In response Abbas sounded small and desperate. ‘Not until he admits.’
‘Admits what?’ cried Altaïr, struggling but held firm.
Labib had climbed over the fence. ‘Now, Abbas,’ he said, with placating palms held out. ‘Do as the Master says.’
‘Come any closer and I’ll carve him,’ growled Abbas.
The instructor stopped. ‘He’ll put you in the cells for this, Abbas. This is no way for the Order to behave. Look, there are citizens here from the village. Word will spread.’
‘I don’t care,’ wept Abbas. ‘He needs to say it. He needs to say he lied about my father.’
‘He told me my father killed himself. That he came to Altaïr’s quarters to say sorry, then slashed his own throat. But he lied. My father did not kill himself. He left the Brotherhood. That was his apology. Now tell me you lied.’ He jabbed the point of the dagger into Altair’s throat, drawing more blood.
‘Abbas, stop this,’ roared Al Mualim from his tower.
‘Altaïr, did you lie?’ asked Labib.
A silence shrouded the training yard: all waited for Altaïr’s reply. He looked up at Abbas.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I did lie.’
Abbas sat back on his haunches and squeezed his eyes shut. Whatever pain went through him seemed to rack his entire body, and as he dropped the dagger with a clang to the ground of the quadrangle, he began weeping. He was still weeping as Labib came to him and grabbed him roughly by the arm, pulling him to his feet and delivering him to a pair of guards, who came hurrying up. Moments later Altaïr was also grabbed. He, too, was manhandled to the cells.
Later, Al Mualim decided that after a month in the dungeons, they should resume their training. Abbas’s crime was deemed the more serious of the two; it was he who had allowed his emotions free rein and by doing so brought disrepute to the Order. His punishment was that his training be extended for an extra year. He would still be on the training yard with Labib when Altaïr was made an Assassin. The injustice increased his hatred of Altaïr, who slowly came to see Abbas as a pathetic, bitter figure. When the citadel was attacked, it was Altaïr who saved the life of Al Mualim and was elevated to Master Assassin. That day, Abbas spat in the dirt at Altaïr’s feet but Altaïr just sneered at him. Abbas, he decided, was as weak and ineffectual as his father had been.
Perhaps, looking back, that was how he had first become infected by arrogance.
When Altaïr next arrived at the Jerusalem Bureau, it was as a changed man. Not that he would make the mistake of thinking his journey was over – that would have been an error made by the old Altaïr. No, he knew that it was just beginning. It was as though Malik sensed it too. There was something changed about the Bureau leader when Altaïr entered. There was a new respect and accord between them.
‘Safety and peace, Altaïr,’ he said.
‘Upon you as well, brother,’ replied Altaïr, and there was an unspoken moment between them.
‘Seems Fate has a strange way with things …’
Altaïr nodded. ‘So it’s true, then? Robert de Sable is in Jerusalem?
‘I’ve seen the knights myself.’ Malik’s hand went to his stump. Reminded of it by mention of the Templar.
‘Only misfortune follows that man. If he’s here, it’s because he intends ill. I won’t give him the chance to act,’ said Altaïr.
‘Do not let vengeance cloud your thoughts, brother. We both know no good can come of that.’
Altaïr smiled. ‘I have not forgotten. You have nothing to fear. I do not seek revenge, but knowledge.’
Once he would have said such a thing parrot fashion, knowing the beliefs expected of him. Now he truly believed it.
Again, Malik somehow understood. ‘Truly you are not the man I once knew,’ he said.
Altaïr nodded. ‘My work has taught me many things. Revealed secrets to me. But there are still pieces of this puzzle I do not possess.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘All the men I’ve laid to rest have worked together, united by this man. Robert has designs upon the land. This much I know for certain. But how and why? When and where? These things remain out of reach.’
‘Crusaders and Saracens working together?’ wondered Malik, aloud.
‘They are none of these things, but something else. Templars.’
‘The Templars are a part of the Crusader army,’ said Malik, though the question was written all over his face: how could they be King Richard’s men if they were staying in Jerusalem? Walking the city streets?
‘Or so they’d like King Richard to believe,’ said Altaïr. ‘No. Their only allegiance is to Robert de Sable and some mad idea that they will stop the war.’
‘You spin a strange tale.’
‘You have no idea, Malik …’
‘Then tell me.’
Altaïr began to tell Malik what he had learned so far. ‘Robert and his Templars walk the city. They’ve come to pay their respects to Majd Addin. They’ll attend his funeral. Which means so will I.’
‘What is this that Templars would attend his funeral?’
‘I have yet to divine their true intentions, though I’ll have a confession in time. The citizens themselves are divided. Many call for their lives. Still others insist that they are here to parley. To make peace.’
He thought of the orator he’d questioned, who had been adamant that his masters wanted an end to war. De Sable, a Christian, was attending Majd Addin’s funeral, he a Muslim. Wasn’t that proof that the Templars sought a united Holy Land? The citizens were hostile to the notion of Templars being present in Jerusalem. The Crusader occupation was still fresh in their minds. Unsurprisingly there had been reports of fighting breaking out between Crusaders and Saracens, who took exception to the sight of knights in the streets. The city remained unconvinced by the orators who insisted that they came in the name of peace.
‘Peace?’ said Malik, now.
‘I told you. The others I have slain have said as much to me.’
‘That would make them our allies. And yet we kill them.’
‘Make no mistake, we are nothing like these men. Though their goal sounds noble, the means by which they’d achieve it are not. At least … that’s what Al Mualim told me.’
He ignored the tiny worm of doubt that slithered in the pit of his stomach.