The morning after Altaïr had told Abbas the truth about his father, Abbas had been even more withdrawn, and nothing Altaïr said could bring him out of that state. They ate their breakfast in silence, sullenly submitting to the attentions of their governesses, then went to Al Mualim’s study and took their places on the floor.
If Al Mualim had noticed a difference in his two charges, he said nothing. Perhaps he was privately pleased that the boys seemed less easily distracted that day. Perhaps he simply assumed that they had fallen out, as young friends were inclined to do.
Altaïr, however, sat with twisted insides and a tortured mind. Why had Abbas said nothing? Why hadn’t he reacted to what Altaïr had told him?
He was to get his answer later that day, when they went to the training yard as usual. They were to practise sword together, sparring as always. But today Abbas had decided that he wanted to use not the small wooden swords they normally sparred with but the shiny blades to which they planned to graduate.
Labib, their instructor, was delighted. ‘Excellent, excellent,’ he said, clapping his hands together, ‘but, remember, there is nothing to be gained from drawing blood. We’ll not trouble the physicians, if you please. This shall be a test of restraint and of cunning as much as it is of skill.’
‘Cunning,’ said Abbas. ‘That should suit you, Altaïr. You are cunning and treacherous.’
They were the first words he had spoken to Altaïr all day. And as he said them he fixed Altaïr with a look of such contempt, such hatred, that Altaïr knew things would never be the same between them. He looked at Labib, wanting to appeal, to implore him not to allow the contest, but he was hopping happily over the small fence that surrounded the training quadrangle, relishing the prospect of some proper combat at last.
They took up position, Altaïr swallowing, Abbas staring hard at him.
‘Brother,’ began Altaïr, ‘what I said last night, I –’
‘Do not call me brother!’ Abbas’s shout rang around the courtyard. And he sprang towards Altaïr with a ferocity the boy had never seen in him before. But though his teeth were bared, Altaïr could see the tears that had formed at the corners of his eyes. There was more to this than simple anger, he knew.
‘No, Abbas,’ he called, desperately defending. He glanced to his left and saw the instructor’s puzzled look – he was clearly not sure what to make of Abbas’s outburst or the sudden hostility between the two. Altaïr saw two more Assassins approaching the training area, evidently having heard Abbas’s cry. Faces appeared in the window of the defensive tower by the citadel entrance. He wondered if Al Mualim was watching …
Abbas jabbed forward with his swordpoint, forcing Altaïr to dodge to the side.
‘Now, Abbas …’ chided Labib.
‘He means to kills me, Master,’ shouted Altaïr.
‘Don’t be dramatic, child,’ said the instructor, though he didn’t sound altogether convinced. ‘You could learn from your brother’s commitment.’
‘I am not.’ Abbas attacked. ‘His.’ The boy’s words were punctuated with savage strikes of the sword. ‘Brother.’
‘I told you to help you,’ shouted Altaïr.
‘No,’ screamed Abbas. ‘You lied.’ Again he struck and there was a great chime of steel. Altaïr found himself thrown back by the force, stumbling at the fence and almost falling backwards over it. More Assassins had arrived. Some looked concerned, others ready to be entertained.
‘Defend, Altaïr, defend,’ roared Labib, clapping his hands with glee. Altaïr threw up his sword, returning Abbas’s strikes and forcing him into the centre of the quadrangle once more.
‘I told the truth,’ he hissed, as they came close, the blades of their swords sliding against one another. ‘I told you the truth to end your suffering, just as I would have wanted mine ending.’
‘You lied to bring shame upon me,’ said Abbas, falling back and taking up position, crouched, one arm thrown back as they’d been taught, the blade of his sword quivering.
‘No!’ cried Altaïr. He danced back as Abbas thrust forward. But with a flick of his wrist Abbas caught Altaïr with his blade, opening a nick that bled warm down Altaïr’s side. He glanced over at Labib with beseeching eyes, but his concerns were waved away. He placed a hand to his side and came away with bloodied fingertips that he held out to Abbas.
‘Stop this, Abbas,’ he pleaded. ‘I spoke the truth in the hope of bringing you comfort.’
‘Comfort,’ said Abbas. The boy was talking to the assembled crowd now. ‘To bring me comfort he tells me my father killed himself.’
There was a moment of shocked silence. Altaïr looked from Abbas to those who were now watching, unable to comprehend the turn of events. The secret he had sworn to keep had been made public.
He glanced up to Al Mualim’s tower. Saw the Master standing there, watching, his hands behind his back and an unreadable expression on his face.
‘Abbas,’ shouted Labib, at last seeing something was amiss. ‘Altaïr.’
But the two fighting boys ignored him, their swords meeting again. Altaïr, in pain, was forced to defend.
‘I thought –’ he began.
‘You thought you would bring shame upon me,’ shrieked Abbas. The tears were falling down his face now and he circled Altaïr, then pushed forward again, swinging his sword wildly. Altaïr crouched and found space between Abbas’s arm and body. He struck, opening a wound on Abbas’s left arm that he hoped would at least stop him long enough for Altaïr to try to explain –
But Abbas shrieked. And with a final war cry he leaped towards Altaïr who ducked beneath his flailing blade, using his shoulder to upset Abbas’s forward momentum so that now they were rolling in the ground in a mess of dirt and bloodied robes. For a moment they grappled, then Altaïr felt a searing pain in his side, Abbas digging his thumb into the wound and using the opportunity to twist, heaving himself on top of Altaïr and pinning him to the ground. From his belt he produced his dagger and held it to Altaïr’s throat. His wild eyes were fixed on Altaïr. They still poured with tears. He breathed heavily through bared teeth.
‘Abbas!’ came the shout, not from Labib or any of those who had gathered to watch. This came from the window of Al Mualim. ‘Put away the knife at once,’ he roared, his voice a thunderclap in the courtyard.