Altaïr’s eyes flicked to the deck of the main ship where Sibrand had heard the splash too, and was already beginning to panic. ‘I know you’re out there, Assassin,’ he screeched. He unslung his bow. ‘How long do you think you can hide? I’ve a hundred men scouring the docks. They’ll find you. And when they do, you’ll suffer for your sins.’
Altaïr hugged the frame of the platform, out of sight. Water lapped at its struts. Otherwise, silence. An almost ghostly quiet that must have unnerved Sibrand as much as it pleased Altaïr.
‘Show yourself, coward,’ insisted Sibrand. His fear was in his voice. ‘Face me and let us be done with this.’
All in good time, thought Altaïr. Sibrand fired an arrow at nothing, then fitted and fired another.
‘On your guard, men,’ shouted Sibrand, to the lower decks. ‘He’s out there somewhere. Find him. End his life. A promotion to whoever brings me the head of the Assassin.’
Altaïr leaped from the platform to the ship, landing with a slight thump that seemed to resonate around the area of still water. He waited, clinging to the hull, hearing Sibrand’s panicked shouts from above. Then he began to climb. He waited until Sibrand’s back was turned then pulled himself on to the deck, now just a few feet away from the Grand Master of the Knights Teutonic, who was prowling the deck, shouting threats to the empty sea, hurling insults and orders at his guards, who hurried about below.
Sibrand was a dead man, thought Altaïr, as he crept up behind him. He had died as much from his own fear, though he was too stupid to know it.
‘Please … don’t do this,’ he said, as he folded to the deck with Altaïr’s blade in his neck.
‘You are afraid?’ asked the Assassin. He withdrew his blade.
‘Of course I am,’ said Sibrand, as though addressing a dolt.
Altaïr thought back to Sibrand’s callousness before the priest. ‘But you’ll be safe now,’ he said, ‘held in the arms of your God …’
Sibrand gave a small wet laugh. ‘Have my brothers taught you nothing? I know what waits for me. For all of us.’
‘If not your God, then what?’
‘Nothing. Nothing waits. And that is what I fear.’
‘You don’t believe,’ said Altaïr. Was it true? Sibrand had no faith? No God?
‘How could I, given what I know? What I’ve seen. Our treasure was the proof.’
‘Proof of what?’
‘That this life is all we have.’
‘Linger a while longer, then,’ pressed Altaïr, ‘and tell me of the part you were to play.’
‘A blockade by sea,’ Sibrand told him, ‘to keep the fool kings and queens from sending reinforcements. Once we … Once we …’ He was fading fast now.
‘… conquered the Holy Land?’ prompted Altaïr.
Sibrand coughed. When he next spoke, his bared teeth were coated with blood. ‘Freed it, you fool. From the tyranny of faith.’
‘Freedom? You worked to overthrow cities. Control men’s minds. Murdered any who spoke against you.’
‘I followed my orders, believing in my cause. Same as you.’
‘Do not be afraid,’ said Altaïr, closing his eyes.
‘We are close, Altaïr.’ Al Mualim came from behind his desk, moving through a thick shaft of light shining through the window. His pigeons cooed happily in the afternoon heat and there was that same sweet scent in the air. Yet despite the day – and although Altaïr had once again gained his rank and, more importantly, the Master’s trust – he could not yet fully relax.
‘Robert de Sable is now all that stands between us and victory,’ continued Al Mualim. ‘His mouth gives the orders. His hand pays the gold. With him dies the knowledge of the Templar Treasure and any threat it might pose.’
‘I still don’t understand how a simple bit of treasure could cause so much chaos,’ said Altaïr. He had been mulling over Sibrand’s final mysterious words. He had been thinking of the globe – the Piece of Eden. He had experienced its strange draw at first hand, of course, but surely it had merely the power to dazzle and divert. Could it really exert a hold above that of any desirable ornament? He had to admit to finding the idea fanciful.
Al Mualim nodded slowly, as though reading his thoughts. ‘The Piece of Eden is temptation given form. Look at what it’s done to Robert. Once he had tasted its power, it consumed him. He saw not a dangerous weapon to be destroyed, but a tool – one that would help him realize his life’s ambition.’
‘He dreamed of power, then?’
‘Yes and no. He dreamed – still dreams – like us, of peace.’
‘But this is a man who sought to see the Holy Land consumed by war …’
‘No, Altaïr,’ cried Al Mualim. ‘How can you not see when you’re the one who opened my eyes to this?’
‘What do you mean?’ Altaïr was puzzled.
‘What do he and his followers want? A world in which all men are united. I do not despise his goal. I share it. But I take issue with the means. Peace is something to be learned. To be understood. To be embraced, but…’
‘He would force it.’ Altaïr was nodding. Understanding.
‘And rob us of our free will in the process,’ agreed Al Mualim.
‘Strange … to think of him in this way,’ said Altaïr.
‘Never harbour hate for your victims, Altair. Such thoughts are poison and will cloud your judgement.’
‘Could he not be convinced, then? To end his mad quest?’
Al Mualim shook his head slowly and sadly. ‘I spoke to him – in my way – through you. What was each killing, if not a message? But he has chosen to ignore us.’
‘Then there’s only one thing left to do.’
At last he was to hunt de Sable. The thought thrilled Altaïr but he was careful to balance it with notes of caution. He would not make the mistake of underestimating him again. Not de Sable, or anybody.
‘Jerusalem is where you faced him first. It’s where you’ll find him now,’ said Al Mualim, and released his bird. ‘Go, Altair. It’s time to finish this.’
Altaïr left, descending the stairs to the doors of the tower and coming out into the courtyard. Abbas was sitting on the fence, and Altaïr felt his eyes on him as he crossed the courtyard. Then he stopped and turned to face him. Their eyes met and Altaïr was about to say something – he wasn’t sure what. But he thought better of it. He had a task ahead of him. Old wounds were exactly that: old wounds. Unconsciously, however, his hand went to his side.