‘Well, that was it. Just … most pleasant. Nothing else.’
‘So, not much use as a playmate.’
‘In no sense. My ideal husband would have embraced those aspects of my character that my parents wanted to excise. We would have gone hunting and hawking together. He would have tutored me in sports and combat and imbued me with learning. But he did none of those things. We repaired to his family seat, Hallaton Hall, in Leicestershire, where as chatelaine I was expected to manage the staff, oversee the running of the household and, of course, produce heirs. Three at least. Two boys and a girl, preferably, in that order. But I failed to live up to his expectations as miserably as he had failed to live up to mine. The only thing I cared for less than the hierarchies and politics of the staff was child-rearing and especially the birth that comes beforehand. After four years of prevarication I left. Fortunately the Bishop of Leicester was a close friend of the elderly Lord Hallaton and he was able to grant an annulment rather than risking this silly impetuous girl cause the family further embarrassment. I was of course persona non grata at Hallaton Hall – indeed, in the whole of Leicestershire – and, returning home, the situation was no better. Hallaton had demanded his bride price back but Father had already spent it. In the end I decided it was best for everyone if I left so I ran away to the Crusade.’
‘As a nurse?’
‘No, as a soldier.’
‘But you’re …’
‘Adept at disguising myself as a man, yes. Did I have you fooled that day in the cemetery?’
‘I knew you weren’t de Sable, but …’
‘You didn’t anticipate me being a woman. You see? Years of being boisterous finally paid off.’
‘And de Sable? Was he fooled?’
Altaïr sensed her rueful smile, rather than seeing it. ‘I liked Robert at first,’ she said softly. ‘He certainly saw more of my potential than Peter did. But, of course, he also saw how I might be exploited. And it wasn’t long before he was doing so.’ She sighed. ‘It was fitting that you killed him,’ she said. ‘He was not a good man and was unworthy of whatever feelings I had for him.’
‘Did he give you that?’ said Altaïr after a time, indicating her hand, the gem that shone there.
She looked at and frowned, almost as though she had forgotten she was wearing it. ‘Yes. It was a gift from him when he took me under his wing. This is all I have left of my ties to the Templars.’
There was an awkward silence. Eventually it was broken by Altaïr, who said, ‘Did you study philosophy, Maria?’
She looked at him dubiously. ‘I’ve read scraps … nothing more.’
‘The philosopher Empedocles preached that all life on earth began simply, in rudimentary forms: hands without arms, heads without bodies, eyes without faces. He believed that all these early forms combined, very gradually over time, to create all the variety of life we see before us. Interesting?’
She all but yawned. ‘Do you know how ludicrous that sounds?’
‘I do … but I take comfort in the advice of the philosopher Al Kindi: one must not be afraid of ideas, no matter their source. And we must never fear the truth, even when it pains us.’
‘I don’t see the point of your ramblings.’ She laughed softly, sounding sleepy and warm.
Perhaps he had misjudged her. Maybe she wasn’t ready to learn. But just then a bell sounded, the sign that they had docked at Kyrenia. They stood up.
Altaïr tried again. ‘Only a mind free of impediment is capable of grasping the chaotic beauty of the world. This is our greatest asset.’
‘But is chaos something to be celebrated? Is disorder a virtue?’ she asked, and something in him lifted at the question. Perhaps she was receptive to higher knowledge, after all.
‘It presents us with challenges, yes,’ he said, ‘but freedom yields greater rewards than the alternative. The order and peace the Templars seek require servility and imprisonment.’
‘Hm,’ she said. ‘I know that feeling …’
He felt a certain closeness towards her as they reached the steps that led to the upper deck and realized it was the very sensation he had been chasing almost since they had met. Now he had it, he liked it. He wanted to keep it. Even so, he should be careful. Hadn’t she already told him that she planned to kill him? Her loyalties to the Templars had been torn but that didn’t mean she had suddenly come over to the way of the Assassin. As far as he could tell, her way was the way of Maria.
So it was to prove.
At the ladder she smiled and held out her hands and he regarded them distrustfully. But she couldn’t possibly climb with her hands tied and, anyway, they were travelling with pirates: although pirates were notoriously low on ethics, even they might be surprised by a monk who kept his companion bound. The two who had been sleeping were now pulling themselves to their feet, yawning, scratching their groins and casting looks across the hold at the pair of them. Surreptitiously Altaïr flicked out his blade and sliced the rope at her wrists. She shot him a grateful look before beginning to climb the ladder.
Then, he heard something. A murmur. He was alerted more by the tone than what was being said. Without making it obvious, he listened. As he’d thought, the two pirates were talking about them.
‘I knew it was him,’ rasped one. ‘I told you.’
Altaïr could feel their eyes on his back.
‘I’ll bet the Templars would pay a handsome reward for those two.’
Silently the Assassin cursed. If he was right, he’d be needing his blade again at any moment …
He heard the sound of scimitars being drawn.
Altaïr wheeled to face the two men as his companion decided to pursue the Way of Maria and launched a bid for freedom, kicking out with her trailing foot and sending him stumbling against the side of the hold, pain flaring in his face.
There was pain inside him, too. A different kind of pain.
Then she was gone, disappearing into the square of sunlight at the hold door. Altaïr cursed again but aloud this time and righted himself to meet the attack. The first pirate grinned as he came forward, thinking no doubt of the bounty – the wine and women he would buy when he had collected it.
Altaïr thrust his sword through the man’s sternum and he stopped grinning, sliding wetly off the blade. It gave the second pause for thought and he stopped. His eyes narrowed and he swapped his weapon from hand to hand. Altaïr smiled at him and stamped, pleased to see him flinch in response.