Abbas replied, ‘There will be plenty of time for that later, brother.’
Altaïr shouldered past him and continued to the courtyard and training square, and then to the doorway to Al Mualim’s tower. Guardsmen bowed their heads to him, affording him the respect a Master Assassin rightfully commanded, and he acknowledged them knowing that soon – as long as it took word to spread – their respect would be a memory.
But first he had to deliver the terrible news to Al Mualim, and he made his way up the steps of the tower towards the Master’s chamber. Here the room was warm, the air heavy with its customary sweet scent. Dust danced in shafts of light from the great window at the far end, where the Master stood, his hands clasped behind his back. His master. His mentor. A man he venerated above all others.
Whom he had failed.
In a corner the Master’s carrier pigeons cooed quietly in their cage and around him were his books and manuscripts, thousands of years of Assassin literature and learning, either on shelves or stacked in tottering, dusty piles. His sumptuous robes flowed about him, his long hair lay over his shoulders, and he was, as usual, contemplative.
‘Master,’ said Altaïr, breaking the thick silence. He lowered his head.
Wordless, Al Mualim turned and moved towards his desk, scrolls littered the floor beneath it. He regarded Altaïr with one sharp, flinty eye. His mouth, hidden within his grey-white beard, betrayed no emotion until at last he spoke, beckoning to his pupil. ‘Come forward. Tell me of your mission. I trust you have recovered the Templar treasure …’
Altaïr felt a trickle of perspiration make its way from his forehead and down his face. ‘There was some trouble, Master. Robert de Sable was not alone.’
Al Mualim waved away the notion. ‘When does our work ever go as expected? It’s our ability to adapt that makes us who we are.’
‘This time, it was not enough.’
Al Mualim took a moment to absorb Altaïr’s words. He moved from behind his desk, and when he next spoke, his voice was sharp. ‘What do you mean?’
Altaïr found himself having to force out the words. ‘I have failed you.’
‘Lost to us.’
The atmosphere in the room changed. It seemed to tense and crackle as though brittle, and there was a pause before Al Mualim spoke again. ‘And Robert?’
The word fell like a stone in the darkening space.
Now Al Mualim came closer to Altaïr. His one eye was bright with anger, his voice barely restrained, his fury filling the room. ‘I send you – my best man – to complete a mission more important than any that has come before and you return to me with nothing but apologies and excuses?’
‘I did –’
‘Do not speak.’ His voice was a whipcrack. ‘Not another word. This is not what I expected. We’ll need to mount another force so –’
‘I swear to you I’ll find him – I’ll go and …’ began Altaïr, who was already desperate to meet de Sable again. This time the outcome would be very different.
Now Al Mualim was looking about himself, as though only just recalling that when Altaïr had left Masyaf he had done so with two companions. ‘Where are Malik and Kadar?’ he demanded.
A second bead of sweat made its way from Altaïr’s temple as he replied, ‘Dead.’
‘No,’ came a voice from behind them, ‘not dead.’
Al Mualim and Altaïr turned to see a ghost.
Malik stood at the entrance to the Master’s chamber – stood swaying, a wounded, exhausted, blood-soaked figure. His once-white robes were streaked with gore, most of it around his left arm, which looked badly wounded, dangling uselessly at his side and crusted with blackened, dried blood.
As he moved into the room his injured shoulder dipped, and he hobbled slightly. But if his body was damaged, then his spirit was surely not: his eyes burned brightly with anger and hatred – hatred that he turned on Altaïr with a glare so intense that it was all Altaïr could do not to shrink away.
‘I still live, at least,’ growled Malik, his bloodshot eyes brimming with fury as he stared at Altaïr. He took short, ragged breaths. His bared teeth were bloody.
‘And your brother?’ asked Al Mualim.
Malik shook his head. ‘Gone.’
For a beat his eyes dropped to the stone floor. Then, with a sudden burst of angry energy, he raised his head, narrowed his eyes and raised a trembling finger to point at Altaïr. ‘Because of you,’ he hissed.
‘Robert threw me from the room.’ Altaïr’s excuses sounded feeble, even to his own ears – especially to his own ears. ‘There was no way back. Nothing I could do –’
‘Because you would not heed my warning,’ shouted Malik, his voice hoarse. ‘All of this could have been avoided. And my brother … my brother would still be alive. Your arrogance nearly cost us victory today.’
‘Nearly?’ said Al Mualim, carefully.
Calming, Malik nodded, the ghost of a smile on his lips – a smile directed at Altaïr, for even now he was beckoning another Assassin, who came forward bearing a box on a gilt tray.
‘I have what your favourite failed to find,’ said Malik. His voice was strained and he was weak, but nothing was going to sour his moment of triumph over Altaïr.
Altaïr felt his world falling away from him as the Assassin set down the tray on Al Mualim’s desk. The box was covered with ancient runes and there was something about it – an aura. Inside it, surely, was the treasure. It had to be. The treasure that Altaïr had been unable to recover.
Al Mualim’s good eye was wide and gleaming. His lips were parted, his tongue darting from his mouth. He was entranced by the sight of the box and the thought of what was inside. Suddenly there came an uproar from outside. Screams. Running feet. The unmistakable ring of clashing steel.
‘It seems I’ve returned with more than the treasure,’ reflected Malik, as a messenger crashed into the chamber, forgetting all protocol as he breathlessly exclaimed, ‘Master, we are under attack. Robert de Sable lays siege to the Masyaf village.’
Al Mualim was snatched from his reverie, in the mood to face de Sable. ‘So he seeks a battle, does he? Very well. I’ll not deny him. Go. Inform the others. The fortress must be prepared.’
Now he turned his attention to Altaïr, and his eyes blazed as he said, ‘As for you, Altaïr, our discussion will have to wait. You must make for the village. Destroy these invaders. Drive them from our home.’