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A Thousand Days

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Malik adjusted the book beneath his arm. He left the cemetery in the gathering dusk and took the darkest side streets that he knew to Dar Khalifa. Once he arrived he circled round the back of the house to the blue door Nusaybah had shown him and waited near the servants' entrance. A short time later the door swung open and a maid came out with a basket of waste which she tipped into the alley. She turned back, saw Malik, and clutched the basket across her chest like a shield. “What do you want?”

“Fetch Munya,” Malik told her.

The maid vanished back through the door, taking her basket with her. Malik wasn't sure she'd pass the message on, but she must have said something because moments later a burly man appeared in the doorway, arms folded across his chest. Malik leaned against the foul-smelling alley wall and waited. Eventually Munya appeared in the passageway and dismissed the guard with a flick of her fingers. 

“Why are you here?” she asked, frowning.

Malik didn't see much point in lying. “Because I've got nowhere else to go. If you’re not going to let me in, tell me now. I've already spent too long standing in plain sight.”

Munya gave a long-suffering sigh and pushed the doorway ajar. “I know the mistress will want to see you, so you'd best come in.” Her glance shifted from disapproval to surprise as she noticed the pigeon. “Shall I bring a basket for the pigeon?”

“Please do.” Malik said shortly.

“Then wait here,” Munya said. She ducked into a storeroom, emerging with a large cane basket, and held the lid open with one hand. “Drop the bird in.”

 Malik forced his fingers open and dropped the bird inside. The pigeon seemed pleased with its new accommodation.

Munya held the basket up to her eyes and peered suspiciously at the bird as if she was searching for weapons. At last she nodded and lowered the cage. “Come this way,” she said as they walked through the corridors, shaking her head as Malik went to climb the stairs to Nusaybah's quarters. “Not that way. That's haram.”

Malik followed the maid to the small armoury where he and Ismail had spent the night and waited there while Munya went to fetch Nusaybah.

“What's the matter?” she said when she arrived. “You're hurt.”  

“The same wound as before. It isn't bad.”

Nusaybah flicked her fingers. “Let me look. Once we're done you can tell me why you're here.”

Malik had no energy and less inclination to protest. He pulled his robe from his shoulder as Nusaybah knelt down beside him. She ran her hand across the wound, and Malik hissed in pain.

Nusaybah pulled back her hand. “It's infected,” she said. “This is what you get for running around rooftops instead of visiting a doctor.”

Malik's side sang with pain. He would have laughed if it hadn't hurt so much. “I did. That's how I ended up in this mess.”

Nusaybah's eyebrows arched. “Care to elaborate?”

“Not really.”

“You won't heal if you don't rest.” Nusaybah said disapprovingly. “I have some medicine upstairs. I'll fetch it if you promise me you'll sleep.”

Malik felt as if he had forgotten the meaning of the word. He had no intention of sleeping until his work was done. Easing back on the divan, he changed the subject. “Do you have ink and paper? The Bureau’s been compromised. I need to send a message to Masyaf.”

“Masyaf can wait,” Nusaybah said firmly.

“It's important.”

Nusaybah looked at Malik, his book, and the pigeon in the basket. “Is this one of your plans?”

Malik shrugged on his robe. The fabric was damp and smelled of blood. “I wish it was,” he said. “I'm making this up as I go along. But I promise not to move at least until you come back.”

Nusaybah regarded him for a long moment before she nodded and swept out of the room. A stream of shouted orders issued from the courtyard. She returned a moment later, slippers clicking smartly on the tiles. She drew a pot of salve from her sleeve and held it out to Malik. “Medicine,” she said. “The rest is coming. What happened?”

Malik opened the jar and scraped up a handful of greasy ointment. The medicine smelled of ben Salman's salve. He put the pot down and unfastened his robe with his right hand. “It's a long story,” he said as he plastered the ointment across his side.    

Nusaybah took the pot from Malik and began to smear medicine over all the places he couldn't reach. Her hands were gentle. Malik would have enjoyed the experience if he hadn't been so bruised. “We have time. What happened?”

“I called a doctor to the Bureau to treat the injured Alamut dai,” Malik said. “Harun died anyway. When I went back to the surgery for medicine the physician betrayed us to Salah al-din's guards. By the time I escaped they'd already discovered the Bureau.  They captured Ismail.”

Nusaybah paled. The medicine slipped from her hands and shattered on the tiles, spreading porcelain and salve across the floor. “It’s my fault,” she said over the noise of breaking pottery.

