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A Thousand Days

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'One day in Jerusalem is like a thousand days, one month like a thousand months and one year like a thousand years.”

 Kaab al-Ahbra, Fadail

“Jerusalem is ours as much as yours.”

Salah al-din, in a letter to Richard the Lionheart.

thousand days cover

Cover art courtesy of the awesome caroline :)

 

Chapter One:

Jerusalem, November 1191/ Shawwal 587.

“Make way for our lord and sultan! The Victorious King, the Righteousness of Faith, Deliverer of Jerusalem, Abu 'l-Muzaffar Yusuf ibn Ayyub ibn Shahdi! Make way for Salah al-din!”

The crowd parted like Musa's sea. Tailors pushed against merchants, merchants pressed into imams, and imams stepped upon shoemakers' toes. A few men scrambled onto the square's crumbling pillars for a view. Others climbed the lower branches of the trees. Parents hoisted children on their shoulders as a broad avenue of dirty flagstones opened across the Temple Mount’s wide square to the door of the Qubbat as-Sakhra, the Dome of the Rock. Servants hurried to unroll Persian carpets across the stones.

Malik al-Sayf pulled his hood across his face as he pushed through the crowd. A merchant reeled backwards as Malik passed, pinching his nose against the eye-watering stench of sweat and hashish that rose from the Assassin's robe.

Malik stopped a few paces from the front of the crowd. The burnished dome of the House of the Chain shone like a steel mirror. White winter sky stretched between the minarets of the al-Aqsa mosque. The cold wind pricked savagely at Malik's ruined left arm. He rubbed his stump absently as he scanned the crowd. 

The streets must be empty, he thought. All the people are here. 

There were Syrians, Kurds, Maghrebis, Egyptians, green-eyed Persians and black-skinned Yemenis. Women in muddy robes sold dates to soldiers as Sufis wrapped in woollen robes gathered alms beside green-turbaned imams. Wealthy ladies hid themselves in richly decorated litters and tossed sweetmeats to the children who played their games of tag between the litter-slaves' legs. None of them bothered Malik. Few people troubled a man who smelt so bad. 

Malik unfocused his eyes and called upon the Eagle's vision. The crowd faded into grey. Here and there a man or woman shone sapphire blue, the mark of allies sympathetic to the Assassins and their Creed. The sultan's guards gleamed ruby red.

Malik saw nothing unusual. He held the sight a moment longer before he shifted his vision to an ordinary spectrum and began to eavesdrop on the crowd.

“The sultan has twenty thousand soldiers,” the man to his left said, “God willing, he'll drive the Franks into the sea.”

Another man snorted. “You're a fool!  Salah al-din's soldiers won't campaign in winter. The Franks, on the other hand, will...” 

His companion shook his head. “The Franks are crazy! Who fights in winter?”

“The Frankish lands are nothing but endless snow,” his friend said knowledgeably. “That's why the Franks have such pale skin. Our winters are nothing to them!” 

The sky opened, leaking chill rain.  Rivulets sluiced down the steel-grey dome of the House of the Chain. Flagstones too warm to walk upon barefoot in summer overflowed with water. The crowd scattered, raising shawls above their heads to shelter from the downpour.

Malik made his way to the closest palanquin; an elegant affair draped with curtains of gold-stamped silk. Beggars clustered around the litter. Malik lingered on the edge of the crowd. The litter's tall sides sheltered him from the storm. His ragged robe blended well with the beggars' tattered clothing.

A slender hand with henna-stained fingers emerged from the palanquin and scattered copper dirhams to the crowd as the beggars scrambled for coins. The curtains swung back into place. A moment later the hangings parted again as the lady tossed a coin to Malik.

Malik closed his hand around the coin. Paper crackled between his fingers. He looked down and saw a message wrapped around the coin. Earring bells chimed musically as the lady in the litter shifted. He knew the sound. Had no need of Eagle's sight to know her for an ally.

Malik slipped the coin into his belt. He unrolled the note and read the message.

There are Assassins in the city, it said. Are they yours?

Malik's eyes narrowed. He shook his head slightly. Water dripped from his hair.

Three months ago, there would have been a score of Assassins in Jerusalem for Malik to call upon in times of need. There had been five hundred villagers at Masyaf and ten hands of fighting men. Now the Assassins boasted only fifty novices, four rafiqs and twice that many dais. Half the Syrian Order had died to bring Al Mualim down.  Malik, rafiq of Jerusalem, was the only Assassin he knew within the city walls. If there were Assassins in Jerusalem, they were not Masyaf men.

A hawk screamed far above the dome as the rain eased. Then a horse appeared beneath the archway and Yusuf ibn Ayyub, Salah al-din, saviour of Jerusalem, hammer of the Frankish knights and the man who'd had the good fortune to be the right place at the right time when the Crusades forced the Muslim world to unite, came to the Temple Mount.

The crowd cheered as the sultan of all Islam rode slowly up the avenue. The wind howled like a mad muezzin, whipping the tail of Salah al-din's horse into silken froth. Falcon pennants snapped against their staffs as Salah al-din's entourage followed their master across the courtyard. Malik caught at his hood to keep his face concealed. The movement shifted the hilt of the knife against his ribs.

Salah al-din was dark and slightly built. His face was etched with the small, private smile of a man who did not believe his own myth. A sword hung at his hip and a steel cap gleamed half-hidden beneath the folds of his turban. His robes were plain black linen cloth; ordinary enough.

Malik watched as a ring of saffron-clad body-guards encircled Salah al-din and his small entourage. The guards wore scale armour and carried scimitars marked with the sultan's falcon emblem. More soldiers stood on the balconies ringing al-Aqsa's minarets and the rooftops of the shrines. Salah al-din had fought the Assassins before. He knew their ways. There was little point in climbing. 

Malik headed for the arched colonnade of the al-Aqsa mosque as Salah al-din dismounted and turned towards the crowd.

The sultan wore armour beneath sombre robes. A cowl of fine mail hung from his turban. Lamellar plate encased his torso and a mail tunic dangled nearly to his knees. The sword he carried was not merely for show. Malik had no doubt that the sultan would defend himself in need. Salah al-din was no divan commander, but a fully tempered knight.

The sultan prostrated himself before the Dome of the Rock. The crowd gasped at the sight of Islam's sultan in homage before one of Islam's holiest places. As Salah al-din touched his forehead to the well-worn stones a seam of dark cloth gaped beneath his arm. A well-timed thrust would pierce the Sultan's heart. 

Malik saw a flicker of movement beneath the porch of the al-Aqsa as he drew his knife.

He was close enough to smell the sweat of Salah al-din's steed above the rank stench of his own robe; close enough to hear the prayer the sultan whispered under his breath. He could push through the crowd in seconds; cross the flagstones in a heartbeat. Salah al-din's guards would never reach their master in time to save his life.

Malik slipped between the shoulders of the crowd and vanished in the shadows of the colonnade. The assassin shone like a lantern in the gloom beneath the pillars. Malik's bare feet made no sound upon the flagstones. The assassin never heard him approach.

“Go no further,” Malik said quietly as he laid the blade of his knife against the assassin's throat. “Salah al-din is under the protection of the Assassins.”

The man's entire body stiffened. “I am an Assassin,” he hissed. 

His voice was slightly higher than Malik had expected, and he revised his estimate of the Assassin’s age. Not a man. A boy. He glanced down at the Persian’s robe. No. A novice.

“I know all the Assassins at Masyaf,” he said, without loosening his grip, “and you're not one of them. You’re not from here. Where are you from?”

“Alamut,” the assassin said.

“Alamut?” Malik said in surprise. All the Assassins had heard of the Persian castle where the Assassin Order had been founded. 

“Yes, fool,” the Persian snarled. “Kill me and a hundred assassinsshall fight each other for your blood.”

Malik put a little pressure on the blade. The novice hissed in pain. “My name is Malik al-Sayf. I am rafiq of Jerusalem, and you are not welcome here. Need I remind you that you are in my city, and I outrank you? Drop your weapon now and I may not cut your throat.”

The novice did not move. Malik feared the boy would make some foolish gesture, but after a moment he sighed and dropped his dagger. The blade clattered into the shadows as Malik withdrew his own knife. “Turn around.”

The novice spun slowly, spreading his hands wide. The gesture would have been surrender on any other man, but Malik knew any Assassin worth his rank was likely to have at least another three blades hidden in his robes. “How many of you are there?”

“Three. My brother and I, and our master.”

“What was your mission?”

The novice rubbed his neck. “My master ordered me to observe Salah al-din. To move close enough to strike, then report back.”

“A scouting mission? Nothing more?”

The novice nodded.

“Swear that you will stay your blade until I give you leave to use it,” Malik said.

“I swear,” the novice said resentfully.

 “While you are in my city,” Malik said, “you will abide by my rules.”

“They’re not our rules!”

“They are. Unless the Assassins of Alamut have forgotten the Creed as well as their manners?”

The novice flushed. “As you wish.” He half-turned to glance into the courtyard behind him as Salah al-din finished his prayer in light as weak as watered wine. The sultan's mail shirt fell back into place with a whisper.

“Do I have your word?” Malik asked sharply.

The novice turned back. “Yes.”

“See that you keep it. Bring your master to the Bureau later. You'll find our sigil on Pearl Street, in the bookseller's market. Now go, before we draw too much attention and you break the Creed once more.”

The novice turned away and slipped into the courtyard. Malik switched to the Eagle's vision and followed the Persian through the crowd until he passed beneath the entrance to the Temple Mount and out of Malik's view. The sultan raised his voice to speak just as the novice vanished through the gate.

“We have been fortunate,” Salah al-din said. “Four years ago God enabled us to retake Jerusalem, a city lost to us for ninety-one long years. For four years we have pleased God with our worship. We must not allow the Franks to root themselves so strongly once again. We must defend Jerusalem's walls with as much zeal as we claimed them. God has appointed the house of the sons of Ayyub to this task. We must pray that we are worthy of this honour.”

His last word was nearly lost in a clamour of applause and ululation. Malik snorted beneath his breath. The Frankish army still hoped to take Jerusalem. In Malik's professional opinion, Salah al-din's arrival meant the city would be under siege before the year was out.

The sultan regarded the crowd for a moment before he bowed his head to enter the Dome of the Rock. Salah al-din was not tall, or strong, or particularly well-favoured, but Malik could see how a Kurd from the north had managed to command so many men. Even Al Mualim had respected Salah al-din, and the Assassins respected no leaders but their own.

The sultan went from the Dome of the Rock to the House of the Chain, and then to the al-Aqsa mosque for afternoon prayers. Malik waited. The sultan's guards encased him neatly as an olive's meat wrapped its stone. Malik was as good a judge of assassination opportunities as any Assassin he had ever met, and he saw no further openings.

If Salah al-din dies today, he thought, it will not be the Assassins’ doing.

The sun sank towards the horizon. A single blade of sunlight gilded the city walls as Salah al-din left the Temple Mount. The sky darkened to iron. The crowd faded away, leaving debris in its wake; scraps of dirty cloth, almond shells and broken sandals. Malik slipped away as it began to rain, trusting the sultan's guards to protect their master. 

Thirty thousand people inhabited Jerusalem. More refugees arrived each day. The weather had turned awry as the war. The winter this year was savage, as if the conflict extended even to the heavens. The refugees huddled in converted warehouses and makeshift campsites. They worked on the walls, in the markets, anywhere they could find employment, and when that failed they relied upon the city's alms. Jerusalem was full to bursting, but the rain had washed the streets clear. Malik saw few people as he headed back to the Bureau. 

He passed townhouses, caravanserais and shops, all shuttered tight against the rain. Vents set into a bathhouse wall spilled clouds of scented steam into the street. Candles glowed in the narrow windows of the Christian church next door as the sunlight faded to a red thread on the horizon. The evening prayer echoed from the rooftops. The Christian candle-flames flickered as the muezzin's call rose into the sky, reminding Malik of the holy city to which the atheist Assassins were eternally blind. The Muslim prayer call told him nothing but the time, and a church was just a building.

He shook his head and headed home through the alleys of the poor district. Water poured from every spout and drain. Every wall was a cascade; every street a narrow river. The mud-brick tenement walls melted in the rain. Sleet beaded on Malik's sleeves as he ducked beneath the torrents.

He gave the copper dirhams he had collected in the square to a beggar woman sheltering beneath an awning and splashed through the alleys until he reached the booksellers’ street. The lock was cold enough to burn his fingers. The Bureau was warmer than the streets, if barely. Coals glowed in the brazier as Malik lit the lamps.  The flickering flames illuminated a small but comfortable room. Books lined the walls and a half-finished backgammon game rested on the counter beside a jar of white feathers.

Malik heaped charcoal into the brazier. Once the fire was blazing he added a handful of sweet-smelling aloe wood to the fire and went into the courtyard garden. He rinsed charcoal from his hands with water as icy as the snows and tossed a handful of grain to the pigeons in their coop before returning to the Bureau. Inside he exchanged his beggar's rags for the sombre robes of an Assassin rafiq. He stuffed the tattered disguise into the fire where it smouldered, filling the room with foul-smelling smoke. The door opened just as he was fastening his boots.

“I didn't think I'd see you here,” he said.

“I didn't think I could come,” Nusaybah replied.

“Have you much time?”

“An hour or two.” She slipped her soaked shawl from her head and hung it to dry beside the brazier. “Did you find your Assassins?”

“I did,” Malik said. “They weren't from Masyaf.”

She raised one narrow eyebrow. “Should I be concerned?”

Malik shrugged. “I'm not sure.” He set a metal grille across the brazier, poured water into a teapot and added a pinch of tea leaves before setting the pot over the fire to boil. ”Any news?”

“A little,” said Nusaybah, who sold weapons and knew the trade of war as well as Malik did himself. “The sultan's brought fifty stonemasons and two thousand Frankish prisoners to strengthen the city walls. He's promised that he and his sons will haul the stone themselves.”

“I doubt that's true.”

“Salah al-din's not known for breaking his word.” She settled down beside the fire, holding her hands out to the blaze. “He must act soon. His armies have lost ground since Arsuf. They've scorched the earth and poisoned wells, but the Crusaders won't cease.”

“They want Jerusalem,” Malik said. “The sultan fears a siege. Jerusalem's no fortress. You'd need thousands of men to defend these walls.”

Nusaybah combed her hair out with her fingers. Drops of water sizzled on the coals as her hair scattered amber in the lamplight. “There must be twenty thousand soldiers here.” 

“Twenty thousand people.” Malik corrected. “Even Salah al-din can't turn peasants to soldiers. His emirs grumble. Their soldiers are tired.”

Nusaybah's hands stilled. “The further east the Crusaders, the longer their supply lines,” she pointed out. “But if they reach the city-”

“They might win through,” said Malik. “But the Franks can't hold Jerusalem for long.”

Nusaybah's lips tightened. ”That won't matter. Last time they seized the city they killed ten thousand men. Women and children, too. They say their knights ate human flesh.”

“That's a story,” Malik said. “If it comes to a siege, I'll help you leave the city.”

“Where would I go?”

“You'd be safe at Masyaf.”

She laughed. “What would I do there?”

Malik had no idea. “There's a village. You'd avoid a siege.”

She shook her head, eyes dancing with more merriment than he felt the idea deserved. “I've been in Jerusalem half my life, Malik. I know the city. I can be useful here. Today I heard that the sultan wants to buy my weapons. I'm meeting with his representative tomorrow. I'll see what I can discover of his plans.”

Malik shook his head. “You shouldn't take such risks.”

“There's little risk involved,” she said, stirring the pot with one of Malik's knives.  Steam rose towards the ceiling.

“There will be if Salah al-din discovers where the Order found that information.”

“I'll be careful,” Nusaybah flicked droplets of tea from the tip of the knife and set it down to dry near the coals.  “I know you’ll use my information to defend Jerusalem.”  

“The city isn't worth your life.”

“Jerusalem is my life!” she snapped, cheeks flushed from the fire. “I was born here. I've met the people of this city, from the shepherds who tend their flocks outside the walls to the nobles in their palaces. I've seen the Christians kneel before their sepulchre and heard the Jews whisper prayers by their wall. I've knelt in the mosques and sold myself to strangers in the brothels. I swear I'll die here before I run away.”

Malik listened, and feared he would lose her. Fool, he told himself. She's not yours. Nusaybah was married, and it was not the Assassins' way to form attachments. Though the order is not what it was. Perhaps someday...He strangled the thought unspoken. “As you wish.”

Nusaybah glared at him. Malik had a feeling she'd armed herself for a longer argument. Perhaps another man would have forbidden her to risk her life at all, but Malik was an Assassin, and to Assassins the world was a weapon to be used. He was not her husband. He could not forbid her anything.  

“If you wish to risk your life,” he said, “then I of all people cannot stand against you.”

“Then-”

“You must be very careful. Don't ask too many questions. The sultan's men may realize you're searching for information, and-” He paused at the sound of a sandal sole splashing in water outside. “Quiet!”

Nusaybah frowned. The sound of the rain on the roof was loud as the river in flood, but they both heard several sets of footsteps creeping cautiously towards the door of the Bureau. Nusaybah flinched as a heavy knock rattled the hinges.

Malik was on his feet in an instant, reaching for the dagger tucked into his sash. Nusaybah snatched up the knife she had used to stir the tea. She pulled her scarf from the wall, dropped the knife in her lap and draped the fabric across the weapon. Malik glanced down at her. When she nodded, he called “Enter,”

The door opened slowly. One man entered, then two, then three; Assassin whites pale against the midnight darkness of the street. Their cowls were pulled down to conceal their faces.

“Greetings, brothers,” Malik said as the oil lamp flickered in the breeze. “Identify yourselves.”

The first man drew back his cowl. “I am Harun,” he said, “dai of Alamut.” He was perhaps ten years older than Malik, an advanced age for an Assassin. “Safety and peace.” He nodded behind him. “This is Ali. I hear you have already met Ismail.”

The novice nodded sullenly. The boys were alike as brothers, and they watched Malik from beneath their cowls with expressions of identical resentment.

Malik let his hand slip from his knife. “Safety and peace,” he said. “This city has neither. Close the door quickly before someone sees you.”

Nusaybah set her knife down by the fire and wrapped her scarf around her head, folding the fabric with fingers precise as daggers. “Safety and peace, brothers,” she said, rising with a graceful sway that set her earrings chiming. “I regret that I must go.”

“It's too dangerous for you to walk these streets alone,” Malik objected. Safety had always been relative inside the city's walls, but the crowds made the streets more perilous than ever. 

“My retainers are waiting.” 

Malik smiled despite himself. “Safety and peace,” he called after her, and heard her answering farewell.

Once he had made certain she had left safely he closed and locked the door behind her and turned to the Assassins. Unwelcome or not, invited or not, the Persians were guests and Malik did what he could to make them comfortable. He unrolled rugs on the Bureau's floor, fetched dishes of bread and olives and poured the tea, wishing that he had some novices to do the work for him. He'd brewed the tea for far too long. The liquid was both weak and bitter. Malik drained his glass quickly, glad for once that the symbolism of the act was more important than the taste.

He set his cup down by the fire and said “Peace be with you. I am Malik, rafiq of Masyaf. My Bureau is yours for as long as you are in the city.”

Harun inclined his head. “I thank you,” he said. “As do my companions.” He waved a hand towards the novices, who had settled down against the wall on the opposite side of the room where they had a good view of both doors. The boys frowned at Malik. They did not drink.

“You've travelled far,” Malik said. “Perhaps you would explain to me exactly why you're here.”

“We bring a message,” said Harun. “From our master Nur al-din at Alamut.”

“We use pigeons for messages,” Malik countered.

“The birds we sent did not return.”

“Unfortunate,” said Malik. He was well aware that Alamut had sent message birds, and equally certain Altaïr had ignored them. Alamut was far from Masyaf, and Altaïr had more immediate problems. 

“Indeed,” Harun said. “There have been rumours of trouble at Masyaf. We've heard that Al Mualim died.”

Malik nodded. “Death comes to us all,” he said.

Harun sipped his tea heroically. “How did Al Mualim meet his end?” 

Malik, who knew exactly how Al Mualim had died and had many reasons for hiding the truth from Alamut, said nothing. The coals popped and crackled. Smoke curled up to the rafters like the prayers of the faithful.  When the silence had dragged on for far too long he said “He was old. He died. It happens.”

Harun set his cup down on the carpet. “There were rumours he was murdered.”

“That's not true.” The truth is stranger.

“Then what happened?” 

Malik chose his words as carefully as blades. “I'm not entirely sure.” He dared not lie outright, but he might stretch the truth. “You must forgive me. Al Mualim raised me to rafiq barely a month before his death.”

“I'm sure he had his reasons,” Harun said. “But you must have heard something. What do you suspect?”

The novices watched Malik with silent accusation. He sighed theatrically. “The Old Man went mad.”

“Mad?” Harun's eyes widened slightly. The mad were holy, but it was shameful for a man of such stature to go insane. 

“Yes,” Malik said. “He was very old, and he seldom left Masyaf. Spent all his time with his books. It's really no surprise.”

One of the novices said something below his breath to the other. Harun snapped something that Malik could not follow and the novices fell silent instantly. Malik wondered if they suspected he was lying. It mattered little.  The Assassins were a hierarchy, and Malik was superior in rank. The Persians were bound to take Malik's explanation at face value. It's not a complete lie, he thought. Nobody who witnessed what happened at Masyaf could argue that the Old Man went mad before he died. “More tea?”

Harun shook his head. “So Masyaf is without a leader?”

“Al Mualim named no successor.” Malik said, studying the tiles on the floor as if the pattern held special meaning. “But Masyaf has a leader.”

“One not sanctioned by the Order.” Harun said disapprovingly.

“Altaïr was Al Mualim's best student. He leads the Masyaf Order in the absence of a more suitable candidate. If you wish to speak with him you'll have to travel to the castle.” It wasn't far from Jerusalem to Masyaf, but the weather was bad, the roads were worse and the Arab and Crusader armies had both laid waste to the countryside. “You'd have done better to go there directly.”

“The Jerusalem road was safer, “Harun said. “You understand.”

Malik did. Only an idiot would travel to an Assassin fortress without first knowing where the castle's loyalties lay. “Masyaf isn't far,” he said. “I can provide you with maps. Send word of your arrival. Three days should give me time for a response.” Assuming Altaïr is prompt in his reply. Which I doubt.

“We'll wait,” Harun agreed.

“You're welcome to rest here,” Malik said. He suspected that the Persians wished to share the Bureau with him about as much as he wished to share it with them. His suspicions were proved correct when Harun said “Thank you for your offer. But there isn't much room, so we'll find our own quarters.”

“You'll find men sympathetic to our cause in the poor district. But take care. Salah al-din is well guarded, and his guards are very watchful.”

“We'll have no trouble,” Harun said. “Anything more?”

“One more thing before you go.” Malik said. He set the cups out again, and poured another round of tea. The pot was still warm, but the delay had done nothing for the liquid's flavour. He nodded to Ismail. “Your novice told me that his mission was only to observe. Nevertheless, I’d like to make it clear that Salah al-din’s no Assassin target.”

 “The sultan's a remarkable man.” Harun agreed, lifting his cup. “We've heard of his triumphs even in Persia. Whenever the Muslim world unites, men become less tolerant of heresy. Once the sultan has dealt with the Franks, he'll turn to the Order.”

“That may be true,” Malik admitted. “But we don't wish to find these lands beneath Crusader rule. Assassination doesn't work as well for Franks. When you kill one another takes his place. Salah al-din's the thread that weaves the Muslim states together. He's a good ruler, but we've given him little cause to love the Assassins. Once the Franks are gone he must have no reason to attack us. “

 “They say you killed his regent.”

“His regent was corrupt.” Malik did not feel like explaining the circumstances of Majd Addin's death to these foreigners. “Salah al-din is not a target.”

“Then we’ll wait for word from Masyaf,” Harun said. “Will I find you here?”

Malik shrugged. ”Sometimes I walk the city,” he said. He had no intention of caging himself in the Bureau, despite the weather. “I won't be far away.”

“Then we'll meet later, brother.” Harun rose, gesturing to his novices.Thank you for your hospitality.”

“My pleasure,” Malik said. The novices followed in Harun's wake as he walked to the door. The rain outside had turned to sleet. Wind whistled down the streets straight from the mountains, tugging at awnings, slamming shutters, and snatching the Assassins' hoods from their heads as they strode outside.

Malik knew they would return. He'd expected other Orders to question Sinan's death, but he hadn't expected them to come so soon. He doubted that Altaïr had considered the question at all. They'd killed Al Mualim and locked away the Apple, but they hadn't thought too long on what might happen after.

This, he thought as he closed and locked the door. The cold crept in, settling in the livid knot of scar tissue where his left arm ended just above the elbow. He rubbed at the scar with his right hand as he searched the Bureau desk for a block of ink. Once he found it, he used a spoonful of discarded tea to mix the liquid and sharpened a reed pen with his knife.  

 Altaïr, he wrote.

The Crusaders approach Jerusalem as Salah al-din prepares the city for a siege. The sultan's guards are everywhere. They make my task no easier, but they keep the sultan safe-for now.

Three Assassins have come from Alamut to ask me how Al Mualim died. I told them the Old Man was mad and died from illness, but their true purpose troubles me. I found one novice in the square, stalking the sultan as he knelt at prayer. The man protests he meant no harm, but I am not sure I believe him. They seek permission to travel to Masyaf. Grant it if you will. I fear they will not wait for long.

He paused to gather his thoughts before he wrote the closing line.

You tasked me with doing what needs to be done, in order to set things right. How am I to do that with what we can spare?

Safety and peace.

 

Author’s Note:

Have to admit I tweaked the timeline in this a bit. Salah al-din came to Jerusalem a month later, in mid-December 1191. However this story takes place a month or so before my fic Favour of Heaven, and Favour of Heaven begins at Masyaf in mid-December.

The winter of 1191 was notorious for its unusually bad weather.

Salah al-din/Saladin’s personal name was Yusuf. ‘Salah al-din’ is a laqab, or nickname, which means ‘Righteousness of the Faith.’

Eh, Malik and Nusaybah have an interesting relationship. This story’s evolved quite a bit since I started writing. Maybe I’ll go into that another time.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two:

Malik loosed two message birds into the storm that night and hoped against hope that one at least reached Masyaf. He slept for a few hours on his mat in the roof space of the Bureau. When morning came, he made his way to the baths and the physician.  

He knew a doctor, discreet and reliable, in the streets beyond the market. Ben Salman was a small man, with the long locks of a Jew. He put his hands on Malik's shoulder and twisted the joint this way and that while Malik tried his best to ignore him.

The doctor's office was lined with shelves of glass vials and pots of herbs. The room was smaller than the Bureau, but the high ceiling and whitewashed walls lent light to the space. A circle had been cut from the domed room to create a skylight. Water dripped from the waxed hides nailed across the oculus.

Ben Salman glanced up at the window. “It's a fine idea in summer,” he said. “Less so in winter. Raise your arm.”

