1 - Into Darkness
It always surprises him. No matter how many times he goes through the motions, that first felt impact of his blade ramming home within his victim and the ensuing squirt of blood takes him by surprise. A look of disbelief flashes in the guard's face as he feels the sharp knife puncture his chest and Altaïr grins slightly, holding on to the man with his free hand and guiding his body gently to the floor.
Around him the city lies blissfully ignorant of the drama that is unfolding on the rooftops. Here, a man lays dying, fighting for a breath he can no longer take and staring into the cold eyes of his murderer. The man fights him even as his life leaves him, tries to push Altaïr's hand away from his neck. His breath comes now in ragged gurgles, and blood rushes anew against Altaïr's hand, already slick and greasy with it.
And then, blessedly, he dies.
Altaïr stands, wiping the blood off his hidden blade on the hem of the dead guard's tunic. Around him, the maimed and dead bodies of several others lie where he has thrown them; his flight through the narrow streets has ended here, in the shadowed rooftop between two larger buildings, and the guards that had been pursuing him for the better part of an hour have now finally succumbed to his blade.
He counts seven dead men as he walks away to the rooftop's edge. He pauses, takes a moment to look briefly around him before raising a hand to push back his hood; his hair is soaked with sweat and plastered to his head. He is far out of his way—nearly at the edge of the rich district—and he has no choice now, with daylight slowly fading, but to make his way back to the bureau empty-handed.
He will have to wait several days for news of what has happened in the souk to die down before trying to approach his contact again; another delay he doesn't need, another mistake he can't afford. It should have been an easy enough task—a simple meeting with an informer known to the bureau to possess knowledge of his mark's guarded fortress—but the souk where he had been told to meet the man had been peppered with armed guards. He should have known better than to expose himself in such a situation. His informer had thankfully fled in the ensuing chaos, but Altaïr is certain that he will hear of this again. Returning to the bureau now seems like it will only aggravate his current situation, but he has no choice; he is out of throwing knives, out of energy and out of time. The sun is already low on the horizon, and he doesn't fancy a night of sleeping on the rooftops, not with so many guards out looking for him.
He sighs, pulls his hood over his head once more and starts to make his way back tiredly. It is almost dark by the time he finally hears the chimes that signal the rooftop entrance to the bureau and he almost breathes out a sigh of relief. He clambers over the edge of the last building and lands rather ungracefully onto the edge of the bureau's roof, then jumps over the latticed entrance and hangs a moment before dropping down, landing with a thud that sounds like thunder in his ears. He cringes inwardly when he hears a quiet voice scoff from the bureau's library.
"As graceful as usual, I see." There is a short pause, and Altaïr eventually manages to force his feet to take him into the library.
Malik is sitting behind the desk, hunched over a worn piece of vellum, writing quill forgotten in his hand as he leans his head on his fist. Altaïr tries to return the malevolent stare the other man sends his way, then turns his head to the far wall. He doesn't trust himself to speak; the last thing he wants is to antagonize the man further.
But it seems Malik doesn't need his help for that. "The brother you were supposed to meet in the souk has come here and gone, hours ago. A fine mess you've gotten yourself into!" Malik shakes his head at him, eyes dark, lips pressed into a thin line, disgust evident in his voice.
"Safety and piece, br—"
"Don't," Malik interrupts. "Your attitude makes a mockery of those words, and we both know I will not return the greeting." The man drops his hand back onto the desk and lays the quill next to the parchment. "Since you've thoroughly botched what should have been a simple task, and since we now have to wait before you can act again, I suggest you find something to do to keep yourself entertained."
There is a long pause, and Altaïr nods into the silence.
"Find yourself something useful to do, mind, and preferably somewhere a long way from my bureau."
"As you wish, brother."
Another quiet scoff accompanies Malik's sneer and Altaïr makes his way back outside to rest on the cushions in the bureau's entrance. As he leaves the library, Malik's voice rings out once again, dripping with venom.
"Don't come back here again until you have something of value to offer to this mission, Altaïr."
He nods, even though he knows Malik can't see him now. He is angry; angry at Malik for daring to disobey the creed—the man has no right to refuse a brother asylum, no matter how much he may despise him—for his spite, angry at the guards for having chosen such an inopportune moment to chase him, angry at the informant who couldn't keep the guards off his tail, but mostly, angry at himself. He can feel a sharp pain developing against his right side with every breath now that his flight is truly over; a glancing blow must have caught him during the fight. In the chaos following the mess he had made of his meeting with the informer, he hadn't even noticed.
Two months ago, he would have shrugged the wound off as a mere stroke of bad luck and marched right back into the fray.
Two months ago he would have savagely fought back against Malik's verbal insults.
Now, with his pride, his rank and his life in tatters around him, he can only nod and swallow back his guilt and his pain, in the hope that, somehow, he can regain his position as beloved of the brotherhood and as friend to the man who now hates him.