“Yours?” Malik didn't understand. He reached out, but she moved away. “How could it be your fault?”

“God forgive me. I thought he only wanted advice.” She spoke rapidly, clutching her shawl tightly around her. “I know your doctor. He visits here to treat my husband. He came here this morning. Told me he'd seen something in the course of his work that troubled him, but he was afraid to break his physician's oath.  He wouldn't tell me what it was he'd seen, so I told him to do what he thought was right. If I had known-”

“If you'd known,” Malik said flatly. “If I'd told you-”

“I should have guessed.” She picked a piece of pottery from the divan with the tips of her fingers and tossed it onto the floor.

Malik shook his head. “It's my mistake. I knew it was a risk to bring a doctor to the Bureau. Harun died, and Ismail was captured. It's up to me to set this right.”

“You could have been killed.” Nusaybah said. “Khak bar saram! I should pour dirt upon my head for this!

Malik captured her hand. “I'm still alive.”

Nusaybah made a disgusted sound. “No thanks to me.”

“The Bureau's been lucky for a long time.” He shrugged, sneezing at the strong scent of salve that rose from the broken jar. “Salah al-din's always been a threat. I was incautious.”

Nusaybah kilted the skirts of her robe to protect them from the spilled medicine. “What will you do about the boy?”

“Ismail is an Assassin,” Malik corrected. “If he’s alive, I have to rescue him.” Altaïr needed to hear whatever Ismail had to say, and that meant Malik would get the novice to Masyaf if it killed them both. Which it still might.

Nusaybah sighed. “How?” she asked, direct as a dagger.

Malik shrugged. “My plans don't reach so far,” he admitted. “I'm beginning to doubt my judgment. Every move I make only seems to compromise us further.  I shouldn't have come here. I've visited you too much these last few days. Somebody will make the connection, and when they do I'll place you all in danger.”

She kissed his forehead. Her breath smelt of cinnamon. “I'm glad you came.”

“That doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.”

“What will you do?”

Malik had a few ideas, but he was certain that Nusaybah wouldn't like any of them. He evaded the question. “I'll think of something.”

Nusaybah frowned. Someone knocked upon the door. Nusaybah rose, returning with a basket in her arms.  She sat down beside Malik on the divan, tucking her feet under her as she pulled out objects from the basket: a sheet of paper, a ruling board, a reed pen and a cake of sooty ink.

Malik reached for the paper, but Nusaybah blocked his hand. “You can send your message later,” she said as she pulled a covered jar of tharid and several pieces of sweet rafis bread from the basket. “First, eat.”  

The food smelt delicious. Malik needed no convincing. Nusaybah watched him eat, waving away the food when Malik remembered to offer her some. “I just had dinner. When did you last take the time to eat something?”

Malik shrugged, mouth full. The tharid was thickened with eggs and bone marrow, and the rafis was studded with dates and honey. He crumbled the last of the bread over the basket for the pigeon and watched the bird peck eagerly at the crumbs.

Nusaybah peered at the pigeon through the holes in its basket. “I understand the bird,” she said, resting her chin on her hand. “You'll need to send a message to Masyaf. Why did you bring the book? The Bureau's full of books. Why save this one?”

Malik pushed his plate aside and gestured to the ledger. “This one's important. It's the history of the Assassins in Jerusalem, and it's important to the Order. I'll leave it here for you to keep. If I don't return send the ledger to Masyaf. They'll reward you handsomely.”

“Do you think that's likely?”

”I suppose so,” he said. “Al Mualim didn't touch the treasury. There's sure to be some coin left.” 

“I don't care about the money,” Nusaybah said sharply. “I want to know if it's likely that you won't return.”

“I'm an Assassin,” Malik said. “Of course it's likely.”

She sighed. “Then I presume you've got a plan.”

It took Malik a while to explain his plan, and longer to convince Nusaybah it was a good one. It was late evening by the time he added water to the ink to write a letter to Altaïr. 

Brother-

Send no more messages. The Bureau has been compromised, and Salah al-din's guards have captured Ismail. I may have been a poor rafiq, but I trust I know my job well enough to know when I have failed. I must set things right. If things go well, I'll contact you again. Should I fail, I wish you well.

Safety and peace,

  1.   

He added a brief note to the ledger explaining his intentions before he wiped the ink from his hand and passed the book to Nusaybah. “Keep it safe.”

“Keep yourself safe,” she retorted as she took the ledger from him.

Malik nodded. “I'll need my robes.”