Malik complied. The physician inhaled between his teeth. “Is this wound fresh?” he asked.

“Four months.”

Ben Salman peered at the scar. His skin was stained to the elbows by years of mixing medicines. “It's healing well. What did you expect? A wound like this takes a year or more to mend. You're too impatient, my friend.”

Malik considered himself one of the most patient Assassins he knew. “You're done?”

Ben Salman nodded. “Certainly.”

Malik folded the left sleeve of his robe up to his shoulder and tied the sleeve to the seam. As he shrugged over his coat he asked “Can it heal faster?”  

 “It's healing fast enough. Old wounds always ache in the cold. Time and warm weather will ease the pain.” The physician handed Malik a small vial. “In the meantime, take this.”

“What is it?” Malik held the bottle up to the light. “And how much?” 

“Two silver dirhams,” ben Salman said. “The medicine's my own invention.”

Malik gave the physician a hard glare.

“Mostly hemp oil,” ben Salman admitted. “Some willow.”

Malik trapped the vial between the palm and the fingers of his right hand to loosen the stopper. He sniffed at the bitter scent. “How does it work?'”

Ben Salman took the bottle from Malik. “It has a cool dry nature that antagonises pain. Pain is found in heat and moisture.”

Malik rolled his eyes. In his experience, pain was found at the sharp end of a sword. “How much should I take?”

“One drop morning and night. Just don't take the whole vial at once. It’ll send you to sleep.”

Malik exchanged two dirhams for the bottle. “What if it doesn't work?”

“It will,” said ben Salman confidently. “My medicines are the best in Jerusalem.” He took a handful of herbs from a drawer and dropped them into a mortar. “They say you were a soldier. Do you think there will be a siege?”

“Who says that?”

Ben Salman shrugged as he crushed the herbs. “Your arm looks like a battle wound to me. How do you think the war is going?”

“Poorly,” Malik said. “I'd say a siege is likely. Some people are leaving already. The city will need a good physician.”

Ben Salman laughed. “And if no good physician can be found, they'll make do, eh?” He scooped up a finger of greasy paste from the mortar and used his thumb to pack the medicine into a jar. “Though I am busy enough, even without a war. I have a house call, and I must not be late.”

“Then I'll not keep you longer.”

“Don't forget your medicine,” ben Salman said.

“I have it here,” Malik held up the vial. He said his goodbyes and left the physician's office, pulling up his hood as he went into the street. The rain had stopped, but the wind was cold, and the streets were full of cloaked figures. 

He uncorked the vial and let a drop fall onto his tongue. The fluid smelt astringent, but tasted like water. Probably is, he thought, but by the time he reached the market he was beginning to feel a little better. 

The stalls were packed with shoppers taking advantage of the dry weather. Within ten paces Malik passed a cloaked woman gutting a fish, a stall piled with crates of live chickens, a man frying bread on a hot mould, and a fortune-telling rabbit who picked out slips of paper from a box. The sultan's guards stuck out like coin in a gutter. They'd stopped a water seller on the street corner. The wizened old man gazed up at the soldiers' stern faces with a mixture of terror and eagerness to please. 

Malik let the crowds sweep him past the little group. When he was almost past the corner he stopped to buy some fry bread at the baker's and squatted on the steps beside the stall to eat. The coarse bread cost far more than it had a month ago. Malik chewed the meal mechanically, seemingly intent on nothing but his food.  The guards were less than five paces from him. One soldier scanned the market while his companion, a rais, or sergeant, rested a mailed hand on the water seller’s shoulder. “We're only asking you to keep your eyes open.”

The cotton tassels tied to the water seller’s wide-brimmed, brightly coloured hat rippled as the man nodded. “It'd be easier if you'd tell me what you're looking for.”

“Anything that looks different,” the rais said. 

“Of course, lord, but why-”

“The Crusaders have sent Assassins to kill the sultan,” explained the rais. “If you see anything, report it. Don't confront them. Find a guard. We'll deal with it.”

“Assassins!” exclaimed the water-seller. “In the city?”

We never left, you fool, Malik thought.

“Keep your voice down!” the rais snapped as he released the hapless merchant.

“Of course, lord!”

The guard snorted. “First sensible words out of your mouth.”

The water seller bowed. He backed away, bowed again, and hurried off as fast as his cart's wheels could carry him. The soldiers strode into the market and began to argue with the fishwife. Malik finished off the bread and shook the crumbs from his fingers, listening for more gossip.  There was talk that the sultan had appropriated Talal's Barbican for his new palace, which was probably true, and rumours that the imam of the al-Aqsa was sleeping with someone else's wife, which were probably false. He heard no more talk of the Assassins. After a while he bought more food and left the market behind, following Papermaker's Way to the Street of the Booksellers.

When he reached the Bureau Harun was waiting at the door. There was no sign of either of the novices.

 “Brother,” Malik said without pleasure. “Did you find a place to stay?”

The dai pretended to study a calligraphic illustration of the names of Allah drawn in the shape of a tiger. “We've found a refuge. A small place, but it will serve.”

“I'm glad to hear it,” Malik said, genuinely enough. If the Assassins had found accommodation, that meant he had the Bureau to himself. He stepped back to let Harun precede him through the door, but did not bother with tea, or carpets, or common courtesies. ”It's good you've come,” he said. ”We need to talk. Why are you here?”

A brief expression of surprise crossed Harun's face as he settled on the cushions. “I told you. We're emissaries. Nothing more.”

“I heard the Crusaders have sent men to assassinate Salah al-din,” Malik said. He watched Harun's face carefully, but the dai showed no sign of guilt.  “You came a long way just to deliver a message. Can you swear that Alamut has no ties to the Crusaders?”

“The Franks have tried to kill Salah al-din before,” Harun said. “They've never hired our blades. The rumours you heard are nothing more than that. It's easier to dam a river than to stop people talking. Perhaps you should not believe everything you hear.”

Perhaps you should keep your opinions to yourself, Malik thought. He took ben Salman's vial from his sash and laid it on the counter. “The sultan knows you're in the city.”

Harun shrugged easily. “I do not doubt it. Maybe his guards found Ismail’s knife beside the mosque.” He stretched. “Unless the rafiqs of Masyaf are more vigilant than the Assassins of Alamut?”

Malik had left Ismail’s knife in the arcade of the al-Aqsa, but he had no intention of admitting the fact. “Where are your companions?” he said, changing the subject. “Perhaps I can help with their training.”

“The novicesare not far away.” Harun said. “I expect no trouble. Our novices train in Isfahan, Baghdad and Shiraz. Shiraz alone is twice the size of this place-” he dismissed Jerusalem with a wave of his hand-”though I admit, not quite as old.”

“I'm sure things are very different here,” Malik said in a voice that could have cut cloth.

“No doubt. I am only glad to be of service. I hope I have not troubled you today?”

“Nothing is further from the truth.” Malik lied. “Whatever your plans, I'll be here if you need me.”

“Then I'll take my leave.” Harun said. “My thanks for your hospitality.”

“Safety and peace,” Malik said, wishing Harun neither as the dai departed. Once the door had closed he reached beneath the Bureau desk for the ledger kept in every Bureau. The book recorded the details of every mission in the city from conception to completion, every requisition of swords, money or supplies and everything that happened in Jerusalem that Malik thought worthy of mention. He kept his day’s observation carefully neutral, just in case. Today we received visitors from Alamut.

I could have handled that better, he thought as he wrote. Idiot. Altaïr could have handled that better.

Perhaps the Persians hadn't come to Jerusalem to assassinate Salah al-din, but Malik couldn't shake the feeling that there was more to Harun and his men than there seemed. They didn't travel all this way just to ask for Altaïr's permission to enter Masyaf. That's absurd. There has to be more to this visit than that. 

He tucked a knife in his belt and pinched out the lamp before climbing to the Bureau roof.  Rain had thinned the crowds. He found it easy to spot Harun among the shoppers in the street. The dai's direct route and confident air made the hunt simple. Malik had expected more from Alamut, though he knew Harun had a poor opinion of the Masyaf Assassins. He probably hadn't thought Malik capable of climbing.

Malik steadied himself with one hand against the pigeon loft and shifted his sight. He expected Harun to show blue if he was lucky or soldier-scarlet if he wasn't. Instead the Persian's silhouette was swirling grey. The dai was hardly visible among the crowd. I wonder if Alamut Assassins use the Eagle's vision?

He concentrated on Harun's back and watched the Persian's silhouette brighten to a target's saffron yellow with a feeling of deep unease. He's no friend to Masyaf, but no enemy, either. The Eagle's vision was notoriously unreliable and Malik's talent was mediocre at best. At worst, the sight merely confirmed its user's expectations.

He watched Harun's gold-outlined back disappear down the street before he switched to normal sight. It took effort to hold the vision for so long. He paused for a moment to recover his breath before he picked up his pace and followed the Persian across the rooftops. The rain that hammered his face was cold as a corpse.

Malik used all of his Assassin skills to track the Persian through Jerusalem. It was close to midday, and the city was bustling with workers. Malik ducked behind a parapet to evade the gaze of Salah al-din's guards and crept across a web of washing lines behind the back of a woman taking in her laundry to drop into a garden that smelt of jasmine and wet earth. He climbed a creaking trellis from the garden to a roof and paused for a moment to take his bearings.

The Dome of the Rock gleamed like a golden dirham to his north. The larger silver dome of the al-Aqsa shone with cold fire just east of the shrine. Harun's route led him straight towards the square. Malik frowned at that. Al-Aqsa was the city's most important mosque. Salah al-din was sure to be nearby, which meant that soldiers would be thick as ants throughout the Temple Mount. He didn't think Harun had lied to him about the sultan, but the mosque made a strange target otherwise. The minarets of al-Aqsa were a favourite climb for the Masyaf Assassins. Malik had made the ascent many time, though he doubted he would manage well with just one hand. What does Alamut want with the Temple Mount?

He shivered in the biting wind as he crossed a honeycomb of flat roofs, tucking his hand beneath his sleeve to warm his fingers. When he reached the edge he jumped, landing in a crouch on the flagstones that in warmer weather would have left him choking on a cloud of dust. Even with the Eagle's vision, it was easier to track Harun from the roofs, but the Temple Mount's widely spaced buildings had no clear route between them. Instead he waited for a party of scholars to pass, then took advantage of the cover to slip beneath the gate that led to the high platform of the Temple Mount.

The Mount was vast. The original hill was long gone, levelled off and shored by successive buildings over centuries. A plain of paving stones stretched between the monuments. The al-Aqsa's spires reached towards the heavens on the east side of the courtyard. The Dome of the Rock stood by the mosque's south entrance, with the House of the Chain close by like the Dome's younger brother. The enormous square bore its burden of pilgrims and pigeons lightly.

Malik tracked Harun through the square. As the dai reached the mosque a pair of pilgrims slipped from the colonnade to join the Assassin. Together the Persians headed towards the line of twisted cedars that divided the mosque from the Dome of the Rock.

What are they doing here? Malik wondered as he walked. The band of scholars followed Harun's route for a few more paces before they changed direction towards the mosque's main entrance. Malik moved into the dripping shade of the ancient trees. He used the Eagle's sight to keep Harun in view as he skirted the wide expanse of stones.

It struck him that following alone was not the wisest decision. Odds of three against one were enough to make anyone reconsider. Malik had come lightly armed-he was not fool enough to walk around Jerusalem with a sword in open view- and although he did not think that the Alamut Assassins wore swords he knew they would be armed with subtler weapons. He followed the Persians down the Temple Mount's east side regardless.

The west side of the Mount was a derelict wasteland of collapsed tunnels, sinkholes and half-buried cisterns. Legend had it that King Solomon had summoned demons to build stables there for his horses.  Whatever had been there had long since vanished beneath silt and gnarled old tree-roots. Stories said the area was haunted. But the refugees were too desperate to be picky, and now Solomon's old stables supported makeshift tents.

Malik followed the Persians through the tents. The camp was crowded, but Malik found it easy to pick out Harun and his novices. The Assassins walked with the casual arrogance of men who could handle themselves in a fight. None of the refugees paid any attention to the Assassins as Harun and his men passed through the camp towards the ruins of the Stables. The maze of tangled stone was a perfect place for an ambush. Malik slowed. He ducked beneath fallen roof-beams and scrambled over slabs as he followed the Assassins towards the edge of the Mount.

The tracks led Malik to the very edge of the platform. Jerusalem spread out beneath him like a map. The city walls were veiled by mist. The green-tiled roofs of mosques gleamed like emeralds in the fog. The spires of Christian churches pierced the clouds. A flock of pigeons flew through the fog, white wings slicing streamers of mist.  Every breath of cold clear air carried the weight of memory. The last time Malik had passed this way, he'd not been alone.

I can see why people say this place is haunted, he thought, and jumped.

He fell for no more than a moment before his hand caught a ledge and brought him to a sudden dangling stop. The abrupt recovery wrenched at his right shoulder more harshly than he had expected. For a moment he thought that he would fall. Then his training took over and he hauled himself up to the ledge.

There were several signs of recent passage.  A smear of soot marked the stone lintel and a handful of grime had been scraped away from one wall to reveal flat Roman bricks. Malik drew his knife and stepped into the tunnel mouth. The walls inside were chunks of rough limestone that had been old when the Prophet died. The air was still. Far away in the depths of the tunnels water dripped onto rock. He heard wood rattle against stone far below. They've lit the torches. What are they doing?

Malik dragged a hand down his face. He considered his options for a moment, sighed and set off into the tunnel. The path was easy at first. The passages were twice Malik's height and just as wide. Iron-bound torches flickered in niches carved in the walls. The brands stank of burning pitch, but did little to warm the chill air.

Malik followed the torches and the tunnels deeper into the Mount. He crossed a pit by balancing on half-rotten planks and used the corbels where beams had once rested to climb a wall. He had passed no more than twenty torches before he came to a sheer face of sandstone which crumbled into amber grains as soon as he laid his hand upon its surface. The next torch gleamed high above his head.

Malik gazed at the towering wall in dismay. There was no trace of the rope the Persians had used to scramble to the top. I managed this before. With two companions and both hands.

It took him longer than it should have to realize he was never going to climb the wall one-handed. He tried anyway, and counted himself lucky escaping with a fall no higher than a few arms' lengths. As he headed back towards the entrance he realized that he didn't have to climb after all.

De Sable had brought down the north door of Solomon's Temple to trap Altaïr. Malik knew of no other route into the place. Harun and his men would have to come out eventually. All Malik had to do was wait.

He returned to the entrance in less time than it would have taken an imam to call the faithful to prayer. The stones of the Mount were set slightly too far apart for comfort and the sheer size of the blocks made the climb more difficult than it could have been, but he managed the ascent without much trouble. He found a place shielded from the rain by a thick scrub of thorns and juniper and settled down on a block of ruined stone that jutted just above the tunnel mouth.

A tent of grey clouds covered Jerusalem. The city walls stretched around the Mount like sheltering arms then vanished into mist. Salah al-din's repairs were well under way. There were workers everywhere, clustered like ants around huge blocks of stone shrunk to sugar cubes by Malik's vantage.   

He rested his chin on the back of his hand and gazed down at the city, stifling his irritation with an effort. The sun was high, but its pale light gave out little heat. The cold air settled in Malik's scars. He had plenty of time to regret leaving ben Salman's medicine at the Bureau. His temper had not improved by the time the Persians emerged from the tunnels.

He heard Harun and his novices approach long before their dusty heads appeared on the ledge below him. The Persians' steps were leaden. Their white robes were stained with pitch from the torches and dust from the tunnels and it was clear to anyone with eyes that they had not found what they were hoping for. One of the novices tossed the burnt stub of a torch from the ledge in frustration. The dismayed frown on his face made Malik smile. He'd always found something deeply satisfying in being in the right place at the right time.

“What were you expecting?” he said quietly.

He could criticise many things about the Persian Assassins, but not their speed. All three spun cat-quickly to stare at Malik. Ismail went for his blade. Harun slapped his hand away and Malik nodded in approval. They all knew he'd had more than enough time to kill them if he'd wanted to. With time and a little forwards planning, he could have blocked the tunnel mouth and walled them up alive.

“I should have expected you to follow,” Harun said. He sounded neither as affable nor as condescending as he had in the Bureau.

“It was an easy task,” Malik said. He knew Assassins who would have drawn steel over the insult, but Harun only narrowed his eyes. “A fruitful search?”

The double meaning passed right over the heads of the novices but forced a frown from Harun. Malik had the advantage, and Harun knew it. “What do you know about the Apple?”

“I know that it's not in Solomon's Temple.” Malik said.

“How do you know?”

“Because I stole it.”

Harun folded his arms. “You? I find it hard to believe you stole the Apple.” 

“How do you think I lost my arm? The orb was stolen by our enemies. We could not let them have it.” He did not say that Al Mualim had used the Apple for his own schemes.  Malik had taken the orb, but it had been Altaïr who freed the Apple from the Old Man's wizened grasp. 

“It sounds a strange tale,” Harun admitted. “One best told on solid ground. May we come up?”

“Stay there,” Malik told him. “I still don't trust you.”

“Nor I you,” said Harun. The admission won the dai more respect from Malik in a moment than the Persian had earned in all their earlier conversations. “I knew you had something to hide, and I suspected you were a better Assassin than any of us knew. Masyaf might have strange ways, but no Master would put a complete fool in charge of such a city.”

“I'm grateful,” Malik said ironically. “So you came for the Apple?”

“We came to learn who killed Al Mualim,” Harun said. He folded his arms and looked out across the city before he met Malik's eyes. “I think you know.”

Malik sighed. He trusted the Alamut Assassins a little more than he had that morning, but he had no intention of betraying Altaïr. “I spoke the truth when I said I was not there. If I had to guess, I would say the Apple killed him.”

“The artefacts can do such things? We heard that they were powerful.”

“Powerful enough to twist men's minds and steer them from the path,” Malik said. “Al Mualim was the strongest-minded man I have ever met, devoted to our cause. And still it took him.”

“Where is it now?”

Malik shrugged. “It was impossible to destroy. We keep it safe at Masyaf.”

“Can such a thing ever be safe?” Harun said thoughtfully.

“There is much we don't know,” Malik admitted. “I don't trust it. And I trust you less for your interest in the Apple.”

“The feeling is mutual,” Harun said dryly. “There are far too many unanswered questions for my liking. Who is this Altaïr? Can we rely on him to accept Alamut’s authority? Why is he protecting Salah al-din?”

“Altaïr will have to answer your first two questions himself,” Malik said. “He has his own plans for the Order, and I don't speak for him. As for the rest, the sultan is Syria's best chance against the Crusaders. You need an army to fight an army. We're far too few these days to make much difference. Without the sultan's armies, the Franks would roll up these lands like a scroll. So we protect him-for now. We fight for peace, in all things. Without that, we’re just another army fighting over the same scrap of land.”

Harun nodded. “Very well. I'll direct my questions to Altaïr himself. I don't know if you realize that Masyaf has always fallen under the control of the Alamut Order?”

Malik shook his head. “Is that true?”

Harun nodded. “It's no surprise Al Mualim didn't tell you. The castles are far apart, and the Masters of Masyaf have always acted with autonomy. But now the Old Man's dead, the Masters of Alamut may have their own opinion about his successor.”

Malik wondered if Alamut would accept Altaïr as Master. Sometimes he thought that Altaïr would only be too grateful to step down from his new position of power, and sometimes he wondered if Altaïr would ever agree to relinquish the Apple. “You'll have to go to Masyaf to speak with him,” he said. “There's no need now to wait for a safe-conduct. I'll give you maps.”

“We'd be grateful,” Harun said. He gestured at the steep sides of the Mount. “Of course, to travel to Masyaf, we must first climb.”

Malik leant down and held out his hand to Harun. The dai let Malik hoist him up. The novicesfollowed with less grace, though they both nodded at Malik as they passed and muttered something that might have been “Safety and peace.”

“How long will it take you to gather your belongings?” Malik asked when all three Persians had gained the Mount. “The weather's only going to get worse. In a week, you might not be able to travel.”

“Not long,” Harun said. ”We'll be ready tonight. I'm looking forwards to speaking with your Altaïr.” 

Malik snorted. “I wish you luck. You'll need it. Altaïr's not the talkative type, and-”

Ali choked. Malik glanced up. He saw an arrow sprouting from the novice's throat as Ali staggered backwards. The novice toppled from the Mount without a word. Ismail leapt towards the edge of the Mount after his brother and Harun and Malik leapt for Ismail. They reached him simultaneously. Harun dropped the novice to the ground with a swift kick to his knees and Malik pinned him to the stone. 

Malik raised his head and peered into the ruins, trusting to the scrub for camouflage. He saw a soldier standing in the shadow of a cedar, arms tense as he drew back a bowstring, and then many more. An arrow sliced through the branches and scattered needles. There were far too many men to fight. The soldiers might think them cornered, but there was another way out, one he hoped the guards wouldn't have thought of.

Malik pointed to the edge of the Mount. “Run!”

Harun leapt without hesitation. Ismail followed, face pale as he jumped past. Malik would have offered sympathy-he remembered that particular pain only too well- but there was no time for words. He scrambled from the wall and landed with a jolt on the sill below, hand and feet braced to ease his fall. The Mount's steep sides would shield them from the archers but Malik knew it wouldn't be long before the soldiers reached the edge of the platform. Once they did the wall would offer very little cover.

He went down fast. The old stones offered plenty of handholds, but Malik had no time to take full advantage. He fell more than climbed, skinning his palm, and hit the room left shoulder first on purpose because his left arm couldn't wield a blade. Ismail and Harun reached the roof before him. Ali's body lay in a pool of blood and bone a few rooftops over. Ismail hesitated, glancing towards the corpse.

“Go!” Malik shouted, reasoning that the guards would chase the Assassin they could see rather than the two they couldn't. “Into the streets! I'll follow!”

Ismail opened his mouth, but Harun took his sleeve and hauled him away. They vanished in the alleys. Malik hoped they'd find a way to safety somewhere in the maze of streets.

A moment later he heard a church bell toll to the south. The clamour spread across the city. Voices and running feet echoed from the alleys and Malik knew soldiers would arrive at any moment. At any other time he would have run. Instead he lingered to buy the Persians some time to escape. He turned and placed the Mount at his back as a soldier, bolder or less cautious than the rest, climbed up a ladder and crossed the roof towards him.

Malik spat on his hand to wipe away the dust and reached for his knife. The soldier made the mistake of glancing away to check for reinforcements. Malik was on him in an instant.

The soldier stepped back instinctively to give him room to swing his sword, but the Assassins were infighters, and Malik was already inside his enemy's guard. He had no time to spare on mercy. Steel slipped between skin and tendon as he buried his blade in the back of the soldier's right hand. The guard dropped his sword. Malik yanked the knife out and cut the unarmed soldier's throat. Blood gushed as the soldier convulsed. Malik felt muscles contract against the point of his knife before he yanked out the blade and replaced the dagger in his sash. He lifted up the soldier's sword and stepped backwards, blade in hand.

The fight had taken a few moments, but the rest of the soldier's squad had climbed already. Malik put his left side to the Temple Mount as they fanned out around him. He was surrounded in seconds. The stolen blade was unfamiliar in his hand.  It was a hand-and-a-half sword, the kind the Crusaders called a bastard, and its weight dragged at him.

The guard captain, the rais, arrived, panting. He was older than most of his command, with a square build that made Malik wonder how he had climbed the roof. A scar ran down the left side of his face beneath his turban. He glanced down at the dead man on the ground, then up at Malik. “You’ve murdered my soldiers.”

Malik thought his outrage unjustified. “I defended myself.”

 “Your actions speak otherwise.” The rais signalled to his soldiers to spread out. “What's your plan, Assassin?”

I wish I had one, Malik thought. “That's none of your concern.”

The soldiers advanced, unsheathing their blades. Steel glittered in the cold light. Malik retreated as the soldiers crept closer. It was not the first time he'd had cause to thank the Assassins’ reputation. The soldiers were reluctant to press him. Malik knew their hesitation would not last for long. He hoped the soldiers' tight formation meant he didn't have to worry about archers.  

“Surrender, Assassin,” the rais growled. “You're surrounded, and more men are on their way.”

Then it's a good time to run, Malik thought. He had no intention of surrendering, and from the rais' voice the soldier didn't hold out much hope he would do so. Surrendering would save the guards a lot of trouble and promise Malik a long and painful death.

He darted in towards the rais. The captain braced. His right foot slid forwards, his left foot back and to the side. He raised his sword. Instead of meeting him with steel Malik flung his sword at the rais and rolled beneath the guard's blade. Cold fire burned his ribs as the weapon caught his side.  He was upon his feet in a moment. The soldiers were still staring at the spot where Malik had been as he dived into the roofed and lightless streets.

The cut along his side stung as he ran, but he could still breathe, run, and fight if he had to. He headed for the poor quarter without pausing for breath. The district had less guards to join the hunt, and lower houses. Malik could climb nearly as well as he had before his injury if he took his time, but when he was in a hurry he tended to forget he only had one hand.

The guards leaped down from the roof and followed. Malik listened to their feet on the stones behind him. Too close. He had to lose them quickly, and that meant putting space between himself and the guards. If he could break their line of sight, he could slip away. 

He ran into the poor district's maze of low-roofed alleys. The guards followed. The streets were busier than Malik had expected so close to noon.  He shouldn't have been surprised-the cold weather kept most folk in their houses past sundown these days, and the sun wasn't warm enough at midday to drive anyone inside-but the crowds just slowed him down. The guards were too close for him to use the mob for cover.

I'm going about this all wrong, he thought.  

He glimpsed a green-tiled minaret through the latticed cover of the street and turned towards it. The path led him into a narrow alley, across a courtyard and through a web of washing into a narrow lane. Sunlight gleamed on armour further down the street. Soldiers. There were more guards close behind him. They howled like dogs, scenting a kill.

The guards that blocked the alley turned towards the sound, but Malik was moving far too fast to stop. A stack of broken crates piled along the alley wall served as steps.  The boxes crumbled as he jumped, but they gave Malik enough height to catch a loose brick with his good hand. A crack in the stone made a temporary foothold as he lunged up the wall, releasing his grip for a moment before he caught the end of the rafter in the crook of his elbow and scrambled onto the roof with splinters pricking at his skin. His boots slipped on glazed tiles for three precarious paces before he dropped into a wide courtyard full of white-robed figures. A few of the scholars glanced up as Malik fell into their midst. The rest of them were too engrossed in their work to even notice.

The soldiers were harder to ignore. They followed Malik in a wave; shouting, sword-wielding, scale-clad and intimidating. Ink splashed across the courtyard as the scholars scattered, concealing Malik in a milling crowd of robed men.

Malik went out the first open window he could find. He jumped to the next house, dropped down onto a balcony and vaulted the railing. He was walking calmly down the next street with his hood covering his face by the time the first of Salah al-din's soldiers realized he'd escaped. By the time they were certain that they'd lost him, he was three districts away. The guards searched the city, but Malik was nowhere to be found.

