‘Is the answer not obvious? The Templars desire control. Each man – as you’ve noted – wanted to claim their cities in the Templar name that the Templars themselves might rule the Holy Land and eventually beyond. But they cannot succeed in their mission.’

‘Why is that?’ asked Altaïr.

‘Their plans depend upon the Templar Treasure … the Piece of Eden … But we hold it now. And they cannot hope to achieve their goals without it.’

Of course, thought Altaïr. This was the item so many of his targets had referred to.

‘What is this treasure?’ he said.

Al Mualim smiled, then went to the rear of his chamber, bent and opened a chest. He took a box from it, returned to his desk and placed it down. Altair knew what it was without looking, but still found his gaze drawn to it – no, dragged to it. It was the box Malik had retrieved from the Temple, and as before it seemed to glow, to radiate a kind of power. He had known all along, he realized, that this was the treasure they spoke of. His eyes went from the box to Al Mualim, who had been watching his reaction. The Master’s face bore an indulgent expression, as though he had seen many behave in this way. And that this was only the beginning.

For now he reached into the box and took from it a globe, about the size of two fists: a golden globe with a mosaic design that seemed to pulse with energy, so that Altaïr found himself wondering if his eyes were deceiving him. If maybe it was … alive in some way. But he was distracted. Instead he felt the globe pulling at him.

‘It is … temptation,’ intoned Al Mualim.

And suddenly, like a candle snuffed out, the globe stopped pulsing. Its aura was gone. Its draw suddenly non-existent. It was … just a globe again: an ancient thing, beautiful in its own way but, still, a mere trinket.

‘It’s just a piece of silver …’ said Altaïr.

‘Look at it,’ insisted Al Mualim.

‘It shimmers for the briefest moment, but there’s really nothing spectacular about it,’ said Altaïr. ‘What am I supposed to see?’

‘This “piece of silver” cast out Adam and Eve. This is the Apple. It turned staves into snakes. Parted and closed the Red Sea. Eris used it to start the Trojan War. And with it, a poor carpenter turned water into wine.’

The Apple, the Piece of Eden? Altaïr looked at it doubtfully. ‘It seems rather plain for all the power you claim it has,’ he said. ‘How does it work?’

‘He who holds it commands the hearts and minds of whoever looks upon it – whoever “tastes” of it, as they say.’

‘Then de Naplouse’s men …’ said Altaïr, thinking of the poor creatures in the hospital.

‘An experiment. Herbs used to simulate its effects … To be ready for when they held it.’

Altaïr saw it now. ‘Talal supplied them. Tamir equipped them. They were preparing for something … But what?’

‘War,’ said Al Mualim, starkly.

‘And the others … the men who ruled the cities … They meant to gather up their people. Make them like de Naplouse’s men.’

‘The perfect citizens. The perfect soldiers. A perfect world.’

‘Robert de Sable must never have this back,’ said Altaïr.

‘So long as he and his brothers live, they will try,’ said Al Mualim.

‘Then they must be destroyed.’

‘Which is what I’ve had you doing,’ smiled Al Mualim. ‘There are two more Templars who require your attention,’ he said. ‘One in Acre, known as Sibrand. One in Damascus, called Jubair. Visit the Bureau leaders. They’ll instruct you further.’

‘As you wish,’ said Altaïr, bowing his head.

‘Be quick about it,’ said Al Mualim. ‘No doubt Robert de Sable is made nervous by our continued success. His remaining followers will do their best to expose you. They know you come: the man in the white hood. They’ll be looking for you.’

‘They won’t find me. I’m but a blade in a crowd,’ said Altaïr.

Al Mualim smiled, proud once more of his pupil.

25

It was Al Mualim who had taught them the Creed, the young Altaïr and Abbas. The Master had filled their young heads with the tenets of the Order.

Every day, after a breakfast of flat bread and dates, stern governesses had seen to it that they were washed and neatly dressed. Then, with books clasped to their breasts, they had hurried along corridors, their sandals slapping on the stone, chatting excitedly, until they reached the door to the Master’s study.

Here they had had a ritual. Both passed a hand over his own mouth to go from happy face to serious face, the face the Master expected. Then one would knock. For some reason they both liked to knock, so they took it in turns each day. Then they would wait for the Master to invite them in. There, they would sit cross-legged on cushions that Al Mualim had provided especially for them – one for Altaïr, and one for his brother, Abbas.

When they first began their tutelage they had been frightened and unsure, of themselves, of each other and in particular of Al Mualim, who would tutor them in the morning and at evening, with training in the yard in the afternoon and then again at night. Long hours spent learning the ways of the Order, watching the Master pace the study, his hands behind his back, occasionally stopping to admonish them if he thought they weren’t paying attention. They both found Al Mualim’s one eye disconcerting and felt fixed in place by it sometimes. Until one night Abbas had whispered across their room, ‘Hey, Altaïr?’

Altair turned to him, surprised. Neither had done this before, begun talking after the lights had been snuffed. They had lain in silence, each lost in his own thoughts. Until that night. The moon was full and the sheet at their window glowed white, lighting the room a soft, grey hue. Abbas was lying on his side looking across at Altaïr, and when he had the other boy’s attention he placed a hand over one eye, and said, in an almost perfect approximation of Al Mualim, ‘We are nothing if we do not abide by the Assassin’s Creed.’

Altaïr had dissolved into giggles and from then the two were friends. From now on when Al Mualim admonished them, it was for the stifled laughter he heard when his back was turned. Suddenly the governesses found that their charges weren’t quite so meek and acquiescent.

And Al Mualim taught them the tenets. The tenets that Altaïr would neglect later in life, at a cost dear to him. Al Mualim told them that the Assassins were not indiscriminate killers, not as the world at large liked to think, but were tasked only with slaying the evil and corrupt; their mission was to bring peace and stability to the Holy Land, to instil in it a code not of violence and conflict but of thought and contemplation.

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