“You're lucky I didn't get Munya to burn them.”  Nusaybah said. “Munya!”

The maid appeared as swiftly as the very best Assassins.

“Bring Malik his robes,” Nusaybah ordered. “When you're done, fetch that old blade of Imad al-din's.”

Munya vanished. Malik and Nusaybah followed her outside to the courtyard. Malik took the pigeon from the cage and tossed it into the air. The bird flapped awkwardly, gyred to gain height, and vanished to the north as its outstretched wings caught the wind.

Malik lowered his gaze as Munya came across the courtyard with Malik's Assassin robes in her arms and a sword hanging from her shoulder. She handed both items to Nusaybah and withdrew with a nod to her mistress and a scowl for Malik.

Nusaybah indicated the armoury with the cant of her chin. “Let's go inside.”

Once they were indoors she put the clothes down on the divan next to the Bureau ledger and handed the sword to Malik. The scabbard smelt of oil and fresh lacquer.  

Malik glanced down at the blade. “What's this?”

Nusaybah put her hands on her hips. “You've no weapons,” she said. “This might even the odds.”

Malik doubted he would have much chance of success with or without a blade.  “If I'm to die, then steel alone won't save me.”

“At least look at the blade!” 

Malik drew the sword. The hilt had a new wrap of stiff black leather, but the sword itself was old. He rested the blade on the divan and ran his thumb down the edge to test its sharpness. The blade was sharp enough to cut silk. There was an inscription etched on the steel. Victory comes only from God, the almighty, the all-wise.

“It's called Nasr,” Nusaybah said. What do you think?”

“A fine blade,” Malik said as he sheathed the sword. Assassin swords were never named or inscribed, and the baldrics were always plain leather rather than the traditional colour of Islam. “Your husband's?”

A muscle tensed in Nusaybah's jaw. “His uncle's,” she said. “He never used it. I'd promised the blade to another, but it's the best blade I have. You can borrow it for a time. It's the least that I can do, seeing that I've caused you so much trouble.”

He touched her shoulder. “Ya amar, any trouble that you've caused me is nothing compared to what you've given.”

“What if the boy’s already dead?”

“Then there’s nothing I can do.”  Malik shrugged off his borrowed clothes and donned his Assassin's robe. He tied the red sash around his waist and draped the green baldric across his head and right shoulder.

“There is. Return.”

Malik touched her cheek, reaching down to brush his thumb across her collarbone. ”I’ll try.”

“Be sure you do,” she said softly as he left. 

***

The sword bumped against Malik's side as he made his way through the rich district to the Barbican. He had no knife or short sword to balance out the sayf, but two weapons seemed a waste when he only had one hand.

The Barbican was on the opposite side of the city from Dar Khalifa, and Malik had plenty of time to consider his actions as he walked. What he was about to do went against everything Al Mualim had taught him, but he could see no other way to save Ismail.

The Barbican was part warehouse and part fortress.  Talal had used the building to sell slaves before Salah al-din's government had seized it, and he had no doubt that there were plenty of cells inside. The palace was a bare, functional place, built for defence rather than comfort, but no doubt comfortable enough after the privations of campaign.

He came up to the gates and examined the building. What he saw did not fill him with confidence.  There was one door, serving as both entrance and exit. Arrow-slits barely a hand span wide gaped between the stones in place of windows. The roof boasted a low parapet with rounded crenulations where archers could hide between shots. The building cast a wide shadow. The dim streetlamps seemed to darken further as Malik drew closer.

He saw the guards there straighten up as he approached. “Come no further!” one called.

Malik stopped. He had no wish to die at the hands of Salah al-din's archers before he had a chance to plead his case.  He held out his hand to show his empty palm and made no move towards his sword. “I'm here to talk.”

“You can talk from there,” the soldier called.

“I've come from the Assassins,” Malik said. “I'm here to speak to Salah al-din.”

His voice rang out in the cold air. In summer he'd have struggled to be heard among the clamour of storytellers and water-sellers, dancing girls and singers. The winter streets were quiet enough to hear steel clatter against wooden scabbards as the guards drew their swords.

Malik did not move. He watched as the guards hesitated, obviously torn between approaching Malik and leaving the safety of the Barbican's stone walls. Finally the youngest called “Are you here to kill him?”

Malik rolled his eyes. “Don't be ridiculous. Do you really think I could storm this fortress by myself?”