 

Author’s Note:

Eastern medicine was far superior to western medicine in this era. Many doctors, including ibn Maymun, Salah al-din’s personal physician, were Jewish. Ben Salman is fictional.

Rais is an extremely loose translation of sergeant.

The Stables of Solomon are real, but sadly the secret tunnels that hide the Ark of the Covenant are not.

The Assassin castle of Masyaf really was under Alamut’s control for most of its existence, though by this period the link was pretty weak.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Three.

 

Nusaybah's house, Dar Khalifa, had been built for the caliph's court its name suggested. There were four floors and three courtyards, a private bathhouse and a rooftop terrace.  The ceiling beams were richly carved, the walls glazed with handmade tiles in amber, jade and azure blue. Her bathhouse was the equal of any in Jerusalem. She'd spent her childhood in a hovel smaller than her dressing room. She knew exactly what she had to lose.

And still I throw the dice, she thought ruefully. But some are born to gamble, and there are far worse sins.

She sat on her divan behind a window screen of wooden filigree and gazed towards the western mountains. The peaks wore snowy turbans, and the valleys were shrouded in mist. Nusaybah knew the Frankish army would approach from the west, and the knowledge spoiled her pleasure in the view.

She sipped a cup of milk to calm herself, mind filled with images of Frankish soldiers trudging towards the city. The thought unsettled her. She'd lived through siege before; she knew what could happen to a woman in wartime.

Nusaybah had spurned Malik's offer of safety to his face. Alone, she allowed herself some time to consider the idea. She lifted her silver beaker and flicked the pattern etched into its rim, estimating how much the trinket would fetch in the market. The cup chimed its costly song. Nusaybah scanned the room and her gaze lingered on particularly beloved or expensive objects; the chased silverware from Damascus, the cedar chests, the glazed tiles and blown glass. She stroked the gold tiraz bands embroidered on her gown.

Her possessions would fetch a good price-less than they would bring in a city at peace, but more than enough to buy fast horses and provisions. But with all Syria at war, how far would she have to travel before she found a safe haven? Would what she found be worth the price?

Nusaybah poured herself another glass of milk. Snowy whiteness covered the chased silver. She raised the glass to her lips and drank. I was born in poverty. I'll die dressed in silk if I have to. There are worse ways to perish.

She turned the cup in her hands and peered through the lattice at the city. A bell tolled far away. Others joined it in restless chorus. Nusaybah knew the moods of Jerusalem like the beat of her own heart. Tonight the city was restless as a flea-infested divan. 

“My lady,” said her maid Munya behind her, “the clock is burning low.”

Nusaybah glanced over at the measured candle that marked the hours. The winter rendered sundials useless, and dawn seldom came on time these days. The candle was inaccurate at best, but she had roughly an hour before she received the sultan's emissary, and she needed to look her best.

Some merchants dealt in cinnamon, pepper and sugarcane. Others sold fabrics, or traded in fragrances, medicine and dyes. Furs came from the north, and salt from the far southwest. Nusaybah bought cheap steel from India. She paid local blacksmiths to polish the blades and fashion hilts and sheaths in the Syrian style, then sold the finished swords for a handsome profit. She employed other men to forge arrowheads and beat plates of steel into scaled armour.

She'd come to the business late and by marriage, but trading suited her as well as her slipper fit her foot. She loved the cut and thrust of commerce, the endless bargaining, the debates, the politics of patrons and consortiums. The Qur’an permitted women to trade as merchants, provided they conducted themselves with propriety.

Hers robe brushed the floor as she rose from the table, leaving her cup behind. She piled her hair atop her head and peered at her reflection in the mirror behind the candle clock.

“Munya,” she said, “attend me. We have work to do.”

 “Nobody will see your face. Just your hands and feet.”

Nusaybah raised one eyebrow. “This meeting is important. I must be suitably attired.”

Munya's sigh could have snuffed the lamp. “If you say so.”

She dressed Nusaybah like a Frankish squire girding his master for war, layering silks and jewellery like armour. A filmy cloak fell to her wrists and ankles, leaving only her hands and feet exposed. Munya regarded her critically. “Do you need help on the staircase?”

Nusaybah shook her head “No. Though you’d better come anyway. I’ll need a chaperone.”

They walked together down the narrow stair that led to the meeting hall.  The room had two doors; one that opened onto the garden, and another that led to the household apartments so that Nusaybah could enter unseen. A low table and a divan couch rested against each wall. An antique sword forged from Spanish steel hung above the couch closest to Nusaybah.

Nusaybah settled herself upon the divan just as Salah al-din’s representative entered. He was a tall Muslim man of fifty or sixty years, skin darker than Nusaybah’s. He wore a black turban in clear imitation of his master. A manservant in a sober brown robe and green turban followed, bowing deeply as his master sat. “May I introduce Imad al-din Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-katib al Isfahani?” he said.

Nusaybah nodded to Munya. She studied Imad al-din as Munya went through the introductions. She had expected Salah al-din to send a functionary rather than a friend. Imad al-din had been the sultan’s close companion for many years. He was a scholar and poet of some renown, an intelligent man. And shrewd. I should tread carefully.

Munya brought tea for them both. Imad al-din drank carefully, smiling over the rim of his cup. He did not look directly at Nusaybah. She was another man’s wife, and sacrosanct. Nusaybah passed her teacup beneath the hem of her gauzy veil, examining him with impunity as she sipped her drink.

Imad al-din's beard was stitched with silver hairs. His hair was still dark, although his back had the beginning of an old man's curve. His speech was sharp, flavoured with the accent of his native Persia. Nusaybah was tempted for a moment to reply in the same language, but she had no intention of giving Imad al-din any information for free.

“I trust you're well,” he said. His gaze slid past her and fixed on the old sword that hung, poised, above her head.

Nusaybah nodded. She returned the compliment, and they continued exchanging courtesies for a good half-hour before Nusaybah asked the reason for Imad al-din’s visit. She was, by merchant standards, indecorously direct. 

Imad sighed and settled himself more firmly on the cushions. A heavy golden pendant stamped with the sultan's falcon emblem swung around his neck. “My lady, you must forgive my lack of eloquence. I must confess I find this all quite strange.”

“Strange?”

“Most female merchants deal in fabrics. Though that sword you've hung up there looks genuine enough.” He frowned at the blade. “Is that Cordovan steel? It's said their smiths make blades that sing.”

“You know your swords,” she said in surprise.

“Hardly. I am a man of the pen. What would my efforts at jihad achieve?”

She smiled, recognizing a line from one of his poems. “I know how you feel. My bow is not tight enough to loose arrows. Is that not how it goes?”

He raised one eyebrow. “You know your poetry.”

“I know good poetry.” She crooked a finger. Munya lifted the sword from its hook on the wall and handed the weapon to Imad al-din’s manservant.  “Perhaps you know good swords.”

Imad al-din shook his head as the servant handed him the blade. “The sultan is a man of the sword. I’m not. But together, we work well.”

He took the sword's hilt in his right hand and the scabbard in his left. Gilt flaked from the scabbard as he drew the blade, though the sword slid free silently. The blade was a double edged straight sayf, with a shallow groove near the hilt. An inscription shimmered on the steel as Imad al-din held the blade up to the light to inspect the wrapping. “This leather's worn through.”

“It's been a long time since the faith permitted trade with Christians.”

“Yet they forge good steel. It’s apt that Western merchants contribute to their own defeat.”

“The steel may be infidel,” she corrected. “The blade has a Muslim heart. Read the inscription.”

Imad al-din tilted the sword to read the letters inscribed on the blade. “May Allah aid you with a mighty victory. Was it ever used in war?”

Nusaybah nodded. “The sword is old. No doubt it's seen its share of infidel blood. Please, accept it as a gift.  I'll have the scabbard and hilt wraps refurbished before I send it on to you.”

He smiled. She could see that he liked the idea. “I could not possibly accept.”

“You must,” she said. “For Solomon, with all his might-“She paused. “Is that not how the tale goes?”

“A present from an ant sufficed.” Imad al-din completed his own line wryly.  “My lady, you have a poet’s phrase.”

“I only borrow,” she told him.

“You flatter me with my own words. Generous as a river. Very well.” He sighed and set his cup aside. “I have little time for poetry these days. I fear I did not visit you to sip tea and swap verses.”

She smiled. “Perhaps later.”

He smiled back. “I fear you won’t be so hospitable once you learn the reason for my visit.”

“There’s no news so bad your company could not be pleasurable,” she said politely.

His grin twisted, turned crooked. He drew a piece of paper from his sleeve and pushed it towards her. Munya hurried from her corner to scoop up the scroll. She bowed and presented the paper to Nusaybah.

Nusaybah’s eyebrows drew together beneath her veil. “What’s this?”

Imad al-din tucked his hands into his sleeves apologetically. “Salah al-din has ordered a matjar.” 

Nusaybah frowned. Matjars were government contracts that forced weapons merchants to supply their stock at a discount to the government in times of war. They enforced supply, preventing prices from rising in response to a desperate demand. She had signed such contracts before. There wasn’t usually a choice. Imad al-din’s visit was a courtesy, nothing more.

She folded the contract. “How much?”

He named a price. She refused him, and countered with a sum that was twice what he offered. They negotiated for a while. Half way through the bargaining Nusaybah realised that she’d treated Salah al-din’s secretary just as any other customer. I don’t need more money, she thought. What I need is information. Tales of the war.

She laid down her pen and named an amount that was close to the first Imad al-din had offered. “Two dinars for each blade.”

He forgot himself enough to meet her eyes for a moment. “Two?”

She nodded. “I have two hundred now. I can deliver double that number within a month. You won't find better at that price.”

The secretary's brows rose towards the painted ceiling. “Good steel is worth twice that.”

“Of that I’m aware,” she said gently.

He frowned. “You’re too generous.”

“The steel is good.” Before Imad al-din could object she continued. “You think I bargain like a Frank. That’s not true. I pride myself in buying cheap and selling at high prices, but some things in life are worth more than profit. The sultan will use the swords I sell to defend Jerusalem.”

“Are you certain?”

“I am.” She called for ink and paper and signed her name on the paper. “You call yourself a man of the pen, not the sword. I am but a woman. Let me do my part.” She passed the contract to Munya, who ferried the paper to Imad by way of his servant. “Please, sign.”

He signed. “You must not fear,” he said gently.   “Jerusalem will stand against a siege.”

 “Your pardon,” she said, “but that's not what I heard.”

“Where did you hear such things?”

She shrugged. “I heard the emirs forced the sultan to disband half his army.”

He looked uncomfortable. “It’s true the sultan and his emirs have had their disagreements. But their success is coupled with the sultan’s. God will grant us victory, as He has done before.”

“Praise be,” she murmured. “But He did not grant us victory at Arsuf. Nor at Tibnin, where so many died.”

“God woke us from the sleep of heedlessness! Defeat spurs us to greater efforts in his service. Our people have become wary.”

She forced a smile. “Your words are a great gift. I heard we had not even retained enough men to defend the walls.”

“Where did you hear such lies?”

“I am a merchant,” she reminded him. “People speak to me every day. I hear rumours in the souks. The mosques. The baths. The houses of my kin. How else does anyone hear anything?”

He stroked his close-clipped beard. “Indeed. So many rumours. More every day. It’s easier to dam a river than to stop people talking. You can sift gold from the stones, but like miners, some are better at finding value than others.”

“Are they?”

“Of course.”

“So there’s no truth to the rumours?”

“None. Let the Christians come! We’ll break their cross by force. They’ll turn their back on Syria. History will forget them, and it will be as though their kingdom had never been.”

His words left her uneasy. “You think we’ll win?”

“I’m certain. We’ll gain glory in this world, and Paradise thereafter. Surely you don’t doubt our faith?”

“Not faith,” she said, “but men.”

“We are but God’s instruments.” Imad al-din said. He tucked the falcon pendant into his tunic. “But you’re right. We have enemies within and without the city walls. The sultan needs swords to win this war-just as he needs coin, pitch, and good dry wood.”

“Then perhaps my blades will help.”

“Perhaps they will.” He lifted his cup, and would have drunk, but the vessel was empty. Nusaybah gestured to Munya to pour more. “There’s another way you could assist.”

“How?”

“Would you consent to one more contract?”

She frowned and wondered what he meant. “That depends on the terms.”

Imad al-din swirled the tea in his cup. He drank and set it down. “A trade of information. I’d appreciate anything you can tell me about what happens in the city.”

“You want me to spy?”

Imad al-din frowned. “I want to learn what the people have to say.”

“What will you do with what you learn?”

“We’ll put what we learn to good use.”

It did not come as a surprise to Nusaybah that Jerusalem’s government needed information. It did surprise her that Imad al-din had chosen to request aid from her rather than a trusted aide or professional informer. “Why me?”

“Why not? You have a reputation as a good businesswoman. You’ve impressed me with your charity and learning. Perhaps you'll have access to information other people overlook.”

“And if I don't?”

He shrugged. “There will be no penalty if you fail. Only reward, if you succeed.””

Nusaybah was not sure that she believed him, but she considered his offer all the same. Imad al-din’s favour was a valuable asset. Through him, she’d have access to the court. And through her, so would the Assassins.

She smiled beneath her veil. “Of course.”

“Then I must meet with your husband, to gain his permission.”

Nusaybah’s smile faded. “That isn’t possible.”

“Why not? I had not heard that he was dead.”

“He isn’t,” she said.

“Then where-?”

“He’s here,” she interrupted. She could have lied, said Rashid was away-on pilgrimage perhaps, or travelling- but perhaps telling Imad al-din the truth about small things now would convince him she didn’t tell him larger lies later. “You can meet him if you like. But I must ask you to be patient.” She rose, gathering her robes and veils around herself carefully. “Follow me.”

Imad al-din rose without further question, leaving sword and contract behind. Nusaybah led him upstairs to the men's floor, using the outside staircase. Munya and Imad's manservant trailed them as they climbed. Imad al-din’s eyebrows rose with each step they took.  Women were restricted to the harem in most Muslim houses, but Dar Khalifa had been Nusaybah’s house for years. Rashid would never visit her on the women’s floor again.

They walked along a corridor above the central courtyard, tiled in blue and gold. A servant met them at the door to Rashid’s room. “My lady, the doctor is here.”

The physician bowed as they entered. Although the doctor was younger than Nusaybah, the responsibilities of his profession had etched deep lines into his face. He was a skilled and compassionate man who did not mind dealing with a woman. Although his ministrations over the years had changed little, Nusaybah did not hold his lack of success against him. Why should she, when nothing had ever worked?

She turned to Imad al-din. “Sidi, this is Musa ben Salman, my husband's physician.”

Imad al-din inclined his head. He glanced towards the bed, seemingly at a loss for words.

“Thank you for visiting,” Nusaybah said to ben Salman.

“It's my pleasure and my business,” replied the doctor. “Have you seen any change?”

She shook her head, holding the edge of her veil between two fingers to prevent the fabric falling free. “None, I’m afraid.”

Ben Salman frowned. Nusaybah liked the way the lack of change disappointed him. Too many physicians rushed through examinations on a patient that who not expected to improve.

She gestured at the bed where Rashid lay. ‘As you can see, it won’t be possible for my husband to grant me permission to work with you. You’ll have to take my word.”

“Will he recover?” Imad al-din asked.

Nusaybah shook her head. Her husband's skin, once dark as cinnamon, was pale as almond shells. His hair was wholly silver now, but his face, untroubled by strong emotions, was smooth. His cheeks were hollow, his muscles wasted from disuse. It was a constant struggle to force enough nourishment into him to keep him alive. She reached out with one henna-stained forefinger to trace his warm skin.

“He is in God's hands’ now,” Ben Salman said apologetically. He did not specify which god.

Imad al-din blinked at the bed. “I apologise for my ignorance. I did not realise. Is there any hope?”

Ben Salman shrugged in the noncommittal way doctors had. “He swallows, breathes, and takes food and water. There is always hope, if God wills.”

“If God wills,” Imad al-din said piously.

Nusaybah sighed and wished whatever god held her husband's fate in his hands would dash him down or snatch him up. Anything would be better for Rashid than this half-existence. She sat down beside her husband and placed her hand on his chest, feeling her arm gently rise and fall with each indrawn breath. “If God wills, “she agreed. “Though it's been years. He'd have woken by now if he could.”

Imad al-din looked surprised. “Years? You'd be within your rights to ask for a divorce.”

Nusaybah shook her head. “His heirs left me this house, and the remains of his business. He was brilliant once. But he’s been like this for years.”

“There must be options.”

“No good ones.” She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. “But that’s enough. You must be busy. Let my maid escort you out.”

 He bowed deeply. “Then I’ll take my leave. I'll send a messenger in the morning. Four hundred blades, at two gold dinars each. Payment in silver dirhams, at the usual rate of eight dirhams to one dinar.”

“And the Cordovan blade,” she promised.

“And the blade.” He smiled ruefully. “Perhaps my lord will prevail, and force me to the battlefield again.”

“That sounds like a story.”

“It is a tale for another time. Perhaps when we speak again. If you need me, send a messenger to me at court.”

She nodded. “Of course. I'm pleased we could do business. Peace be upon your house.”

He bowed again, and left. Ben Salman bowed behind the secretary’s back as Imad al-din and his servant swept out of sight around the trailing staircase. Nusaybah glanced at Munya, and the maid hurried after them. Nusaybah turned back to her husband. She laced her fingers in his. His bones felt like sticks against her palm.

“You look tired,” the physician observed. “You can't care for him if you're exhausted.”

“The servants do most of that,” she admitted. “I have other things on my mind.” She felt a sudden urge to pass Malik's warning onto someone who would listen. “Do you know that war is coming?”

“It's common knowledge,” he said. “Today I spoke to a soldier who was sure there'd be a siege.” 

“What will you do?”

He shrugged as he packed his salves and medicines. “I've treated my share of sword wounds in my time. Where else would I go? This is a holy place. I'd rather live one day in Jerusalem than a thousand days elsewhere.”

Nusaybah nodded, watching Rashid's chest rise and fall. ”I’m glad you feel that way,” she said quietly.  “It’s good to know that you’ll remain. I'll send my maid to settle your account.”

The physician put a jar of sweet-smelling greasy paste beside Rashid's divan. “Smear this beneath his nose,” he said, “It may help his breathing. I'll come to check on you again next week. In the meantime, get some rest. Send word if you need me sooner. “

“I will,” she said. A sheaf of paper sat beside Rashid on the mattress, just where Nusaybah had left it. She picked up the notes and found her place. “On the twelfth day of Dhul al-Qa’dah, payment of twenty dinars to Hassan, the metalsmith. On the twelfth day of Dhul al-Qa’dah, payment of five dinars to Hakim, the polisher. On the thirteenth day-“

Ben Salman paused in the doorway. “You read to him? I did not know that.”

She glanced up. “I have always done so.”

“Isn’t poetry more conventional?””

“Rashid never cared for verse,” Nusaybah said. “This is what he liked to read in life. Should he be any different now?”

Ben Salman looked nonplussed. “I suppose not.”

“Do you think he can hear me?”

Ben Salman shook his head. “Who knows?”

By the time Nusaybah finished reading the accounts, the physician had gone. She set the paper aside, remembering how she’d read to Rashid in the first terrible days of his sickness. Back then, she’d scrambled for some way to make sense of the mess of commissions and contracts, searching for advice, for approval, for some sign he that could hear her. By now, he’d been an invalid to her for longer than he’d been a husband.

 I wonder how he would have changed my life, she thought. How I would have changed his.

She folded the contract and slipped it into the sleeve of her robe. Rashid’s sightless eyes stared at the ceiling as she left.

 

***

 

The city was quiet by the time Malik dropped, knife in hand, to the Bureau courtyard. Pigeons roosted in the rafters, and the fountain trickled into the basin. There was no sign of the Alamut Assassins.

Malik lit the brazier and the lamps. He took more of ben Salman's medicine as he waited for the Assassins to arrive. It was evening when the Bureau door slammed open and Ismail and Harun staggered in. Malik kicked the door closed. “Were you followed?”

The novice shook his head. Malik bolted the door behind them, checked the lock with a rattle and glanced up at the ceiling. He heard no pursuit. “Are you wounded?”

Ismail dropped to one knee and eased Harun down onto the floor. “Not me.”

“Let me look,” Malik crouched beside him. He put his hand out to steady Harun's shoulder and felt the man shaking. His face was pale as sand; his robes dark with blood, though Malik couldn't see an injury. “Where's the wound?”

“His leg,” Ismail said, unwrapping a makeshift bandage from Harun's thigh. Malik could have put two fingers in the wound beneath. Wine-dark blood pulsed from cut. Too much blood. 

“I need a bandage,” he said to Ismail, looking around for a cloth. “This one's soaked through.”

Ismail unwound his scarf with clumsy fingers and handed it to Malik. Malik wadded the fabric into a ball and pushed the wad into the wound. Scarlet stained the cloth immediately. He pushed his fist into the pad. Harun groaned, but the blood did not cease. “I need you to fetch me a doctor,” he said to Ismail.

“Can't you heal him?”

“Me? No. He's too badly hurt. He needs a real physician.”

“Where can I find one?”

Malik mentally retraced his steps from ben Salman's. “Go left out of this door. Turn right towards the market. Cross the square, walk for a hundred paces and you'll find the doctor at the house with the blue door. Bring him here.” He'd have preferred to take Harun there himself, but they would attract far too much attention and he didn't think the dai would survive the move. “Abduct him if you have to. Go. Now. Run!”

Ismail gave Malik one last desperate look, and left. The scarf was sopping wet. Malik grabbed a cushion from the floor and bound it around Harun's leg, using the bloody cloth as a tourniquet.

Harun moaned as Malik tied the bandage in place. His eyes flickered open. “Tell Alamut-” he whispered.

“Don't speak.” Malik ordered. Harun gasped, writhing, and Malik's makeshift dressing slipped from his leg. “Don't move.” He loosened Ismail's scarf and re-tied the knot. Warm, slippery gore covered his arm. .  

“Alamut-”

Malik decided that forcing Harun to silence was likely to cause more trouble than letting him speak “All right. Tell them what?”

“Tell them how I died. They might think-” His voice faded.

Another man might have argued the point, but Malik had seen enough dying men to know a lost cause when he saw one. “Let them. Masyaf will deal with Alamut.”

Harun seemed satisfied, or else he had simply lost the strength to argue. “Take Ismail to Masyaf.”

“I'll see it done,” Malik agreed.

Harun nodded weakly.  The first spot of bloody strikethrough appeared on Malik's makeshift dressing just as Ismail and ben Salman burst through the door.  

The physician took in the scene with professional speed and commendable poise. He tossed his bag to Ismail and fell to his knees by Harun's side, careless of the blood that stained the floor. He pressed a finger to Harun's throat, frowning. “What happened?”

Malik gestured to the bloodstained bandage. “A knife.”

Ben Salman dug in his bag for a mirror and a rolled tube of parchment. He held the mirror over Harun's mouth. The polished surface hazed, cleared, and hazed again as Harun breathed. Ben Salman nodded in satisfaction. He bent over Harun, placing one end of the parchment on Harun's chest. He rested his ear on the other end and listened for a few moments, moving the tube around on the Assassin's chest. “Where's the wound?” he said, pressing his thumb to Harun's cheek and frowning as the skin blanched.

Malik slit the bandage with his knife. The doctor lifted the blood-soaked cushion, leaned forwards to peer at the cut. Grimacing, he pressed the pad down immediately. “Pass me a bandage,” he said to Malik, “There's a small vial in my bag. Make him drink it.”

Malik did as the doctor ordered, He tilted the bottle over Harun's mouth as ben Salman replaced the bandage. The medicine was strongly scented, familiar even through the gore. “Hemp?” he asked.

Ben Salman nodded. “And opium,” he said curtly. He checked Harun's pulse again and sighed.

“That won't cure him.”

“No.” Ben Salman said. “But it'll ease his passing. There's nothing else I can do.”

“You can't save him?”

The doctor shook his head. His shoulders slumped. “I don't speak with God. He's lost too much blood.”

Ismail had been following the debate silently, and Malik wasn't sure how much he had understood. Now he burst out “There must be something you can do!”

Harun choked. Malik saw the light vanish from his eyes as they glazed over. The blood trickling from his wound slowed. Ben Salman rubbed his mirror with his sleeve and held it over Harun's mouth, but the glass did not mist over.  “He's dead,” he said regretfully, bowing his head.

Malik and Ismail stared at each other across Harun's body. Malik clamped his hand on Ismail's shoulder to prevent the novice from drawing a knife. He looked up and met the doctor's compassionate eyes. “You should go,” he said.

Ben Salman ignored him. “Who was he?” he asked Malik as he tucked his mirror back into his bag. “Who killed him?”

“My cousin,” Malik lied. “He argued with another man about a woman. They fought. He lost.” He stood, placing himself between Ismail and ben Salman in case Ismail moved against the doctor. He had no idea what the novice might say or do. Besides, ben Salman's presence compromises the Bureau. He's a perceptive man-the longer he stays, the more he might notice.

He unearthed some coins beneath the counter. “Take this,” he said, holding out the money to ben Salman.

“There's no need.”

“Take it.”

The doctor shook his head. “It's too much.”

“It's not enough.” Malik thrust the pouch into ben Salman's bloodstained hands. “Promise me you'll speak of this to nobody.”

Ben Salman frowned. “Have you something to hide?”

Only the body, Malik thought. “They fought over his wife,” he said, hoping that ben Salman would interpret his desire for secrecy as an attempt to save face. “The truth would shame our family.”

“Then take him to the qadi,” the physician said sternly.  “The judge could bring his murderers to justice.”

“We'll see,” Malik nodded to Ismail. “Now leave us. My nephew needs to grieve.”

“As you wish.” Ben Salman picked up his bag and turned towards the door. He hesitated, then turned back to Malik. “Are you wounded?”

Malik looked down. The rais' sword had torn his robe. The edges of the cloth gaped like a dead man's mouth, caked round with blood. “It's nothing,” he lied. “You should go.”

Ben Salman left. Malik locked the door behind him. He knelt down beside the corpse and closed the dead Assassin's eyes with the palm of his hand. “What happened?” he asked Ismail.

“They cornered us,” Ismail said, gazing at the floor as if the afternoon's events were engraved upon the tiles. “Chased us into an alley. There were guards on the rooftops. We didn't have time to climb.” He glared up at Malik, eyes filled with so much anguish Malik nearly withdrew. “Where were you?”

“I was here.” Guilt pierced him like a blade. “I should have come.”

A muscle twitched in Ismail's jaw. “What use would you have been?”

Grief only purchased so much tolerance. Malik frowned. “You go too far.”

“I apologise,” Ismail said roughly. He reached across Harun's body and pulled the Assassin's cowl around his head to cover his face. “Will you help me? We must bathe him, and find a linen shroud.”

Malik shook his head. “We can't.”

“What do you mean?”

