The scholar looked confused. As though someone was telling him black was white, night was day. ‘You are wrong,’ he insisted. ‘These texts offer the gift of knowledge. We need them.’

Jubair darkened. ‘You love your precious writings? You’d do anything for them?’

‘Yes, yes. Of course.’

Jubair smiled. A cruel smile. ‘Then join them.’

Planting both hands on the scholar’s chest, Jubair shoved him backwards, hard. For a second the scholar was mid-topple, his eyes wide open in surprise and his arms flapping madly, as though he hoped to fly clear of the greedy fire. Then he was claimed by the impetus of the shove, falling into the flames, writhing on a bed of searing heat. He screamed and kicked. His robe caught. For a moment he seemed to be trying to beat out the flames, the sleeves of his tunic already alight. Then his shrieks stopped. And contained in the smoke rising to Altaïr was the nauseating scent of roasting human flesh. He covered his nose. In the courtyard below, the scholars did the same.

Jubair addressed them: ‘Any man who speaks as he did is just as much a threat. Does any other among you wish to challenge me?’

There was no reply, fearful eyes looked over hands held to noses. ‘Good,’ said Jubair. ‘Your orders are simple enough. Go out into the city. Collect any remaining writings and add them to the piles in the streets. When you’re done we’ll send a cart to collect them that they may be destroyed.’

The scholars left. And now the courtyard was empty. A beautiful marbled area for ever tarnished by the obscenity of the fire. Jubair paced around it, gazing into the fire. Every so often he cast a nervous glance around him, and appeared to be listening carefully. But if he heard anything it was the crackle of the fire and the sound of his own breathing. He relaxed a little, which made Altaïr smile. Jubair knew the Assassins were coming for him. Thinking himself cleverer than his executioners he’d sent decoys into the city streets – decoys with his most trusted bodyguards, so that the deception should be complete. Altaïr moved silently around the rooftop until he stood directly above the book-burner. Jubair thought he was safe here, locked in his madrasah.

But he wasn’t. And he had executed his last underling, burned his last book.

Snick.

Jubair looked up and saw the Assassin descending towards him, blade outstretched. Too late, he tried to dart out of the way as the blade was sinking into his neck. With a sigh he crumpled to the marble.

His eyelids fluttered. ‘Why … why have you done this?’

Altaïr looked over to the blackened corpse of the scholar in the fire. With the flesh burned away from his skull, it was as though he was grinning. ‘Men must be free to do as they believe,’ he told Jubair. He withdrew the blade from the other’s neck. Blood dripped to the marble. ‘It is not our right to punish one for thinking as he does, no matter how much we disagree.’

‘Then what?’ wheezed the dying man.

‘You of all people should know the answer. Educate them. Teach them right from wrong. It must be knowledge that frees them, not force.’

Jubair chuckled. ‘They do not learn, fixed in their ways as they are. You are naïve to think otherwise. It’s an illness, Assassin, for which there is but one cure.’

‘You’re wrong. And that’s why you must be put to rest.’

‘Am I not unlike those precious books you seek to save? A source of knowledge with which you disagree? Yet you’re rather quick to steal my life.’

‘A small sacrifice to save many. It is necessary.’

‘Is it not ancient scrolls that inspire the Crusaders? That fill Salah Al’din and his men with a sense of righteous fury? Their texts endanger others. Bring death in their wake. I, too, was making a small sacrifice.’ He smiled. ‘It matters little now. Your deed is done. And so am I.’

He died, eyes closing. Altaïr stood up. He looked around the courtyard, seeing the beauty and ugliness of it. Then, hearing footsteps approaching, he was gone. Over the rooftops and into the streets. Blending into the city. Becoming but a blade in the crowd …

‘I have a question for you,’ said Al Mualim, when they next met. He had restored Altaïr’s full status and at last the Assassin was a Master Assassin once more. Still, it was as though his mentor wanted to be sure of it. Wanted to be certain that Altaïr had learned.

‘What is the truth?’ he asked.

‘We place faith in ourselves,’ replied Altaïr, eager to please him, wanting to show him that he had indeed changed. That his decision to show mercy had been the right one. ‘We see the world as it really is, and hope that one day all mankind might see the same.’

‘What is the world, then?’

‘An illusion,’ replied Altaïr. ‘One we can either submit to – as most do – or transcend.’

‘And what is it to transcend?’

‘To recognize that laws arise not from divinity, but reason. I understand now that our Creed does not command us to be free.’ And suddenly he really did understand. ‘It commands us to be wise.’

Until now he had believed in the Creed but without knowing its true meaning. It was a call to interrogate, to apply thought and learning and reason to all endeavours.

Al Mualim nodded. ‘Do you see now why the Templars are a threat?

‘Whereas we would dispel the illusion, they would use it to rule.’

‘Yes. To reshape the world in an image more pleasing to them. That is why I sent you to steal their treasure. That is why I keep it locked away. And that is why you kill them. So long as even one survives, so, too, does their desire to create a New World Order. You must now seek out Sibrand. With his death, Robert de Sable will at last be vulnerable.’

‘It will be done.’

‘Safety and peace upon you, Altair.’

27

Altaïr made what he hoped was a final trip to Acre – battle-scarred Acre, over which hung the permanent pall of death. There, he carried out his investigations, then visited Jabal in the Bureau to collect his marker. At mention of Sibrand’s name, Jabal nodded sagely. ‘I am familiar with the man. Newly appointed leader of the Knights Teutonic, he resides in the Venetian Quarter, and runs Acre’s port.’

‘I’ve learned as much – and more.’

Jabal raised impressed eyebrows. ‘Continue then.’

Altaïr told him how Sibrand had commandeered the ships in the docks, intending to use them to establish a blockade. But not to prevent an attack by Salah Al’din. That was the revealing aspect. According to what Altaïr had learned, Sibrand planned to prevent Richard’s men receiving supplies. It made perfect sense. The Templars were betraying their own. All was becoming clear to him, it seemed: the nature of the stolen artefact, the identity of the Brotherhood binding his targets together, even their ultimate aim. Yet still …

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