The soldiers conferred for a moment before the younger guard left at a dead run. Malik waited in the dim lamplight until the soldier returned with a man Malik recognised.  The rais Malik had fought on the rooftops regarded him with a cynical scowl and dispatched the young guard to fetch a third man wearing a vizier's green turban. The man in the green turban, who Malik guessed was Qadi al-Fadail, Salah al-din's chancellor, beckoned to Malik and said “Why are you here?”

Malik repeated his request to al-Fadail. The vizier frowned and departed. He bustled off and returned a few minutes later. “Come inside.”

 Malik passed beneath the iron gates into a low hall with creaking wooden floorboards. The corridor was cool and dark. Flies buzzed sleepily in the damp air.  The soldiers pressed in around him. He barely stifled a twitch as a guard to his right leaned upon an iron lever and the gate behind him crashed closed.

Salah al-din's courtiers had tried their best to make the fortress a palace fit for a sultan. Woven rugs covered the stained wooden floorboards. Tapestries hung upon the bare stone walls. The attempt at decoration was only partially successful. Malik felt a cool breeze as he stepped around a decorative metal grille set into the wooden floor. He looked down, realizing that the gratings opened into jar-like cells below.

There were many more clues to the Barbican's past as a slave warehouse. The stains marking the floorboards could have been wine or dried blood. A pair of rusted manacles were bolted to one wall beneath an embroidered curtain. The decorative latticed windows set high in the carved wooden ceiling betrayed stealthy movements in the gallery behind the grilles. Malik heard the creak of bowstrings under tension. Archers could turn the narrow corridor into a killing field with hardly any effort. He felt a flicker of grudging respect for Altaïr.

The vizier held out a hand towards Malik. “Wait here,” he said. “I must speak to the court.”

Malik nodded. A guard waiting further along the corridor pressed a lever and a smaller, spiked gate slid up into the roof. Al-Fadail passed through. The gate slid closed behind. He looked over his shoulder through the iron mesh at Malik and ordered “Search him.”

The guards hung back. The rais pushed his way through the pack, frowning, and Malik solved the problem by unhooking the baldric from his shoulder and handing Nusaybah's sword over before the rais could ask for it. The soldier took the weapon from Malik with an expression of mingled suspicion and respect. He drew the sword and scowled at the inscription on the blade before he sheathed the sword and slung the baldric over his shoulder. “Is that all?”

“That's all.”

“Whoever heard of an Assassin with just one blade?”

“Whoever heard of an Assassin with one arm?” another soldier muttered.

“I'm here to talk,” Malik said. “Nothing more.”

The rais snorted. “Assassins don't talk. They kill.”

“Not without reason.”

“Reason?” The rais turned his head and spat into one of Talal's empty cells. “You needed no reason to kill two of my men.”

“You killed two of mine,” Malik said. “I'm trying not to make it three.”

The rais sucked his teeth. “God willing you're too late,” he said as the metal gate squealed open and al-Fadail ducked beneath the spikes.

The vizier flicked his fingers at Malik. “Come on.”

Malik gave the spikes a wide berth. He skirted a man-size large metal cage and followed al-Fadail up a short flight of stairs.  The stairs climbed to a narrow corridor that opened into a single massive room with a stone floor and a high vaulted ceiling. A wooden gallery ran around two sides of the room, close to the ceiling.  The windows were small, and the only apertures large enough to admit a man were sealed with iron grilles so fine that Malik doubted he could have fitted one hand through the openings. The flicker of respect he had felt for Altaïr kindled into full-blown admiration. This place is a fortress.

The room was crowded. Rugs and brocade cushions covered the floor, barely visible beneath the hems of brocade robes and the soles of embroidered slippers. The air was thick with smoke from incense-filled braziers. A pair of silky-eared Saluki hunting hounds regarded Malik with aloof curiosity from their cushions near the door. 

Given the Order's penchant for public assassination, Malik had expected a private audience. He couldn't have hoped for a more dramatic setting if he’d been sent to kill the sultan. Though how I'd manage that, without even a knife...

The court had gathered into loose groups centred on campaign maps spread out onto the floor and pinned down by a mixture of brass ornaments, books, and carved stones. The smoky air buzzed with conversation. Malik heard snatches of tactics, mention of shared defeats and celebrated victories. He had taken no more than a few paces into the room before the first man looked up from his map. One by one, the whole group turned. A few men rose to their feet, their hands on the handles of curved daggers.

Malik recognized many of the men from his reports. Salah al-din's secretary Imad al-din sat next to his qadi ibn Shaddad, and his personal physician, ibn Maymun. Their eyes held a mix of contempt and hostility that did nothing to make Malik feel at ease. He saw no sign of Salah al-din.