Malik hears Altaïr's ungraceful return and pauses in his work, putting aside the map he has been working on since the young informer has returned with news of what had happened in the souk.
The young man's excited report had left him breathless and angry, a now familiar hatred flaring within him as he had heard that Altaïr had, once again, made of spectacle of the brotherhood. He had shooed the novice away after hearing his full story, then gone back to his own work. Waiting for the assassin's return has not improved his mood.
He forces his voice not to betray any emotion as he calls out to the assassin, but his words, unbidden, come out taunting and angry all the same.
"As graceful as usual, I see."
Malik stares at the darkened doorway, shaking his head slightly at his own immaturity. It his duty as this city's rafik to help any assassin that drops through the gate. Having accepted the position after having been robed of his arm, he had vowed to make the best of it; he had simply not anticipated how excruciatingly difficult it would be to deal with the other man.
When Altaïr finally steps through the doorway into Malik's private rooms, his already frayed nerves force his voice to raise by several degrees. Malik is surprised at the amount of scorn he hears in his own words. As he stares at the other man, his cowl, robes and belt proudly bearing the marks and colours of the brotherhood, the image of his brother burns briefly before his eyes, then is gone.
"The brother you were supposed to meet in the souk has come here and gone, hours ago. A fine mess you've gotten yourself into!"
He sees Altaïr flinch, an almost imperceptible twitch under the cowl of his hood. "Safety and piece, br—"
Malik's eyes narrow dangerously, and he forces the words through a knot in his throat and belly. "Your attitude makes a mockery of those words, and we both know I will not return the greeting."
The stump of his arm itches furiously, and he drops his quill to force his remaining hand not to shake. He throws another insult at the man, halfway hoping for a confrontation, an angry glare in return for his own, anything to betray the character of the man he once knew. He gets nothing for his trouble. If anything, Altaïr looks even more dejected than he did before, and Malik is surprised, and slightly ashamed, at the small flame of pleasure that rises in his gut.
Malik gestures towards the door, trying to ignore the fact that the assassin looks exhausted and is holding his hand to his side uncomfortably. He all but throws the other man out of his bureau, knowing full well that he has no right to refuse Altaïr help should he request it.
Once the assassin has finally turned away, Malik unclenches his hand and lets out a long, drawn out breath. This acidic hatred and anger, an uncharacteristic feeling, rises with every glance he throws at the other man. He longs to be free of it, but cannot force himself to move past the memories of Kadar, cannot betray his brother's death with forgiveness.
Altaïr's presence is overpowering his better judgment, his moral sense, his entire sense of self, and all he can think of to save himself from the memories of Solomon's temple is to turn his acerbic words — the only weapon he has left — against the other man.
"Don't come back here again until you have something of value to offer to this mission, Altaïr."
The rooftops are blessedly silent in the descending night as Altaïr all but flees the bureau. His side still aches painfully but he ignores it, using the dull throbbing pain to force his thoughts back to safer ground, away from the equally painful memories of his all too recent failure, and the crooked path that has led him there. Around him, the sounds of the city slowly preparing for sleep barely pierce the calm of his rooftop pathways and he tries to focus instead on the present, on the many tasks he must still accomplish if he is to redeem himself.
He reaches the end of the bureau roof and leaps gracefully across its edge, landing in a perfect crouch on the ramshackle tannery that sits next to Malik's scribe house. There he pauses, turning on his heels to sit against a ledge, one knee pressed against his chest, the other dangling over the roof. He fingers his bruised ribs with a hiss, pressing sharply to assess the damage; a nasty bruise is already forming, but nothing feels broken against his hand.
Up here, Altaïr can breathe again. Uneasy inside any building even at the best of times, he could not have wished for anything more than to be out of that darkened bureau. Malik is a stranger to him now, no longer the easygoing brother he once knew so well. He cannot blame the man for his distance. Looking over the rooftops into the darkening skies, he wonders, not for the first time, if he himself would have gone after the man responsible for his brother's death, had he been in Malik's place.
He almost smiles as he contemplates the question. I would have torn him to pieces. Malik has a patience, and a wisdom, that I can't pretend I have.
And so, if Malik wants him to deal with this mission on his own, with no guidance from Jerusalem's rafik, then that is exactly what he will do. Lowering his cowl, Altaïr checks his bracer and the mechanism of his hidden dagger for faults. Finding none, he draws his sword slowly, inspecting its blade with a critical eye; it is notched and stained, but its edge doesn't yet need sharpening. His dagger goes through the same careful examination. He tightens the armour around his midsection with a pained groan and gets up, eyeing the fading daylight to the west. There had been two additional guards after him when he'd fled, and they'd emerged from a side street near the rich district.
He'd start his search for his target there.