Malik had expected Ismail to argue. He hadn't expected him to fight. He had no weapon but the knife he had used to cut Harun's bandages. The blade was barely a hand's width in length.. “Lower your blade,” he said. “I don't want to hurt you.”
Ismail smirked. “You won't.”
Steel shimmered silver in the light of the brazier as he swung. Malik dodged, and Ismail's sword struck splinters from the desk. Malik circled towards the door, hoping to move within Ismail’sguard before he had a chance to free his blade, but the novicewas faster than Malik had expected.
“What will Alamut say when they find out you killed me?” he asked, retreating. The room smelt of blood and burning coals.
“They won't know.”
“Are you sure?”
“Reasonably,” Ismail said. He circled, blade darting. Malik backed towards the curtain, watching for an opening. He saw none-at least, nothing he was willing to risk his life on. He'd have to catch the boy by surprise to get close enough for his knife to be effective, and he was not sure that he wanted to kill Ismail. At least, not yet.
“I fought with the Master of Masyaf,” he said, to buy time. “If you think Altaïr won't ask questions, then you're wrong.”
Ismail snarled. Malik retreated. Fabric brushed at his shoulders as he backed out the door, hoping the curtain would slow the novice for a moment. Ismail sliced the hanging in two. So much for that. Knife against sword was no fight at all. If Ismail had been calm enough to think, Malik would be dead.
The walls of the small courtyard fenced them in as they fought. Ismail attacked, sword barely visible in the dim light. Malik evaded and waited for an opening. Shadows and starlight patterned the tiles at his feet. Here and there, ice glittered.
Malik saw a plan.
He gave ground, retreating a handful of steps towards the frozen fountain. The pipes creaked at his back as Ismail advanced. The novice snapped something incoherent in Persian. Malik ignored him. He waited until Ismail was nearly in striking range before he reached behind him with the knife, scooped up a wedge of snow from the fountain, and flicked the snow at Ismail’s face.
Ice scattered like diamonds, but it didn’t slow Ismail for more than a moment. The novice raised his arm to shield his face and simultaneously stepped backwards, twisting to bring the blade of his sword to bear on Malik. The movement planted his boot solidly on the ice-slick tiles. He slipped. Malik leapt, and Ismail slammed into the floor with Malik’s weight on top of him. The sword went spinning into a corner.
Malik used the sharp edge of the knife to force the boy's head back and hoped that Ismail wasn't foolish or suicidal enough to try to resist. “Control yourself,” he said. “Do you still believe I didn't kill a man?”
Ismail's chest heaved against Malik's knees as he gasped for breath. He gazed at Malik for a moment before he shook his head.
Malik withdrew the blade from Ismail's neck before the novice cut his own throat. “No more of this nonsense,” he said, tucking the knife back into his sash. “I'm not your enemy. I don't know what you think you're fighting, but it shouldn't be Masyaf.”
Ismail raised himself cautiously on one elbow. “You’re not going to kill me?”
Malik sighed. “No. It's going to be hard enough to explain to Alamut why two of their Assassins are dead without killing their last novicemyself.”
“Then you didn’t betray us?”
“What do you think?” Malik got up, wincing at the ache in his side. He trapped the blade of Ismail’s sword beneath his boot and picked up Ismail's sword.
Ismail eyed Malik warily. “You don’t act like an Assassin.”
“How should Assassins act?”
Ismail paused. “The Creed-“he said finally, struggling for words.
“We follow the Creed,” Malik said. “But we've learned to change. We work in secret. We may disguise ourselves, or form alliances that nobody expects. We are too few in number for spectacular displays. And we don't kill those who do not need to die. Such tactics draw attention. In the long term, they weaken our hand.”
“I know that!”
“Then why did you break the third tenet? I'm sure killing an Assassin rafiq would compromise the brotherhood. I could have killed you just for that.”
“I thought you were a traitor.” Ismail protested.
“I know that you're a fool,” Malik said. He sighed. “But maybe you can learn. I hope so. It's a long way to Masyaf, and you've just proved I can't trust you to travel there alone. Now get up. You're making my Bureau look untidy.”
