He taught them to master their feelings and emotions, to cloak their disposition and be absorbed by the world about them, so that they might move among normal people undetected, a blank space, a ghost in the crowd. To the people, the Assassin must be a kind of magic they did not understand, he said, but that, like all magic, it was reality bent to the will of the Assassin.
He taught them to protect the Order at all times; that the Brotherhood was ‘more important than you, Altaïr. It is more important than you, Abbas. It is more important than Masyaf and myself.’ Thus, the action of one Assassin should never call harm up upon the Order. The Assassin should never compromise the Brotherhood.
And though Altaïr would one day disregard this doctrine, too, it was not for want of Al Mualim’s tutoring. He taught them that men had created boundaries and declared all within those boundaries to be ‘true’ and ‘real’, but in fact they were false perimeters, imposed by those who would presume to be leaders. He showed them that the bounds of reality were infinitely broader than mankind’s limited imagination was able to conceive, and that only the few could see beyond those boundaries – only a few dared even question their existence.
And they were the Assassins.
And because the Assassins were able to see the world as it truly was, then to the Assassin everything was possible – everything was permitted.
Every day, as Altaïr and Abbas learned more and more about the Order, they also grew closer. They spent almost all day with one another. Whatever Al Mualim taught them, their own day-to-day reality was in fact insubstantial. It consisted of each other, the governesses, Al Mualim’s classes and a succession of combat trainers, each with a different speciality. And far from everything being permitted, virtually nothing was. Any entertainment was provided by the boys themselves, and so they spent long hours talking when they should have been studying. A subject they rarely discussed was their fathers. At first Abbas had talked only of Ahmad returning one day to Masyaf, but as the months turned into years he spoke of it less. Altaïr would see him standing at the window, watching over the valley with glittering eyes. Then his friend began to withdraw and become less communicative. He was not so quick to smile any more. Where before he had spent hours talking, now he stood at the window instead.
Altaïr thought: If only he knew. Abbas’s grief would flare and intensify, then settle into an ache, just as Altaïr had experienced. The fact of his father’s death hurt him every day, but at least he knew. It was the difference between a dull ache and a constant sense of hopelessness.
So one night, after the candles had been snuffed out, he told Abbas. With bowed head, fighting back the tears, he told Abbas that Ahmad had come to his quarters and there he had taken his own life, but that Al Mualim had decided it best to hide this fact from the Brotherhood, ‘in order to protect you. But the Master hasn’t witnessed your yearning at first hand. I lost my father, too, so I know. I know that the pain of it recedes over time. By telling you, I hope to help you, my friend.’
Abbas had simply blinked in the darkness, then turned over in his bed. Altaïr had wondered how he had expected Abbas to react. Tears? Anger? Disbelief? He had been prepared for them all. Even to bar Abbas in and prevent him going to the Master. What he hadn’t expected was this … emptiness. This silence.
Altaïr stood on a rooftop in Damascus, looking down on his next target.
The smell of burning sickened him. The sight too. Of books being burned. Altaïr watched them crinkle, blacken and burn, thinking of his father, who would have been disgusted; Al Mualim, too, when he told him. To burn books was an affront to the Assassin way. Learning is knowledge, and knowledge is freedom and power. He knew that. He had forgotten it, somehow, but he knew it once more.
He stood out of sight on the ledge of the roof overlooking the courtyard of Jubair’s madrasah in Damascus. Smoke rose towards where he stood but all of the attention below was focused on the fire, piles of books, documents and scrolls at its centre. The fire and Jubair al-Hakim, who stood nearby, barking orders. All were doing his bidding apart from one, Altaïr noticed. This scholar stood to the side, gazing into the fire, his expression echoing Altaïr’s thoughts.
Jubair wore leather boots, a black headcloth and a permanent scowl. Altaïr watched him carefully: he had learned much about him. Jubair was the chief scholar of Damascus but in name only, for it was a most unusual scholar who insisted not on spreading learning but on destroying it. In this pursuit he had enlisted the city’s academics, whose presence was encouraged by Salah Al’din.
And why were they doing it, collecting then destroying these documents? In the name of some ‘new way’ or ‘new order’, which Altaïr had heard about before. Exactly what it involved wasn’t clear. He knew who was behind it, though. The Templars, his quarry being one of them.
‘Every single text in this city must be destroyed.’ Below him Jubair was exhorting his men with a fanatic’s zeal. His scholar helpers scurried about, laden with armfuls of papers that they had carried from somewhere hidden from Altaïr. They were casting them into the flames, which bloomed and grew with each fresh delivery. From the corner of his eye he saw the distant scholar becoming more and more agitated, until suddenly, as though he could no longer contain himself, he sprang forward to confront Jubair.
‘My friend, you must not do this,’ he said, his jovial tone belying his obvious distress. ‘Much knowledge rests within these parchments, put there by our ancestors for good reason.’
Jubair stopped, to stare at him with naked contempt. ‘And what reason is this?’ he snarled.
‘They are beacons meant to guide us – to save us from the darkness that is ignorance,’ implored the scholar. The flames danced tall at his back. Scholars came with more armfuls of books that they deposited on the fire, some casting nervous glances at where Jubair and the protester stood.
‘No.’ Jubair took a step forward, forcing the naysayer to retreat a step. ‘These bits of paper are covered with lies. They poison your minds. And so long as they exist, you cannot hope to see the world as it truly is.’
Trying desperately to be reasonable, the scholar still couldn’t hide his frustration. ‘How can you accuse these scrolls of being weapons? They’re tools of learning.’
‘You turn to them for answers and salvation.’ Jubair took another step forward, the protester another step back. ‘You rely more upon them than upon yourselves. This makes you weak and stupid. You trust in words. Drops of ink. Do you ever stop to think of who put them there? Or why? No. You simply accept their words without question. And what if those words speak falsely, as they often do? This is dangerous.’