‘Darim found a vantage point not far from the camp and, armed with his bow, would watch over Qulan Gal and me as we made our way through the tents. It was heavily guarded and we relied on him to dispose of any guards we alerted or who looked as though they might raise the alarm.’ Altaïr gazed around the table with a challenging stare. ‘And he performed this duty admirably.’
‘Like father, like son,’ said Abbas, with more than a hint of a sneer in his voice.
‘Perhaps not,’ said Altaïr, evenly. ‘For in the event it was I who was responsible for almost alerting the Mongolians to our presence.’
‘Ah,’ said Abbas. ‘He is not infallible.’
‘Nobody is, Abbas,’ replied Altaïr, ‘least of all me, and I allowed an enemy soldier to come up on me. He wounded me before Qulan Gal was able to kill him.’
‘Getting old, Altaïr?’ jeered Abbas.
‘Everybody is, Abbas,’ replied Altaïr. ‘And I would have been dead if Qulan Gal had not managed to take me from the camp and bring me to safety. His actions saved my life.’ He looked carefully at Abbas. ‘Qulan Gal returned to the camp. First he formulated a plan with Darim to flush Khan from his tent. Realizing the danger, Khan tried to escape on horseback, but he was brought down by Qulan Gal. Khan was finished with a shot from Darim.’
‘His skills as a bowman are beyond doubt,’ smiled Abbas. ‘I gather you have sent him away, perhaps to Alamut?’
Altaïr blinked. Abbas knew everything, it seemed. ‘He has indeed left the citadel on my orders. Whether to Alamut or not, I will not say.’
‘To see Sef at Alamut, perhaps?’ pressed Abbas. He addressed Swami. ‘You told them Sef was there, I trust?’
‘As instructed, Master,’ replied Swami.
Altaïr felt something worse than worry in his gut now. Something that might have been fear. He felt it from Maria, too: her face was drawn and anxious. ‘Say what you have to say, Abbas,’ he said.
‘Or what, Altaïr?’
‘Or my first task when I resume leadership will be to have you thrown in the dungeon.’
‘There to join Malik, maybe?’
‘I doubt that Malik belongs in prison,’ snapped Altaïr. ‘Of what crime is he accused?’
‘A murder.’ Abbas smirked.
It was as though the word thumped on to the table.
‘Murder of whom?’ asked Maria.
And the reply when it came sounded as though it was given from far, far away.
‘Sef. Malik murdered your son.’
Maria’s head dropped into her hands.
‘No!’ Altaïr heard someone say, then realized his own voice had spoken.
‘I am sorry, Altaïr,’ said Abbas, speaking as though he was reciting something from memory. ‘I am sorry that you have returned to hear this most tragic news, and may I say that I speak for all of those assembled when I extend my sympathy to you and your family. But until certain matters are resolved it will not be possible for you to resume leadership of the Order.’
Altaïr was still trying to unravel the jumble of emotion in his head, aware of Maria beside him, sobbing.
‘What?’ he said. Then louder: ‘What?’
‘You remain compromised at this point,’ said Abbas, ‘so I have taken the decision that control of the Order remains with the council.’
Altaïr shook with fury. ‘I am the Master of this Order, Abbas. I demand that leadership is returned to me, in line with the statutes of the Brotherhood. They decree it be returned to me.’ He was shouting now.
‘They do not.’ Abbas smiled. ‘Not any more.’
Later, Altaïr and Maria sat in their residence, huddled together on a stone bench, silent in the near dark. They had spent years sleeping in deserts but had never felt so isolated and alone as they did at that moment. They grieved at their lowly circumstances; they grieved that Masyaf had become neglected in their absence; they fretted for Sef’s family and Darim.
But most of all they grieved for Sef.
He had been stabbed to death in his bed, they said, just two weeks ago; there had been no time to send a message to Altaïr. The knife was discovered in Malik’s quarters. He had been heard arguing with Sef earlier that day by an Assassin. The name of the Assassin who had heard the argument, Altaïr had yet to learn, but whoever it was had reported hearing Sef and Malik arguing over the leadership of the Order, with Malik claiming that he intended to keep it once Altaïr returned.
‘It was news of your return that sparked the disagreement, it would seem,’ Abbas had gloated, revelling in Altaïr’s ashen look, the quiet weeping of Maria.
Sef had been heard threatening to reveal Malik’s plans to Altaïr so Malik had killed him. That was the theory.
Beside him, her head tucked into his chest and her legs pulled up, Maria sobbed still. Altaïr smoothed her hair and rocked her until she quietened. Then he watched the shadows cast by the firelight flickering and dancing on the yellow stone wall, listening to the crickets from outside, the occasional crunch of guards’ footsteps.
A short while later Maria awoke with a jump. He started too – he had been falling asleep himself, lulled by the leaping flames. She sat up, shivering, and pulled her blanket tight round herself. ‘What are we going to do, my love?’ she asked.
‘Malik,’ he said simply. He was staring at the wall with sightless eyes and spoke as though he hadn’t heard the question.
‘What of him?’
‘When we were younger. The assignment in the Temple Mount. My actions caused him great pain.’
‘But you learned,’ she said. ‘And Malik knew that. From that day a new Altaïr was born, who led the Order into greatness.’
Altaïr made a disbelieving sound. ‘Greatness? Really?’
‘Not now, my love,’ she said. ‘Maybe not now but you can restore it to how it was before all of this. You are the only one who can do it. Not Abbas.’ She said his name as though she had tasted something especially unpleasant. ‘Not some council. You. Altaïr. The Altaïr I’ve watched serve the Order for more than thirty years. The Altaïr who was born on that day.’
‘It cost Malik his brother,’ said Altaïr. ‘His arm too.’
‘He forgave you, and has served as your trusted lieutenant ever since the defeat of Al Mualim.’
‘What if it was a façade?’ said Altaïr, voice low. He could see his own shadow on the wall, dark and foreboding.