“We can't bury him,” Malik explained. “We don't have the time or space to dig a grave. Salah al-din's solders will search the streets. They won't find us, but many people have reasons for hiding from soldiers. People will die!”

Ismail shrugged. “Muslims. They're our enemies. Who cares?”

“That's not important. Do you want to give them another reason to hate the Assassins? Their blood will be on our hands.”

“In Alamut we bury our dead with honour! We don't throw them in the street like criminals!”

“I'm sorry,” Malik said.  “Perhaps in Alamut you do things differently. But this is Syria. Our bodies serve the Order. Even in death.” He reached out to Ismail, but the novice shook him away. “Do you understand?”

“It's an insult!”

“It's the Creed,” Malik said quietly. “Don't compromise the Order.”

“I won't compromise the Order! In Alamut-”

Malik didn't let him finish. “If that's the way you do things in Alamut, then I'm surprised you have any Assassins left.”

“At least Alamut has honour!” Ismail stood, his bloodstained robe flapping. “You Masyaf Assassins don't know the meaning of the word. You dress like a peasant, consort with your whore and run instead of fighting as you should. Your Master went insane! How dare you preach the Creed to me?”

Malik reminded himself with an effort that Ismail was grieving. “The Creed's cost me more than you know.”

“The sultan's cost me blood. He should pay. Let me take vengeance. A life in exchange for my brother's. It's only fair.”

His argument made more sense than Malik would ever admit. “No,” he said stubbornly. “Killing won't bring him back. It won't bring you satisfaction. It won't heal you. I killed a soldier today. If you want blood, you have it. Leave it at that.” 

“You're lying. You're a cripple. You couldn't kill anyone.” Ismail said scornfully. “I saw you turn to fight those soldiers on the Mount. You couldn't have escaped alive. So either you've been with Salah al-din from the start or you sold yourself to save your skin. Which is it?”

 “Have you lost your mind?”

A muscle twitched in Ismail's jaw. “It was a trap! Admit it!”

“It wasn't a trap!” Malik met Ismail's eyes deliberately. “Blame me for your brother's death if you like, but don't dare accuse me of betraying the Order to Salah al-din's soldiers.”

“Then let me hunt them down!”

 Malik moved between Ismail and the door. “No.”

“Move aside,” Ismail snarled, and drew his sword.

 

Author’s Note:

Imad al-din really was Salah al-din’s secretary. His personal name was Muhammad. ‘Imad al-din’ is a laqab meaning ‘Pillars of Faith’.  Katib is a job title, meaning scribe and al-Isfahani means he was born in the Persian city of Isfahan.

Imad al-din was renowned for his poetry and for his hatred of the Franks. I’ve quoted liberally from English translations of his poems.

The Assassins are officially atheists, though Malik feels that certain occasions deserve some sort of commemoration.  If Ismail’s reaction is typical, the Alamut Assassins have more extreme views.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four:

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.

“Halt!”

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.”

“Why not-”

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.”

 “Where to?”

“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.”

“Then how-”

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?”

“Safe enough.”

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.”

“I wasn’t.”

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.”

 “All?”

“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.

 

Author’s Note:

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.’

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Five.

Nusaybah woke to cold night air and the sound of Munya's voice. “My lady? The Assassins are ready to leave.”

“Leave? Now?” Nusaybah demanded drowsily. She wanted to sleep more, but even the damask covers and furs piled on her bed weren't enough to keep her warm now she had moved. The candle-clock had burned down barely a finger's length since she'd slid between the sheets.

“So he says,” Munya said. “If you ask me, they should have left last night.”

Nusaybah rose, combing her fingers through her tangled hair. “Tell Malik to wait. I must speak with him before he leaves.”

“Are you sure?”

Nusaybah nodded. “Hurry!”

Munya left. Nusaybah pulled a blanket from the bed and wrapped it round her shoulders before climbing out of bed. She washed her face and hands quickly, brushed her hair and pulled on several layers of robes for warmth more than propriety. When Munya returned she was pulling on her slippers. They hurried together down the stairs and into the courtyard.

The temperature had dropped overnight. Ice gleamed on the fountain. A sickle moon burned like a diadem in the sky above the courtyard. The shadows were knife-sharp as Nusaybah made her way towards the warehouse.

The doors on three of the square's four sides opened into the living quarters, while the doors on the fourth and last side led into the old stables. Nusaybah had removed the stalls and had the building renovated as a showroom where her more discerning clients could choose their own personal weapons. The walls were lined with comfortable padded divans with swords displayed in inlaid cases between the couches. 

She opened the door and saw Malik examining one of the swords. It seemed strange to see him without his rafiq's robes. Nusaybah had sent the Assassins' stained clothes for laundering. She'd offered them the choice of whatever spare clothing she had in the house. Malik, being Malik, had chosen a pair of ragged servants' jellabas the colour of dust. 

“What do you think?” she asked, nodding at the blade.

He held the sword to the light. “The hilt's a little too ornate. But you didn't come here to ask for my opinion on your wares.”

Nusaybah slipped inside and closed the door behind her. “I'm not sure I'd like the answer.”

“The steel isn't bad,” he said as he laid the sword back in its case.

She nodded. The blades displayed in the small showroom were flashy weapons, chosen to suit the tastes of Jerusalem's merchant classes. They were not Assassin blades. “There's something I forgot to mention.”

“Did you close your contract with Salah al-din?”

Nusaybah caught Malik's shoulder and drew him aside. She peered around him at Ismail, but the novicesat on the divan closest to the door and was too far away to overhear their conversation. “Yes. I spoke with the sultan's secretary, Imad al-din. We made a bargain.” She swallowed, stomach tightening. “When we were done, he asked me to spy for Salah al-din.”

Malik leaned against the wall and rubbed at his eyes with the palm of his hand. “So you refused.”

She shook her head. “I had no choice. You can’t refuse the sultan. Besides, who better to spy on Salah al-din for you than someone he already trusts to work for him? This way the Assassins can control what information he receives. It'll give you access to the court, and-”

He interrupted. “You think it's really that simple?”

“How complicated could it be?”

 “That son of fifty fathers will expect information. This is-” He bit back a word that was obviously much more foul and said “This is my work.” 

“I wasn't aware you had contacts in the court.”

He shook his head. “I don't. It's not worth the risk.”

“There’s no risk.”

“There will be if the sultan discovers you’re giving information to the Order.”

She sighed in exasperation. “First of all, I had no choice in the matter. Secondly, I discovered valuable news. Did you know the sultan wants a siege?”

Malik paused, eyes narrowed. “That's not what I've heard.””

“Maybe not, but it's what Imad al-din told me.  Malik, he wants a battle. You and I both know the city isn't remotely ready. You can't tell me Masyaf doesn't need to know!”

He glared at her. “That, I can't deny. But there are other methods!”

“Perhaps you could enlighten me.” she said. “Which ones?”

They glared at each other, tension crackling between them. Ismail coughed, shifting on the divan and breaking the silence. Nusaybah door and drew Malik out into the courtyard. They both stared at the sickle moon. It was easier than watching each other.

Ya majnoona!” he muttered, eventually. “Don’t walk into danger.”

“Why not?” she demanded. She balled her hands into fists on her hips. “You do.”” Her hair slid out from under her scarf and she gathered it up with both hands and tossed it back across her shoulders, a heavy flag of defiance.

“I have to.”

“I know.” She reached out and caught his sleeve. The cheap fabric was rough against her skin. She lifted her hand and brushed the soldier-short hair at the base of his neck. The gesture would have been brazen in public. It was barely acceptable in private. But there was nobody around, and the Assassins had little notion of propriety.

Malik's fingers caught in her sleep tousled-hair as he moved closer. She put her hand on his waist and felt the hilt of a knife beneath his clothes. He made a soft sound of amusement and brought his mouth down to touch hers just as the door to the armouries slid open and Ismail asked “Are we going?”

Malik exhaled in a quiet huff of frosty breath. “We're going.”

Nusaybah stepped back. The cold night air embraced her. It wasn’t what she wanted. “Send me news when you return.”

“You’ll know as soon as I do.”

Ismail frowned, but Nusaybah ignored him. She did not care what a foreign novice thought. “I'll show you to the gate.”

The house porters had bolted and barred the gate against the darkness. Nusaybah waved away the servant that stumbled from the gatehouse as they approached and unlocked the door herself. The bolts were heavy, and bitterly cold against her fingers. The latches of the postern gate slid open silently, well-oiled. The portal opened, a small rectangle against the dim morning streets.

“You go first,” Malik told Ismail. The novice ducked beneath the threshold. Nusaybah relaxed as his silent disapproval fell like a weight from her shoulders.  She heard the small movements of the house waking around them. They didn’t have long. “Stay safe, habibi.

 “You also, ya amar. I'll be back as quickly as I can.” He leaned forwards and kissed her, swift and unexpectedly passionate. She breathed him in; warmth, steel and blood. It was over far too soon. Nusaybah stepped back into the warm circle of the courtyard. Malik vanished into the streets outside.

Nusaybah glanced around. The courtyard was silent. She wrapped her scarf around her face and leaned out through the postern gate. The street outside was empty. There was no sign of the Assassins.

Nusaybah wrapped her hands in her fur cloak as she fastened the locks. When the last bolt was in place and the house was once again secure she returned to the house, combing her hair back from her face with rust-stained fingers and calling for tea and pastries as she went. 

By the time breakfast arrived a thin thread of gold gleamed on the horizon. Nusaybah paused for prayers before she ate. When she finished eating Munya handed her a message.

Nusaybah shook crumbs from her fingers as she turned the paper over. “What’s this?”

Munya shrugged as she collected the breakfast tray. “Wouldn’t say.”

Nusaybah unfolded the paper and read.

I am writing to you from the side of our sultan-may God prolong his life-to confirm the contract on which we both agreed. My offer stands: eight hundred gold dinars for two hundred swords, delivered to the armoury within the week. A further two hundred within a month, and the Cordovan blade.

How do you fare? Do not worry. The city is secure.

“For him who has heavenly angels for an army

What country is there where his horses would not tread?”

Whatever needs you have, please write.

From Imad al-din al-Isfahani, by the grace of God katib and secretary to our lord Salah-al-din.

To my lady Nusaybah bint Khadijah, of Dar Khalifah, Jerusalem, if God wills.

 The parchment was costly, the poetry apt, the calligraphy exquisite. The message was addressed more personally than she had expected from Imad al-din.

Nusaybah placed the folded paper on the table. She was still considering how to reply when Munya came in again and said “The doctor’s here.”

Nusaybah looked up in surprise. “I expected him to call next week.”

Munya shrugged. “He says it's urgent.”

Nusaybah was intrigued despite herself. The physician had never disturbed her at so early an hour. “Do you think he's found a cure?”

Munya grimaced. “I doubt it. He said he needed help.”

It was not unusual for Nusaybah to receive visitors requesting loans or patronage, but she hadn't thought the physician the type to beg.“I'll see him,” she said impulsively.

“What about breakfast?”

“I've eaten all I can.” She considered inviting the doctor to share a meal, then realized she had no idea about Jewish dietary habits.  “Take it away.”

Nusaybah met ben Salman in the iwan in the second courtyard. She heard his boot heels clicking on the marble floor before she saw him pacing the reception room floor. His hands were clasped tightly behind his back and his cuffs were stained with dried blood. Nusaybah was pleased to see that Munya had laid out a tea service on a delicate table by the divan, but the pot still steamed and the cups were empty. “Welcome,” she said.

Ben Salman stopped so quickly his boots skidded on the stone. ”Lady,” he said. “Please, forgive me the intrusion. Thank God you've come.”

Nusaybah took a seat on the divan and gestured to the alcove beside her. “Please, sit down,” she said. “Your news must be very urgent.”  

“I apologise for troubling you so early,” ben Salman said sincerely.

“No trouble. Is this about Rashid?”

Ben Salman shook his head violently. “No. This has nothing to do with your husband. I have no right to ask you, but I need advice.”

Nusaybah was flattered despite herself. She wondered if ben Salman had been crossed in love. I never asked if he was married. “I fear I'm poorly qualified.”

Ben Salman dragged his hands down his face. “Oh, no, my lady. You're as qualified as I. The last time I saw you, you spoke to me of how you loved our city. So I ask you: if you saw something that threatened Jerusalem, would you speak out?”

She frowned. “Of course.”

“Would you speak, if speaking cost you your life?”

“I hope I would.” she said seriously, watching as ben Salman's expression only grew more troubled. “But I'm afraid that wasn't the answer you wanted. Maybe if I knew more, I could help.”

He laughed without a drop of mirth. “It may not have been the answer that I wanted. It was the answer I needed.”

Nusaybah lifted the teapot and poured them each a glass. She cradled her own cup in her hands and inhaled the steam. “Did you have nobody else to speak to?”

He shook his head. “I can't speak frankly to my patients, and I have time for few others these days. My brother is the only family I have left, and he lives in Damascus. I thought you'd listen.” He gave a self-depreciating shrug. “If nothing else. What do you know about the Jews?”

“Little enough,” she said.

“Jewish physicians take an oath to do no harm and to protect the secrets of our patients.  It's called the Oath of Asaph.” He glanced up at her thoughtfully. “Last night I was called to the house of a man I assumed I could trust.” His knuckles whitened around the cup. “My patient died, and what I saw troubled me greatly. My first instinct was to inform the city guards. Yet I must keep silent -or else break my oath.”

Nusaybah finally understood. “You think your information would help Salah al-din defend the city?”

He nodded.

“Then do what you think is right,” she told him. “We trust Jerusalem to protect us. We must in turn protect the city. You should tell the sultan's guards quickly, before the Crusaders come.”

He bowed, glass still in hand. Nusaybah watched in dismay as tea stained the floor. “You are wise as Solomon, my lady. My words are hardly sufficient to convey my thanks.”

Politeness demanded that Nusaybah deflect the compliment. “I'm only pleased that I could be of service,” she said.

They exchanged small talk for a while before the doctor took his leave and Munya came in to clear away the plates. The maid tutted at the mess ben Salman had left on the tiles. “What did he want?”

“Advice,” Nusaybah said absently as she handed Munya her cup. “He was worried, that's all.”

“What about?”

“I'm not sure,” Nusaybah said. “Perhaps we'll never know”

 

***

 

Not a soul stirred in the streets as Malik and Ismail returned to the Assassin's Bureau. Ice covered the streets like glass. Malik breathed on the lock to defrost it, and shoved the door open one-handed. The air was bitterly cold. In the courtyard, the fountain trailed a white beard of icicles.

Malik cursed and struck the pipes. “Fetch your things,” he said to Ismail. “It's going to be a long, cold journey. Make sure you have warm clothes.”

“What will you do?”

“I have work,” Malik said. “Go.”

Once the novice had left he climbed to the coop to check the pigeon loft and found a white dove with a copper message capsule gleaming on its leg strutting and cooing to the pigeons inside the coop. He captured the bird easily, fighting a brief battle to untie the message from the pigeon’s leg before releasing it into the loft. The birds’ shallow water dish was a lump of ice. Malik melted the ice and hung a tattered blanket across the coop to protect the birds from the wind before opening the note.

Malik, he read.

 

 Send the Alamut men to Masyaf. They may address their questions to me. It’s none of my concern if they don’t like the answers I provide.

You must protect Salah al-din. Learn what the Crusaders have in store. The Sultan cannot afford to lose Jerusalem. If he does, his army will think that he is no longer blessed by God, and we can't stand against the Crusader hordes alone. We have always been few in number, yet with the right allies even a few men might make a great difference.

Altaïr.

Malik rested his chin upon his hand and wondered how to fulfil both of Altaïr’s commands. He dared not send Ismail to Masyaf alone, and he had no way of protecting the sultan from the road. He dug beneath the desk and withdrew the Bureau’s ledger as he considered his reply.

The book was heavy, with a stamped leather cover that wrapped over the pages like a flap and curling, yellowed pages.  Malik scribbled a note in the Bureau ledger. After the death of Harun of Alamut, we left Jerusalem, and rode to Masyaf.

He wished there was some way he could send the book to Masyaf without taking it himself, but the risk of capture was too great for him to contemplate the idea. There were some problems pigeon post could not solve.  He decided to hide the book instead. With luck, he'd be back before anybody would think to look, and if not-well, Altaïr could always send somebody to retrieve the ledger later.      

He closed the ledger, shaking the frost from his fingers as he composed a reply for Altaïr. 

I have discovered Alamut's true purpose. They'd heard of Al Mualim's madness. They sent three messengers to learn the truth and find the Apple. I meant to send them to you at Masyaf, but Salah al-din's guards attacked us. Now only one survives, a young novice called Ismail. I'll bring him to Masyaf soon. I'll send you another message when we leave the city.  

He returned to the coop and tied the scrap of paper to a pigeon's leg. The bird flapped away into the dark sky, and Malik returned to the Bureau and its fire. The cold gnawed his wound with icy teeth. Ben Salman's vial would not last long. Malik promised himself that he'd visit the physician for something stronger before they left the city.

The room had just warmed to a comfortable temperature when Ismail returned with a blast of icy wind that let out all the heat and returned the room to freezing. The novice dropped a bundle on the floor that didn't look large enough to contain many warm clothes and went over to the coals.  Malik sighed.  “You did well last night,” he said.

Ismail nodded. “I’ve learned a lot.”

That surprised Malik, who had no memory of teaching the novice anything. “Then maybe you’re not entirely useless.”

Ismail grimaced. “You don’t have to help me. I can find my way to Masyaf.”

Malik frowned. “That’s for me to decide. We travel together.” He wondered whether to take Ismail to the physician, but decided against it, unsure the novice could be trusted not to threaten Ben Salman. “I have some tasks before we leave.  He forestalled another question with his raised hand. “You will stay here in the Bureau and you won't kill any soldiers. Be ready to leave when I return. Rest. Prepare for the journey. Prove that I can trust you to be left alone. I won’t be long.”

“I'll be here.”

“You will.” Malik retrieved the ledger from the Bureau desk and went alone into the courtyard. The morning sky was a lapis-blue square above his head, but the sun held little heat. He bound the ledger to his back with his sash and climbed up to the roof one-handed.

A feral pigeon hovered by the coop, hoping for grain. Malik chased the stray bird away. He used his knife to tear a strip of cloth from the blanket he'd hung across the pigeon loft.  When he had a piece as long as two arms and wide as one, he laid the ledger in the centre of the cloth and folded it into a bulky parcel. The pale brown blanket blended well with the layers of detritus encrusted on the coop's floor.

Malik slid the whole bundle beneath the lowest shelf in the pigeon-loft. He knew from past experience that it wouldn't take long for the wrapping to be covered in a thick layer of guano that would protect the ledger from all but the most dedicated search.         

He closed the coop and set out across the rooftops to ben Salman's surgery. The houses in the artisan's quarter were built so closely a hen could hop from roof to roof. Frost glittered in the shadows and crunched beneath Malik's boots as he ran. His side was a dull ache, the pricking of his scars a sharper pain. He felt his missing left fist clench as he climbed one-handed, knotting until his nails dug invisibly into his missing hand. 

Malik watched the crowded streets below to distract himself from the discomfort. Soldiers’ turbaned helmets gleamed among the crowds like copper coins in a gutter. We'll have to be careful leaving the city.

He dropped down into an alley a few paces away from ben Salman's shop.   The physician's door was closed, and nobody was waiting on the low bench propped against the wall. He thought ben Salman might be away on a house call, or busy with a patient, but the door opened easily to his touch and Malik went inside.

The shop was comfortably warm. Wan light from the oculus in the roof illuminated the room. A pair of oil-lamps smoked in stands beside ben Salman's desk. The physician sat behind the table, peering at a sheaf of papers balanced on his left knee. A reed pen dangled forgotten, behind one ear.  He glanced up as Malik came in and froze, staring with undisguised astonishment.

“I've come for more-” Malik said. He paused as ben Salman cringed back against the shelves. Several medicine vials tumbled to the floor and shattered, soaking the physician's sleeves and tunic with foul-smelling liquid.

Unease crawled across Malik's skin as the medicine dripped onto ben Salman's feet. He had expected the physician to behave as affably he always did. Why should he be terrified? Has he something to hide? Or has he discovered what I have kept secret?

If so, he wondered why ben Salman was afraid. The Order had earned a measure of goodwill within the city for assassinating the unpopular Majd Addin and his henchman al-Asad. Everyone knew that Assassins didn't harm innocent civilians.

So either he really does believe the tales that Assassins are all monsters who drink human blood, or he doesn't believe he's innocent, which means...

He said “You betrayed us.”

Ben Salman opened his mouth, but no words came. He wet his lips with his tongue and said hoarsely “You're Assassins. Murderers.”

“Who did you tell?”

“It was my duty.” Ben Salman said. “You want money?” He thrust a bloodstained pouch at Malik. “Take it.”

Malik sidestepped. The bag fell to the floor, spilling coins. “That's not what I'm here for.”

The physician shuddered, backing against the shelves. In the sudden silence Malik heard the clear chime of metal above the cacophony of squabbling, haggling and shopkeepers' calls in the street outside. He glanced around the room. Both windows were heavily barred and the only exit he could see was the front door. “You told the sultan, didn't you? What else did you say? Did he give you guards?”

Ben Salman swallowed. “Did you come to kill me?” he asked hoarsely.

Malik shook his head. “I'm not a murderer.”

The front door opened. A pair of guards dressed in Salah al-din's yellow sash stood in the doorway. Ben Salman pointed to Malik, shaking, and the soldiers rushed towards Malik with drawn swords

Malik went up towards the roof. He dived onto ben Salman's desk, leapt over the physician and used the shelves of medicine vials as a ladder to climb towards the skylight. Glass crunched beneath his boots as he ascended. Ben Salman gasped, reeling, striking blindly in Malik's direction, but his blows were weak and missed their target more often than not. The first guard reached the desk and leant across ben Salman to catch Malik's robe. Malik kicked him in the face. The guard lurched back. One of the soldier’s flailing fists struck the doctor in the face. Ben Salman cried out as his nose fountained blood.

Malik hit the oculus blade-first. He swept his knife across in a wide arc to slit the hides nailed across the skylight. The blade sliced the leather like soft cheese. Malik saw blue sky above his head just as a bucketful of icy water caught in the shallow depression of the skylight poured down upon ben Salman's desk, the physician and his guards.

The deluge soaked Malik to the skin. He tossed his knife down to grasp the frame. The dagger glanced from a soldier's helmet and stuck quivering in the desk. The shelves crashed to the floor as Malik jumped for the aperture, sending a cascade of medicines and glass bottles showering down on ben Salman and the soldiers below. Malik crawled out onto the flat roof, rolled upright and set off towards the Bureau at a dead run.

He was halfway across the rooftops before his instincts forced him to slow down and check for guards. It had been barely a moment since he had left Ismail at the Bureau. He had no reason to believe that ben Salman had not told the sultan everything he knew.  The guards will have arrived already.

The thought chilled Malik more than the freezing water. He slipped into the shelter of the first roof garden he found and surveyed the rooftops through filmy water-stained curtains.

A mosaic of buildings spread out around him, their patterns as familiar as the Creed. The shadows waned with the rising sun, leaving melting patches of frost in their wake. Malik knew every wind catcher, chimney, dome and garden where a man could hide. He picked out the gleam of sun on mail from half a dozen spots with little effort. I've never seen so many soldiers posted in this district. The Bureau must be compromised.

He doubted Ismail would have left before the guards arrived. That left two outcomes. He's captured, or he's dead. Or perhaps they're still there. There could be time to rescue him.

Malik didn't stop to consider his plan. He vaulted over the kiosk's low wall, keeping the bower between him and the guards to break their line of sight. The rooftops that stretched between his hiding place and the Bureau courtyard were an easy climb, but with so many guards Malik knew it would be hard to remain undetected. He dared not risk a fight, armed with nothing but his wits and one hand.

He eased from the shelter of the garden and crept towards the Bureau.The first guard warmed his hands against a smokestack, enjoying the heat radiating from the fire far below. He'd pulled his turban so far down that his ears might as well have been stuffed with cloth. Malik slipped past soundlessly. The soldier never moved.

Malik paused for breath as he checked the streets for guards. He hoped that all the sultan's men were as unobservant as the first. He saw two soldiers sheltering in the lee of a tall wind catcher. A covered arcade twined with dying vines ran along three sides of the roof behind. Malik climbed the trellis, drew a handful of grain from his sash and tossed the seeds down onto the courtyard to his left. The guards' gazes flicked to the squabbling birds. Malik ran across the roof of the arcade, dropped down past the soldiers and vanished around the corner before they had glanced up from the pigeons.  He crossed a narrow alley and climbed onto the carved ledge that decorated the base of a squat tower. The flat roof made a good vantage point and gave Malik his first good view of the Bureau.

A pair of guards stood straight as scimitars beside the pigeon-coop. The marks of many footprints stamped the frost melting on the roof. The potted palm in the courtyard lay on its side, pot shattered. The blanket that Malik had hung over the coop had fallen to the floor, and he caught a flash of iridescent feathers within the latticed cage. They haven't taken the pigeons. I can use the birds to send a message to Altaïr. 

Malik stepped onto the parapet, crouching so he didn't outline himself against the sun. His leap of faith was not the most graceful, but it served well enough, and seconds later Malik lay on his back in a pile of warm straw that smelled strongly of mildew and goats. A billy's nose nibbled at his cowl as he lay listening for the sound of footsteps. When he was satisfied that nobody had seen him jump he emerged from the haystack to the surprise of the goats. Hay tickled his neck as he crept silently across the three roofs that separated him from the guards.

Malik crept silently up behind the soldiers and closed his fingers slowly around the worn almond-shaped hilt of the nearest man's knife. Once he was sure he had a good grip on the weapon he whipped the blade from its sheath and drove the dagger up beneath its owner's right armpit to sever the great blood vessels before the man had time to move. A last breath hissed between the guard's teeth as he crumpled to the roof, taking the dagger with him. 

The second soldier was very young and slow to react. Malik thanked gods he didn't believe in. He clamped his right hand over the soldier's mouth and jerked backwards to pin the man against his body before the dead man's skull had bounced twice on the mud-and-plaster roof. If he's noticed I only have one arm, he thought, this will be a very short mission.

If he's noticed I'm unarmed, it will be even shorter.

“His death was quiet,” he said in a low voice. “Speak quickly, or yours won't be.”

The soldier's jaw pressed so tightly into his palm Malik felt the man's head tilt against his hand as he glanced down at his dead companion. The soldier moaned as Malik loosened his grip cautiously. “What do you want to know?”

“There was a novice,” Malik said. “In the Bureau. What happened to him?”

“The Assassin?” A bead of sweat trickled down the guard's cheek despite the frosty air. “He's been taken to Salah al-din.”

“Where?”

The guard gulped. “The Barbican.”

“Did you open the pigeon loft?” Malik could see at least one pigeon strutting behind the bars. Without the birds, he couldn't send a message telling Altaïr the Bureau had been compromised. Without a message, any Assassin that visited the city would be caught in Salah al-din's trap. 