Ismail rose to his feet with a fluidity that Malik envied. “What must I do?”
“You speak of honour, but I've seen little evidence of it so far. Prove to me I can trust you. Swear on the heart of our Creed; that nothing is true, and everything is permitted. While you're at it, give your word you won't endanger my life or Masyaf's missions.”
“Then can I have my sword back?”
Malik dragged a hand through his hair. “When you've remembered what it means to wield a blade.”
Ismail’s eyes strayed to the curtain. “What about my master?”
“I meant what I said.” Malik said. ”It’s not our way to bury the dead, and waiting won’t make it any easier.”
“And the doctor?”
“What about him?”
Ismail’s eyes flickered. “Aren’t you going to kill him?”
“Kill him? No. Only if we must. You make few friends if you kill everyone who helps you.”
“He didn’t help.”
“He tried.” Malik had had enough. “You’re wasting time. We have work to do.”
The work was hard, and bloody. Malik changed his clothes and fetched water from the bathhouse to clean the floor while Ismail washed his master’s body. The wine-dark water that drained through the grate in the courtyard faded to scarlet before it finally ran clear. Malik scrubbed the cracks between the tiles with a stiff-bristled brush. It was not the first time blood had stained the floor of the Bureau, and he hoped it was the last.
Malik helped Ismail manhandle Harun’s stiff corpse into a clean robe before they changed. He set the novice’s sword down behind the desk. Only idiots and soldiers wore weapons openly in the streets. Malik was neither, and he’d had enough of fighting for one day.
“Do we have to go tonight?” Ismail asked when they were done.
Malik nodded. “It’ll be easier to pass unnoticed.””
“How will we move him?”
“The merchant next door always leaves his barrow in the street. Go and steal it.” He tossed Ismail a black rafiq's robe that wasn't too badly marked with blood. “We’ll use this as a cover.”
They manhandled Harun's body into the cart with as much dignity they could. Malik threw the robe over the corpse. He tucked a corner beneath the dead man's skull to make the body look more lifelike. When everything was arranged to his satisfaction he stepped back and gestured to Ismail. “Lift him up.”
Ismail took one handle of the cart, testing the weight. “What are you waiting for?”
“You'll have to push it.” Malik said. “I can't.” He held the door open for Ismail as the novice pushed the barrow out into the street, then locked the door behind them.
“Do you think the guards will stop us?”
“I hope not,” Malik said. He drew out a flask and tucked the skin into the cart next to Harun's elbow. ”I have a few tricks, if they do.”
The novice regarded the bottle curiously. “Poison?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Malik said. “Come on.”
That night the streets were quiet and the night air smelt of nothing worse than rain. Malik was surprised to find he missed the summer stink. On hot evenings you could tell which street you were in with your eyes closed. Every district had its own pungent smell; incense and spices in the rich quarter; forged iron and singed horn from the blacksmiths' courts. Cooking and bile came from the Malcuisinat, the Street of Bad Food. The tanneries reeked in any season. The vaulted alleyways concentrated the scents beneath their covers as well as providing shelter.
Malik chose a route well sheltered by awnings and balconies that would take them to the poor quarter as quickly as possible. There was nobody else around. Salah al-din had declared curfew and doused the lamps. The shadows would conceal them to a point, but the moon was high and the light it cast was almost as bright as day.
They were nearly past the market when the barrow developed a squeak in one wheel that put paid to all their efforts to be silent. The cart usually carried nothing heavier than vegetables, and the planks sagged under Harun's weight.
“We should have stolen something stronger.” Ismail peeled a long strip of rotten wood from the handle.
“You should stop tearing it apart.” Malik could think of many things he should have done differently over the last few days. A stolen cart was the least of it. The repetitive squeak set his teeth on edge, concealing the steady tread of marching feet and the rattle of scaled armour until it was almost too late. When they came to the end of the street they almost ran into a patrol.
