She jerked away from him. ‘What are you saying?’

‘Perhaps Malik has nurtured a hatred of me all these years,’ he said. ‘Perhaps Malik has secretly coveted the leadership and Sef discovered that.’

‘Yes, and perhaps I’ll grow wings in the night and fly,’ said Maria. ‘Who do you think really nurses a hatred for you, Altaïr? It’s not Malik. It’s Abbas.’

‘The knife was found in Malik’s bed,’ said Altaïr.

‘Put there, of course, to implicate him, either by Abbas or by someone in his thrall. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Swami was the man responsible for it. And what of this Assassin who heard Malik and Sef arguing? When is he to be produced? When we see him, do you think we’ll discover that he’s an ally of Abbas? Perhaps the son of another council member? And what of poor Rauf? I wonder if he really died of the fever. Shame on you for doubting Malik when all of this is so obviously the work of Abbas.’

‘Shame on me?’ he rounded on her, and she pulled away. Outside, the crickets stopped their noise as though to hear them argue. ‘Shame on me for doubting Malik? Do I not have past experience of those I love turning against me, and for reasons far more fragile than Malik has? Abbas I loved as a brother and I tried to do right by him. Al Mualim betrayed the whole order but it was me he had taken as a son. Shame on me for being suspicious? To be trusting is my greatest downfall. Trusting in the wrong people.’

He looked hard at her and she narrowed her eyes. ‘You must destroy the Apple, Altaïr,’ she said. ‘It’s twisting your mind. It is one thing to have a mind that is open. It is quite another to have one so open that the birds can shit into it.’

He looked at her. ‘I’m not sure that that’s how I would have put it,’ he said, a sad smile forming.

‘Perhaps not, but even so.’

‘I need to find out, Maria,’ he said. ‘I need to know for sure.’

He was aware that they were being watched, but he was an Assassin and he knew Masyaf better than anyone, so it was not difficult for him to leave the residence, make his way up the wall of the inner curtain and squat in the shadows of the ramparts until the guards had moved past. He controlled his breathing. He was still quick and agile. He could still scale walls. But …

Perhaps not with the same ease he once had. He would do well to remember that. The wound he’d received in Genghis Khan’s camp had slowed him down too. It would be foolish to overestimate his own abilities and find himself in trouble because of it, flat on his back like a dying cockroach, hearing guards approach because he’d mistimed a jump. He rested a little before continuing along the ramparts, making his way from the western side of the citadel to the south tower complex. Staying clear of guards along the way, he came to the tower then climbed down to the ground. He moved to the grain stores, where he located a flight of stone steps that led to a series of vaulted tunnels below.

There he stopped and listened, his back flat against the wall. He could hear water flowing along the small streams that ran through the tunnels. The Order’s dungeons were not far away, so rarely used that they would have been kept as storerooms were it not for the damp. Altaïr fully expected Malik to be their only occupant.

He crept forward until he could see the guard. He was sitting in the tunnel with his back against a side wall of the cell block, head lolled in sleep. He was some way from the cells, and didn’t even have them in his eyeline, so exactly what he thought he was guarding was hard to say. Altaïr found himself simultaneously outraged and relieved at the man’s sloppiness. He moved stealthily past him – and it swiftly became clear why he was sitting so far away.

It was the stink. Of the three cells, only the middle one was fastened and Altaïr went to it. He was not sure what he was expecting to see on the other side of the bars, but he was certain of what he could smell, and held a hand over his nose.

Malik was curled up in the rushes that had been spread on the stone – and did nothing to soak up the urine. He was clothed in rags, looking like a beggar. He was emaciated and, through his tattered shirt, Altaïr could see the lines of his ribs. His cheekbones were sharp outcrops on his face; his hair was long, his beard overgrown.

He had been in the cell for far longer than a month. That much was certain.

As he gazed at Malik, Altaïr’s fists clenched. He had planned to speak to him to determine the truth, but the truth was there on his jutting ribs and tattered clothes. How long had he been imprisoned? Long enough to send a message to Altaïr and Maria. How long had Sef been dead? Altaïr preferred not to think about it. All he knew was that Malik wasn’t spending another moment there.

When the guard opened his eyes it was to see Altaïr standing over him. Then, for him, the lights went out. When he next awoke he would find himself locked inside the piss-stinking cell, fruitlessly shouting for help, with Malik and Altaïr long gone.

‘Can you walk, my friend?’ Altaïr had said.

Malik had looked at him with blurry eyes. All the pain in those eyes. When he had eventually focused on Altaïr, a look of gratitude and relief had come to his face, so sincere that if there had been the slightest doubt in Altaïr’s mind it was banished at once.

‘For you, I can walk,’ said Malik, and attempted a smile.

But as they made their way back along the tunnel it had soon become clear that Malik did not have the strength to walk. Instead, Altaïr had taken his good arm, brought it around his shoulders and carried his old friend to the ladders of the tower, then across the ramparts, eventually descending the wall on the western side of the citadel, avoiding guards along the way. At last they arrived back at the residence. Altaïr looked first one way, then the other before he let himself in.

52

They laid Malik on a pallet and Maria sat as his side, giving him sips from a beaker.

‘Thank you,’ he gasped. His eyes had cleared a little. He pulled himself up in the bed, seeming uncomfortable with Maria’s proximity, as though he thought it dishonourable to be tended by her.

‘What happened to Sef?’ asked Altaïr. With three of them inside it, the room was small. Now it became smaller, seeming to close in on them.

‘Murdered,’ said Malik. ‘Two years ago Abbas staged his coup. He had Sef killed, then placed the murder weapon in my room. Another Assassin swore that he’d heard Sef and me arguing, and Abbas brought the Order to the conclusion that it was I who was responsible for Sef’s murder.’

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