He was rewarded with the crowd’s collective intake of breath. Altaïr had reached the steps now. Around him the throng seethed, excitable spectators screaming for the killing blow.
‘Destroy the unbeliever!’
‘Slit his throat!’
The Assassin, his head still held by Addin, spoke: ‘Killing me will not make you any safer. I see the fear in your eyes, hear the quiver in your throats. You are afraid. Afraid because you know our message cannot be silenced. Because you know we cannot be stopped.’
Altaïr was at the bottom of the steps. He stood there as if attempting to get a better view. Others had seen him and were doing the same. The two guards had been standing at the top entranced by the action, but slowly became aware of what was happening. One called to the other and they stepped down and began commanding citizens to leave, even as more spectators were pouring up the stairs. All wanted to get as close as possible to the execution and were jostling and shoving, some forced off the steps, including one of the furious guards. Altaïr used the disorder to climb higher until he stood just a few feet away from Addin, who had released the Assassin’s head and was preaching to the crowd of his ‘blasphemy’. His ‘treachery’.
Behind Altaïr the scuffle continued. The two guards were fully occupied. Ahead of him, Addin had finished addressing the crowd, who were suitably whipped up and desperate to see the final kill. Now he turned back to the prisoner, brandishing his sword, its blade already stained red, and moved towards him for the death blow.
Then, as though alerted by some higher sense, he stopped, turned his head and looked straight at Altaïr.
For a moment it was as though the square contracted, as though the disorderly crowd, the guards, the condemned man and the corpses were no longer there. And as they regarded one another Altaïr saw realisation dawn on Addin that death was near. Then Altaïr flicked his ring finger and the blade sprang forth as he launched himself forward, drawing it back, and sinking it into Addin, the entire movement lasting little longer than the blink of an eye.
The crowd roared and screamed, not knowing what to make of the sudden turn of events. Addin bucked and squirmed, blood pumping from the wound in his neck but Altaïr held him steady with his knees, raising his blade.
‘Your work here is finished,’ he told Addin, and tensed, about to deliver the final blow. Around them there was pandemonium. The guards were only just realizing what was wrong and trying to fight their way to the platform through a panicked crowd. Altaïr needed to finish this, fast. But he wanted to hear what Addin had to say.
‘No. No. It had only just begun,’ said Addin.
‘Tell me, what is your part in all of this? Do you intend to defend yourself as the others have and explain away your evil deeds?’
‘The Brotherhood wanted the city. I wanted power. There was … an opportunity.’
‘An opportunity to murder innocents,’ said Altaïr. He could hear the sound of running feet. The people fleeing the square.
‘Not so innocent. Dissident voices cut deep as steel. They disrupt order. In this, I agree with the Brotherhood.’
‘You’d kill people simply for believing differently from you?’
‘Of course not … I killed them because I could. Because it was fun. Do you know what it feels like to determine another man’s fate? And did you see the way the people cheered? The way they feared me? I was like a god. You’d have done the same if you could. Such … power.’
‘Once, perhaps. But then I learned what becomes of those who lift themselves above others.’
‘And what is that?’
‘Here. Let me show you.’
He finished Addin, then closed the tyrant’s eyes. Stained the feather.
‘Every soul shall taste death,’ he said.
And then he had stood up to face the guards – just as a bell began tolling.
A Saracen came flying at him and he parried, grunting, driving the man back. More were scrambling on to the platform, and he found himself facing three at once. One fell screaming beneath his blade, another lost his footing on the slick of blood, fell, and Altaïr finished him. Seeing a gap, the Assassin jumped from the scaffold, activating his blade and spearing a guard as he landed, the man’s sword swiping at thin air.
On the square now he saw his only escape and fended off two more attackers as he edged towards the entranceway. He took a nick and felt warm blood sluice down his arm; then, grasping hold of a swordsman, launched him into the path of the second. Both tumbled, yelling, to the dirt. Altaïr darted towards the doorway, arriving as a trio of soldiers came hurrying through. He had the surprise though, impaling one with his sword, slashing the neck of a second with his blade and shoving the two writhing, dying men into the third.
Entrance clear, he glanced behind at the platform to see Malik’s men freeing the Assassin and leading him away, then dashed out into the lane where a fourth guard waited, coming forward with a pike, screaming. Altaïr jumped clear, grasping the edge of a wooden frame and flipping himself up on to the canopy, feeling his muscles sing. From below there was a shout of frustration, and as he scrabbled up to the rooftop he glanced down to see a cluster of soldiers following him. To give them pause he killed one with a throwing knife, then dashed off across the rooftops, waited until the bell had stopped ringing, and then disappeared into the crowd, listening as word spread throughout the city: an Assassin had killed the regent.
There was still something Altaïr needed to know, though.
And with the last of the city regents dead, now was the time to ask it. He steeled himself as he was ushered once more into Al Mualim’s chambers.
‘Come in, Altaïr. I trust you are well rested? Ready for your remaining trials?’ said the Master.
‘I am. But I’d speak with you first. I have questions …’
Al Mualim indicated his disapproval by raising his chin and pursing his lips slightly. No doubt he remembered the last occasion when Altaïr had pressed for answers. So did Altaïr, who had decided to tread more carefully this time, keen not to see a reappearance of the Master’s blade.
‘Ask, then,’ said Al Mualim. ‘I’ll do my best to answer.’
Altaïr took a deep breath. ‘The Merchant King of Damascus murdered the nobles who ruled his city. Majd Addin in Jerusalem used fear to force his people into submission. I suspect William meant to murder Richard, and hold Acre with his troops. These men were meant to aid their leaders. Instead they chose to betray them. What I do not understand is why.’