Al-Fadail swept past Malik and dropped to the carpet in an elaborate bow. “My lords,” he said.

Malik walked the gauntlet of a hundred angry stares. It went against all of his training to surround himself with enemies. He took a deep breath as the prone vizier hissed “Kneel.”

Assassins knelt to nobody, not even their Master. “It's not our way.” 

He'd spoken quietly, but the court chose that instant to fall completely silent. Malik's words rang out as clearly as the call to prayer. He cursed silently as he gave the court the same respectful nod he would have given Al Mualim. “Safety and peace.”

Salah al-din's coterie grumbled. Al-Fadail frowned as he raised his head from the carpet. “I must announce you,” he said to Malik, rocking back onto his heels. “What is your name and lineage?”

You could tell many things from a man's name; where he was born, whose son he was; whose father. Malik didn't know if any of the al-Sayf clan were alive, but he had no intention of putting them into danger if they were. “My name is Malik al-Masyaf,” he said, disliking the way his voice sounded in the silence. “I am the rafiq of Jerusalem. I'm an Assassin.”

The vizier's thin lips pursed. Malik looked around for the sultan, but saw nothing but his courtiers. And his hounds. Though they'd not thank me for pointing out the similarities.

Imad al-din’s voice pierced the murmur of conversation that followed Malik's reply like as an arrow. “It's been a long time since the sultan has received any messengers from the Order.”

“It seems as if he's not about to receive one now,” someone muttered.

The qadi beside Imad a-din frowned. “Why have you come?”

Malik saw no point in prolonging the encounter. “The sultan's soldiers captured one of my men,” he said. “I've come to negotiate for his release.”

Ibn Shaddad turned to Imad al-din. “Do we have an Assassin in our custody?” he asked in an undertone.

Imad al-din nodded. “The Persian,” he said, regarding Malik with distaste.

Ibn Shaddad raised a finger. “You said that you are from Masyaf. Our captive's from another land.” 

“It's true that Ismail is from Alamut,” Malik admitted. “But he's under the protection of the Jerusalem Bureau. As such, he's my responsibility.”

The physician ibn Maymun grunted. “The Assassins have no authority here. The idea is a joke.”

The qadi flicked a fly from his face and addressed himself to Imad al-din. “Is there an Assassin's Bureau within Jerusalem?” he asked.

Imad al-din smiled faintly. “Not any more.”

Ibn Shaddad fixed Malik with a glare like a thrown knife. “As my esteemed colleague says, you have no standing here. We will not waste our time arguing with infidels.”

Malik glanced around the room, taking in the maps, the plans, the huddled counsellors. The skin between his shoulder blades prickled. He glanced behind him, but saw nothing but the hostile gazes of the court. “Perhaps we could speak privately?” he said.

The qadi shook his head. Ibn Maymun said “We all know the Assassins' reputation. Such a move would be unwise.”

“Possibly fatal,” said Imad al-din.

Malik bowed his head. “My lords,” he said. “I've come to beg the sultan's mercy. He knows our affairs and our men. I've heard tales of his allegiance with our Order. Surely we may come to some agreement.”

Imad al-din’sbrows drew together in a frown. “You speak of allegiance with Salah al-din,” he said with soft contempt. “Have you heard your Master sent men to kill the sultan at Aleppo seventeen years ago, when I was by his side?”

Ibn Maymun shook his head disapprovingly.  “At the siege of Azad Assassins attacked us with knives,” he pointed out.

“And when we besieged Masyaf,” the qadi pointed out, “the Assassins fought with deceit and treachery.”

Ibn Maymun nodded. “The Assassins murdered Majd Addin, and the captain of his guards.”

“You lost nothing by their deaths,” Malik snapped. He was happy to admit responsibility for the murders, but he refused to pretend the Assassins had done Salah al-din anything other than a favour by killing Majd Addin. “Majd Addin was no regent. He appointed himself to play the part. Al-Asad was corrupt.”

Imad al-din slammed his palm onto the floor. The tiles rang like a bell. “Enough!” he said. “How dare you stand in this court and justify your murders to us?”

“I am not-”

The qadi did not even raise his voice. “We will speak no further,” he said with absolute authority. “The Assassin is the sultan's. Salah al-din shall dispose of him as he sees fit. You may leave alive, but nothing more.”  

Malik did not argue. His instincts screamed he should have left far earlier. “I'll carry your message to my master.” 

