From his pack he took the Apple and held it up for inspection. ‘As terrible as this artefact is, it contains wonders … I would like to understand it as best I can.’

‘You tread a thin line, Altaïr.’

He nodded slowly. ‘I know. But I have been ruined by curiosity, Maria. I want to meet the best minds, explore the libraries of the world, and learn all the secrets of nature and the universe.’

‘All in one lifetime? It’s a little ambitious …’

He chuckled. ‘Who can say? It could be that one life is just enough.’

‘Maybe. And where will you go first?’

He looked at her, smiling, knowing only that he wanted her with him for the rest of his journey. ‘East …’ he said.

Part Four

48

15 July 1257

Maffeo has this habit of looking at me strangely sometimes. It’s as though he believes I’m not quite furnishing him with all the necessary information. And he has done this several times during our storytelling sessions. Whether watching the world go by in the busy market of Masyaf, enjoying the cool draughts in the catacombs beneath the citadel or strolling along the ramparts, seeing birds wheel and dip across the valleys, he looks at me every now and then, as if to say, ‘What is it you’re not telling me, Niccolò?’

Well, the answer, of course, is nothing, apart from my lingering suspicion that the story will eventually involve us in some way, that I’m being told these things for a reason. Will it involve the Apple? Or perhaps his journals? Or the codex, the book into which he has distilled his most significant findings?

Even so, Maffeo fixes me with the Look.

‘And?’

‘And what, brother?’

‘Did Altaïr and Maria go east?’

‘Maffeo, Maria is the mother of Darim, the gentleman who invited us here.’

I watched as Maffeo turned his head to the sun and closed his eyes to let it warm his face as he absorbed this information. I’m sure that he was trying to reconcile the image of the Darim we knew, a man in his sixties with the weathered face to prove it, with someone who had a mother – a mother like Maria.

I let him ponder, smiling indulgently. Just as Maffeo would pester me with questions during the tale, so of course I had pestered the Master, albeit with a good deal more deference.

‘Where is the Apple now?’ I had asked him once. If I’m honest, I had secretly hoped that at some point he would produce it. After all, he’d spoken about it in terms of such reverence, even sounding fearful of it at times. Naturally I had hoped to see it for myself. Perhaps to understand its allure.

Sadly, this was not to be. He met my question with a series of testy noises. I should not trouble myself with thoughts of the Apple, he had warned, with a wagging finger. I should concern myself with the codex instead. For contained in those pages were the secrets of the Apple, he said, but free of the artefact’s malign effects.

The codex. Yes, I had decided, it was the codex that was to prove significant in the future. Significant in my future, even.

But anyway: back in the here and now, I watched Maffeo mull over the fact that Darim was the son of Altaïr and Maria; that from adversarial beginnings had flourished first a respect between the pair, then attraction, friendship, love and –

‘Marriage?’ said Maffeo. ‘She and Altaïr were wed?’

‘Indeed. Some two years after the events I’ve described, they were wed at Limassol. The ceremony was held there as a measure of respect to the Cypriots who had offered their island as a base for the Assassins, making it a key stronghold for the Order. I believe Markos was a guest of honour, and a somewhat ironic toast was proposed to the pirates, who had inadvertently been responsible for introducing him to Altaïr and Maria. Shortly after the wedding the Assassin and his bride returned to Masyaf, where their son Darim was born.’

‘Their only son?’

‘No. Two years after the birth of Darim, Maria gave birth to another, Sef, a brother to Darim.’

‘And what of him?’

‘All in good time, brother. All in good time. Suffice to say for now that this represented a mainly peaceful and fruitful period for the Master. He talks of it little, as though it is too precious to bring out into the light, but much of it is recorded in his codex. All the time he was making new discoveries and was in receipt of fresh revelations.’

‘Such as?’

‘He recorded them in his journals. In there you can see not only compounds for new Assassin poisons, but for medicine too. Descriptions of achievements yet to come and catastrophes yet to happen; designs for armour and for new hidden blades, including one that fires projectiles. He mused upon the nature of faith and of humanity’s beginnings, forged from chaos, order imposed not by a supreme being but by man.’

Maffeo looked shocked. ‘ “Forged from chaos, order imposed not by a supreme being …” ’

‘The Assassin questions all fixed faith,’ I said, not without a touch of pomposity. ‘Even his own.’

‘How so?’

‘Well, the Master wrote of the contradictions and ironies of the Assassin. How they seek to bring about peace yet use violence and murder as the means to do it. How they seek to open men’s minds yet require obedience to a master. The Assassin teaches the dangers of blindly believing in established faith but requires the Order’s followers to follow the Creed unquestioningly.

‘He wrote also of the Ones Who Came Before, the members of the first civilization, who left behind the artefacts hunted by both Templar and Assassin.’

‘The Apple being one of them?’

‘Exactly. A thing of immense power. Competed for by the Knights Templar. His experiences in Cyprus had shown him that the Templars, rather than trying to wrest control by the usual means, had chosen subterfuge for their strategy. Altaïr concluded that this, too, should be the way of the Assassin.

‘No longer should the Order build great fortresses and conduct lavish rituals. These, he decided, were not what makes the Assassin. What makes the Assassin is his adherence to the Creed. That originally espoused by Al Mualim, ironically enough. An ideology that challenged established doctrines. One that encouraged acolytes to reach beyond themselves and make the impossible possible. It was these principles that Altaïr developed and took with him in the years he spent travelling the Holy Land, stabilizing the Order and instilling in it the values he had learned as an Assassin. Only in Constantinople did his attempts to promote the way of the Assassin stumble. There, in 1204, great riots were taking place as the people rose up against the Byzantine emperor Alexius, and not long after that the Crusaders broke through and began a sack of the city. In the midst of such ongoing tumult, Altaïr was unable to carry out his plans and retreated. It became one of his few failures during that era.

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