And Ezio did feel something like awe, for in his heart he knew immediately who it was. He approached with reverence, and when he drew near enough to touch the cowled figure in the chair, he fell to his knees.
The figure was dead—he had been dead a long time. But the cloak, and white robes, were undamaged by the passage of centuries, and even in his stillness, the dead man radiated—something. Some kind of power—but no earthly power. Ezio, having made his obeisance, rose again. He did not dare lift the cowl to see the face, but he looked at the long bones of the skeletal hands stretched out on the surface of the desk, as if drawn to them. On the table, there was a pen, together with blank sheets of ancient parchment and a dried-up inkwell. Under the figure’s right hand lay a circular stone—not unlike the keys of the door, but more delicately wrought, and made, as Ezio thought, of the finest alabaster he had ever seen.
“No books,” said Ezio into the silence. “No artifacts . . . Just you, fratello mio.” He laid a hand delicately on the dead man’s shoulder. They were in no way related by blood, but the ties of the Brotherhood bound them more strongly than those of family ever could have.
“Requiescat in Pace, O Altaïr.”
He looked down, thinking he had caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. But there was nothing. Except that the stone on the desk was free of the hand that Ezio must have imagined had covered it. A trick of the light. No more.
Ezio knew instinctively what he had to do. He struck a flint to light a candle stump in a stick on the desk to study the stone more closely. He put his own hand out and picked it up.
The moment he had it in his hand, the stone began to glow.
He raised it to his face as familiar clouds swirled, engulfing him . . .
“You say Baghdad has been sacked?”
“Yes, Father. Khan Hulagu’s Mongols have driven through the city like a conflagration. No one has been spared. He set up a wagon wheel and made the population file past it. Anyone whose head came higher than the wheel’s hub, he killed.”
“Leaving only the young and malleable?”
“Hulagu is not a fool.”
“He has destroyed the city. Burned all its libraries. Smashed the university. Killed all its intellectuals. Along with the rest. The city has never seen such a holocaust.”
“And never will again, I pray.”
“Amen to that, Father.”
“I commend you, Darim. It is well you took the decision to sail to Alexandria. Have you seen to my books?”
“Yes, Father—those we did not send with the Polo brothers, I have already sent to Latakia on wagons for embarkation.”
Altaïr sat hunched by the open doorway of his great, domed library and archive. Empty now, swept clean. Clutched to him was a small wooden box. Darim had more sense than to ask his father what it was.
“Good. Very good,” said Altaïr.
“But there is one thing—one fundamental thing—that I do not understand,” said Darim. “Why did you build such a vast library and archive, over so many decades, if you did not intend to keep your books?”
Altaïr waved an interrupting hand. “Darim, you know very well that I have long outlived my time. I must soon leave on a journey that requires no baggage at all. But you have answered your own question. What Hulagu did in Baghdad, he will do here. We drove them off once, but they will return, and when they do, Masyaf must be empty.”
Darim noticed that his father hugged the small box even more tightly to his chest as he spoke, as if protecting it. He looked at Altaïr, so fragile as to seem made of parchment; but, inside, tough as vellum.
“I see,” he said. “This is no longer a library then—but a vault.”
His father nodded gravely.
“It must stay hidden, Darim. Far from eager hands. At least until it has passed on the secret it contains.”
Altaïr smiled, and rose. “Never mind. Go, my son. Go and be with your family, and live well.”
Darim embraced him. “All that is good in me, began with you,” he said.
They drew apart. Then, Altaïr stepped through the doorway. Once within, he braced himself, straining to pull a large lever just inside, up by the lintel. At last it moved and, having completed its arc, clicked into place. Slowly, a heavy green stone door rose from the floor to close the opening.
Father and son watched each other wordlessly as the door came up. Darim tried hard to keep his self-control, but finally could not restrain his tears as the door enveloped his father in his living grave. At last he found himself looking at what was, to all intents and purposes, a blank surface, only the slight change of color distinguishing door from walls, that and the curious grooves cut into it.
Beating his breast in grief, Darim turned and left.
Who were Those Who Came Before? thought Altaïr, as he made his way unhurriedly down the long hallway that led to his great domed chamber underground. As he passed them, the torches on the walls lit his way, fueled by a combustible air that led to them from hidden pipes within the walls, ignited by sprung flints that operated as his weight triggered catches under the floor. They flared for minutes behind him, then went out again.
What brought Them here? What drove Them out? And what of Their artifacts? What we have called Pieces of Eden? Messages in bottles? Tools left behind to aid and guide us? Or do we fight for control over Their refuse, giving divine purpose and meaning to little more than discarded toys?
He shuffled on down the hall, clutching the box, his legs and arms aching with weariness.
At last he gained the great, gloomy room, and crossed it without ceremony until he reached his desk. He reached it with the relief that a drowning man feels when he finds a spar to cling to in the sea.
He sat down, placing the box carefully by him, well within reach, hardly liking to take his hands from it. He pulled paper, pen, and ink toward him, dipped the pen, but did not write. He thought instead of what he had written—something from his journal.
The Apple is more than a catalogue of that which preceded us. Within its twisting, sparking interior I have caught glimpses of what will be. Such a thing should not be possible. Perhaps it isn’t. Maybe it is simply a suggestion. I contemplate the consequences of these visions: Are they images of things to come—or simply the potential for what might be? Can we influence the outcome? Dare we try? And, in so doing, do we merely ensure that which we’ve seen? I am torn—as always—between action and inaction—unclear as to which—if either—will make a difference. Am I even meant to make a difference? Still, I keep this journal. Is that not an attempt to change—or guarantee—what I have seen? . . .