Imad al-din said “I'd not expect your kind to know the Holy Book. But tell your master ‘those who have done wrong know to what end they will revert.'”

I'm sure he will be delighted, Malik thought glumly. He gave an ironically deep bow and walked out with his head held high, his back straight, and his eyes scanning the room for weapons. If looks could kill he'd have been dead in seconds, but he made it to the door without anyone drawing steel on him.

The guards closed in around him as he descended the steps. Three of them, this time, and their commander.

“Went well did it?” the rais said.

Malik bared his teeth in something that was not quite a smile. “Get out of my way.”

The rais' mouth twitched as if he struggled to hold back a grin. He gestured for Malik to follow and they retraced their steps, passing the spiked gate, the manacles and the cage; all the reminders of the building's unquiet past that tapestries could not quite cover. Malik kept a sharp eye out for signs of Ismail. He saw nothing but empty corridors.

At the base of the passageway the rais pushed aside a carpet nailed to the wall. A wooden door was hidden beneath the covering. He unlocked the door with a large key from his belt and leaned his weight against the planks to push the door open. The air that drifted from the gap smelt of damp and mildew. “Come on,” he said, gesturing for Malik to follow.

Malik shook his head. “You must think me an idiot.”

The rais sucked his teeth. “'Idiot' would be a compliment.” He slipped the baldric over his shoulder and tossed the sword to Malik. “Maybe returning your weapon will convince you.”

Malik caught the scabbard in his right hand. The baldric's green silk cords brushed the floor. He slung the cord across his chest. “One sword won't make a difference.”

The rais indicated the dismal opening. “You won't need it,” he said. “Trust me.”

“I don't.” Malik said. He looped the baldric around his shoulders and ducked beneath the threshold.

The guards followed. Malik trailed the fingers of his hand along the stones as he walked, counting paces before the corridor opened abruptly into a small room. The walls and floor were stone and carved stone corbels in the ceiling that supported the planks. There was another door on the far side of the room. The soot-stained wood creaked as someone passed by above their heads. Dust trickled down between the planks. The guards coughed.

A low table stood in the centre of the room. A pair of brocade cushions sat on the ground at either side. On the table rested a bowl, a plate and a cup. The crockery was plain earthenware, as was the flickering oil lamp. The golden light cast long shadows into the corner of the rooms. Malik stared into the darkness and tried his best to preserve his night vision. Nusaybah's sword was reassuringly solid beneath his fingers.  

He heard a door open somewhere above his head. The sound was followed by the creak of steps descending. The soldiers around Malik straightened as Salah al-din stepped into the light. The secretary followed like a shadow at his heels.

The sultan dressed as severely as a Sufi ascetic. His simple black robes should have faded into the gloom, but he did nothing of the sort. He was not large, but he looked tough as a desert tree, pared down to its essence by years of drought. He gazed at Malik as if he was an unexpected complication he would have preferred to avoid. “Sit.”

Malik sat. Salah al-din brushed dust from the cushion and settled himself on the opposite side of the table. The sultan jerked his head and a guard came over and pushed the plates closer to Malik. The pottery cup was half-full of water, the plate held a slice of bread and the bowl was piled high with coarse pink salt. . Salah al-din took a small slice of bread between thumb and forefinger. He popped the bread in his mouth and gestured to Malik. “Eat.”

Malik tore off a piece of bread. He dipped the bread in the salt and washed the morsel down with water from the cup. The bread caught in his throat and the salt stung his lips, but he swallowed anyway, recognizing the food as reassurance as much as refreshment. No Arab would harm a guest he'd fed and watered.

Salah al-din said “You must understand I cannot be seen to bargain with the Assassins.”

Malik knew that Sultans did not apologise to their subjects. The Assassins did not consider themselves Salah al-din's subjects, but Malik had no intention of continuing that old debate. He said “I understand.”

 “I've sworn to eject the Crusaders from our land,” Saladin said. “I've set my feet firmly upon that path, and I must use any force at my disposal to reach the end. I made a treaty once before with your master at Masyaf. Perhaps we can come to an agreement.”

“Masyaf has a new master,” said Malik said.

“Yes. I had heard. I doubt Masyaf has forsworn the Creed. Unless it was someone else who slew my men?”

Malik looked around at the guards. The soldiers' faces were impassive, though disapproval glittered in the rais' eyes. “No,” he said reluctantly. “Though they attacked us first.”

Salah al-din inclined his head. “I know your Order has been spying on my troops. One of my men saw an Assassin in the square the day I entered the city. The next day you were caught on the Temple Mount as I was at mosque. Do you deny this?”