Ismail set the barrow down and wiped his hands on his robe. “Let's kill them.”
Malik reached into the barrow for the flask. “We're Assassins. Not murderers.” He uncorked the skin with his teeth and spat the stopper aside. ”Do as I do. Don't say anything.”
Malik tilted the wineskin over Ismail's head. The novice spluttered as cheap wine soaked his robe. “That's forbidden!”
Not to mention satisfying, Malik thought as he gulped wine. “Nothing's forbidden,” he said as the soldiers came closer. “Everything's permitted. Now shut up.”
Ismail did. Malik wiped his mouth with his sleeve and clutched the flask in the crook of his arm. He leaned against Ismail, forcing the novice and the barrow in a long arc towards the wall.
“You know you’re out past curfew?” one of the guards called.
“What are you doing?” Ismail hissed. “Let's kill them.”
“No.” Malik raised his voice to carry. “Can't be curfew yet. Night's still young.”
The soldier laughed. “What hour do you think it is?”
“Don't care.” Malik drained the flask to the dregs and held out the empty skin. “Plenty of time. Plenty of wine.”
The guards exchanged rueful glances. “Less than you think,” one said. “Where are you headed?”
“Home.” Ismail said, His voice was sober and embarrassed. “With any luck.”
Malik bit back his improvised retort. He looped his arm around Ismail’s shoulder and slumped against the novice as if it was a struggle to keep his balance. Wine dribbled from the flask and stained Ismail’s tunic as he set down the cart. “I'm sorry,” he said to the soldiers. “My uncles –they haven't been the same since the wars.”
“Sometimes fighting for a cause isn’t enough,” one of the soldiers agreed. ”Have you got far to go?”
“Not far,” Ismail said.
“That’s good,” said the other. “This district's dangerous at night.” He stepped forward, towards the cart. Harun’s head lolled beneath the borrowed robe.
Ismail’s hand dropped to his knife. “So I’ve heard,” he said.
Malik upended the wineskin over his mouth. The empty flask gaped. He glared at the slack skin as if it had offended him and tossed the flask into the street, spattering dregs of wine from its open mouth. The soldier jumped back, cursing. His companion laughed. “Next time, lad,” he said to Ismail, “get drunk first. Then they can carry you home.”
Ismail shoved Malik off him with a curse. “I’ll make sure of it,” he called.
“Hurry home. Next time we won’t be so lenient.” The soldiers lifted their weapons and left them to it. They took their torches with them. The shadows flooded in.
Ismail set the barrow down and rubbed his hands as soon as they were out of sight. “You should have told me,” he whispered.
Malik shrugged. “You did well. Come on. The next guards we meet might not be so easy to fool.”
“How did you know that was going to work?”
“I wasn't.” Malik said. “We're lucky we met soldiers and not the muhtasib.” The morality police, grim men who patrolled the markets making sure that foreign men didn't speak to women, butchers turned towards Mecca when slaughtering animals and Jews and Christians wore special necklaces in the bathhouses where they couldn't be identified by their clothes, would have taken a dim view of drinking in the streets.
“We could have killed them.” Ismail said.
“That’s your answer for everything.” Malik gestured down an alley. “Not everyone needs to die. This way.”
To his relief they reached the poor quarter without further incident. Most people they passed were drunk or fume-addled. The few that weren’t gave the Assassins a wide berth. Behind a row of smokehouses they found the remains of a striped canvas awning. Harun’s body fitted neatly beneath the canopy. He’d be found, but not soon.
Ismail tucked Harun’s dagger into his bloodstained scarlet sash. “We should at least say a prayer,” he said to Malik, defiantly.
Malik nodded. He did not believe in invisible spirits, but he did believe the moment deserved some sort of recognition. He bowed his head as Ismail intoned the salat al-janazah, and touched the dirt where Harun lay. “Make his grave spacious, and fill it with light."
“That’s hardly likely,” Ismail muttered.
“He’s passed on.” Malik folded down the canvas to obscure the corpse. “It’s only his body.”
“There’s still no harm in respect.”