The soldier shook his head. Malik pressed his arm around the soldier's throat below the brim of his helmet and above the high collar of his mail. He hauled as hard as he could. The guard slipped into unconsciousness in seconds. Malik lowered him to the roof. He moved quietly to the coop and unfastened the door.

The pigeons inside bobbed their heads, cooing uneasily. Malik flipped the cover from the Bureau ledger and tucked the book beneath his arm. The wrapping reeked of guano. He reached awkwardly for a pigeon and caught the closest bird by its legs. When he was sure he had a secure hold, he shouted at the top of his voice.

A pigeon rocketed over Malik's shoulder and exploded into the sky. The rest of the flock followed. The sky filled with downy feathers and clapping wings. Somebody shouted from the Bureau courtyard as Malik slammed the coop closed. He ran across the roof as the first soldiers emerged and leapt into the street below.

It was midday, and the streets were busy. The high walls and latticed roofs that sheltered passers-by from the sun in the heat of summer plunged the alleys into shadow. Malik chose the darkest passages he could find. The pigeon's tiny heart hammered against his palm as he ran. He hoped the bird survived the trip.

He heard shouting behind him as the guards crashed through the streets, shoving pedestrians aside to clear the way. He ran through clouds of floating rags in the papermaker's quarter and crossed, coughing, into the cotton-sellers' market.

The market was crowded. Malik slowed, dodging between rolls of striped fabric tall and narrow as palm trees.  He thought he'd lost the soldiers as he circled around through the orderly grid of the wool-merchants' warehouses, but they found him again as he ran down the silk-trader’s street. Men in stamped brocade robes and women wrapped in gold-striped veils stared at Malik as he ran. A few stopped to stare. Nobody made any move to stop him. He let momentum carry him as he ran on, gasping as the scab along his ribs broke open. Fresh blood coursed down his side.

He ran on.

The guards followed. 

When evening came, he sheltered in a dargah’s doorway. The Sufi shrine stood at the heart of a tiny graveyard crammed with headstones. The stelae leaned together like old men, their faded inscriptions peeled and illegible.

From the look of it, it had been a very long time since anyone visited the shrine. The offerings tied to the gates were badly faded, and Malik doubted there would be any visitors these days. Jerusalem's Arabs were trying to be good Muslims in the hope that God would protect them from a siege. The ziyarat had fallen out of favour. 

Scraps of saffron and turquoise cotton tickled Malik's neck as the threaded offerings blew in the cold breeze. He read the graffiti scrawled upon the stones while he waited for the light to fade. Countless hands had scribbled messages of gratitude to the saint for healing the sick, for finding lost children, for the safe birth of a son.

Everybody wants someone else to help them. Only the Assassins know you have to help yourself.

The pigeon in his hand struggled as the temperature dropped another few degrees. Malik juggled book and bird, whistling quietly to the pigeon to soothe it. His wet robes clung to his skin as he tucked the bird into his sleeve and stood, sliding his back against the marble walls of the shrine to avoid losing both the ledger and the pigeon.

He had no orders, no novices, and no weapons, but he was still rafiq of Jerusalem. The Bureau was still open as long as he was alive.

He thought of Ismail as the sky faded from pale turquoise to lapis, darkening to an indigo only a few shades from black. The new moon was as fine as a fingernail paring in the cold sky. Several hours had passed since the novice's capture, and Malik had seen a sufficiently motivated interrogator at Masyaf break a man in six minutes. Let's hope Salah al-din's torturer is a patient man.

He could not afford to stay out on the streets for long. If Salah al-din's soldiers knew the location of the Bureau, they knew the Jerusalem rafiq was a one-armed man.  There were more wounded veterans in Jerusalem than there once had been, but not enough that Malik could count on blending in.

He needed warmth, time, a cage for the pigeon, and a safe place for the book. Ink to write a letter to Altaïr. Medicine for his wounds. He wasn't going to be able to help Ismail if he was exhausted and freezing.

 Of course, he thought wryly, that assumes I'm going to be able to help him at all.

He could release the bird, return immediately to Altaïr and Masyaf.  But if he left Jerusalem now, Ismail would be dead and the city would be under siege by the time he returned.

Altaïr tasked me with doing what needs to be done, in order to put things right. I don't think he'll demote me for taking him at his word.

 

Author’s Note:

Habibi: ‘my love’

Ya amar: ‘o moon’ or ‘my beauty’

Iwan: a reception hall with three walled and one open sides.

 

Chapter Text

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.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven

The Romans had built the Jerusalem road from limestone in ancient times. The worn pale stone shone ghostly white in the dawn light. Malik's mare bent her head and sniffed at the pavement before she clattered onto the flagstones with a jolt that nearly cost Malik his tongue. The rais followed rather more sedately.

The horses, the saddlebags they carried and the money and equipment inside were gifts from Salah al-din. The Crusader army's camp at Latrun was barely twenty miles away, and the journey was short enough that there was no need for remounts.

Malik glanced over his shoulder at the city walls behind them and wondered, not for the first time, what exactly he was doing.

He was used to planning missions. It would be easy to kill the rais, leave Ismail to Salah al-din's tender mercies and ride north to wait out the winter behind Masyaf's strong walls. Altaïr would argue, but he would understand. It was ridiculous to expect one man to make a difference against so many. Withdrawing broke no tenet of the Creed.

But withdrawing would mean abandoning Jerusalem, and Malik refused to leave the city.  He knew every street, every courtyard, and most of the merchants, soldiers, tradesmen and thieves who spent their lives within the city walls.

I won’t leave, he thought. Not yet. Not until I know that there will be no siege-or until the siege is finished.  But why? For the Order? For Altaïr? For Salah al-din? For Nusaybah? For myself?

The wind that blew the branches of the olive trees offered no answers.

Altaïr told me once to walk amongst the people of Jerusalem and learn what they knew. But I've walked for too long. Heard too much. Perhaps I see what Altaïr does not.

Perhaps I am not wrong to stay. Our duty is-has always been-to the people. I have no intention of making the same mistake as Al Mualim. I will deliver Salah al-din's message. Do what I can to save Jerusalem. Win what concessions I can for the Order. Return Ismail to Masyaf.

But if he thought of returning anywhere, it wasn't to the gates and spires of Masyaf, but to Dar Khalifa.

He allowed himself one more moment of concern before he turned his attention to the road in front of him.

The western road was unsettlingly quiet. The season was late, and the highway should have been busy with the last few caravans before the winter storms closed the sea to shipping.  Tufts of withered grass fringed the stones. The wind rustled the branches of the olive trees planted beside the path and scattered wrinkled olives to rot in piles beneath the trees. .

It had been a long time since Malik had been a peasant, but he knew that the olives should have been gathered months ago. He wondered where the farmers and their families had gone. Probably dead. Or camping in the Temple Mount, with the other refugees.

“There won't be a harvest this year,” he said to himself. “People will starve.”

He did not realise he'd spoken aloud until the rais trotted up behind him. “Why do you care?”

Malik found his question foolish. “We all have to eat.”

The rais gave Malik a sardonic glare. “I thought the Assassins drank children's blood.”

“And I thought Salah al-din's soldiers could hold their tongues,” Malik said. “Perhaps we both are wrong.”

The rais snorted and kicked his gelding forwards. Malik followed suit. The mare broke into a bone-jarring trot that rattled his teeth but kept him alert. He'd had no more than a few hours' sleep in the last two days, and weariness weighted him like stones.

When they were still close enough to Jerusalem to hear the muezzin's call upon the wind, the rais turned his horse from the road and dismounted in a small meadow among the olive trees. Malik's black mare sidled as the rais tied his gelding to a wizened branch and scanned the thistle-studded grass for a clear spot to kneel.  He scuffed amongst the stones until he found a patch of bare ground barely the size of a blanket and gestured for Malik to join him.

Malik shook his head. “We don't pray. And you shouldn't. You'll draw attention.”

The rais took a handful of dirt from the ground and scoured his arms to the elbows. “While we are still in Muslim lands I'll do as I've always done.”

Malik shrugged and leaned upon his horse's neck, fingers twisted in the mare's sparse mane. Feathery snow brushed the mountaintops to each side of the road as the rais turned towards Mecca.

After a while the rais finished his prayers and rose, brushing at his sleeves, to mount his horse with more grace than Malik could have managed.  The salat lay like a sword between them as they rode.

The old road wound north and west through the olive orchards. The silver-grey leaves were the same shade as the winter sky. Splintered stumps studded the ground where trees had been felled for firewood. The soil was dark with rotten fruit. Skinny goats browsed listlessly among the trees.

Malik's thoughts roamed like the animals. His mind strayed to Salah al-din. Still he could not bring himself to hate the Sultan. Warriors learned to use whatever weapon came to hand, and there was no keener dagger than the Assassins. 

King Richard promised Altaïr he would do what was right. And still he fights.  But he is only human, and no doubt he has other oaths to fulfil. Yet his army comes closer to the city with every moment. Perhaps Salah al-din's message will halt him. If it does not, maybe the threat of the Assassins will be enough to bring him pause.

He glanced down at himself and snorted. If Salah al-din wished the Crusaders to fear the Assassins, he should have sent a better messenger.

At noon they pulled off the road into an ancient theatre built from the same limestone as the road. Malik climbed to the top of the auditorium while the rais intoned the zuhr prayer. He scanned the horizon from the crumbling pediment and wondered if Salah al-din's monuments would last as long. The rising winds caught Amir's words of faith and piety and flung them back in Malik's face.

“What is the plan?” he asked the rais after the soldier had said his prayers. “Are we going to ride into the midst of Richard's army?”

“We'll leave the horses at Beit Nuba,” the rais said, rubbing one hand uneasily over his greying beard. “Then we'll head north. Skirt around the Crusader camp. They're travelling from the west, so we'll approach from that direction.”

“And once there?”

“That is your problem,” Amirturned his back on Malik and went into the bushes. His last words drifted up behind a tree. “Not mine.”

Malik grimaced.He found dates, dried meat and soft cheese in his saddlebags and sat down on a fallen stone to eat. The rustle of oiled paper and the smell of food tempted a pair of ragged children from the olive grove, with hair as tangled as a cotton-bush and bare feet as calloused as their goats. The boy asked curiously, “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” Malik countered.

“Herding the sheep.” the boy said. His eyes flickered between Malikand the girl. The girl bit her nails to the quick and stared at the food while Malik exchanged a scrap of bread for both their names.

“Salim,” the boy said. He indicated his sister. “This is Hayat.”

The girl wasn't old enough to wear a veil. Her expression was frightened and hungry and brave all at the same time. She nodded at Malik's sword and asked “Are you going to fight?”

Malik gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Perhaps.” He held out another piece of bread. “Where are you from?”

The children exchanged glances. The boy looked at the bread, and shrugged. “Beit Nuba,” he said.

So we're close, Malik thought. He tossed the bread in the air. The boy snatched the crust and gave it to his sister. She gnawed on the morsel as Malik asked “How far?”

“Not far. “ The boy pointed off between the trees. A roar erupted from the bushes as he spoke. The children fled as the rais came crashing through the orchard towards them.

“God preserve us!” he shouted. “Go! It's not safe.”

The children ran a short distance and stopped to crouch in the bushes. The rais picked up a fallen chunk of stone from the ground and tossed it at the boy, though Malik saw he took care not to aim too closely. The children vanished into the silver-green ocean of the trees. “Why did you do that?” he asked the rais. “They could have told us of the road ahead.”

“I know the road ahead,” the rais snapped.  He untied his gelding's reins from a branch and climbed astride the horse.

Malik rolled his eyes and finished his meal in two swallows. “We kill men. Not children. It says so, in the Creed. “

“Do your kind always follow the Creed?”

“Not always,” Malik admitted. “But those who fail are punished.”

The rais curled his lip. “Assassin laws are worthless.” He jabbed his heels into his mount's sides and trotted out into the road. Malik swung onto his own mare and wondered what the rais thought the purpose of assassination was.

Salah al-din's troops had occupied Beit Nuba during their retreat from the coast. The Muslim army had been gentler than the Crusader troops but they had not been kind. The fields were stripped of grain and there were no animals in the streets. Several of the houses had burned to the ground. The remaining structures were far from impressive. Malik's horse was taller than most of the rooftops. The only patch of colour was the mosque's green faience roof.

The children they had met among the ruins had run back to tell their families of the travellers. When Malik and the rais rode into the village of Beit Nuba they were greeted by a small assembly of those too old, too loyal or too stupid to flee.  The villagers stood uncertainly in the centre of the road. Nobody moved. A few wan faces peered from doors and windows.

The children they'd seen in the ruins darted across the street and vanished into one of the houses. The rais' grey gelding shied, and the rais cursed and pulled on the reins. “Christians,” he muttered with loathing.

“Christians?”

“Of course. Are you blind? There's nothing here. Why else would they stay?”

Malik looked around. Smoke spiralled from the chimneys of the few inhabited houses, all within a stone's throw of the church.  ”They're waiting for the Crusaders.”

The rais nodded. “May God curse them,” he said without real malice. “Though I doubt the army will have them. They're peasants. How can they fight?” He swung down from his horse and demanded “Is this how you greet travellers?”

A pigeon clattered from the church tower. A few moments later a tall man in a yellow turban emerged from the closest house and came towards them, wiping his hands. “Welcome,” he said.

The rais engaged him immediately in conversation. Both of them ignored Malik, so he took the time to look around.

Beit Nuba seemed no different from any other place, but on a second glance Malik noticed that none of the villagers dressed in Islamic green, and several of them wore small crosses of wood or forged nails. Malik had seen few Christians, but he'd heard Altaïr's mother had been one. Though that's hardly in their favour. I suppose it's not her fault.

He listened to the rais bicker with the peasant for a while until the rais handed the man a few copper coins and turned to Malik. “We'll leave the horses here. These people will care for them until we return.” He slapped his gelding's muscled neck and handed the reins to the villager, who seemed pleased with the bargain. “A few days, nothing more.”

The villager gestured towards the back of the house. “This way,” he said.

Malik followed him into the next street, where he discovered the Christians had converted one of the nearby houses into a stable, a move that was unlikely to endear the peasants to their Muslim neighbours on their return.  He knotted the mare's reins to a stake while he unpacked the saddlebags. Half way through the task he became aware that he was being watched. Dark eyes peered at him through the brush.

“You've got one arm,” said the boy.

“That's true.” Malik took flat bread and a handful of dried dates from the pack. He flicked a date to the boy, who snatched the fruit eagerly. “Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?”

“Did you lose it fighting in the war?” Salim asked. Muffled giggling erupted in the corner. 

“No,” Malik said.

Hayat crouched by her brother's legs. “How did you lose it?” 

“Fighting evil men,” Malik said.

“Evil Crusaders?”

Malik shook his head. He rolled the food in a blanket, repacked it all in one of the saddlebags, slung the straps across his shoulder and leaned back against the mare's warm flank. “What do you know about the Crusaders?”

The boy shrugged. “I know they're coming. Father says we should stay here. He says we won't be welcome in Jerusalem. Ummu wants him to go, but he won't listen.”

“We could go.” Hayat rocked back on her heels. “Zahra's family went months ago.”

Salim frowned. “Zahra's family were different.”

 “Different how?” Malik asked. “Were they Muslims?” 

The boy nodded.

“You should go to Jerusalem,” Malik told them. “The sultan will look after you.” He hoped that the sultan wasn't the sort to persecute Christians for the sins of their faith. 

“If they go to Jerusalem there'll be nobody here to look after the horses,” the rais said from behind Malik. The children vanished and Amir said “I told you not to speak to them.”

Malik ignored him. “They won't be safe if they stay here,” he said. Neither the villagers, the church nor the crumbling mudbrick walls would protect the children if it came down to a fight.

“The Crusaders won't harm Christians.” the rais said.

Malik couldn't summon the energy to argue. He shrugged and turned away. A thought stuck him. “So the Crusaders wouldn't object,” he said thoughtfully, “if a Christian joined their army?”

“It depends.”

“What on?”

The rais frowned.  “Why do you ask?”

“Why do you think? We can join their army. All we have to do is pretend to be Christian.”

The rais' frown deepened to a scowl. “I will not renounce my faith.”

“I'm not asking you to,” Malik said. “Just hide in plain sight. You knew where we were headed. Did you expect the Crusaders to join you for Friday prayers? To deliver Salah al-din's message we must walk among the Frankish army. It'll be a little hard to do that if we're dead.”

“They might check.”

“In this weather? They won't. Christians never bathe.” Malik scratched at his cheek. Stubble bristled against his hand. Nusaybah's bathhouse seemed a long time ago.  He was beginning to feel like a Christian himself.

There was a short silence, then Amir said “”All right.”

“You'll do it?” Malik asked in surprise. He'd expected more resistance.

“I will,” the rais said wearily. “If only because I can see no other way. If the farmers here will let us spend the night and if you can convince them to teach us their customs, we have shelter and a disguise. Without that, the Crusaders will kill us before we even get near enough to shout Salah al-din's name. “He scowled at Malik. “Unless you're some great lord to hold for ransom?”

“I think we both know that's unlikely,” Malik said.

The rais gazed up at the fragment of blue sky, small as a faience tile, which gleamed above the green-roofed minaret. He sighed in a cloud of half-frozen breath. ““It's going to be a cold night.”

Later they sheltered round the fire with the children's family, choking on fumes as the wind outside blew the smoke back down the chimney. For all its smoke, the fire gave out little heat. Malik traded some of the dried meat in his pack for an ancient skinning knife. He sat cross-legged, honing the blade to razor sharpness while he learned the prayers the Christians called the Pater Noster, the Ave Maria, and the Credo.  

“Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobic pecca-”

“Peccatoribus.”

“Peccatoribus.” Malik had always had a good ear for languages, but the Crusaders spat their Latin rather than speaking as men should. The rais grimaced as he spoke the words like curses, but recalled them well enough.

By midnight both of them had committed the prayers to memory.  Malik waited until the family had retired to sleep wrapped within their blankets before he asked the rais “Do you know what the message says?”

“That's not for us to know.”

Malik frowned. “Do you even have it with you?”

The rais nodded and slipped the letter from his sleeve. “Here it is. But it's for Richard's eyes, not yours.”

Malik rolled his eyes and pretended to agree, and when the family brought tea he used the cover of his sleeve to slip the last of ben Salman's vial into the rais' cup. He watched, pretending to sleep, as the rais gathered his cloak around him and settled on the mats close to the embers. The rais settled, snoring, and Malik crept to his knees and slipped the letter from the rais' sleeve.

The folded paper was tied with two silk cords and sealed with a spot of wax stamped with Salah al-din's Egyptian falcon. Malik tested the seal between his finger and thumb. When the wax held tightly to the paper he rose silently and slipped out of the house with the letter. The night was dark as iron, and a perihelion circled the moon.

Malik left the letter outside on a flat stone to freeze and returned to the fire. He slept there for an hour or two before he crept outside to unfold the message. The cold air hardened the wax and the seal peeled easily away from the parchment.

That's not what I expected, he thought as he read.

The hearth was still warm, and a few minutes close to the fire softened the wax so Malik could reseal the letter. He tucked the cords around the paper and slipped the message back into the rais' sleeve. The wound in his side ached. The family snored around the fire. Malik found a jar of honey among their scant supplies. He mixed a finger of honey with ash from the fire and plastered the mess across his ribs before he fell into an uneasy sleep.

He woke to cold water dripping onto his face. The rais was huddled by the fire, dressed in a borrowed blue woollen robe that did nothing to hide his military bearing. “You're awake,” he said, yawning. “Take off your sword. I've arranged with the Christians to leave our gear here.”

Malik stretched. He'd slept in his clothes with the baldric slung across his shoulder. He handed Nusaybah’s sword to the rais. Amir tossed him a sheepskin in return. The fleece's tight-curled wool was greasy with oil. It would make a poor rain coat, but it was better than nothing. The rais threw a similar fleece across his shoulders and stepped out into the rain.

Malik followed. Mud sucked at his boots. “Where are you heading with that?”

“I promised the Christians I'd leave our things inside the mosque,” the rais said without turning. “In case the Crusaders come.” 

Malik glanced up at the lowering sky. Cold rain needled his face. “You think they'll come this far?”

The rais shook his head as he pushed the mosque door open. “I don't know,” He went inside, glowering at Malik over his shoulder as if he expected the Assassin to stay outside. Malik followed anyway.

From the look of things the mosque had been bare even before the Muslims had left Beit Nuba. Dead leaves and wisps of dried grass blew across the packed-earth floor. Sparrows nested in the rafters. A dead bird rested in the minbar.  

The rais chose the driest corner of the room to deposit his bundle. He put the weapons down gently on the pile of clothes and bent to lift the bird from the minbar. “Where did you get that blade?” he said as he tossed the dead sparrow outside. “I've seen Assassin weapons before. This isn't one of them.”

“That's none of your concern.”

“I think it is.”

Malik dropped his hand to the skinning knife's hilt. “I think it isn't.”

Amir shrugged. “Please yourself,” he said. His eyes flicked once more to Nusaybah's sword as they left, but he didn't mention it again, and Malik was content with that.

By the time they returned to the house to collect their packs the family had crawled from their blankets and lit the fire. The rais refused tea, but accepted a long wooden staff from beside the door. “If we're going to dress like peasants we might as well look the part.” he said when Malik stared. “Though God knows there's no honour in pretending to be something you're not.”

“There's honour in survival,” Malik said. “Unless your God finds corpses pleasing.”

The rais glared at him. “At least the Christians believe in something.”

Malik shrugged. “We believe that all men die,” he said.

 The rais glared at him in return, and it might have led to blows had the villagers not interrupted to wish he travellers goodbye and simultaneously make quite certain they were gone.   Malik caught a glimpse of Salim and Hayat watching from a window as they left. Adult hands pulled the children inside and closed the shutters. A sea of olive trees swallowed the small church tower as they climbed from the orchards into a landscape of bare and frozen hills. 

“Which way?” Malik asked.

The rais pointed with his staff to a muddy trail. The narrow path could have been a sheep-track, or a dry riverbed. “We'll cut north into the hills and come up on the army from behind. There'll be less risk that way.”

“Really?” Malik asked sceptically.

“Let's hope,” the rais said.

Malik would have suggested a better plan if he could have thought of one. He shrugged again. “Let’s go.”

As they climbed the rain turned to hail, and then to snow.  Water soaked through Malik's sheepskin, settled in a pool between his shoulder blades and trickled down to soak his sleeves. He pulled his cowl across his head, fingers clumsy with cold. His only consolation was that the rais was as miserable as he.

They walked for a few hours before the rais paused to check their course. Malik sheltered beneath a tree and looked out at the desolate view. To his north the mountains marched towards the sky. In the west he ridges sloped towards a greyish sea. The peaks were bone-white. A flood of olives filled the valleys. There was no sign of the Crusaders, but Malik knew the army was there.

They continued with care. The rivers had all burst their banks, and the cold had frozen them.  The paths in place were sheets of ice. Malik's breath frosted in the air. He flicked a pebble over his knuckles as he walked to keep his fingers flexible. The rais endured in silence, his blue robe darkening as the wool soaked through with snow.

“We've got to stop soon,” Malik said when they reached a stand of tall pine trees. “We'll freeze if this storm continues.”

The rais blew on his hands. “Where do you suggest we stop?”

Malik surveyed the hillside. The pines provided some shelter, but not enough to stop them from freezing to death. “I don't know.” He tossed the pebble into the trees and leaned against a snow-covered trunk. “Surely we must head down soon?”

“Not for a while.” The rais huddled in the lee of a pine. “There's a hunting lodge not far from here that I've had cause to use more than once. God willing, we'll make it there.”

“A hunting lodge?” Malik looked around at the snow-covered wasteland. “What is it you hunt?”

The rais looked surprised. “In this region? Mostly bear. Don't you hunt?”

“Only men.” Malik said.

“I forgot,” the rais snapped. “Occasionally I make the mistake of believing your kind are human.”

Malik scowled. “Occasionally I make the mistake of believing your kind are clever. We'll freeze before long. There's nothing here. We should go down.”

The rais spat a cloud of frosty air. “Will you kill me if I don't?”

“Malik shook his head, a little reluctantly. “We only kill those who deserve to die.” Two days of travel had suggested to him many reasons why the rais deserved to die. He suspected none of them would hold water with the brotherhood.     

“That's a lie,” the rais said, and spat again.

“Not that,” Malik said. “If it's an argument you're after, I'll oblige. But you could have picked a better place.” 

“This place is as good as any.”

“Or as bad,” Malik retorted. He heard a soft crunch on the snow behind them. The rais heard it as well. His knuckles tightened whitely on his staff as he swung round. 

Their fight was forgotten as the strangers approached through the mist. At first they seemed like spirits or jinn, but as they neared the illusion shattered. The apparitions wore red and green tabards over mail shirts, with spurred boots and plated leather chausses. They rode broad-backed destriers. Malik heard the creak of leather and smelt oil, horsehair and unwashed skin. Both men and mounts kept their heads down as they made their way along, and it was a few moments before they looked up. 

What are Crusaders doing here? Malik thought. He slipped behind a gnarled tree trunk.  The rais took a step to the right before he settled the butt of his staff on the snow and stepped forwards.

Ave Maria,” he said, gesturing at himself and at the patch of bare snow where Malik had been. “Christians.”

The knights looked at each other. They looked at Amir. Then they charged.

Malik had to admit that the rais made a perfect distraction. As the horses' iron-shod hooves threw up crescent moons of snow he took hold of a branch and scaled the tree as fast as one hand and both legs could carry him.

The knight thundered towards him, ironclad, impervious unless you knew just where to strike.

Malik knew just where to strike. When he had climbed to head height he sent his knife skimming towards the solid bulk of the Crusaders' horses.

The blade sliced through the throat of the closest charger. Blood sprayed as the destrier skidded to its knees with a groan. Its rider lurched forwards in the saddle, struggling to keep his seat, as Malik leapt from the tree and landed on the fallen charger's rump. The horse bucked weakly as he landed, but the life was ebbing from its body and Malik kept his balance easily.

The rider reached for his knife, but Malik was faster. He snatched the dagger up before the knight's mailed hand touched the pommel and buried it to the hilt beneath the Crusader's upraised arm. The Frank's muscles clenched around the blade in bloody reflex as the knife sank home. As the last breath bubbled from the knight's lungs Malik leapt away and circled behind the sole remaining Crusader.

The rais was fending the Frank off valiantly with his staff, but it was clear to Malik he wouldn't last long. The heavy wood bore several scars from the Frank's sword.

Malik snatched his knife up from the dead destrier's throat and ran full tilt towards the Frank. The warhorse noticed him before its rider did. It lurched away, eyes rolling. The Frank sawed on the reins and the horse spun towards Malik on its haunches. Hooves like serving platters truck the snow. Its wide nostrils belched steam into the frozen air.

Malik felt the animal's breath on his face as he sprang, landing on the horse's broad back. He looped his arm around the rider's neck and pulled with all his strength.