“We-” Malik started to explain, then realised that saying “we didn't know that you were there,” would reflect poorly upon both the Order and himself.  “It was Assassin business,” he said. Better to say too little, than too much. “We've been watching you.”

“I am aware.” Salah al-din said dryly. He reached over the table and lifted the cup, swirling the water around before he raised the goblet to his mouth. “Why is that?”

Imad al-din snorted. “The Assassins are notorious. I'm sure that I can guess.”

“The Order believes that you want peace as much as we do.” Malik said quickly.

“Peace!” Imad al-din exclaimed. “Everyone knows the Assassins are nothing more than hashish-eating murderers.”

Salah al-din waved one hand. Imad fell silent as swiftly as if the sultan held a blade. He frowned at Malik in the lamplight. “It is one of life's great ironies that we must fight for peace,” he said in a voice so quiet every man in the room had to strain to hear it. “It seems that the Assassins understand that, if nothing else.”

Malik hadn’t expected the sultan to understand the Assassins' tenets. “We sought only to protect you from your enemies.” he said, hoping the sultan would understand. “My lord, nobody wants Syria to fall to the Crusaders. The emirs need a leader to unite them, and you're this land's best hope. If we dealt only with those who believed in the Creed, we'd have few friends.”

“You have few enough already.” Salah al-din said. He gave Malik a glare sharp as a blade, reminding Malik that this wasn't the kind of conversation where he argued. It was the kind of conversation where he listened.  “What exactly did you hope to achieve?”

Malik blinked. “I came for my companion. If he's still alive.”

“He is,” Salah al-din confirmed. “What do you offer in return?”

“Our gratitude.” Malik said.

Salah al-din watched Malik with eyes as black as ink. “Fetch me the novice,” he ordered.

A little later more dust floated down from overhead to speckle Salah al-din's shoulders with flecks of grit. Steps approached as the door on the opposite side of the room creaked open. Three figures entered. Two were soldiers, chests crossed by the yellow sash of Salah al-din's elite guard. The third was Ismail. Heavy chains wrapped the Persian's wrists and ankles. He moved stiffly, weighed down by the irons, and there were bruises on his face. He glared defiantly around the room and saw Malik. His eyes widened. “What is this?”

“What do you think?” Malik snapped.

“Your master has come to bargain for your life,” Salah al-din said, and the authority in his voice was such that even Ismail stopped struggling. “Have you anything to say.”

“He’s not my master,” Ismail said, shaking his head.

“I’m the closest thing,” Malik said. He turned to the sultan. “So you've proved that he's unharmed. You haven’t set him free. What do you want?”

Salah al-din's black eyes glittered in the lamplight. “I will release your novice providing that he swears an oath ever to raise a blade against me or my troops.”

“Of course,” Malik said before Ismail interrupted. He had not expected to escape so lightly. They could leave Jerusalem that night. They weren't prepared for the journey, but it would be better than staying in the city. Altaïr can send Ismail back to Alamut as soon as he pleases. He can't attack the sultan there.

Salah al-din nodded. “One thing more,” he said.

Malik stifled a groan. He doubted the sultan’s second favour would be as easy to fulfil as the first. 

The sultan slipped a paper from his sleeve and pushed it across the table towards Malik. “I have here a message for the Frankish King Richard at his camp in Latrun. You will carry it for me. I will expect a reply within the week. I will release your novice when you return. Until then, he stays with me.”

“If I fail?” Malik fought to keep his expression professionally blank. Salah al-din had razed the villages around Latrun and poisoned the wells. There would be no shelter, no food, and no water.  And when I reach the camp, they'll kill me. 

“If the Assassins are as skilled as I remember, you won't fail.”

“Nevertheless.”

“I'm aware the odds aren't in your favour.” Salah al-din said calmly. “It's in my interest to ensure your success. Therefore I will send one of my soldiers to accompany you.” He gestured to the rais. “This is my trusted servant, Amir ibn Abu Hakim. He's from Latrun and knows the area. You will travel together and bring me King Richard's reply as proof of your success.”

Malik glanced warily at the rais. He saw a muscle twitch in the solder’s jaw. “So you agree to free Ismail if I return with your reply?”

 “You can’t-“Ismail interrupted.

Malik cut him off. “I can.”

