‘I have two names,’ said the boy. ‘I have the name by which I’m known to most of the Order, which is Tazim. But I have another name, my given name, given to me by my mother to honour my father. He died when I was but a baby, put to death on the orders of Abbas. His name was …’
‘Malik.’ Altaïr caught his breath and came forward, tears pricking his eyes as he took the boy by the shoulders. ‘My child,’ he exclaimed. ‘I should have known. You have your father’s eyes.’ He laughed. ‘His stealth I’m not so sure about, but … you have his spirit. I didn’t know – I never knew he had a son.’
‘My mother was sent away from here after he was imprisoned. As a young man I returned to join the Order.’
‘To seek revenge?’
‘Eventually, maybe. Whatever best suited his memory. Now that you have come, I see the way.’
Altaïr put an arm around his shoulders, steered him from the fountain, and they crossed the square, talking intently.
‘How are your combat skills?’ he asked the young Malik.
‘Under Abbas such things have been neglected, but I have trained. Assassin knowledge has barely advanced in the last twenty years, though.’
Altaïr chuckled. ‘Not here, perhaps. But here.’ He tapped the side of his head. ‘Here Assassin learning has progressed tenfold. I have such things to show the Order. Plans. Stratagem. Designs for new weapons. Even now the village blacksmith forges them for me.’
Respectful villagers moved out of their way. All knew of Altaïr now, and here, in the foothills of the fortress at least, he was the Master once again.
‘And you say there are others in the castle loyal to me?’ said Altaïr.
‘There are as many who hate Abbas as serve him. More so, now that I have been reporting on what I have seen in the village. News that the great Altaïr has returned is spreading slowly but surely.’
‘Good,’ said Altaïr. ‘And could these supporters be persuaded to rally, so that we might march upon the castle?’
The young Malik stopped and looked at Altaïr, squinting as though to check the older man wasn’t joking. Then he grinned. ‘You mean to do it. You really mean to do it. When?’
‘The brigand Fahad will be bringing his men into the village soon,’ he said. ‘We need to be in control before that happens.’
The next morning, as day broke, Mukhlis, Aalia and Nada went from house to house, informing the people that the Master was to march up the hill. Alive with anticipation, the people gathered in the marketplace, standing in groups or sitting on low walls. After some time, Altaïr joined them. He wore his white robes and a sash. Those who looked closely could see the ring of his wrist mechanism on his finger. He moved into the centre of the square, Mukhlis standing to one side, a trusted lieutenant, and waited.
What would Maria have said to him now? wondered Altaïr, as he waited. The boy Malik: Altaïr had trusted him immediately. He’d placed such faith in him that if he were to prove treacherous Altaïr would be as good as dead, and his plans to regain the Order shown as nothing more than the deluded fantasies of an old man. He thought of those he had trusted before, who had betrayed him. Would Maria have advised caution now? Would she have told him he was foolish to be so unquestioning on such scant evidence? Or would she have said, as she had once, ‘Trust your instincts, Altaïr. Al Mualim’s teachings gave you wisdom; his betrayal set you on the path to maturity.’
Oh, and I am so much wiser now, my love, he thought to her – to the wisp of her he kept safe in his memory.
She would have approved, he knew, of what he had done with the Apple, of the years spent squeezing it of juice, learning from it. She would not have approved of the blame he had shouldered for her death; the shame he felt at letting his actions be guided by anger. No, she would not have approved of that. What would she have said? That English expression she had: ‘Take hold of yourself.’
He almost laughed to think of it. Take hold of yourself. He had in the end, of course, but it had taken him years to do it – years of hating the Apple, hating the sight of it, even the thought of it, the malignant power that lay dormant within the ageless, sleek mosaic of its shell. He would stare at it, brooding, for hours, reliving the pain it had brought him.
Neglected, unable to bear the weight of Altaïr’s suffering, Sef’s wife and two daughters had left. He’d had word that they had settled in Alexandria. A year later Darim had left, too, driven away by his father’s remorse and his obsession with the Apple. He had travelled to France and England to warn leaders there that the Mongols were on the march. Left alone, Altaïr’s torment had worsened. Long nights he would spend staring at the Apple, as though he and it were two adversaries about to do battle – as though if he slept or even took his eyes from it, it might pounce on him.
In the end he had thought of that night in the garden at Masyaf, his mentor Al Mualim slain on the marble terrace, the waterfall bubbling in the background. He remembered holding the Apple for the first time and feeling from it something not evil but benign. The images it had produced. Strange futuristic pictures of cultures far removed from his own in time and space, beyond the sphere of his knowledge. That night in the garden he had instinctively understood its capacity for good. Ever since then, it had shown only its malign aspects, but that great wisdom was in there somewhere. It had needed to be located and coaxed out. It had needed an agent for its release – and Altaïr had managed to harness its power once before.
Then he had been consumed with grief for Al Mualim. Now he was consumed with grief for his family. Perhaps the Apple first had to take in order to give.
Whatever the answer, his studies had begun and journal after journal was filled with his writings: page after page of philosophies, ideologies, designs, drawings, schematics, memories. Untold candles burned down as he scratched away feverishly, stopping only to piss. For days on end he would write, then for days on end he would leave his desk, riding out from Alamut alone, on Apple errands, collecting ingredients, gathering supplies. Once, even, the Apple had directed him to a series of artefacts that he retrieved and hid, telling no one of their nature or their whereabouts.
He had not stopped mourning, of course. He still blamed himself for Maria’s death, but he had learned from it. He felt now a purer kind of grief: a yearning for Maria and Sef, an ache that never seemed to leave him, that one day was as sharp and keen as a blade slicing a thousand cuts on his heart, and the next was a nauseous hollow sensation, as if a sick bird were trying to unfurl its wings in his stomach.