“There will be, if we’re caught.” Malik said. Light streamed from a few windows, the district’s only sign of life. “Let’s go.”
“Somewhere safe,” Malik said. “Where the sultan's soldiers won't find us. We need to wash. I can't take you to a hammam like this.”
“So where are we going? Another Bureau?”
Malik shook his head. “Somewhere else.”
“Isn't there another Bureau in the city?”
“No. Ours was never a large Order. Some people don't understand the Creed, or the tenets of our teaching, and some can't handle the discipline. We have more influence working in secrecy than we'd ever have if we went public.” He frowned, rubbing his scar. “We had twice the men before Al Mualim's madness took hold.”
“Was it a coup?” Ismail asked, intrigued by the possibility of fighting.
“A battle, of sorts. The Apples can enslave men's minds. Al Mualim used this power to possess many of the Order. Some died in the struggle, and some killed themselves afterwards. Al Mualim led the Order well for years. Many found it hard to accept that our Master was working with our enemies all along. Some believed until the end that what he did was right.”
Ismail frowned. “What do you believe?”
Malik struggled for the right words. How can I make him understand something which I can barely grasp myself? “Al Mualim said that as long as men had free will there could be no peace. If I believe in anything, it's that without free will there is no peace. Only an illusion.”
Ismail stared uncomprehendingly. Malik sighed. “Enough philosophy. We need to go.”
They dumped the cart down the nearest well before they crossed the rooftops. Most of the houses were dark. Watchmen shivered at their posts as Malik and Ismail flitted silently as falcons from house to house. They traversed domes and spires and roofed narrow streets, treading tiles and mud-brick and woven thatch. Fountains glittered frozen in dark courtyards. Frost covered flat rooftops. Stars gleamed like jewels in a sky of velvet darkness.
When they reached Nusaybah's house by the Bab Ourika gate, the glazed and tiled façade loomed three stories high above them. The novice gaped. Even Malik, who had visited Dar Khalifah before, thought the house impressive, although it was a far too easy climb to challenge any Assassin worthy of the name. The lower story was plain mud-brick, stripped bare of decoration for security. The upper floors were covered in blue and gold tiles inlaid with calligraphic inscriptions. Decorative mashrabiya grilles carved from cedar wood covered all the windows. The bricks around the door were coated by a frieze of glazed tiles, mirrors, and marble fragments the size of fingernails. The door itself stretched all the way up to the second story of the house. Malik had expected to climb, but as they approached a small door in the main facade opened and a cloaked woman slipped out.
Malik called, and the hooded figure spun, head high. “Who's that?”
Malik spoke his name. Nusaybah released her grip on the doorknocker and turned, releasing the end of her veil so the scarf flowed down her back. “I didn't expect to see you here.” She looked Ismail up and down. The young Assassin flushed. “Who's this with you?”
“This is Ismail,” Malik explained. “From Alamut. We've had some trouble, and we need a bath and a few other things. Can you get us inside without anybody seeing?”
Nusaybah nodded. “Of course. You can use the servant's entrance. I was on my way to see you as it is.” She paused, gazing at the wine staining their robes. “What happened? Are you hurt?”
Malik shook his head. “I'll explain later.”
“You will.” She pointed down a narrow alley that ran beside the house. “There's a blue door on the left. I'll send Munya to find you there and take you to the baths. There shouldn't be anyone around at this time of night.”
“Do you work here?” Ismail asked.
Nusaybah smiled charmingly. “I live here. This is my husband's house, Dar Khalifa.”
Malik thought it best to intervene before Ismail embarrassed himself further. “Come on. “He shoved the novicein the direction of the entrance Nusaybah had indicated. “We'll meet you inside.”
The servant’s door was painted with peeling blue lacquer and studded with brass. It opened easily to Malik's touch, and they entered a low passage lined with unpainted bare stone blocks. The corridor curved to the right and smelt strongly of garlic. The walls were warm. Malik guessed the passage backed onto the kitchens.
“Do you trust her?” Ismail asked as they headed down the corridor.