The sultan inclined his head. “I shall provide horses and provisions.” His eyes flicked from Malik to the rais.  “There is one more condition. Admit your true purpose to no one but the king. If you are captured, destroy my message by any means you can. Before you die, tell the Franks that you were sent from Masyaf to assassinate King Richard on the order of the Frankish lord Conrad of Montferrat. In this way we shall sow discord between our enemies.”

Malik had to admire the sultan's scheming. “Even if I die, you profit. How does my Order benefit then?”

The sultan shrugged. “Succeed, or die in the attempt. Either way, I shall ensure that any peace treaty I sign with Richard to divide the Holy Land includes Masyaf.”

“I accept,” Malik said. I'm going to die, he thought wearily. And if I don't, Altaïr will surely kill me when I return to Masyaf.

Salah al-din nodded. He turned to the guards clustered around Ismail. “Strike his chains,” he ordered.

Ismail rubbed his wrists as the chains fell away. His eyes flicked to Malik, the guards, then to the sultan.

Malik willed the boy not to try anything. “Why release him?”

“Why not?” The sultan was a dark shadow in a room of darker ones. ”He is my guest.”

”Our prisoner,” Imad al-din said.

“He’s a hostage.” Malik corrected. “How do I know he won't be harmed?”

The heavy silver ring upon Salah al-din’s left hand flashed in the lamplight as he placed his hand across his heart. “No man may harm him while I live. I swear it in God's name.”

 “Then I swear on the Creed I'll do as you request.” Malik said. He caught Ismail’s gaze and held it. “Promise me you’ll keep your word.”

The novice glanced uncertainly from Malik to the sultan. “It’s not right!”

“Nothing’s true. Everything’s permitted.” Malik allowed himself a brief smile. “Wait until I come back. That’s my command as a rafiq of the Assassins. Or have you forgotten the Creed?”

Ismail’s answering smile displayed bared teeth. “I’ll follow the Creed. I’ll keep my word.”

“Then come with me,” Salah al-din said. He rose from the table with the caution of a long life spent fighting and gestured to Ismail.

“What should I do?” Ismail turned to Malik.

“Go,” Malik said. “Don’t disgrace us.”

Ismail frowned. “What if you don’t come back?”

“I will.”

Ismail gave him a last doubtful look and followed the sultan. Malik watched with mixed emotions as Ismail followed the sultan to the door. Salah al-din moved more silently than Malik had expected for such an exalted man. His black robes blended with the shadows. He would have made a good Assassin.

The sultan turned before he reached the door.  “You will take horses and escort the Assassin immediately to the Frankish camp,” he said to the rais Amir. “Speak of this to nobody.”

The rais dropped to his knees and pressed his forehead to the stones. “As you wish.” he said.

Salah al-din nodded curtly as he left. Ismail followed, surrounded by soldiers and fumbling with the latch. The sultan’s guard filed out behind their master.

Imad al-din remained. As the door closed behind the sultan's back the Isfahani bent down towards the pearl-inlaid table and lifted the corner of the table with one hand. The earthenware utensils fell to the floor. The bowl and dish shattered. The cup rolled towards Imad's feet. The secretary raised his slipper and crushed the goblet beneath his heel. He ground the fragments into the earth,s pun on his heel and walked out, slamming the door behind him. 

 

Malik knew the Muslim custom that vessels used by an unbeliever were naajis, impure, and unworthy for reuse.  He'd known the plates would be destroyed. He had not expected the destruction to be so blatant. 

As Imad al-din's footsteps died away the rais sat back on his heels and looked Malik up and down. “Aren’t you a little young for a rafiq?”

Malik was tempted to offer to demonstrate his skills by opening the rais' throat. Instead he said “Aren't you a little old to be a guard?”

The rais spat. “You dishonour me.”

“It's your sultan's wish for you to accompany me,” Malik corrected. “I have no more wish to travel with you than you with me.”

“You twist my words.”

Malik shrugged. “They are your words.”

 The rais scowled. The rank of rais meant sergeant; equivalent to the Assassin rank of dai. High enough to be responsible, but low enough to be expendable. It was a poor position for a man of noble blood, but a very respectable rank indeed if the rais had been born a commoner. “I'll follow the sultan's orders,” he said. “But I don't have to like it.”

Malik bared his teeth. “Neither do I.”

 

Author’s Note:

Haram: forbidden.

Khak bar saram: Iranian. A way of admitting that you’ve done something bad: ‘Dirt on my head’

Nasr: Victory, the name of Nusaybah’s sword.

In the game, Altaïr infiltrates the Barbican to assassinate Talal, the slave trader. The décor is…interesting.