‘Funny, when he told me that, he gave me an odd look.’
‘Because our home is in Constantinople?’
‘Possibly. I shall have to give the matter thought at a later date. It may well be that our hailing from Constantinople and his attempt to establish a guild there are not unrelated …’
‘His only failure, you say?’
‘Indeed. In all other ways, Altaïr did more to promote the Order than almost any leader before him. It was only the ascendancy of Genghis Khan that prevented him continuing his work.’
‘Some forty years ago, Altaïr wrote of it in his codex. How a dark tide was rising to the east. An army of such size and power that all the land was made quick with worry.’
‘He was talking about the Mongol Empire?’ asked Maffeo. ‘The rise of Genghis Khan?’
‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘Darim was in his early twenties and an accomplished bowman, and so it was that Altaïr took him and Maria and left Masyaf.’
‘To confront Khan?’
‘Altaïr suspected that Genghis Khan’s progress might have been helped by another artefact, similar to the Apple. Perhaps the Sword. He needed to establish whether this was the case, as well as to stop Khan’s inexorable march.’
‘How was Masyaf left?’
‘Altaïr put Malik in charge in his place. He left Sef behind also, to help take care of affairs. Sef had a wife and two young daughters by then, Darim did not, and they were gone for a long time.’
‘He was absent for ten years, brother, and when he returned to Masyaf everything there had changed. Nothing would ever be the same again. Do you want to hear about it?’
From a distance all looked well with Masyaf. None of them – not Altaïr, Maria or Darim – had any idea of what was to come.
Altaïr and Maria rode a little ahead, side by side, as was their preference, happy to be with one another and pleased to be within sight of home, each undulating with the slow, steady rhythm of their horses. Both rode high and proud in the saddle despite the long, arduous journey. They might have been advancing in years – both were in their mid-sixties – but it would not do to be seen slouching. Nevertheless they came slowly: their mounts were chosen for their strength and stamina, not speed, and tethered to each was an ass, laden with supplies.
Behind them came Darim, who had inherited the bright, dancing eyes of his mother, his father’s colouring and bone structure, and the impulsiveness of both. He would have liked to gallop ahead and climb the slopes of the village to the citadel to announce his parents’ return, but instead trotted meekly behind, respecting his father’s wishes for a modest homecoming. Every now and then he swatted the flies from his face with his crop and thought that a gallop would have been the most effective way to rid himself of them. He wondered if they were being watched from the spires of the fortress, from its defensive tower.
Passing the stables, they went through the wooden gates and into the market, finding it unchanged. They came into the village, where children rushed excitedly around them calling for treats – children too young to know the Master. Older villagers recognized him, though, and Altaïr noticed them watching the party carefully, not with welcome but wariness. Faces were turned away when he tried to catch their eye. Anxiety bit into his gut.
Now a figure he knew was approaching them, meeting them at the bottom of the slopes to the citadel. Swami. An apprentice when he’d left, one of those who was too fond of combat, not enough of learning. He had collected a scar in the intervening ten years and it wrinkled when he smiled, a broad grin that went nowhere near his eyes. Perhaps he was already thinking of the teachings he would have to endure with Altaïr, now that he had returned.
But endure them he would, thought Altaïr, his gaze going past Swami to the castle, where a vast flag bearing the mark of the Assassins fluttered in the breeze. He had decreed that the flag be removed: the Assassins were disposing of such empty emblems. But Malik had evidently decided it should fly. He was another who would endure some teaching in the time ahead.
‘Altaïr,’ said Swami, with a bow of the head, and Altaïr decided to ignore the man’s failure to address him by his correct title. For the time being at least. ‘How pleasant it is to see you. I trust your travels proved fruitful.’
‘I sent messages,’ said Altaïr, leaning forward in his saddle. Darim drew up on the other side of him so that the three formed a line, looking down at Swami. ‘Was the Order not told of my progress?’
Swami smiled obsequiously. ‘Of course, of course. I asked merely out of courtesy.’
‘I expected to be met by Rauf,’ said Altaïr. ‘He is most accustomed to meeting my needs.’
‘Ah, poor Rauf.’ Swami peered at the ground reflectively.
‘Is something wrong?’
‘Rauf, I’m afraid is dead of the fever these past few years.’
‘Why was I not informed?’
At this Swami merely shrugged. An insolent shrug, as though he neither knew nor cared.
Altaïr pursed his lips, deciding that somebody had some explaining to do, even if it wasn’t to be this cur. ‘Then let us move on. I trust our quarters are prepared?’
Swami bowed his head again. ‘I’m afraid not, Altaïr. Until such time as you can be accommodated I have been asked to direct you to a residence on the western side of the fortress.’
Altaïr looked first at Darim, who was frowning, then at Maria, who gazed at him with eyes that said, Beware. Something was not right.
‘Very well,’ said Altaïr, cautiously, and they dismounted. Swami gestured to some servant boys, who came forward to take the horses, and they began their ascent to the citadel gates. There the guards inclined their heads quickly, as though, like the villagers, they were keen to avoid Altaïr’s eye, but instead of proceeding up the barbican, Swami led them around the outside of the inner curtain. Altaïr regarded the walls of the citadel stretching high above them, wanting to see the heart of the Order, feeling irritation build – but some instinct told him to bide his time. When they reached the residence it was a low building sunk into the stone with a short arch at its doorway and stairs leading down to a vestibule. The furniture was sparse and there were no staff to greet them. Altaïr was used to modest accommodation – he demanded it, in fact – but here in Masyaf, as the Assassin Master, he expected his accommodation to be in the Master’s tower or equivalent.