“Absolutely,” Malik said. It was not quite true, but Ismail did not need to know that.
“She's not an Assassin? She's married?”
Malik answered both questions with one word. “Yes.”
Malik had no wish-and, he thought, no need- to explain his complicated relationship with Nusaybah to anyone. “That's none of your concern.”
A door opened abruptly at the end of the corridor. Ismail drew his blade, and Malik blocked him with his arm. “Put that away. I didn't bring you here to kill the servants.”
“So glad to hear it,” said a disapproving voice from behind the open door.
Malik recognized the waspish tone. “Marhaba, Munya.”
She stepped back. “Come inside. I don't want to see another knife.”
Malik glared at Ismail, and the novice put the knife away. Munya led them into another corridor. Oil lamps burned brightly in alcoves just below the ceiling, illuminating their stained clothes. Munya made a disapproving exclamation and began to roll up the carpet. “That way,” she said, pointing, once the rugs were safely stowed against the wall.
Malik followed her directions to a small antechamber. Taps and basins were set into one wall and low benches against the other. Munya followed a few moments later, arms piled high with towels and clean clothing. She slapped a pair of scrubbing mitts and a bowl of soap onto one of the benches so hard that Malik thought it was a wonder the dish didn't shatter. “The baths are through there,” she said, and left them to it.
Malik shed his clothes and took a towel from the pile. He knelt beneath the tap and scrubbed himself until the last drop of wine had vanished down the drains. Crescent moons of Harun’s blood grimed his fingernails. When he was done he stepped back, making way for Ismail, but the novice made no move to bathe. Malik took a closer look. Ismail’s skin had a greyish tinge beneath the wine-stains. His eyes were distant.
“You don’t look well.” Malik observed.
Ismail stared at Malik. “I'm fine,” he said.
“You’re not. Wash. Make sure you do it properly. You’ll get sick if you don’t..”
He bullied the boy into bathing properly. Ismail grumbled, but complied, and they went through into the steam room.
Inside, the bath was a private paradise. It was much smaller than most hammams, and far more expensively decorated. The benches were carved from marble instead of wood, and the air smelt of incense and cedar, not other people's sweat. The floor and walls imitated a natural pool. Mosaic lilies lined the walls and turquoise floor tiles created the illusion of clear water. Gem-coloured fish twisted at Malik’s feet. Tiny star-shaped skylights pierced the roof above his head.
Malik sat down on one of the benches, elbows on his knees, one hand on his forehead, and tried to think. Sweat beaded on his skin. A thread of pain coursed from the middle finger of his missing hand, running through his scar to end in a knot at his shoulder. He wasn't in the mood for luxury, and even the warmth wasn't enough to force him to relax.
Ismail sat down on a bench opposite Malik. His face was gaunt and troubled, though he looked slightly better than he had before the bath. “What happens now?”
“We go to Masyaf,” Malik said. “You're Alamut's sole representative. Altaïr will want to speak with you.”
Ismail bit his lip. “I'm not prepared!”
Malik grimaced. “You're not alone in that. Don't worry. There must have been a reason your master chose you.”
Ismail stared at the mosaics of wide-mouthed carp on the floor. “It was a punishment,” he said quietly.
The news did not entirely surprise Malik. “What for?”
“Misbehaviour.” Ismail traced a curling jade fin with his foot. “The Master caught us shooting arrows at the weathercock. He said the journey would teach us discipline.”
Of course. Malik shifted as sweat trickled down his ribs and stung in the long cut across his side. “That doesn’t matter. Rest here for a while.”
Ismail frowned. “How long?”
“Just an hour. We’ll leave the city in the morning once you’re gathered your things.”
“Is it safe here?”
Ismail nodded. His stomach growled as he ran his fingers across the marble benches.
“Go.” Malik said. “Find Munya. The maid. Treat her with respect. She’ll bring you some food.”
Ismail’s eyebrows rose. “Aren’t you coming?”
The heat had only begun to chase the ache from Malik’s scars. “I need a few more moments,” he said. “Go on.”