It wasn't quite enough. The high-cantled Frankish saddle saved the knight from falling. They grappled for a moment as the horse snorted and danced and the rider tried to reach back with his long sword to stab Malik in the chest. At last Malik drew his arm back and slammed his fist with as much force as he could manage into the rider's kidney. He bloodied his knuckles, but the knight slid from the saddle and his Frankish sword fell forgotten into the snow.

The impact knocked the breath from both men. The horse curvetted away, snorting, stirrups hanging loose at its side. Malik raised the knife, gasping in the cold air, and the knight sat up and took him by the throat.  The blade cut cloth, but the Frank's mail shirt beneath protected him from serious injury. The knight wrapped gauntleted fingers around Malik's wrist and smashed his hand against the ground. There were rocks and ice beneath the soft covering of freshly fallen snow. The first blow was cushioned.  The second and third weren't.  Malik thrashed, locking his fingers around the horn hilt. If I let go, I'm dead.

The Crusader wore a bucket-shaped iron helm. Round holes caked with ice allowed for breathing, giving the Frank's breath a sinister, hissing sound. Blue eyes glared at Malik through a thin slit in the helmet. Suddenly the Frank hammered his head forwards. Malik dodged the blow, but something grated in his wrist as the knight's mailed fingers tightened. His fingers slid from the hilt, and the Frank's eyes brightened with triumph.

There was a clang like a church bell. The knight's grip abruptly slackened. Malik snatched the knife and sank the blade into the narrow eye slot. The knight convulsed, arching backwards, and Malik pushed him away.

He scrambled to his feet and saw the rais standing in the snow, staff raised. There was a crescent-shaped dent in the fallen Frank's helmet. Gradually he became aware of the ache in his bruised hand, one loose back tooth, and the cold's unceasing nagging. The knife was still in his hand. He bent and wiped the blade on the dead man's surcoat.

“You're welcome,” said the rais.

Malik probed his tooth experimentally with the tip of his tongue. “So are you,” he said.

 

Author’s Note:

Again I’ve fudged dates and locations here. While the Crusader army advanced towards Jerusalem in November 1191, they got as far as Beit Nuba, and didn’t retreat until early January. Muslim morale was very low, and if they’d pressed on to Jerusalem the Crusaders could really have captured the city, though terrible weather and long supply lines would have meant they’d had a hard job holding it.

Syrian Christians probably wouldn’t have known the Latin prayers that Malik and Amir learn in this chapter.

Honey and ash is an old remedy to prevent infection.  

A lot of period Muslim swords had religious inscriptions etched on the blades. The Assassins are atheists in-game, and probably wouldn’t have carried these kinds of swords.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight

Nusaybah spent the night in hope. When morning came she forced herself to face reality. She’d heard no word from Malik. It was as if he had vanished without trace the instant he left her doorstep. 

What did you think was going to happen? she chided herself as she tallied profit and loss in her accounts. The day dragged on without news as Nusaybah buried herself in work. She reviewed her ledgers, signed some contracts and fulfilled others, made sure that Rashid was fed and bathed, and ordered extra donations for the mosque, because a holy war tended to make people question others’ piety. None of it helped.

Evening came, and she’d heard nothing. She sent Munya out to gather news. None of it was good. Crusader scouting parties had been seen a few miles from the walls. Every day more refugees piled into the city, and it was clear to anyone with the most basic understanding of siege warfare-or for that matter, any common sense-that the city would not hold. How could it? The emirs had never expected to fight through winter. Neither had the people. There were too many refugees, and too few fighters

Unless we act as did the Franks, and knight all comers.

There was a pleasant symmetry to the thought, but knighting townspeople hadn't saved Jerusalem from Salah al-din's armies. It wouldn't save the city now if King Richard and his troops continued to advance. Sentiment and honour didn’t win wars.

She worked late into the night. Abacus beads slid beneath her henna-stained fingers as she called for more ink and paper, covering sheet after sheet with neat notes. In the early hours of morning the pen slipped from her hands. She scanned the page she had just written and found a host of errors. The second page was worse. She threw the whole lot into the brazier and snatched a few hours of restless sleep. At first light, she called Munya again.

Her maid came, yawning. “My lady?”

Nusaybah dispatched Munya to the hammam near the barracks where the soldiers' wives bathed. Munya returned at noon complaining about the quality of the soap and scrub brushes.

“Terrible,” she told Nusaybah. “Like wire.”

Nusaybah raised an eyebrow, and Munya settled, scratching, to business. “I don't have much,” she warned her mistress, wringing out the towel Nusaybah offered her as if she wished to scrub the whole unpleasant memory away. “They're close-mouthed.  But I did hear one of them complain her husband had been sent from the city when she'd tried her hardest to keep him here at home. “

“That doesn't sound so strange.”

“It isn't,” Munya said. “But the patrols go out in groups. And Salah al-din and his secretary Imad-al-din held a private meeting at the Barbican last night, though nobody knows much about what happened.”

Nusaybah nodded. The news only confirmed her suspicions. “Best to go straight to the source,” she said, “I'll need to send a message to Imad al-din.”

Munya looked sceptical. “Is that wise?”

Nusaybah wasn’t, but she nodded anyway. “He’s expecting me to write.”

The letter she sent was brief:

To Imad al-din al-Isfahani, katib and secretary,

Thanks be for God for your letter. You asked me for news, but I dare entrust nothing to paper.

In the name of the Merciful, I beg you, visit soon.

Nusaybah bint Khadijah al-Yerusalem.

She summoned a courier, who promised delivery by noon prayers and kept his word. Imad al-din arrived by early afternoon, unannounced and unaccompanied.

 Nusaybah received him in the same meeting hall. She veiled for their meeting, but left her eyes uncovered.  “Greetings, my lord,” she said. “I’m glad that you have come.”

“It was my pleasure,” Imad al-din replied. His clothes were subtly more rumpled, his brow a little more furrowed than their last visit.

Nusaybah wished she knew what he was thinking. The Indian smiths who forged her blades knew how much heat and coals and ore to add to their furnaces to produce the effect the wanted. Surely there must be a way to predict the tempering of Imad al-din’s mind. Would he respond best to quiet dignity? To desperation? To anger? To begging?”

She had only seconds to choose.  Imad al-din’s frown deepened. “You told me you had news.”

Nusaybah rose from the divan to pace the room. “You know that I sell weapons,” she said, finally. “Last night one of my factors had a visitor, a stranger. He asked to buy knives. I only trade with merchants known to me, such as yourself.“ She nodded to Imad al-din. “My man became suspicious, and refused. The stranger demanded to meet with me personally. He offered a good price, so I agreed.”

“And then?”

“My visitor seemed pleased with our stock. Asked to see more. When I couldn’t provide exactly what he wanted, he grew angry. I showed him some swords, but that didn’t help. He refused everything I offered. The only thing that seemed to interest him was that old blade I promised you.”

“He took the sword?”

She offered a mental apology to Malik. “He said he was an Assassin. Then he took the blade and left. My guards were too frightened to stop him.”  

He nodded, brow creasing. ”A wise choice. Was this stranger unusual in any way?”

“How did you know?” She allowed her eyes to widen. “He only had one arm.”

He grunted. “Just a guess.”

“A good one,” she said. “How did you know?”

Imad al-din grimaced. “We're close to driving out that accursed sect, but some still remain. I know the man who threatened you-know of him, at any rate. He’s gone.”

A cold hand clenched around Nusaybah’s heart. She stopped her pacing and sank back onto the divan, hoping that Imad al-din would interpret her concern for Malik’s safety as fear for her own. ”Dead?”

“He won’t return,” Imad al-din said. “You’re safe here.” He gave her a smile that was meant to be reassuring.

Nusaybah forced her mouth into a curve. “Then I shall sleep more easily,” she said, wondering where on earth Malik was. “Are there more? My maid heard that they are raising an army to fight with the Crusaders. I swear I shall not rest until I am certain we are safe.”

Imad al-din spat on the floor. Nusaybah wished he wouldn’t. Good carpets were expensive. “The Assassins are as good as dead. God has long abandoned them. They’re infidels. Idolaters. Satan-lovers. They’ll end in hell, and good riddance.”

“You hate them,” she said.

“I have good reason,” he replied. “When you showed me that sword, I told you the Sultan took me to war. We fought to annex Syria against the traitor Gumushtugin. The traitor begged the Assassins for help. Thirteen of their fida’in attacked the sultan at his camp. The jackals were all killed, but not before one gave me this.”

He rolled up the cuff of his brocade sleeve. Peering closely, Nusaybah saw a faded scar that ran from Imad al-din’s knobbly wrist and vanished under bunched fabric at his elbow.

“The wound turned septic,” Imad al-din continued. “It nearly killed me. From then on, Salah al-din wore a mail shirt when he slept. And I decided conquest was a task for fighters, not writers.” He smiled wryly. “Your sword still tempted me. Perhaps that dog of an Assassin did me a favour when he took the blade.”

“I’ll find you another,” she promised.

“You are too kind,” he said.

The conversation turned to other matters. Nusaybah plied Imad al-din with tea and conversation, hunting for more tales of the Assassins. Imad al-din responded with more tales of his campaigns with Salah al-din, but he gave no more away. By the time he left Nusaybah felt as if she'd sold too much, and gained too little.

A poor trade on both parts, she thought. Wherever Malik is, I hope he fares better.

***

The rais led them on through the snow. White flakes drifted down between the trees as the blood on Malik's sleeve froze to ruby droplets. The snow settled thickly behind them, turning the dead men into fallen logs and the horse into a hillock. The falling flakes erased the story of the battle for anyone who wished to read it.

At least till thaw, Malik thought grimly. By then, it won’t be my problem.

As they passed beneath the trees he noticed Amir watching him beneath the hood of his cloak and bit back a sarcastic retort with an effort. The rais had saved his life; he owed the man more than sarcasm and mockery. “You've got something to say?”

“I don't understand,” the rais said. Long pauses slashed his sentences as he struggled to find words. “How do you fight as you do if you don't believe?”

“I believe in my brothers,” Malik said. “In the Creed. Nothing else.”

“Your brothers aren't here,” The rais glanced up at the pines as if an army of Assassins waited in the branches.

“Nor is your God.”

“Not to you,” the rais snapped, but it was clear that his heart wasn't in the argument. He trudged on a few steps in silence before saying quietly, “I did not expect you to fight for my life. For that, I thank you. But you are still an infidel and I am not your friend. You can't wash wounds with blood.”

“On that we disagree. “Malik said. “But I think we can work together anyway.”

The rais glanced at the bleak hills. “I think we have no choice.”

“Agreed,” said Malik. “How far is your lodge?”

“Not far, praise God.”

As they came around the corner of the mountain Malik saw a gilded dome rising through the trees. The rais quickened his steps, pausing as the sound of battle seeped between the pines. It seemed they weren't the first travellers to seek shelter. Shouting voices, screaming horses and clashing swords came from the clearing in front of the lodge.

They crept forwards under the cover of the fight and peered through branches at a wide snow-covered clearing that stretched between the treeline and a waist-high wall that circled the lodge like a pair of cupped hands.  A pair of Frankish knights battled half a dozen ragged men in the field. The grass and snow were trampled to mud. Malik saw at least one archer hiding in the trees to his right. The archer's gaze fixed upon the struggling men as he waited for his chance at a shot. He showed no sign of noticing their stealthy arrival.

“Soldiers?” Malik asked Amir.

The rais shook his head. “A rabble. Must be bandits.”

“Then we'll have no better chance to prove our credentials to the Christians,” Malik said.

The rais watched the battle with resignation. “It seems we have no choice,” he said, hefting his staff. “You take the archer. I'll distract the knights.”

“You should be careful,” Malik cautioned. The rais resembled the bandits more than the Franks.

“So should you,” Amir snapped, heading off into the pines.

Malik crept towards the archer. The thick snow made stealth difficult, but not impossible. Malik waited until the man had nocked his arrow before he laid his knife against the archer's throat and said “Don't move.”

 The archer's arm trembled, faltering. The arrow twanged away and buried itself in snowy grass. “Who are -” he whispered.

“Assassins,” Malik said. “Stay still.”

He felt the archer's throat bob beneath the blade of his knife.  “What-what do you want?”

“Go,” Malik said.  “Tell your friends. Leave this place and don't come back.” He pressed the knife harder. “If you return, we'll kill you. Leave your weapons.”

The man's eyes swivelled frantically, trying to take in half the forest without moving his head. He dropped the bow to the ground and unfastened the quiver from his shoulder, every muscle tense with anticipation. “What do the Assassins want here?”

“That's none of your business,” Malik said. “Go. Tell the others”

He watched the bandit run into the field. Near the lodge, Amir fought one of the bandits with great swings of his stave. The Crusaders held their own against the rest. As soon as the archer was within bowshot he began to shout and wave his arms. Malik couldn't hear what he shouted, but he saw the outlaws run. Two bodies bled facedown into the snow.

Malik nodded in satisfaction. Sometimes a reputation was all that you needed.

He picked up the archer's weapon and slung bow and quiver across his left shoulder. The rais might find a use for them, he thought as he headed through the trees to join Amirin the clearing.

The rais gave him a sharp glance. “What happened?”

Malik shrugged. “The bandits changed their mind,” he said, sliding the bow and arrow from his shoulder. “Take this. Its owner has no use for it, and neither do I. Where are the Crusaders? ”

The rais took the weapon sceptically. “Over there,” he said, jerking his head towards the lodge. “They haven't attacked. Maybe they're confused.”

The Crusaders were encamped behind the low stone wall by the lodge, where they stood peering at Malik and Amir over the stones. They were too far away for Malik to see their faces. “I hope they're more tolerant than their companions,” he said.

The rais nodded. They made their way across the bloodstained, trampled snow towards the lodge. The knights had their swords in their hands, but they made no move to attack. The reason for their halt was clear; one horse was lame upon a foreleg.

The Franks wore jackets of stained heavy cloth beneath their mail, with rolled cloth chausses tucked into fur-lined boots. They were dishevelled, as might be expected. The horses were loaded for travel, and Malik saw the gleam of armour in the packs. One man yanked an arrow from his companion's jacket. The swearing that ensued failed to indicate any serious injury. Malik guessed the thickly padded cloth had provided some protection.

 “Malik and Amir,” Malik told them, in Arabic. “We're Christians,” he added prudently.

“What do you do here?” asked one knight in the barbarous accent of Aleppan traders.

The rais said “We're Christians from Jerusalem come to shelter with your army. We're not welcome in the city.”

The Crusaders exchanged glances. “You want to go to Latrun?”

“We want to fight with you,” Malik said.”

“I'd say you've proved you can,” the second soldier said, rubbing at his arm. His Arabic was rather better than his companion's, though his voice was oddly accented. “Who were those men?”

“Bandits,” Malik explained. “They only attack when the odds are in their favour.” He forbade to mention that the four of them had been outnumbered as easily as two.”

“If you don't wish to us to join you,” the rais said, “simply let us spend the night in peace. Then we'll be on our way.”

The first soldier snapped the arrow in half and tossed it to the ground. “You can join us if you wish. But if you're Christians, you must swear in Christ's name not to cause us harm.”

Malik and the rais exchanged glances. The Assassins were used to hiding in plain sight, and Malik had sworn many oaths he had no intention of upholding. “We swear,” he said, although his hand did not stray too far from his knife.

The first soldier nodded. “Then you'll do.”

“Is there space for a fire?” Malik gestured at the lodge.

The soldier shrugged and turned away to tend to the horses. Malik and the rais kicked snow away from the lodge door and prised it open. The lodge was a summer retreat, and its domed airy ceilings and large windows held heat poorly. The room was barely warmer than the freezing field outside. The wide shutters had been nailed shut for the winter, giving the space a cave like aspect. There was an arched fireplace set into one wall, and a stack of scattered firewood against another.

Amir pulled flint and steel from his pack and kindled a blaze. The flames brought the frescos on the walls to life. Painted knights on spindle-legged horses chased lissom deer across the walls between borders of elegant Arabic script. “Idolatry,” he said disapprovingly. 

Malik rested his arm on the mantelpiece and leaned above the fire. His clothes steamed; skin prickling painfully as heat returned. Whenever he moved a few paces away, the cold crept back.

“Malik and Amir,” he said after a while. Prince and king. “Our parents had great hopes.”

“Mine at least were not disappointed.” the rais said.

Malik stretched. “Mine neither.”

The rais frowned. “You said you didn't have a family.”

Malik shrugged. “I don't know where they are, or if they're still alive. My brother at least is dead. But I won’t have the sultan take vengeance for my crimes upon my clan.”

“Salah al-din's an honourable man!”

Malik heard a snatch of Frankish conversation from outside. He bit back his retort as the Franks entered, stamping snow from their boots. Malik pushed away from the fire and drew back into the shadows as the soldiers crowded round the fire. The rais made space for them.

The man with the arrows in his jacket held his hands out to the blaze. His cheeks reddened in the heat. “Which way did you come from?”

“East,” Amir answered.

“We're missing two companions,” the other man said. “Two knights.” He used the Arabic word for knight, faris. “They went out to hunt. Perhaps you have seen them?”

Malik shook his head, hoping the gesture translated. He tucked his hand into his robe, Frankish blood barely dry upon his sleeve. “We have,” he said. “They're dead.”

“I'd guess it was the same bandits who attacked you,” said the rais.

The closest Frank frowned as he tucked his hands beneath his armpits. “What was their heraldry?”

“Their colours?” Malik asked. “A red stag, on a green ground.”

He thought the knights might move against them. Instead the Franks slumped disconsolately by the fire and muttered quietly to each other. After a while they rose to fetch their harness, propping their saddles up near the fire as seats. Malik passed around the last of his dried meat. The rais shared a handful of dates, and the Crusaders dug some bitter millet from their saddlebags. The sound of the wind outside faded, replaced by chewing and the crackling of the fire.

When they were done Amir rolled himself in his blanket to sleep as the snow fell outside. Malik sat with his back against the wall and frowned into the fire, eavesdropping on the Crusaders' conversation. The Franks spoke German, a language Malik was far from fluent in, though it was similar enough to Latin that he could understand a bit. He examined the fire as one of the Crusaders said “Do you think they're telling the truth?”

“Does it matter?”

“It should do. But if they wanted us dead, they've had plenty of chances. Do you think they're Christians?”

“They don't look like Christians.” The closest Frank shot a glance at Malik, who ignored him completely.

“Who can tell? The Christians here are strange. That's for the clergy to know.”

“True. Take them to the army, and let the priests decide.”

“What if they're spies?”

“What of it? What better place for Salah-al-din's spies to learn the weakness of the sultan? We'll keep a watch.” 

“I'll take the first watch.” The second Frank named a unit of time that Malik found incomprehensible.

“Then I'll take the second.” The first soldier yawned.

Malik sat up a while longer, but heard nothing of interest. The first Frank leaned back against his saddle and wrapped himself in blankets. His companion brought out a sword and whiled away the hours honing the blade. The rais was already snoring.

Malik kept watch until the early hours of the morning, when he roused Amir to snatch some rest beside the dying embers of the fire.  By then he was exhausted. Sleep found him like a shutter slamming. 

In the morning the knights went out to ready their horses and Malik and Amir made the best of a poor breakfast. They had eaten most of their supplies the night before, and there was little left.

“Can you understand their language?” the rais asked Malik. “What do they say?”

“They don't trust us,” Malik said around a mouthful of leathery meat.

The rais grinned. “And I don't trust them. Will they take us to the camp?”

“I think so.” The jerky was hard enough to break teeth. Malik gave up on the meal. “Let's find out.”

The Franks packed up and set off. One knight rode. The other led his lame horse in the path trampled by his fellow. Malik and Amir followed like gulls behind a boat. Snow gave way to rain as they descended. Pine trees changed to olives, and a driving wind blew up that sent the branches flailing as they walked.

“We're heading back towards Jerusalem,” the rais said, wiping snow-flecked rain from his eyes. “The army must have moved faster than we'd thought.” 

A short while later they saw a broad swathe of trampled ground stretching down the valley like a scar. The trees to either side of the path had been hacked down for fires or siege machinery. The mud was strewn with scraps of cloth and broken harness, the swollen corpses of dead horses, and the makeshift crosses that marked Christian graves.

The remnants of the Crusader baggage train trudged towards Jerusalem, their spirits dampened by the ceaseless rain. Human and animal shit marked the road. The air stank of sickness. The knights slid down from their horses as the destriers slipped and staggered, snorting, through the caliph's maze of refuse and churned ground.

They walked for another hour, passing wagons as they went. Boys, old men and women marched beneath the army's tattered flags. Their backs were bent beneath heavy loads, and their heads beneath the rain. They spoke in half a dozen tongues, skins as pale as sand or dark as earth. There was no shelter. The crops were grey ash in the fields, the wells choked with rubbish. They saw one well that seemed open, but one of the Franks shook his head. “Poison,” he said, making a throat-cutting gesture.

The track led over a low hill. They climbed the rise, and saw the army.

Seven thousand men camped in tented squalor among salt-sown fields. Smoke from cooking fires clouded the air.  A riot of standards stabbed the air with vibrant colour.  Beneath the flags, blacksmiths shod horses, grooms groomed, soldiers struggled to pitch tents, and knights added or removed their armour. Horses stamped, pages shouted, and wagons splashed through puddles and soaked everyone with water.

It was utterly alien; a camp of war, a sword aimed at Jerusalem's heart. Malik's fingers twitched towards his knife.  He shaded his eyes, gazed closer, and noticed skinny horses, ragged tents and empty, splintered wagons. “They're low on supplies,” he said to Amir in Syriac.

The rais dodged a wagon sunk to its axles in the mud and replied in the same tongue. “That's not surprising. We're miles from the coast. The sultan's army's been harassing them from weeks. They can't live off this land.” He dropped back into Arabic as the Franks began to frown. “This weather makes for hard fighting.” The comment was sufficiently neutral to pacify the knights as they picked their way down towards the camp.

As they descended, paler faces and hair became the norm. A blond man shoved Amir as he passed. His companions laughed, but the knights said nothing. The rais said “Christians,” in bad Latin, and made the cross. “Do they think we're prisoners?” he asked Malik.

Malik shrugged. The gazes became more unfriendly, and Malik more uneasy. When a wagon lurched down the rutted road, he used the cart to break the knights' line of sight, grabbed Amir’s shoulder and dragged them both into the shadow of one wheel. A laundress with arms like a blacksmith's glared down at them suspiciously from her perch atop a bale of cloth.

Malik picked a pebble out of the mud and bounced the stone from the carthorses' broad backsides. The horses plunged and kicked. The laundress shouted. Malik took advantage of her distraction to snatch a pair of ragged cloaks from the cart. He shoved the blue cloak into Amir's arms and drew the red cloak across his shoulders. As soon as they were clear of the road he turned his back on the wagon, pulled the cloak's hood across his face and leaned on Amir as if he was wounded.  “Come on.”

They set off between the tents. Malik paused for a moment with one hand on Amir's shoulder and switched to the Eagle's vision. The camp glowed red. It seemed as if someone had scattered a sack of rubies among the valley. There were few places the Assassins couldn't hide, but a Crusader war-camp was a poor prospect.

Still, once they had left the knights, they didn't stand out as badly as Malik had feared. The soldiers were Frankish, hair red or gold or dull brown beneath their hoods, but most of the camp followers were local, and the scouts were Bedouin. There were a handful of Syrian Christians, and several Arab slaves with iron collars round their necks.

Malik kept moving. He saw quickly that the camp was divided into segments like an orange. Each section flew different banners and spoke in different tongues. The campsites were tight little worlds; with their own languages, their own people and traditions. They'd find no shelter beside any of the fires.

The rais' hand clamped on Malik's arm. “That's it,” he hissed. “There's Richard. “

Three lions rampant clawed the air, embroidered on a crimson banner that blazed brightly against the mud. The flag flew high above a scarlet tent. Armed men ringed the pavilion like a fence of steel. The rais reached into his sleeve and brought out the message. “Go on,” he urged Malik. “He's there. Take this.”

Malik knocked Amir's hand away. “Are you insane? There's a dozen guards.”

“I heard you Assassins could turn yourselves into hawks and vanish!”

Malik wished he could. “We can only vanish by being quick and quiet. That's not going to be enough.”

“I'd heard that one of your men walked into Richard's camp alone.” Amir said.

There was an empty tent pitched beside them. Malik ducked inside, pulling the rais after him. “You heard a lot of things. Did you hear how many men he had to kill to do it? They call it trial by combat. Throw soldiers against you and if you win, their gods are on your side.”  

Amir blinked at Malik in the dim canvas confines of the tent. “That's not justice.”

“It is for them.” Malik gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Altaïr won. The Frankish king thought it was God's will.” He shrugged again. “But that was Altaïr. Had I both my arms, I would not have attempted what he did. If I had, I doubt I'd have survived.”

The rais looked at Malik as if they'd sent the wrong Assassin. “He's more skilled?”

“If you like.” Malik knew his own worth. It rankled him to place Altaïr above him, but he knew it was true. He could not fight his way through the Frankish army to reach Richard. 

“What now?”

“Keep your voice down,” Malik said. “I need to think.”

Amir sat down on an evil-smelling bedroll. He reached beneath the blankets and unearthed a waxed leather bag containing biscuits. “Think, then,” he said, tossing a cake to Malik. “But don't take too long.”

The biscuit was damp and smelled mouldy, but Malik chewed it anyway. “We must move now,” he said when he was finished. “Those knights we met know that we're missing. Borrowed cloaks won't fool them for long.”

“Move where?” The rais' voice was tense.

“We're fighters, that's true,” Malik said, a plan taking shape in his mind even as he spoke. “But there are other ways.”  

He rose and pushed his way past the rais and out of the tent. There was no need to shade his eyes from the weak winter sun. Malik blinked, switching to Eagle's sight, and felt his field of vision narrow as he scanned the camp. He saw only scarlet enemies.

There must be someone, he thought. There are thousands of people here. For a long moment, among the campfires and the soldiers and the banners, he saw nothing but red. He swept the camp once, twice. On his third glance he saw a sapphire gleam, blue as a kingfisher's wing, blue as hope, resting by one of the fires. He marked the spot.

It took Malik several hours to enter Richard's tent, using every tool at the Assassins' disposal except steel. He found a man who remembered how Altaïr's blade had saved Damascus from Abu'l Nuquod's madness, and a woman from Acre who had suffered at the hands of the mad Templar surgeon Garnier de Naplouse. He spoke to laundresses, to scholars and slaves, to monks who remembered Sibrand's paranoia. He traded on Altaïr's blade, on Masyaf's money, and the Assassins' reputation, and when that failed he found men whose fear left them vulnerable to intimidation.  Each conversation led him one step closer to Richard's tent.

 

Author’s Note:

Thirteen Assassins really did attack Salah al-din in Syria. They all failed.

I’m surprised that it took me eight chapters to get around to making a joke about Malik and Amir’s names.

Richard’s war camp would have been surprisingly multicultural. The knights were all Normans, but the camp followers would have been local, so it wouldn’t have been that hard for them to blend in.

