‘So what is your plan?’
‘I’ll attend the funeral and confront Robert.’
‘The sooner the better,’ agreed Malik, handing Altaïr the feather. ‘Fortune favour your blade, brother.’
Altaïr took the marker. Swallowing, he said, ‘Malik … Before I go, there’s something I should say.’
‘Out with it.’
‘I’ve been a fool.’
Malik gave a dry laugh. ‘Normally I’d make no argument, but what is this? What are you talking about?’
‘All this time … I never told you I was sorry. Too damned proud. You lost your arm because of me. Lost Kadar. You had every right to be angry.’
‘I do not accept your apology.’
‘No. You don’t. I do not accept your apology, because you are not the same man who went with me into Solomon’s Temple, so you have nothing to apologize for.
‘Perhaps if I had not been so envious of you, I would not have been so careless myself. I am just as much to blame.’
‘Don’t say such things.’
‘We are one. As we share the glory of our victories, so too should we share the pain of our defeat. In this way we grow closer. We grow stronger.’
‘Thank you, brother.’
And so it was that Altaïr found himself at the cemetery, a small, unadorned burial ground, joining a sparse crowd of Templars and civilians who had gathered around the burial mound of Majd Addin, the erstwhile city regent.
The body would have been bathed and shrouded and carried in a procession, then buried on its right side and the hole filled, members of the procession adding dirt to the grave. As Altaïr entered, an imam was stepping up to deliver the funeral prayer and a hush had descended over the holy ground. Most stood with their hands clasped in front of them and their heads bowed in respect for the dead, so it was an easy task for Altaïr to slip through the crowd in order to gain a good vantage point. To locate his final target. He who had set Altaïr on this path – whose death would be just retribution for the suffering he had caused and that which had happened in his name: Robert de Sable.
Passing along the rows of mourners, Altaïr realized it was the first time that he had ever found himself at the funeral of one of his targets, and he cast a look around to see if there were any grieving members of the dead man’s family nearby, wondering how he, the killer, would feel to be confronted by their grief. But if Majd Addin had had close relatives they were either absent or kept their sorrow hidden among the crowd; there was no one at the graveside but the imam and …
A cluster of Templar knights.
They stood in front of an ornately decorated fountain set into a tall sandstone wall, three of them, wearing armour and full-face helmets, even the one who stood in front of the other two, who also wore a cape. The distinctive cape of the Templar Grand Master.
And yet … Altaïr squinted, staring at de Sable. The knight was somehow not as Altaïr remembered him. Had his memory played tricks on him? Had Robert de Sable taken on greater dimensions in his head because he had bested Altaïr? Certainly he seemed to lack the stature that Altaïr remembered. Where, also, were the rest of his men?
Now the imam had begun to speak, addressing the mourners: ‘We gather here to mourn the loss of our beloved Majd Addin, taken too soon from this world. I know you feel sorrow and pain at his passing. But you should not. For just as we are all brought forth from the womb, so too must we all one day pass from this world. It is only natural – like the rising and the setting of the sun. Take this moment to reflect on his life and give thanks for all the good he did. Know that one day you will stand with him again in Paradise.’
Altaïr fought to hid his disgust. ‘The beloved Majd Addin’. The same beloved Majd Addin who had been a traitor to the Saracens, who had sought to undermine trust in them by indiscriminately executing the citizens of Jerusalem? That beloved Majd Addin? It was no wonder that the crowd was so sparse, and grief so little in evidence. He was about as beloved as leprosy.
The imam began to lead the mourners in prayer. ‘O God, bless Muhammad, his family, his companions, O merciful and majestic. O God, more majestic than they describe, peace on the Prophets, blessings from the God of the Universe.’
Altaïr’s gaze went from him to de Sable and his bodyguard. A wink of sun caught his eye and he glanced up at the wall behind the trio of knights to the ramparts that ran along the outside of the courtyard. Was it a movement he’d seen? Perhaps. Extra Templar soldiers could easily take cover in the ramparts.
He glanced again at the three knights – Robert de Sable, as if standing for inspection, offering himself as a target. His build. Too slight, surely. The cape. It looked too long.
No. Altaïr decided to abandon the assassination because there was no ignoring his instinct here. It wasn’t telling him something was wrong. It was saying nothing was right. He began to edge back, just as the imam’s tone changed.
‘As you know, this man was murdered by Assassins. We have tried to track his killer, but it has proved difficult. These creatures cling to the shadows and run from any who would face them fairly.’
Altaïr froze, knowing now that the trap was to be sprung. He tried to push through the crowd more quickly.
‘But not today,’ he heard the imam call, ‘for it seems one stands among us. He mocks us with his presence and must be made to pay.’
Suddenly the crowd around Altaïr opened, forming a circle around him. He wheeled, seeing the graveside where the imam stood pointing – at him. De Sable and his two men were moving forward. Around him the crowd looked fierce, and was closing in to swamp him, leaving him no escape route.
‘Seize him. Bring him forward that God’s justice might be done,’ called the imam.
In one movement Altaïr drew his sword and ejected his blade. He remembered his Master’s words: Choose one.
But there was no need. The mourners might have been brave and Majd Addin beloved, but nobody was prepared to shed blood to avenge him. Panicked, the crowd broke up, mourners falling over their robes to escape, Altaïr using the sudden confusion to dart to one side, breaking the advancing Templars’ line of sight. The first of them just had time to register that one member of the crowd was not escaping, but instead moving towards him, before Altaïr’s sword was through his mail and in his gut and he fell away.