Altaïr and Maria looked at one another. For two years their son had been dead. Altaïr felt rage bubbling within him and strove to control it – to control the impulse to turn, leave the room, go to the fortress and cut Abbas, watch him beg for mercy and bleed to death.
Maria put a hand to his arm, feeling and sharing his pain.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Malik. ‘I couldn’t send a message while I was in prison. Besides, Abbas controlled all communications in and out of the fortress. No doubt he has been busy changing other ordinances during my imprisonment, for his own benefit.’
‘He has,’ said Altaïr. ‘It seems he has supporters on the council.’
‘I’m sorry, Altaïr,’ said Malik. ‘I should have anticipated Abbas’s plans. For years after your departure he worked to undermine me. I had no idea he had managed to command such support. It would not have happened to a stronger leader. It would not have happened to you.’
‘Don’t trouble yourself. Rest, my friend,’ said Altaïr, and he motioned to Maria.
In the next room the two of them sat: Maria on the stone bench, Altaïr on a high-backed chair.
‘Do you know what you have to do?’ said Maria.
‘I have to destroy Abbas,’ said Altaïr.
‘But not for the purposes of vengeance, my love,’ she insisted, looking deep into his eyes. ‘For the Order. For the good of the Brotherhood. To take it back and make it great once more. If you can do that, and if you can let it take precedence over your own thoughts of revenge, the Order will love you as a father who shows it the true path. If you let yourself be blinded by anger and emotion, how can you expect them to listen when what you teach is the other way?’
‘You’re right,’ he said, after a pause. ‘Then how shall we proceed?’
‘We must confront Abbas. We must dispute the accusation made against our son’s murderer. The Order will have to accept that, and Abbas will be forced to answer for himself.’
‘It will be the word of Malik against Abbas and his agent, whoever that is.’
‘A weasel like Abbas? His agent is even less trustworthy, I should imagine. The Brotherhood will believe you, my love. They will want to believe you. You are the great Altaïr. If you can resist your desire for revenge, if you can take back the Order by fair means, not foul, then the foundations you lay will be even stronger.’
‘I shall see him now,’ said Altaïr, standing.
They checked to make sure that Malik was asleep, then left, taking a torch. With early-morning mist swirling at their feet, they walked fast around the outside of the inner curtain and then to the main gate. Behind them were the slopes of Masyaf, the village empty and silent, yet to awake from its slumber. A sleepy Assassin guard looked them over, insolent in his indifference, and Altaïr found himself fighting his rage, but they passed the man, climbed the barbican and went into the main courtyard.
A bell sounded.
It was not a signal Altaïr knew. He raised his torch and looked around, the bell still ringing. Then he sensed movement from within the towers overlooking the courtyard. Maria urged him on and they came to the steps leading to the dais outside the Master’s tower. Now Altaïr turned and saw that white-robed Assassins carrying flaming torches were entering the courtyard behind them, summoned by the bell, which stopped suddenly.
‘I wish to see Abbas,’ Altaïr told the guard at the door to the tower, his voice loud and calm in the eerie silence. Maria glanced behind, and at her sharp intake of breath Altaïr turned. He gasped. The Assassins were assembling. All were looking at himself and Maria. For a moment he wondered if they were in some kind of thrall, but no. The Apple was with him, safely tucked into his robe, and dormant. These men were waiting.
For what? Altaïr had a feeling he was soon to find that out.
Now the door to the tower was opening and Abbas was standing before them.
Altaïr felt the Apple – it was almost as though a person were prodding him in the back. Perhaps it was reminding him of its presence.
Abbas strode on to the platform. ‘Please explain why you broke into the Order’s cells.’
He was addressing the crowd as much as Altaïr and Maria. Altaïr glanced behind him and saw that the courtyard was full. The Assassins’ torches were like balls of flame in the dark.
So Abbas meant to discredit him in front of the Order. But Maria had been correct – he wasn’t up to the task. All Abbas had achieved was to accelerate his own downfall.
‘I meant to establish the truth about my son,’ said Altaïr.
‘Oh, really?’ smiled Abbas. ‘Are you sure it wasn’t to exact revenge?’
Swami had arrived. He climbed the steps to the platform. He was holding something in a burlap sack that he handed to Abbas, who nodded. Altaïr looked at the sack warily, his heart hammering. Maria too.
Abbas peered into the sack and gave a look of mock concern at what he saw inside. Then, with a theatrical air, he reached in and paused for a moment to enjoy the frisson of anticipation that ran through the assembly like a shiver.
‘Poor Malik,’ he said, and pulled out a disembodied head: the skin at the neck was ragged and dripping fresh blood, the eyeballs had rolled up, and the tongue protruded slightly.
‘No!’ Altaïr started forward, and Abbas motioned to the guards, who rushed forward, grabbing Altaïr and Maria, disarming Altaïr and pinning his hands behind his back.
Abbas dropped the head back into the sack and tossed it aside. ‘Swami heard you and the infidel plotting Malik’s death. What a shame we could not reach Malik in time to prevent it.’
‘No!’ shouted Altaïr. ‘Lies! I would never have killed Malik.’ Pulling at the guards who held him, he indicated Swami. ‘He’s lying.’
‘Is the dungeon guard lying, too?’ said Abbas. ‘The one who saw you drag Malik from his cell. Why did you not kill him there and then, Altaïr? Did you want to make him suffer? Did your English wife want to make vengeful cuts of her own?’
Altaïr struggled. ‘Because I did not kill him,’ he shouted, ‘I learned from him that it was you who ordered the murder of Sef.’
And suddenly he knew. He looked at Swami and saw his scorn, and knew that he had killed Sef. He felt the Apple at his back. With it he could lay waste to the courtyard. Kill every treacherous dog among them. They would all feel his fury.
But no. He had promised never to use it in anger. He had promised Maria he wouldn’t allow his thoughts to be clouded by vengeance.