Bristling, he turned, about to remonstrate with Swami, who stood in the vestibule with the same obsequious grin on his face, when Maria grabbed his arm and squeezed it, stopping him.
‘Where is Sef?’ she asked Swami. She was smiling pleasantly, though Altaïr knew that she loathed Swami. Loathed him with every fibre in her body. ‘I would like Sef sent here at once, please.’
Swami looked pained. ‘I regret that Sef is not here. He has had to travel to Alamut.’
‘Are accompanying him.’
Maria shot a look of concern to Altaïr.
‘What business did my brother have in Alamut?’ snapped Darim, even more put out then his parents by the scant quarters.
‘Alas, I do not know,’ oozed Swami.
Altaïr took a deep breath and approached Swami. The messenger’s scar no longer crinkled as the sycophantic smile slid from his face. Perhaps he was suddenly reminded that this was Altaïr, the Master, whose skill in battle was matched only by his fierceness in the classroom.
‘Inform Malik at once that I wish to see him,’ growled Altaïr. ‘Tell him he has some explaining to do.’
Swami swallowed, wringing his hands a little theatrically. ‘Malik is in prison, Master.’
Altaïr started. ‘In prison? Why?’
‘I’m not at liberty to say, Master. A meeting of the council has been called for tomorrow morning.’
‘With Malik imprisoned, a council was formed to oversee the Order, in accordance with the statutes of the Brotherhood.’
This was true, but even so, Altaïr darkened. ‘With who as its chairman?’
‘Abbas,’ replied Swami.
Altaïr looked at Maria, whose eyes showed real concern now. She reached to take his arm.
‘And when do I meet this council?’ asked Altaïr. His voice was calm, belying the storm in his belly.
‘Tomorrow the council would like to hear the tale of your journey and apprise you of events at the Order.’
‘And after that the council shall be dissolved,’ said Altaïr, firmly. ‘Tell your council we shall see them at sunrise. Tell them to consult the statutes. The Master has returned and wishes to resume leadership.’
Swami bowed and left.
The family waited until he had gone before letting their true feelings show, when Altaïr turned to Darim and with urgency in his voice told him, ‘Ride to Alamut,’ he told him. ‘Bring Sef back here. He’s needed at once.’
The following day, Altaïr and Maria were about to make their way from their residence to the main tower when they were intercepted by Swami, who insisted on leading them through the barbican himself. As they skirted the wall Altaïr wondered why he couldn’t hear the usual noise of swordplay and training from the other side. As they came into the courtyard he got his answer.
It was because there was no swordplay or training. Where once the inner areas of the citadel had hummed with activity and life, echoing to the metallic chime of sword strikes, the shouts and curses of the instructors, now it lay almost deserted. He looked around him, at the towers overlooking them, seeing black windows. Guards on the ramparts stared dispassionately down at them. The place of enlightenment and training – the crucible of Assassin knowledge he had left – had all but disappeared. Altair’s mood darkened further as he was about to make his way to the main tower but Swami directed him instead to the steps that led up to the defence room, then into the main hall.
There, the council was gathered. Ten men were seated on opposite sides of a table with Abbas at their head, a pair of empty chairs for Altaïr and Maria: wooden, high-backed chairs. They took their seats and, for the first time since entering the room, Altaïr looked at Abbas, his old antagonist. He saw something in him other than weakness and resentment. He saw a rival. And for the first time since the night that Ahmad had come to his quarters and taken his own life, Altaïr no longer pitied Abbas.
Altaïr looked around the rest of the table. Just as he’d thought, the new council was made up of the most weak-minded and conniving members of the Order. Those Altaïr would have preferred to be cast out. All had joined this council, it seemed, or been recruited to it by Abbas. Characteristic of them was Farim, Swami’s father, who watched him from beneath hooded lids, his chin tucked into this chest. His ample chest. They had got fat, thought Altaïr, scornfully.
‘Welcome, Altaïr,’ said Abbas. ‘I’m sure I speak for us all when I say that I am looking forward to hearing of your exploits in the east.’
Maria leaned forward to address him. ‘Before we say anything of our travels, we would like some answers, please, Abbas. We left Masyaf in good order. It seems that standards have been allowed to slip.’
‘We left Masyaf in good order?’ smiled Abbas, though he had not looked at Maria. He hadn’t taken his gaze from Altaïr. The two were staring across the table at each other with open hostility. ‘When you left the Brotherhood I seem to recall there being only one Master. Now it appears we had two.’
‘Be careful your insolence does not cost you dear, Abbas,’ warned Maria.
‘My insolence?’ laughed Abbas. ‘Altaïr, please tell the infidel that from now on she may not speak unless directly addressed by a member of the council.’
With a shout of anger, Altaïr rose from his chair, which skittered back and tumbled on the stone. His hand was on the hilt of his sword but two guards came forward, their swords drawn.
‘Guards, take his weapon,’ commanded Abbas. ‘You will be more comfortable without it, Altaïr. Are you wearing your blade?’
Altaïr stretched out his arms as a guard stepped forward to take his sword. His sleeves fell away to reveal no hidden blade.
‘Now we can begin,’ said Abbas. ‘Please do not waste our time further. Update us on your quest to neutralize Khan.’
‘Only once you have told me what has happened to Malik,’ growled Altair.
Abbas shrugged and raised his eyebrows as if to say they were at an impasse, and of course they were, neither man willing to concede, it seemed. With a grunt of exasperation, Altaïr began his story, rather than prolong the stand-off. He related his journeys to Persia, India and Mongolia, where he, Maria and Darim had liaised with the Assassin Qulan Gal, and told of how they had travelled to the Xia province nearby to Xingging, which was besieged by the Mongolian Army, the spread of Khan’s empire inexorable. There, he said, Altaïr and Qulan Gal had planned to infiltrate the Mongolian camp. It was said that Khan was there, too.