Steam curled towards the ceiling as the novice departed. Malik stayed. He stared up at the twinkling stars, searching for answers in the steam and wishing he had someone to set things right. The slick glitter of moisture on the tiles reminded him of Harun's blood on the Bureau floor.
The air cooled slowly. After a while the door opened and he saw Nusaybah silhouetted in the steam. Hair weighted her shoulders. She lifted the heavy mass off the back of her neck as she came in.
“Where's the novice?”
“He’s in the kitchens with Munya,” Nusaybah said. She sat down beside him. “They were both alive when I left. You needn’t worry.”
Nusaybah leaned forwards, lacing her ankles together, her wiggling toes bait for the mosaic carp. She angled her chin at Malik. “I said you were wounded.”
“Not badly.” The guard's sword had sliced his skin, and though he didn't have much fat for the blade to sink into, he'd escaped with little more than a shallow nick in the muscle over his ribs. The wound had bled, and clotted. Malik traced his fingers across the cut-gently, he thought- but his fingers were bloody when he withdrew his hand.
“Bad enough.” Nusaybah leant back, sighing as a scarlet drop spattered the floor. “I’ll order the servants to scour this whole place. Tell me what happened.”
He knew from experience that she'd accept silence in reply, but it felt good to talk. “We were at the Temple of Solomon when Salah al-din's soldiers attacked.”
She frowned. “The Temple's gone. You mean the Temple Mount?”
“The Temple's hidden underneath the Mount. There are tunnels. The Alamut Assassins went there, and I followed. Salah al-din's soldiers found us as we emerged. By the time I saw them it was too late to do anything but run.”
“So you ran.”
“They ran. I distracted the soldiers for a while, bought them time to escape.” He sighed. “Or so I thought. They must have run into the rich quarter. The streets there are always full of guards. Ismail’s brother died upon the Mount. Their dai was badly injured. He died in the Bureau, later.”
Nusaybah wrapped her arms around her knees. Her eyes were dark as olives. “You did what you could.”
“How do you know?”
Her voice was soft. “Because you always do. The mullahs say you can't cheat death.”
The Assassins didn't believe in fate, predestination or anything they couldn't kill. “The mullahs say a lot of things.”
“That doesn't mean they're wrong.” Nusaybah said. She reached beneath the bench and drew out a silver ewer. Moisture droplets beaded on the metal as she handed the jug to Malik. “Is Salah al-din searching for you?”
“Probably.” Malik drank. The water was cool and clear, as if it had come straight from the river the room feigned.
Nusaybah took the jug. She lifted the rim to her lips, swallowed and wiped her mouth with the tips of her fingers, daintily. “Then it’s not safe for you to leave. You should stay here for the night.”
“What if they find us?”
She set the jug down. “They won’t.”
Her offer surprised him. They'd been so careful. “You want me to stay?”
She sighed. “I said so, didn’t I? I'm not asking you to lay down your blade. Just rest for one night. That's all I ask.”
“Maybe not all.” She twisted, nipping his ear with sharp teeth. Her breath warmed his cheek as her hands spread along his ribs, careful to avoid his wound.
“Perhaps. But I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“So you told me.” She gave him a slow smile. “Do you want to waste tonight arguing, or shall we say goodbye properly?”
He kissed her in reply. She kissed back. His hand spanned her waist, fingers settling in the grooves at the base of her spine. Together they sank to the mosaic floor, where, by slow degrees, they forgot there was a world outside.
“If you're staying,” she said after they were both sated, “you can use one of the armouries. Just for the night.”
The mosaic carp gazed accusingly from the floor. Malik covered the tiled eyes of the closest fish with the sole of his foot. “One night,” he said. “Does that please you?”
“Not quite,” Nusaybah said, and pulled him closer.
There really was a street called Malcuisinat (Bad Food) in medieval Jerusalem.
I once read an article by an author I can’t remember that said something along the lines of ‘it’s perfectly okay to fade to black if your characters wouldn’t be comfortable with public sex.’