For almost a decade, thought Altaïr. But then … He took a step forward, looking from Bouchart to Maria. ‘He angered King Richard and brought the English a little too close for comfort. Is that it?’
When Bouchart made no move to stop him, he crossed the floor and bent to Maria. He held her face, looking for signs of life.
Bouchart was talking, enjoying the sound of his own voice. ‘Fortunately we were able to convince Richard to sell the island to us. It was the only way to divert his attention.’
Her eyes fluttered. She groaned. Alive. Breathing a sigh of relief, Altaïr laid her head gently on the stone and straightened to face Bouchart, who had been watching them with an indulgent smile.
‘Purchasing what you already controlled …’ prompted Altaïr. He understood now. The Templars had purchased Cyprus from King Richard to stop their archive being discovered. Little wonder that they had been aggressive in their pursuit of him when he arrived on the island.
Bouchart confirmed that he was correct. ‘And look where that has got us. Ever since you arrived and stuck your nose into too many dark corners, the archive hasn’t been safe.’
‘I wish I could say I’m sorry. But I tend to get what I want,’ replied Altaïr, sounding confident but knowing something wasn’t quite right.
Sure enough, Bouchart was grinning. ‘Oh, not this time, Assassin. Not now. Our little detour to Kyrenia gave us just enough time to dismantle the archive and move it.’
Of course. It wasn’t a meagre archive he’d been seeing on his way down. It was the unwanted remnants of one. They’d distracted him with the business in Kyrenia and used the opportunity to move it.
‘You weren’t shipping artefacts to Cyprus, you were shipping them out,’ said Altaïr, as it all became clear.
‘Exactly,’ said Bouchart, with a complimentary nod. ‘But not everything has to go … I think we’ll leave you here.’
Bouchart leaped forward, jabbing with his sword, and Altair deflected. Bouchart was ready and parried, sustaining his attack, and Altaïr was forced on to the back foot, defending a series of thrusts and slashes. Bouchart was skilled, that was certain. He was fast as well, relying more on grace and footwork than the brute strength most Crusaders brought to a swordfight. But he came forward expecting to win and to win quickly. His desperation to vanquish the Assassin rendered him oblivious to the physical demands of the fight, so that Altaïr defended, let him come, soaked up his attacks, every now and then offering a short attack of his own, opening wounds. A gash here, a nick there. Blood began to leak from beneath Bouchart’s chainmail, which hung heavy on him.
As Altaïr fought, he thought of Maria and of those who had died on the orders of the Templar, but he stopped those memories turning into the desire for vengeance. Instead he let them give him resolve. The smile had fallen from Bouchart’s face and, as Altaïr remained silent, the Templar Grand Master was grunting with the exertion – that and frustration. His sword swings were less co-ordinated and failed to meet their target. Sweat and blood poured from him. His teeth were bared.
And Altaïr opened more wounds, cutting him on the forehead so that blood was gushing into his eyes and he was wiping his gauntlet across his face to clear it away. Now Bouchart could barely lift the sword and was bent over, his legs rubbery and his shoulders heaving as he fought for breath, squinting through a mask of blood to find the Assassin, seeing only shadows and shapes. He was a defeated man now. Which meant he was a dead man.
Altaïr didn’t toy with him. He waited until the danger was over. Until he was sure that Bouchart’s weakness was not feigned.
Then he ran him through.
Bouchart dropped to the ground and Altaïr knelt beside him. The Templar looked at him and Altaïr saw respect in his eyes.
‘Ah. You are a … a credit to your Creed,’ he gasped.
‘And you have strayed from yours.’
‘Not strayed … expanded. The world is more complicated than most dare admit. And if you, Assassin … if you knew more than how to murder, you might understand this.’
Altaïr frowned. ‘Save your lecture on virtue for yourself. And die knowing that I will never let the Apple, the Piece of Eden, fall into any hands but my own.’
As he spoke of it, he felt it warm against his back, as though it had awoken.
Bouchart smiled ironically. ‘Keep it close, Altair. You will come to the same conclusions we did … in time …’
He died. Altaïr reached to close his eyes, just as the building shook and he was showered with falling debris. Cannon fire. The Templars were shelling the archive. It made perfect sense. They wanted to leave nothing behind.
He scrambled over to Maria and pulled her to her feet. For a moment or so they looked into one another’s eyes, some unspoken feeling passing between them. Then she tugged at his arm and was leading him out of the grand chamber just as it was shaken by more cannon fire. Altaïr turned in time to see two of the beautiful pillars crumple and fall, great sections of stone smashing to the floor. Then he was following Maria as she ran, taking the steps two at a time as they climbed back up the shaft to the sunken archive. It was rocked by another explosion, and masonry smashed into the walkway, but they kept running, kept dodging until they reached the exit.
The steps had fallen away so Altaïr climbed, dragging Maria up behind him to a platform. They pushed their way out into the day as the shelling intensified and the building seemed to fall in on itself, forcing them to jump clear. And there they stayed for some time, gulping clean air, glad to be alive.
Later, when the Templar ships had departed, taking the last of the precious archive with them, Altaïr and Maria were walking in the dying light in Limassol port, both lost in thought.
‘Everything I worked for in the Holy Land, I no longer want,’ said Maria, after a long pause. ‘And everything I gave up to join the Templars … I wonder where all that went, and if I should try to find it again.’
‘Will you return to England?’ asked Altaïr.
‘No … I’m so far from home already, I’ll continue east. To India, perhaps. Or until I fall off the far edge of the world … And you?’
Altaïr thought, enjoying the closeness they shared. ‘For a long time under Al Mualim, I thought my life had reached its limit, and that my sole duty was to show others the same precipice I had discovered.’
‘I felt the same once,’ she agreed.