‘It is you who has broken the Creed, Altaïr,’ said Abbas. ‘Not I. You are unfit to lead the Order. I hereby assume leadership myself.’
‘You can’t do that,’ scoffed Altaïr.
‘I can.’ Abbas came down from the platform, reached for Maria and pulled her to him. In the same movement he produced a dagger that he held to her throat. She scowled and struggled, cursing him, until he jabbed the dagger at her neck, drawing blood and calming her. She held Altaïr’s gaze over his arm, sending messages with her eyes, knowing that the Apple would be calling to him. She, too, had realized that Swami had killed Sef. Just like Altaïr she would crave retribution. Her eyes pleaded with him to keep calm.
‘Where is the Apple, Altaïr?’ said Abbas. ‘Show me, or I shall open the infidel a new mouth.’
‘Do you hear this?’ called Altaïr, over his shoulder, to the Assassins. ‘Do you hear how he plans to take the leadership? He wants the Apple not to open minds but to control them.’
It was searing his back now.
‘Tell me now, Altaïr,’ repeated Abbas. He prodded harder with the dagger and Altaïr recognized the knife. It had belonged to Abbas’s father. It was the dagger Ahmad had used to cut his own throat in Altaïr’s room a whole lifetime ago. And now it was being held to Maria’s.
He fought to control himself. Abbas pulled Maria along the dais, appealing to the crowd: ‘Do we trust Altaïr with the Piece of Eden?’ he asked them. In return there was a noncommittal murmur. ‘Altaïr who exercises his temper in place of reason? Should he not be compelled to hand it over without recourse to this?’
Altaïr craned to see over his shoulder. The Assassins were shifting uncomfortably, talking among themselves, still in shock at the turn of events. His eyes went to the burlap bag and then to Swami. There was blood on Swami’s robes, he noticed, as though he’d been hit by a fine spray of it: Malik’s blood. And Swami was grinning, his scar crinkled. Altaïr wondered if he had grinned when he stabbed Sef.
‘You can have it,’ called Altaïr. ‘You can have the Apple.’
‘No, Altaïr,’ cried Maria.
‘Where is it?’ asked Abbas. He remained at the end of the dais.
‘I have it,’ said Altaïr.
Abbas looked concerned. He pulled Maria closer to him, using her as a shield. Blood poured from where he’d nicked her with the knife. At a nod from Abbas the guards loosened their grip on Altaïr, who reached for the Apple, bringing it from within his robe.
Swami reached for it. Touched it.
And then, very quietly, so that only Altaïr could hear, he said, ‘I told Sef it was you who ordered his death. He died believing his own father had betrayed him.’
The Apple was glowing and Altair had failed to control himself. Swami, his hand on the Apple, suddenly tautened, his eyes popping wide.
Then his head was tilting to one side, his body shifting and writhing as though it were operated by some force inside. His jaws opened but no words came out. The inside of his mouth glowed gold. His tongue worked within it. Then, compelled by the Apple, he stepped away, and all watched as his hands went to his face and he began to tear at the flesh there, gouging deep trenches in it with his fingernails. Blood ran from the churned skin and still he mauled himself, as though he were attacking dough, ripping at the skin of his cheek and tearing a long flap from it, wrenching at one ear, until it dangled from the side of his face.
Altaïr felt the power coursing through him, as though it leaped from the Apple and spread like a disease through his veins. As though it fed off his hatred and his need for revenge, then flowed from the Apple into Swami. Altaïr felt all of this as an exquisite mix of pleasure and pain that threatened to lift him off his feet – that made his head feel as if it might expand and explode, the sensation at once wonderful and terrible.
So wonderful and terrible that he did not hear Maria screaming to him.
Neither was he aware of her pulling away from Abbas and dashing down the dais towards him.
At the same time Swami had pulled his dagger from its sheath and was using it on himself, cutting himself with wild, broad slashes, opening wounds on his face and body, slicing into himself as Maria reached them, trying desperately to stop Altaïr using the Apple. Altaïr had a second to see what was going to happen but was too late to stop it. He saw Swami’s dagger flash, and Maria, her throat exposed, suddenly spinning away with blood shooting from her neck. She folded to the wood, her arms outflung. She breathed once. As blood spread quickly around her, her shoulders heaved with a long, ragged gasp and one hand twitched, knocking at a wooden support on the dais.
At the same time, Swami fell away, his sword clattering to the floor. The Apple glowed brightly once, then dimmed. Altaïr dropped to his knees beside Maria, taking her by the shoulder and turning her over.
She looked at him. Her eyelids fluttered. ‘Be strong,’ she said. And died.
The courtyard was silent. All that could be heard was Altaïr’s sobbing as he gathered Maria to him and held her, a man crushed.
He heard Abbas calling, ‘Men. Take him.’
Then he stood. Through eyes thick with tears he saw Assassins running towards the dais. On their faces was fear. He still held the Apple. The crowd was in disarray. Most had drawn their swords, even though they knew steel would be useless against the Apple, but better that than flee. Suddenly the urge was strong, overpowering almost, to use the Apple to destroy everything he could see, including himself, because Maria was dead at his hands and she had been his light. In one moment – in one blinding flash of rage – he had destroyed what he held most dear.
The Assassins paused. Would Altaïr use the Apple? He could see the question in their eyes.
‘Get him!’ screeched Abbas, and they came forward cautiously.
Around Altaïr, the Assassins seemed unsure whether to attack him or not, so he ran.
‘Archers!’ screamed Abbas, and the bowmen snatched their shots as Altaïr raced out of the courtyard. Arrows hailed down around him, one slicing his leg. From left and right more Assassins came running, their robes flowing, swords held. Perhaps now they understood that Altaïr would not use the Apple a second time and they leaped from walls and railings to join the pursuit. Fleeing, Altaïr came to the arch and found it blocked. He turned, doubled back and barrelled through two Assassins in pursuit, one swinging his blade and opening a wound on his arm. He screamed in pain but kept going, knowing they could have had him; he’d surprised them but they were scared to attack him – or reluctant to do so.