Chapter Text

 “Do you think this will work?” Amir asked when they were close enough to see the stitches in the hide of the lions embroidered upon Richard's red-and-gold campaign tent.

I have to believe it will, Malik thought. “Hopefully.” He followed the Eagle's sight to a line of picketed horses, and found a knight whose family had sworn revenge against William of Montferrat, who had fallen in Acre to an Assassin's blade.

The knight carried a message to one of the eight Hospitaller knights that guarded the king, standing like pillars through sun and rain and freezing snow on every side of Richard's tent.  A few moments later, four of the eight knights left their posts and approached Malik and the rais. Amir watched them warily. Malik forced himself to nod. He had his answer.  As they were still alive, the answer was yes.

The knights delivered them to Richard's tent. Two of them turned back to their posts. The remaining pair escorted Malik and Amir through the canvas flaps and settled themselves in the doorway, snow-caked furs thrown over mail, swords bare in their gloved hands. 

The air inside the tent was warm as a spring day. Twisted olive branches smouldered in a stone-lined fire-pit, and the smoke spiralled up through a hole in the canvas. Hangings lined the walls. The muddy grass was covered with painted cloths. The English king sat in the centre, framed like a picture in the lamplight. 

Richard I, Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine and Gascony, Lord of Cyprus, Count of Poitou, Nantes and Maine and Overlord of Brittany, known as Coeur de Lion to his own subjects and Malik al-Inkitar to the Arabs, perched on a low stool, strumming a lute and singing in a pleasant bass.

I have two purebred horses for my saddle,

Fine-spirited and both trained for battle.

But I can't stable them together,

For neither tolerates the other.

The king was tall, even for a Frank. His head reached Malik's shoulder. His narrowed eyes were nearly on a level with Malik's as he glanced up. His right hand tensed on the strings of the lute and plucked out a final note before he laid aside the instrument. “Who are you?” he demanded as the sound died away. His hand dropped to the blade that hung from his belt. “How come you here? Who from?”

“We're messengers,” said Malik. “From Salah al-din.” His eyes followed Richard's hand as the king gripped his sword. To his way of thinking, the weapon made little difference. One word, and we'll be dead regardless. 

“Saladin, eh? Not Imadduddin, this time?” Richard frowned. “You don't have the look of soldiers.”

Malik shook his head. “I'm no soldier.” He pointed at Amir. “He's a soldier. I'm from Masyaf.”

Richard's eyes narrowed to slits. “Masyaf, eh? Not Al Mualim? I'd heard the old man died.”

“You heard correctly,” Malik said.

“So that serpent Sinan's dead.” Richard said. “And the Assassins, it seems, have allied themselves with Saladin.”

Malik shook his head. “We stand for neither.” he said. “Salah al-din is my enemy. The Crusaders are my enemy. I don't trust either of you to come to an accord. I'm here to tell you that you cannot hold Jerusalem. The weather is against you, and your supply lines far too long. If you attack Jerusalem, you'll fight against the entire Muslim world. Continue, and you will fail. Negotiate, and I promise you Salah al-din will sue for peace. He's a fair man. He'll give you fair terms. ”

“A pretty speech,” Richard said, “but I doubt you speak for the sultan.”

“I bring a message,” Malik told him, turning to the rais. “This man is one of Salah al-din's soldiers. The sultan offers to marry his brother Sayf al-din to your sister in exchange for peace.”

“Johanna?” Richard exclaimed. “Absurd!”

Amir scowled at Malik. “He wants an end to this war as much as you do,” he said, holding out the paper towards Richard.

“Then he's vulnerable,” Richard said.

“As are you,” Malik said quietly. “You're a long way from home, English king. Attack Jerusalem, and the losses you've suffered will only be the start.”

Richard took the paper from Amir and raised one reddish eyebrow. “It's a shame I can't test the truth of what you say by combat. God does not favour cripples.” He frowned at Malik. “No doubt you have heard of the duel at Arsuf from your comrade Altaïr. He is a mighty warrior.”

“That's true,” Malik agreed. “And you promised him at Arsuf that you would end this war,”

Richard's face clouded like a summer storm. The message crumpled in his hand. “I promised nothing,” he shouted. “I owe Saladin nothing. I owe his Saracens nothing. I owe the Assassins less than nothing. All this talk of marriages and negotiation is worthless if Saladin will not reconsider his actions.”

Malik stood his ground. He'd heard Richard appreciated boldness. “Shall it be war, then? Is that what you want? For our people to be fighting a thousand years from now?”

“I want Jerusalem!” shouted Richard. He slammed his fist on the carved wooden seat. “If Saladin truly wishes an end to this war, let him cede the city.”

“Jerusalem is Muslim as much as it is Christian,” Malik pointed out. “Salah al-din will fight, because he believes his cause is just. His soldiers will fight for pay, and the citizens will fight because they have nowhere left to run. They'll fight you to the last, and the Assassins will fight with them.” One Assassin, at least.

“Why?” Richard rose from his seat to pace the floor. “I thought your kind cared only for your Creed. Are you so afraid of what will happen to Masyaf if we succeed?”

“I did not come for Masyaf's sake,” Malik said. “I came for Jerusalem's. As for my motives, they are my own. There is a woman-”

Richard laughed, a huge rolling rumble. “A woman! So the Assassins are human after all. For that, and for ridding me of that traitor Robert, I'll grant you answer. The truth is that I had already resolved to retreat. The Hospitallers already beg me to turn back. This weather plagues us, and the pox has taken many of our men.” He scowled, mood turning quickly from amusement to anger. “I will be forever known as the king who lost the Holy City.”

It was not yours to take, Malik thought.

“The alliance?” Amir asked.

“I will consider it,” Richard scratched his beard, thick fingers grating audibly in his wiry hair. “You have my word on that. Nothing more.”

“That's all we ask,” Malik said. “That, and a reply, so we might return safely to Jerusalem without censure.”

Richard looked around, then bellowed for pen and parchment, and a secretary to use them. He dictated a letter in rapid-fire French, folded the parchment and pressed his seal into the wax. “There,” he said, “You have it. Tell Saladin I have received his message. No doubt I shall hear from Imadduddin later. Now leave this camp. I give my word that you will not be harmed.” He frowned up at Malik. “How did you enter?”

Luck, Malik thought. Bribery. Threats. Guilt. Favours. “We have our ways,” he said. Let the English king think the Assassins had magical powers. It never hurt to build a reputation.

Richard grimaced. “Tell your new leader to keep his spies away from my camp in future,” he said to Malik. “And you, tell Saladin we'll settle this with honour.”

The rais bowed awkwardly. Malik nodded. They backed away, exchanging the warm confines of the king's tent for the frigid dark wasteland outside. The Hospitallers were waiting, and at a word from Richard they escorted Malik and Amir through the camp. A man-at-arms beyond the ring of fire-pits brought a pair of horses. Malik didn't permit himself to relax until the thousand flickering flames of the Crusader camp had faded into darkness behind them.

They found the Jerusalem road without trouble and rode east to the city. The limestone slabs shone palely in the night. Moonlight puddled on the pitted surface like water. The horses settled into a steady canter that ate up the miles.

“With luck,” Malik said, “we'll be home by morning.”

The rais grinned fiercely into the dark. “If God wills,” he said.

God willing or not, Malik didn't remember much of the ride back. The miles blurred into one long freezing lope. The horses were slow, and fat by Arab standards, but they were as comfortable to ride as a ship under sail. The easy gait made the journey slightly less tortuous than it would otherwise have been, Malik peered between his horse's ears into the dark and waited for Beit Nuba's shacks to appear.  When they reached the village he checked his horse and turned into the street.

Amir reined in briskly, muttering a decidedly un-Islamic curse. “What are you doing?”

“I'm fetching my sword.” Malik slid from his horse, landing with a squelch in the muck of the street. He tossed the reins to Amir. Amir caught the straps despite his complaints. Malik dodged between sleeping peasant houses until he reached the shabby mosque's arched door. The tiled roof glittered darkly in the moonlight.

Mali fumbled in the dark for what seemed like an age before he found Nusaybah's sword, wishing that the Eagle's sight conferred night vision. He slung the baldric awkwardly across his shoulders, snatched up Amir's blade and slipped out into the street. Amir came trotting up, the horses' great dish-shaped hooves silent in the mud. Malik tossed the rais his sword. He grabbed his horse's mane and swung astride. The horse sidled ponderously, but Malik kept his seat.

Amir jerked his head at the blade. “Why bother?”

Malik shrugged. He let go of the reins and slung the baldric awkwardly across his shoulder. “Why not?”

The rais gave him a sharp look. “Was it a gift from your woman?”

“Ask me more questions and I’ll sheath it in your throat.”

Amir snorted, but he did not press the matter. The horses snorted white clouds of frosty breath into the air as they set off down the road to Jerusalem. Amir reined back to a walk, and Malik followed suit. The only sound in the still night was the clop-clop of the horses' feathered hooves.   

“When did you read the message?” Amirasked after a while.

“The first night in the village.”

Amir snorted. “I didn't know that you could read.”

“You haven't seen the Bureau. It's full of books. Of course I can read.”

 The rais exhaled. “I shouldn't have shown you the message.”

Malik agreed. Far away and faint, he heard the muezzin call. Another voice joined the cry, then another, and then the whole night seemed alive. A thousand lanterns lit the sky, one by one, burning as the city woke.

They came to the hitching posts beside the Damascus gate and tied the horses to the rails. The gate towered above them, spiked battlements piercing the air. Lamps burned either side of the archway. The oily light reflected off the mail of half a dozen soldiers. They huddled in the lee of the gate and used its solid walls to shelter from the wind.  They frowned at the rais and frowned harder at the parchment Amir held out.

“Hold,” one soldier said, raising his hand to block Amir. He took the paper. “One moment, please.”

Malik measured the distance between the guards and the gate with an experienced eye. He went to push past, but Amir motioned him to stop. “They're emir's guards,” he said, as if that meant something.

Malik raised an eyebrow.

“They keep the city safe. They’ll help us.”

Malik rolled his eyes. He waited with ill grace beneath the gate's carved lintel as Amir went forwards to speak with the guards.  The city moat gaped to either side of the narrow bridge. The moat was deeper than Malik remembered. Its steep earth sides bore shovelled scars. Salah al-din's still fortifying the city. It’s almost a pity he won’t need it.   

Malik leaned on the railing by the bridge and watched the first trickles of the day's refugees enter the city, heads bowed beneath their burdens as they passed between the gateways, fleeing from their homes to Jerusalem's uncertain safety. There were men, women and children, all alike in their expression of stunned panic. He hoped the hurried truce with Richard would deliver the peace they deserved. 

What’s taking so long?

He turned to glare at the rais. A pair of children burst from the ragged crowd. They hit the bridge one on either side of Malik and bounced off, racing back the way they had come and teasing one another that King Richard would catch them. Malik thought he recognized the Christian children Salim and Hayat. They'll be safe.

Amir pushed against the tide of the crowd towards Malik. His face was troubled. “The guards will let us in,” he said, shifting uneasily. “Malik-”

“What?”  

Amir turned his back on the refugees and rested his forearms on the carved rail of the bridge. His fingers twisted together, healed crooked from years of fighting. “You know I’d do anything to see an end to this war?”

“As would I.” Malik flexed his fingers, wincing. His fight with the Franks in the forest had finished what the cold weather had started and he was in no mood for patience. “Now are we going to stand and freeze out here, or are we going to find Salah al-din?”

Amirglanced towards the guards. “Follow me,” he muttered.

Malik nodded and pushed off from the bridge. The soldiers followed them through the gate. The refugees gave them a wide berth as they walked beneath the arch and through the L-shaped defensive pathways into the city. Malik jerked his head towards the guards and raised an eyebrow. Amir shrugged. The rais seemed at ease with their escort, but Malik had spent too long fighting Muslim soldiers to feel comfortable in their company.

They walked through quiet courtyards as the sun rose bleeding into the eastern sky. When they'd walked for longer than it took to hone a blade Malik said “This isn't the way to the Barbican.” 

One of the soldiers turned. “Salah al-din isn't at the Barbican,” he said.

“Then where is he?”

“We'll take you to him,” the soldier replied. His hand rested on his sword hilt. Malik noticed that all four guards around him had their weapons ready. He heard the men behind him breathing in unison, four breaths in, hold for four, exhale for four. Beside him, Amir rolled his shoulders, spine cracking. Malik recognized the tics and preparation of professionals readying themselves for violence. He'd have understood the preparation in Crusader territory. In the streets of their own city, it made no sense.

Or then- it does.

He was in motion before the idea had fully formed, hand reaching across his body for the hilt of Nusaybah's sword.

The rais drew his left hand back and slammed his fist into Malik's ribs. Malik's hand missed the weapon. Sharp pain sliced his shoulder, and the sword fell away. A weight struck him from behind. Malik reached out to catch himself with his left hand, and broke his fall with his face. Blows slammed into him, panicked and hard, and darkness rolled in.

 

***

That day, Imad al-din invited Nusaybah to a meeting at his house.

To her surprise, he did not receive her in the harem, nor in the meeting hall. She found him in the garden, among orange trees shorn of their blossom, with a dozen braziers burning to spite the cold.  He gestured for her to sit opposite him. She sat down upon a gold-embroidered cushion.

There were others present, of course. Nusaybah brought a manservant as well as Munya, and Imad al-din had his aide, as well as a veiled figure who was probably one of his wives. She recognised the attempt at compromise, and was grateful for it.

The garden was surrounded by high walls, and would have been chilly if not for the fires. The house was elegant, with three stories of open balconies, and hollow handrails for water to run through in summer. Despite the beauty of the surroundings, Nusaybah felt the walls press in.

Imad al-din cleared his throat. “I’m glad you came,” he told her.

She inclined her head. “Do you want to discuss the contract?”

“I thought that was settled.” He folded his arms, fingers rubbing the path of the old Assassin scar. The movement reminded her inexorably of Malik. “Business is important, but I did not call you here for that.”

 “I’m afraid I don’t understand. Do you have more news of the Assassins?” She knew it was a risky move to ask such a direct question, but she could not resist.

He flicked his fingers. “Those dogs don’t concern me.”

Then what? she thought. The servants drew back into the shadows, leaving them alone, save for the veiled woman, who regarded Nusaybah unflinchingly from beneath her veil, and did not speak.

He cleared his throat. She saw that he was nervous. “I have another proposal for you. I offer you support. Protection. A permanent home. For, as the prophet wrote, He created mates for you amongst yourselves; that you might dwell with them in peace and tranquillity.

She recognized the sura. “You-you’re asking me to marry you.”

He looked disappointed, as if it had taken her longer than he had expected to understand. “Yes.”

Nusaybah felt neither peace nor tranquillity. She realized her mouth was open, beneath, the veil, and quickly closed it. “I’m married,” she said, faintly. It was an honour for Imad al-din to even consider her, a barren woman past thirty, with a demanding job and an ailing husband, as a potential spouse. She didn’t feel honoured.  

 “Your husband is sick, and not expected to recover. No court would refuse you divorce.”

“I’ve lived with Rashid for too long. He’s given me no cause for complaint. It’s not allowed.”

“I know the qadi,” Imad al-din said. “He won’t refuse.”

“I’m barren. I can’t have children.”

He barely paused. “That’s not what I want.”

“Your wives?” She darted a frantic glance at the veiled figure. The woman did not respond. Nusaybah would find no salvation there.

“I have two. Neither object. The Qur’an permits me three, provided I treat them equally, and the sultan is a generous benefactor. You’ll find no cause for complaint.”

She shrank from mentioning marital relations. “My work-“

“You would of course retain your business,” he said.

She scrabbled for excuses. “Rashid?

“I’d see he was well cared for.” He frowned, encountering unexpected resistance. “No doubt you have had many other suitors.”

“No,” she said, then wished she hadn’t. She could hardly call Malik a suitor, after all. “I can’t,” she said quietly into her veil, but no words escaped the fabric.

She could, she knew. She should. Imad al-din was highly placed, rich and influential. His wives would be restricted to the harem. She had no doubt that whatever promises he made could be just as quickly broken. Not intentionally, of course, but contracts had a way of changing with time. “I must think.”

She was saved by the arrival of a messenger, sweating despite the cold. A soldier in uniform, without Salah al-din’s yellow sash, who spoke to the manservant, who whispered in turn to Imad al-din. It was Imad al-din’s turn to look troubled. He asked the man a few quiet questions, then stood, flinging his cloak back across one arm. 

“I must leave,” he said. “Urgent business. You understand?”

She did, or thought she did. “Of course.”

“It may not be a bad thing. The delay will give you time to consider my offer.” He tilted his head towards the veiled women, who nodded. Her cloak swept the stone floor. “There shall be no objection from my household.”

Nusaybah nodded. She gestured to Munya, who bowed and held out the gift Nusaybah had chosen for Imad al-din. Another blade, neither as rare nor as expensive as the Cordovan blade she’d given Malik, but a beauty in its own way, with folded Indian steel that gleamed like water. 

“I brought you a sword,” she said, and saw him smile before he turned away

***

 

When the light returned it was dim, shot through with golden motes of dust. Malik’s head swam with exhaustion and pain. There was a thick metallic taste at the back of his throat. He tried to breathe and choked. The darkness pulled at him again, but pain caught him and dragged him up, towards the light.

He shook his head and looked around. The room was small, walls curved like a bee’s hive, with a circular glazed oculus in the centre of the domed roof. The walls were lined with shelves, and each shelf was packed with books, hundreds of them, covers embossed or inlaid or bound with leather or metal strips.  The paper and wood insulated the room effectively. No street sounds disturbed the quiet air.

Amir stood next to Imad al-din beside a smouldering brazier. The rais held Malik’s sword in one hand, and Richard’s letter in the other. Malik tried to turn his head, to see who held him. He caught a glimpse of scaled armour. Unfriendly eyes glared at him beneath the brim of a turban-wrapped iron helmet before the guard cuffed him on the back of his head.

Sidi,” the man to Malik’s right said, “the Assassin is awake.”

 Imad al-din turned as Malik coughed, tasting blood at the back of his throat. The bridge of his nose smarted, broken again along old lines. “What happened to our bargain? You're a fool to make enemies of the Assassins, Imad. Better men than you have fallen beneath our blades.”

“It is no sin to break agreements with infidels.”

“It wasn't yours to break.” Malik told him. “Where’s Salah al-din?”

“The sultan has more important matters to attend to.” Imad al-din said. “And you have questions to answer.”

Malik did not like the sound of that. “I’ve nothing to hide.”

“Good,” Imad al-din said. “Then tell me how you were sent to kill the sultan.”

Malik stared at him. “I wasn’t.” He glanced at Amir, but the rais avoided his eyes. 

Imad al-din curled his lip. His voice was calm and cold. “So you said. I did not believe you in the Barbican. I don’t believe you now. If you won’t answer, tell me how many Assassins are there in Jerusalem?”

Malik considered telling Imad al-din the truth, but decided against it. The Order would look dangerously weak if he told Imad al-din there were only two Assassins in Jerusalem. “You haven’t caught any, have you?”

“Only one,” Imad al-din said, giving Malik a dangerous glare. “I find that very strange. We have captured the Bureau, after all. Tell me why.”

“No.” Malik said, and earned himself a smack around the head from the back of a gauntleted hand.

Imad al-din sighed. “Then where is the Bureau’s ledger?”

 “There were books in the Bureau.”

Imad al-din flicked a finger. The soldier to Malik’s left leaned forwards and punched him in the side. Malik gasped at the pain in his ribs. He felt wetness trickle down his side. Pain rendered him speechless for a second.

“I thought Assassins were supposed to be clever.” Imad al-din said.

Malik licked his lips. His mouth tasted of copper. “There is no Assassin plot,” he said thickly. “I burned the ledger. And I don’t know how many Assassins there are in Jerusalem.”  

Imad al-din cast a glance at Amir. “Does he speak the truth?”

Amir shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“Then there’s only one way to find out.” Imad al-din said. The fingers of his left arm knotted on the elbow of his right as he turned to Amir and motioned to Nusaybah’s sword. “Take up the blade.”

Amir tucked Richard’s letter into his sash. He drew the blade from its sheath with a clatter.

Malik grimaced. He’d have done the same in Amir’s place without a qualm, but he had no intention of submitting without a fight. There were few situations he couldn’t talk or trick or fight his way out of. 

He straightened, though it cost him all he had, and looked Imad al-din in the eye, willing him to see not a cripple, but a rafiq of the Assassins. “You don’t know the truth. We fight only for peace.”

Imad al-din sneered. “I find that unlikely.” He rolled up his right sleeve to display a silvery, faded scar. “I took this wound protecting the sultan from your Order at Aleppo. They sent thirteen men.” He rolled down his sleeve. “They died. Not quickly.”

“Times have changed,” Malik said.

“Have they?”

“They will. If you’ll let them.”

 “Is that what you think?” Imad al-din’s fists clenched. He stepped forwards, slippers scuffing the stone. “That things will change if I let you go? I have no intention of letting you live, much less letting you go free. Your Order has long been a stain on this land. Soon Syria will be wiped clean of Assassins and Crusaders alike, and Dar al-Islam will be whole once more.” He nodded to Amir. “Rais, I grow tired of this dog’s lies. Find me the truth.”

Well, Malik thought as the rais stepped forwards, blade in hand, at least I know where I stand. “I saved your life,” he told Amir.

Ruby light danced along the edge of Nusaybah’s sword as Amir raised the blade. “And I saved yours,” he said. “That means we’re equal.”

Malik could see that there would be no help from that quarter. Amir came closer. Malik twisted and fought, but the guards held him easily. 

“When will the Assassins strike?” Imad al-din asked softly. ”How many of you are there?”

Malik had no intention of telling Imad al-din anything he wanted to know. He tore his eyes from Amir and glanced at the oculus that pierced the library’s roof. “We strike when we please.” he said, lowering his voice so Imad had to strain to hear it. “Our blades are without number. If you don’t fear us, you should. Let me go, or spend your last days watching every shadow.”

The guards tightened their grip on Malik’s arms and Imad al-din nodded at Amir. The rais pressed the edge of Nusaybah’s sword against Malik’s throat, forcing his head back. Malik had sharpened the blade himself and he knew the edge was keen. Blood trickled down his neck as he waited to see if Amir had the stomach for something more bloody than throat-slitting. In Amir’s place he’d have started with the eyes, or his right hand. Something he’d regret losing.

But Amir stood there with the sword at Malik’s throat. He pressed a little harder. Skin split, and Malik hissed in pain, but still Amir held back. Malik nearly pressed forwards, ready to finish the job himself and deny Imad al-din the satisfaction of his revenge. He had anticipated fear, but felt no more than mild dismay. I’ve killed more men in these past few months that I ever expected.  Perhaps this isn’t revenge. Perhaps it’s justice.

Rais,” Imad al din’s voice cracked like a whip.

Amir withdrew the blade from Malik’s throat, moving nearly too fast for Malik to follow, and jabbed the blade into Malik’s left shoulder. Malik arched, fighting. Agony seared through him. He heard himself cry out. Cold sweat slicked his skin. Amir stepped back, jaw set, and flicked Malik’s blood from his blade.

“Perhaps now you will be more forthcoming,” Imad al-din said, leaning back against his bookshelves. “Tell me what I want to know.”

Malik bared his teeth. Blood dripped from his chin and ran in rivers from his shoulder. ”You think I’m afraid to die?”

“I think you’re afraid of pain,” said Imad al-din calmly. ”Most people are, and those that aren’t are fools. I don’t think that you’re a fool.”

Malik sought desperately for something to say that would convince Imad al-din to stop. He cast his mind back to the meeting with the Frankish king. He’d told Richard they were messengers from Salah al-din, and the king had said-

Saladin, eh? Not Imadduddin?

Malik lifted his head and spoke, not to Imad al-din, but to Amir. “Why would Imad al-din send messengers to Richard’s camp?

The rais frowned, staring at Malik as he had gone mad. “We carried the sultan’s message, not Imad al-din’s.”

“But Richard spoke Imad‘s name. Do you remember? He was surprised when we mentioned the sultan. Why would he expect a messenger from Imad? Why bring me here at all? I made a bargain with Salah al-din. Why break it now?”

Amir glanced uncertainly at Imad al-din. He looked back at Malik, shaking his head.

“So you’re not a fool,” Imad al-din said calmly. He turned to Amir. “Did you deliver the message?”

Amir paused. His knuckles whitened on the hilt of Nusaybah’s blade. “Yes, sidi,” he said at last.

“I'd hoped you failed,” Imad al-din said curtly. “This whole affair is complicated enough. Do you know what the letter offered? A marriage between Salah al-din’s brother and Richard’s sister! Absurd! Let the Crusaders come! God will aid us! Jerusalem will not fall. We'll beat them in fair battle, break the Frankish crosses as they do their treaties and send them whimpering into the sea. They’ll soon turn their backs upon Syria and their cursed kingdom will be nothing but a memory. We’ll gain glory in this world, and Paradise thereafter.” He held his hand out to Amir. “Did the Frankish king send a reply?”

“Yes.”

“Give it to me.”

Amir reached into his sash for Richard’s letter.

“Don’t!” Malik struggled against the guards’ iron grip. “That’s the only proof we carried out the sultan’s wishes!”

Gloved hands bit into his shoulders, into ripped flesh. He groaned and sank to his knees. The stink of burning parchment stung his nostrils. He opened his eyes, blinking through a haze of pain. Smoke from the brazier curled into the air. Imad al-din’s silhouette stretched long in the ruby light. The room swam around him.

Imad al-din withdrew his hand from the brazier. Coals glittered and smoked. “This is the only way. We’ve gone too far, lost too much. Now men are dying in the fields that should hold next year’s harvest. We have to finish the Franks for once and for all. If Richard besieges Jerusalem, Islam shall rise.”

“If Richard besieges Jerusalem, thousands will die!”

“Then they’ll die honourably!”

“There’s nothing honourable about wives losing their husbands. Where's the honour in crops failing and children starving in the streets? Isn’t it more honourable to save the lives of thousands by killing just one man? This is treason!”

“It’s for the good of the country. The good of Islam.” Imad al-din turned to Amir. “Take up your sword, rais. Answer, Assassin. Tell me of your allies. How many spies are in Jerusalem?”

Amir stared at Malik. His eyes were haunted beneath his ragged turban. “I don’t know how many,” he said, “but I know one. He has a woman in the city.” He hefted the blade. Light played along the damascened steel and cast the engraved letters in sharp relief. Victory comes only from God, the almighty, the all-wise.

Imad al-din stared at the sword. He crossed swiftly to Amir’s side and cocked his head to read the inscription. “Where did you get this?”

Amir held the sword out to Imad al-din. “I took it from the Assassin,” he said.

Malik cursed. He remembered telling Richard, there is a woman, and the Frankish king had laughed. And when he’d gone to fetch the sword from the mosque in Beit Nuba, Amir had said, is it from your woman

I’ve been a fool, he thought. I underestimated them both.

