left, taking a small bodyguard force with him.
Shortly after that, his uncle, Shihab Al’din, ascended the slope to address the Master of the Assassins.
‘His Majesty Salah Al’din has received your message, and thanks you most graciously for it,’ called the envoy. ‘He has business elsewhere and has left, with instructions for His Excellency Shihab Al’din to enter into talks.’
The envoy stood by Shihab’s stallion, cupping a hand to his mouth to call up to the Master and his generals, who were assembled in the defensive tower.
A small force had climbed the hill, two hundred men or so and a litter set down by Nubians, no more than a bodyguard for Shihab, who remained on horseback. On his face was a serene expression, as though he were not unduly concerned about the outcome of the talks. He wore wide white trousers, vest and red twisted sash. Inset into his large, blinding-white turban was a glittering jewel. That jewel would have an illustrious name, thought Al Mualim, gazing down upon him from the top of the tower. It would be called the Star of something or the Rose of something. The Saracens were so fond of naming their baubles.
‘Do begin,’ called Al Mualim, thinking, Business elsewhere, with a smile, his mind going back just a few hours to when an Assassin had come to his chambers, raising him from slumber and calling him to the throne room.
‘Umar, welcome,’ Al Mualim had said, wrapping his robes around himself, feeling the early-morning chill in his bones.
‘Master,’ Umar had replied, his voice low and his head bent.
‘You’ve come to tell me of your mission?’ Al Mualim said to him. He lit an oil lamp on a chain then found his chair, settling into it. Shadows flitted across the floor.
Umar nodded. There was blood on his sleeve, noticed Al Mualim.
‘Was our agent’s information correct?’
‘Yes, Master. I made my way into their encampment and, just as we were told, the gaudy pavilion was a decoy. Salah Al’din’s tent was nearby, a much less conspicuous accommodation.’
Al Mualim smiled. ‘Excellent, excellent. And how were you able to identify it?’
‘It was protected, just as our spy said it would be, with chalk and cinders scattered on the perimeter so my steps would be heard.’
‘But they were not?’
‘No, Master, and I was able to enter the Sultan’s tent and leave the feather as instructed.’
‘And the letter?’
‘Pinned by dagger to his pallet.’
‘I crept from his tent …’
There was a pause.
‘The Sultan awoke and raised the alarm. I was only just able to escape with my life.’
Al Mualim indicated Umar’s blood-stained sleeve. ‘And that?’
‘I was forced to cut a throat in order to make good my escape, Master.’
‘A guard?’ asked Al Mualim, hopefully.
Umar shook his head sadly. ‘He wore the turban and vest of a nobleman.’
At which Al Mualim closed tired and sorrowful eyes. ‘There was no other option?’
‘I acted rashly, Master.’
‘But otherwise your mission was a success?’
‘Then we shall see what transpires,’ he said.
What transpired was the exit of Salah Al’din and the visit from Shihab. And standing tall in his tower, Al Mualim had allowed himself to believe that the Assassins had prevailed. That his plan had worked. Their message had warned the Sultan that he should abandon his campaign against the Assassins, for the next dagger would not be pinned to his pallet but to his genitals. Simply by being able to leave it they had shown the monarch how vulnerable he really was; how his great force counted for nothing when a lone Assassin could outwit his decoys and guards and steal so easily into his tent as he slept.
And perhaps Salah Al’din was fonder of his genitals than he was of pursuing a long and costly war of attrition against an enemy whose interests only rarely came into conflict with his own. For he had gone.
‘His Majesty Salah Al’din accepts your offer of peace,’ said the envoy.
On the tower, Al Mualim shared an amused glance with Umar, who stood by his side. Further along was Faheem. His mouth was set.
‘Have we his assurance that our sect can operate without further hostilities, and no further interference in our activities?’ asked Al Mualim.
‘As long as interests allow, you have that assurance.’
‘Then I accept His Majesty’s offer,’ called Al Mualim, pleased. ‘You may remove your men from Masyaf. Perhaps you would be good enough to repair our stockade before you leave.’
At that Shihab looked sharply up at the tower, and even from the great height Al Mualim saw anger flash in his eyes. Shihab leaned from his stallion to speak to the envoy, who listened, nodding, then cupped his hand to his mouth to address those in the tower once more.
‘During the delivery of the message, one of Salah Al’din’s trusted generals was killed. His Majesty requires reparation. The head of the culprit.’
The smile slid from Al Mualim’s face. At his side, Umar tensed.
There was silence. Just the snorting of the horses. Birdsong. All waited to hear Al Mualim’s response.
‘You may tell the Sultan that I reject that demand.’
Shihab shrugged. He leaned over to speak to the envoy, who in turn addressed Al Mualim.
‘His Excellency wishes to inform you that unless you agree to the demand a force will remain here at Masyaf, and that our patience is greater than your store of supplies. Would you have the peace agreement count for nothing? Would you allow your villagers and your men to starve? All for the head of one Assassin? His Excellency dearly hopes not.’
‘I will go,’ hissed Umar to Al Mualim. ‘The mistake was mine. It is only right I should pay for it.’
Al Mualim ignored him. ‘I will not give up the life of one of my men,’ he called to the envoy.
‘Then His Excellency regrets your decision and asks that you bear witness to a matter now in need of resolution. We have discovered the existence of a spy in our camp, and he must be executed.’
Al Mualim caught his breath as the Saracens dragged the Assassin agent from the litter. After him came an executioner’s block that two Nubians placed on the ground in front of Shihab’s stallion.