Imad al-din took the blade from Amir, watching Malik with a peculiar sneer. “I know how you got the blade. You speak of peace, but threaten an innocent woman.” He raised his right hand, and the guard to Malik’s right slammed a mailed fist into his ribs. The world swam. He tried to struggle, but he could hardly breathe. The soldier hauled him upright. Malik spat blood onto the floor, and hoped the scarlet stain came from a loose tooth.

“Dog,” Imad al-din said severely. 

It was a moment before Malik could speak. “I bought the blade.”

Imad al-din watched Malik with jewel-hard eyes. “Who from?”

Malik shrugged as best he could with both shoulders pinioned. The movement hurt. Everything hurt. “From an old man in the market.”

Imad al-din turned to Amir. “What do you think?”

“He’s lying,” Amir said.

 “You’re sure?” Imad al-din sheathed Nusaybah’s blade with a whisper of steel.

“Certain.” Amir said.

“Then it’s simple.” Imad al-din slipped the blade into his sash. “I know the owner of the blade. Rais, go to the watch-house by the Bab Ourika gate. Take a squad of soldiers to Dar Khalifah. Fetch the lady of the house. We’ll find the truth by any means.”

Malik struggled to keep his voice steady. “That’s not necessary,” he said evenly. If he’d been armed, he would have cut Imad al-din’s throat. As it was, he had only words.

Imad al-din frowned, stepping closer. “Why not?”

Malik coughed and slumped towards the floor. The guards shifted to take his weight. His head sank to his chest as his eyes rolled back. He muttered something.

Imad al-din came closer. “Why-“

Malik lunged. As he moved the soldier behind him shifted automatically. The movement told Malik everything he needed to know about the guard’s position. He used his left leg to kick the guard’s knee out. The soldier gasped, and went down. His hands slid from Malik’s arm. Malik leapt towards Imad al-din, but the secretary drew back with more speed than he’d expected from a scholar, and the second guard hit Malik in the ribs. The coals of pain banked beneath his skin flared to a blaze of agony, and only his reflexes saved him from falling face-first in the brazier as he staggered forwards. The soldier he had kicked found his feet, and together the guards forced Malik to his knees.

Imad al-din scowled. He crooked a finger. Malik took a deep breath, tensing, but he still wasn’t ready when the soldier to his right hammered a fist up into his side. More blows followed. It was easier than he’d expected to stop fighting, to let go, and sink down into the dark.

“My lord,” Amir said loudly. “You’ll kill him. That’s your right. But you’ll never learn the truth.”

After a moment they loosed Malik’s arms and he dropped to the floor, slick tiles bruising the parts of him that weren’t bruised already.  The oculus above his head shrank to a pinpoint. Imad al-din’s voice echoed down a long tunnel.

“Go,” he ordered. “Bring the lady here. Then go to the sultan. Tell him Richard has refused his offer. Blame the Assassins, if you wish.”

He heard uncertainty in Amir’s voice. ” What will you do?”

“That depends.” Imad al-din said.

Malik heard a long silence, followed by the scrape of a door opening. “I’ll fetch my men.”

Imad al-din didn’t speak again, or if he did Malik didn’t hear him. Blood pounded in his ears, and the swirling dark pressed in around him. He knew nothing more.

 

Author’s Note:

Richard was quite the troubadour. He wrote lots of songs about love and women. This is one of them.

Salah al-din really did offer to marry his brother to Richard’s sister, though it’s anyone’s guess if the offer was genuine.

Imad al-din believes that it’s more honourable to die in battle. Malik believes it’s more honourable not to die at all. Most of this part is my version of Tywin’s Lannister’s speech in Game of Thrones of how it’s better to kill a dozen men at dinner than a thousand in battle.

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten:

Nusaybah shivered in the cold as she threw the window open. For a few moments the pleasure of the city view and the fresh air outweighed the discomfort of the chill breeze.

She leaned her elbows on the sill and gazed at the shroud of fog that wrapped the city. Lanterns glowed like coins among the city streets. She inhaled the pearly air, lacing her fingers across her forehead. 

Jerusalem was full to bursting. More people arrived every day. The war meant that business was good. The price of food had risen from unreasonable to unfathomable, but Nusaybah seldom went hungry, and she saw to it that any refugees that came to her were fed. She donated large sums to charities and to repair Jerusalem's walls. It’s a pity I can't pile coin high enough to stop the Crusaders coming.

She sighed as she returned to her work. The heat from the brazier had entirely evaporated by the time Munya coughed. “My lady-”

Nusaybah looked up, irritated by the disruption. “What is it?”

“There's a man here to see you.” Munya said, eyebrows arching in disgust at the newcomer's ignorance of both good manners and hospitality as he pushed past.  “I can call the porter if you want him thrown out.”

 “I apologise,” the newcomer interrupted. “It's not ignorance but haste that makes me forget my manners.”

“Haste?” Nusaybah pulled her veil across her face in a belated concession to modesty as she examined the visitor. His clothes were ragged and stained from travel, but his back was straight, and he wore a scimitar belted across his rags. “Explain yourself,” she ordered.

The man bowed hastily. “My name is Amir,” he said. “Imad al-din sent me. You’re under arrest.”

Nusaybah's eyebrows rose. She closed her accounts book and gestured to Munya. “Whatever for?”

“What do you think?” He scowled at her.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t insult us both by lying. You’re in league with the Assassin. You gave him a sword. Now the sultan’s secretary’s caught him, and he knows what you’ve done, or soon will.”

A cold chill snaked down Nusaybah’s spine. “What do you want?” she said scornfully. “Money? Pay, or you’ll tell him? Is that it?”

Amir shook his head. “No need. Imad al-din already knows. That’s why I’m here. He recognized the blade.”

“It was stolen!”

Amir shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. But Imad al-din’s been sending letters to the Frankish king and sabotaging Salah al-din’s negotiations. He wants war. He’s a fool. Thinks we'll triumph, but I know better. We’ll beat back the Franks, but at what cost? That’s treason. The sultan needs to know. Imad al-din asked for you. That gives me an excuse to bring more men.”

“It does?”

“Yes.” Amir accepted the glass of water Munya offered. “But I need your help. You don’t have to assist me. But you’re a spy and a traitor. I'm offering you a chance to prove your loyalty. Maybe even save the Assassin’s life. My plan will place you in danger, but if you’re allied with the Assassins, you’re used to that.” He shrugged. “Or Imad al-din will find you anyway, and the sultan will be far less sympathetic to your story.” He shrugged again. “Your choice.”

It was not a hard decision. “Is Malik alive?”

“He was when I left. I owe him a debt.”

“What for?”

Amir looked away. “Never mind. He’s not what I expected from an Assassin.” His eyes flicked back. “And you're not what I expected from a whore.”

“I’m not a whore!”

“Call it what you like. I know what the Qur’an says about adultery.”

Nusaybah folded her arms. “I have my reasons.”

He watched her with hooded eyes. “Whatever they are, I don't agree. Your Assassins cause more trouble than they’re worth.”

 “They’re not my Assassins. I merely share their aims.”

“And your body,” Amir muttered. “Will you come, or not?”

She nodded. “I’ll need a moment to send my household to safety. In the meantime, you can tell me what you’re planning.”

“We have no time.”

“Then you’ll need to speak quickly,” she told him. “Where do we start?

***

Malik opened his eyes to the sound of muffled footsteps outside and the roar of blood pounding in his ears. He fought to keep himself from vomiting and lost. Bands of pain tightened across his chest as he choked back bile.

Once the sickness had passed he forced himself to sit up and look around.

There was no sign of Imad al-din. Two guards stood with their backs against the door. Malik presumed they were the same men who had restrained him. The dim light lancing from the oculus shifted from an ellipse to a circle as the sun moved across the sky. Fresh coals were heaped in the brazier. 

Smoke billowed and drifted as one guard left his post to prod Malik with his boot. Malik put up no resistance. He was unarmed and injured, and he saw no point in fighting when he knew he could not win. Blood leaked from the wound in his shoulder and soaked into his sleeve. There was more blood then he had expected, enough to make him wonder how much time had passed. 

After a while there was a knock at the door.  The soldiers unbarred the gate and forced it open. Imad al-din entered. Behind him sunlight gleamed temptingly, promising freedom. Malik lay only a few steps from the door, but the distance might as well have been a desert as far as he was concerned. He pushed off the floor as the guards approached, readying to fight, and a cage of iron clamped shut around his ribs. He swore as he struggled for breath. The first guard caught him by his left shoulder, gauntleted fingers grinding into meat. Together they hauled him to his knees.

Imad al-din regarded Malik calmly. A trace of a smile played around his lips. “I thought Assassins did not kneel. Or so I’ve heard. It seems that I was wrong.”

“And I wouldn’t have guessed you’d betray your master,” Malik said. His voice sounded thick even to his own ears. “I was wrong too.”

Imad curled his lip. “I am the sultan’s slave. I merely spur him to greater efforts.”

“There’s another word for that. It’s treason.”

“There are many words for Assassins,” Imad al-din said. “Heretics. Apostates. Jackals. Murderers.”

Malik had heard it all before. He rolled his eyes. Words did not hurt.

Imad‘s lips thinned. He looked as if he would have liked to say more, but at that moment Amir came into the room. His face was grim. “My lord, I ask permission to summon more guards.”

Imad al-din squinted into the sunlight on the other side of the door. Malik’s view was blocked by the guards holding him, but he heard the rap of boots on stone. “Not all of them. There’s no room.”

Amir gestured to Malik. “It’s my job to make sure that you’re safe.”

“The Assassin is half-dead, and I have been safe enough so far,” Imad al-din said dismissively. “One may stay. No more. Where is the woman?”

The rais looked unhappy with the decision, but he nodded. “As you wish. I’ll bring her.” He turned and waved his hand. Nusaybah came in through the door, accompanied by a guard older than Amir. She walked like a sultana, head high, impeccably veiled. The guards hovered a respectful distance away.

They don't have to hurt me, Malik thought. All they have to do is hurt her. Hurt her, and I'll tell them anything they want. He didn't think Imad al-din had the stomach for torture, He hoped he wasn't wrong.

So this is why Al Mualim forbid the Assassins a family. So we would not find anything more important than the Creed.

He was still digesting that when Nusaybah raised henna stained-hands and swept the veil from her face. Her eyes were dark from worry and cosmetics, her lips ashen beneath a crimson stain. Golden earrings swung beside her cheekbones, and jewelled rings decorated each finger, heavy as knuckledusters. She did not look at Malik. The rais barred the door behind them.

“My lord,” she said to Imad al-din in a voice that was one crisp consonant from arrogance, “why am I here?”

Imad al-din had the grace to look chagrined. “A serious accusation has been levelled against you,” he said calmly. “Most serious. If you’re innocent, you’ll be released.”

“Why here?” Nusaybah looked around at the stacked shelves. “This is no court.”

Imad al-din shifted. “Courts are no place for creatures such as these,” he said, gesturing to Malik.

Her gaze swept by Malik. She did not even seem to see him. “That does not concern me. I would hear your allegations. I do not wish to spend any more time in this dingy little room.”

Imad al-din reached into his sash and drew Nusaybah’s sword. “I have this,” he said, holding out the blade.

Nusaybah did not take it. “I told you, it was stolen.”

“So you say,” Imad al-din said heavily. “The Assassin insisted that he bought it in the market. My guard,”-he nodded to Amir, “tells me it was a lover’s gift. So you see, there is some discrepancy in your tales.”

“It’s not my concern if others lie,” she said haughtily.

Amir cleared his throat. His Adam’s apple bobbed. “Perhaps I can help you understand,” he said to Nusaybah. “The sultan ordered me to escort the Assassin to Richard’s camp. We delivered a message to the Frankish king, and brought back his reply. Along our journey it came to my attention that this Assassin carried a Muslim blade. As the Assassins are known to all as heretics and atheists, it seemed unlikely that he obtained the blade by legitimate means. The Assassin implied he received this blade from a woman.” He nodded to Imad al-din. “This worthy man recognised the blade and insisted that it had been stolen.”

“By an Assassin,” Nusaybah said dismissively. “Assassins are known heretics, but they are also liars.” She frowned. “If you received your mission from the sultan’s hand, then where is Salah al-din? Did he receive the letter?” She glanced over at Imad al-din as if she hoped that he would speak, but Imad remained silent.

“The letter was burned,” Amir said. His eyes darted to Imad al-din.

“The letter contained sentiments too foul for the sultan’s honoured eyes,” Imad said smoothly. “But the letter is not at issue here. The sword is.” He held out the blade. “And it will help us find the truth.”

Malik did not like the sound of that.  He struggled as the soldiers dragged him closer, trying to ignore Nusaybah. It was more difficult by far than he’d expected. He let his eyes slide past her, to the nearest guard. The soldier stood in shadow. A brocade collar gleamed beneath the laced neckline of his scale armour. He wore a black turban, and his eyes beneath its brim were darker than the cloth. It took Malik longer than he should have done to recognise the sultan. He stole a glance at Imad al-din, but the secretary’s gaze was fixed only on Nusaybah.

Why is Salah al-din here?

Thoughts crawled through Malik’s brain as slowly as ants. He’d been drained by pain and exhaustion, and it was hard to think. 

Why would they speak of the letter? he thought. There was no flash of insight, no revelation, but slowly he realized that Amir and Nusaybah between them were trying to draw Imad out.

And not well. Or I’d never have noticed. Not in this state.

The rais’ expression was unreadable, but Malik knew Nusaybah well enough to tell when she was lying. The tracks were there if you knew how to read them; the way she tilted her head and stared at Imad’s ear instead of looking him in the eye and stood still rather than shifting as she spoke.

He decided to trust his instincts. “Why burn the letter?”

Imad al-din paid him no attention. “Why would you lie?” he asked Nusaybah.

She raised her chin. “I don’t lie.”

“We shall see,” Imad said to her. He turned to Amir. “Put the blade into the brazier.”

Malik’s attention snapped back to Amir. The man dressed as the sultan never moved. The rais looked uncertain. Malik glared at Amir, and the rais plunged the blade into the fire. Sparks flew as he stirred the coals. The metal glowed.

Imad al-din peered critically at the sword’s incandescent point, as if he judged the quality of a feather quill. “Lift it out.”

Nusaybah’s lips whitened, but she did not speak. The rais held the blade loosely. Specks of charcoal clung to the black, flickering as the steel cooled from saffron yellow to deep red. In the shadows, the sultan stepped forwards.

Nobody paid attention.

Malik realized he had a choice. The sultan had heard no proof of Imad al-din’s plot. There would be only be the word of Malik, Nusaybah and Amir against the word of Salah al-din’ secretary and companion. Nusaybah’s testimony was worth half a man’s. An Assassin apostate’s was worth nothing. Amir was the only respectable witness. Malik could speak, and save himself, and risk Imad al-din walking free. Or he could say nothing, and trust that Amir would be as gentle as he could, and hope that Imad al-din confessed.

He had a moment to decide.

“Wait!” he said, not to Imad al-din, but to the sultan. “Don’t. I need more time.”

Salah al-din paused and stepped back unobtrusively.

 Imad al-din paced forwards. “This is not a negotiation,” he said.

Malik spat at Imad, and missed. Amir frowned, brow creasing. Malik gave the rais a tiny nod, and hoped he understood.

He felt the air warm as the rais approached, his plan seeming more hopeless with every step Amir took. He clenched his teeth together so he didn’t bite his lip and indicated his wounded shoulder with a flick of his eyes, hoping that Amir noticed. Blood seeped from the cut. It wouldn’t kill him-at least, not quickly-but cautery would stop the bleeding.

What a way to wield a blade, he thought. 

He could not meet Nusaybah’s eyes. Afraid she might interpret his gaze as an appeal, he dropped his eyes to her hands. Henna tattoos blanched white across her knuckles as she clenched her hands into fists.

The sword's tip was dull red, and close enough now Malik could feel the heat of the metal on his skin. He ruthlessly silenced the part of his mind that yammered, insisting that he'd already lost too much. Sweat sprung to his skin. Amir looked queasy. Imad al-din intent.

 “Have you anything to say?” Imad al-din demanded.

Malik bit his tongue, suppressing words of surrender.  He shook his head, recoiling at the stink of scorching iron as Amir brought the blade forwards.

“Do it,” Imad al-din ordered.

Malik closed his eyes as Amir sank the blade into his shoulder. If the rais’ hands shook, he didn’t see it.

Pain flooded him. His shoulder blazed agony as flesh seared, smelling of scorched cloth and warm meat. When he opened his eyes, panting as if he’d run across the city, the world was grey at the edges and flecked with slivers of mercury. The blade sizzled as Amir replaced it in the brazier. 

“You’re pale,” Imad al-din said to Nusaybah. 

Nusaybah gave Imad a venomous glare that, while not capable of killing, could have seriously maimed. “Torture is not a pleasant sight,” she said. Her voice was even, but Malik saw her hands tremble. 

“Are you ready to confess?” Imad al-din asked.

“Confess?” Malik said. “I have nothing to confess. But I have something to say. You’re weak. Imad al-din, and you fight because you’re weak and afraid. You betrayed your sultan. You betrayed Jerusalem. You betrayed your religion. You betrayed your city.” The guard to his right forced a hand across his mouth. Malik sank his teeth into calloused skin, and the hand disappeared. He spat, tasting blood, as Imad al-din frowned.

“I did what I had to,” he retorted. “Salah al-din is far too honourable. He sent snow to cool Richard’s fever. Horses, when his mount was struck down. He'd rather negotiate than fight. Campaigns are won with battles, not words! Thank God the Frankish king is a young man. Impulsive. Quick to fight. It won’t be hard to provoke him into heading back towards the city. Another letter or two, and Jerusalem will have its siege.”

We have him. Malik thought. He glanced at Nusaybah, saw her quick smile. “You’re going to fail.”

“And you’re going to die.” Imad al-din gestured to the guards. “Kill him.”

Nusaybah screamed “No!”

Malik sagged abruptly, bringing all his weight down on his arms. The guards were used to handling able bodied people, but an arm with no elbow or hand was much more difficult to grasp. Malik's stump slid free. He twisted and tried to pull free, but that just gave the guard to his left more room to draw his sword.

Nusaybah pushed forwards. The sultan caught her elbow. She jerked back, white-lipped. Malik was fleetingly glad for small mercies-there was no space for three swords in the small room, and Nusaybah was unarmed. Amir stepped forwards, blade in hand, placing himself between Salah al-din and the guards.

“I command you to stop!” he ordered. “You go against the sultan’s wishes.”

His words didn’t stop the guards, but they did slow for a moment. One second was enough for Malik to reach out and kick the brazier over. Glowing coals scattered across the tiles. The room was filled with clouds of stinging smoke.

“Guards!” Imad al-din shouted. “Unbar the door! Call reinforcements!” He gestured to the soldiers. “Now!”

Malik expected Amir to hesitate, but the rais never faltered. His blade darted forwards. The first guard released Malik’s right hand and staggered back against the shelves. His companion faltered, glance flicking from Amir to Imad al-din.

Nusaybah’s blade had slipped from the brazier when the coals fell. The sword lay on the floor with the glowing tip pointing towards Imad al-din. Malik wrapped his sleeve around his hand and picked up the blade.   He stepped around the embers, towards the secretary, and the world shrank until there was just Imad al-din, Malik, and the sword.

Imad al-din paled, cringing against the shelves as if leather and parchment would protect him. 

“I think not,” said a quiet voice. 

It seemed like a long time before Malik lowered the blade, although it could have been no more than a second. To Imad al-din, it must have seemed a lifetime.

The Sultan of all Islam reached up to unbuckle his helmet. His jewelled brocade collar gleamed beneath the mail as Salah al-din unfastened the straps, propped his spear against the wall and tucked the helmet under his arm.

Imad al-din’s face whitened further. “My lord!” He dropped to his knees and pressed his forehead to the tiles. “I did not-I can explain-“

Imad al-din shuddered. He dropped to his knees and pressed his forehead to the tiles. Nusaybah wrenched away from the sultan and crossed to Malik’s side. “Are you all right?” she asked as she crossed to Malik’s side.

Malik wrapped his hand around his ribs and leaned gingerly against the bookshelves, trying to avoid putting too much pressure on his shoulder. “I’ll live.”

The guards Imad al-din had summoned arrived then, in a rush. Malik didn’t think much of their punctuality. In better times he’d have had time to assassinate the sultan and climb out through the window before the blood had clotted. Amir opened the door and spoke quietly to the captain. The soldiers clustered around the entrance, but did not come in.

Salah al-din ignored them all. He set his helmet on an empty shelf and took a step towards Imad al-din’s prone body. “Your arrogance nearly cost us everything. You might as well have gone to war against me.”

Imad al-din raised only his eyes. “I only did what I believed was right.”

‘As do most folk,” the sultan snapped. “As do I. But there is a difference between us. I bind myself with oaths. You break your word as if it means nothing. You endanger this city, which I have sworn to protect.”

“I thought-“

“I do not care what you think.” Salah al-din regarded Imad scornfully. “Perhaps you have grown to believe your own poetry. I did not think you a fool but it seems that I was wrong. Get up. I will not give you the opportunity to make a fool out of yourself again.”

Imad al-din sat back on his heels. The cross-hatched imprint of the tiles marked his cheek.

“Have you anything to say?

Imad al-din leaned forwards. His glare pierced Malik and Nusaybah like arrows. “Only this. I have received justice, and I am satisfied. I only ask that others here receive the same. I am not the only traitor here.”

“That is none of your concern.” The sultan paused. “Or perhaps it is. I doubt the Assassins forget those who have wronged them.”

Imad al-din scowled. “The woman is in league with them. And who knows what the Assassins are planning?”

“The Assassins are my allies,” the sultan said.

“For the moment.”

“For now. By God, Imad al-din, I will have no more questions. My feet are set upon this path. I will finish it by any means. If we must talk to end this war, we will talk. If we are to ally with our enemies, then we will form alliances. Have you anything else to say?”

The secretary was a braver man than Malik had taken him for. “I think you’re making a mistake,” he said.

“I will answer to God for my mistakes, Imad al-din. Not you. Stick to your pen. Announce our victories. Do not cause deaths.” He pinched thumb and forefinger together. “Rais, escort my secretary to the Barbican. I shall find him worthy work.”

Amir inclined his head. He crossed the room to Imad al-din. The secretary rocked back upon his heels and rose before Amir reached him. He glared balefully at Nusaybah as he passed her. “Consider my proposal withdrawn.”

“He proposed?” Malik asked.

“I wasn’t going to accept!”

Imad al-din bowed to the sultan as he left, scorching his robe upon the coals.

They stood together in silence for a moment, listening to the guards shift and mutter outside the door as Amir and Imad’s footsteps receded down the stairs. Malik measured the distance to the door and calculated odds.

Salah al-din regarded them with bright black eyes. “My rais Amir told me you fought by his side,” he said.

Pain and exhaustion loosed Malik’s tongue. “I fought for my Order and for Jerusalem. Not for you.”

“An honest answer,” the sultan said, raising one eyebrow, “if not particularly diplomatic.” He looked at Malik as if he did not quite know what to make of him.

“Where’s Ismail?”

“The novice? He is well.” The sultan reached out and ran his hands over the spines of Imad al-din’s books. “He took me to the Bureau. I did not expect to find so many books.”

Malik shrugged. Some Bureaus were households; some potteries; others secret chambers without doors where the only access was through a hatch in the roof. Some were tiny shops in dusty alleys that sold goods nobody wanted at prices too dear to afford. “The Order’s famous for its library.”

“I have in mind to send the Assassins a gift as recompense for your service.” The sultan waved one hand around the crowded room. “This should do nicely. Some two thousand volumes. A harsh punishment, for a man of my secretary’s taste, and, I think, most fitting. Books, in return for blood. I hope that you’ll accept.”

There was no reason to refuse. Malik nodded. The movement made his head swim. He felt shelves press against his back as he straightened.

“Imad al-din erred,” she sultan said. His eyes narrowed. “But that does not make him wrong in all respects. Falsehood is a sin. Spying is a sin. Adultery is both immorality and sin.”

Nusaybah was enough of a Muslim to look chastened. “Maybe, my lord,” she murmured, “but adultery requires three witnesses. I doubt you have any.”

“None. There is no need. This case will go before no qadi. God knows the truth.  

Malik was too tired to duel with words. “What does the sultan care to do about it?”

Salah al-din turned away. He picked a copy of the Qur’an from the nearest shelf and began to flick through the pages. “Forgiveness is a virtue,” he said without looking up. “You’ve served me well. But your acts have not been lawful.”

“That depends on the laws,” Malik said.

“Jerusalem is my city,” the sultan said slowly. He closed the book with a slap that made Nusaybah jump. “My city, my laws.  But your actions have benefited me and I am not ungrateful. Lady, I permit you to remain in the city and continue your business. Your household shall not be harmed as long as you are faithful to your husband. You will repent to God, and ask his forgiveness. Assassin, take your companion to Masyaf. Leave tonight. Tell you Master what has happened. Do not return to Jerusalem while I still live.”

“What happens to Imad al-din?” Malik asked.

Salah al-din frowned. “Imad al-din shall lose his books, nothing more. Rest assured that the pain that causes will last him all his life. If your Order makes any attempt on my secretary’s life I shall not hesitate to deal with you.” A smile tugged at the corner of the sultan’s mouth, belying his harsh words. “However, I see no reason to make this known to him. It’s true our goals align for now, but I am not so foolish as to think this state of affairs will continue. But I am not Imad al-din. I keep my promises. Perhaps your Creed may yet outlast my empire. For I dream of towers falling, and all my kingdoms fail.”

“Who among us can know what is to come?” Nusaybah said.

 “Only God,” Salah al-din replied, bowing his head at the mention of the lord who stood above all sultans. “Come. You both have my gratitude, if not my respect. Walk with me to the street.”

It was an honour Malik could have done without. He wrapped his right arm around his aching ribs and limped to the doorway, using the bookshelves as handholds and moving carefully so he didn’t stain the bindings with blood. Nusaybah paused in the doorway to pull several layers of veils across her hair. They did not touch, but he could feel her presence behind him and sense her concerned gaze through the silk.

It had finished raining by the time they reached the street. The air was cold. Malik found the breeze a relief after the close confines of Imad al-din’s library. The sultan splashed through puddles with no concerns for his fine boots.

“Farewell, lady,” he said to Nusaybah, shaking drops of water from his turban. “Farewell, Assassin. If you heed my warnings, we'll not meet again.”

Nusaybah bowed her head, sweeping the tail of her shawl around to cover her face. Malik managed a credible ‘Safety and peace,” as the sultan swept away, trailing guards like moths circling a lantern.

Salah al-din’s abrupt departure left them alone.  Malik sank down upon a rotting crate. There were no guards in sight. He had no idea if their reprieve was accidental or intentional, and he was not about to question his good fortune. He discovered that he had a thousand things to say, and time for only one.

They both spoke simultaneously.

“If I'd known-”

“What do-?”

They both paused. Thoughts raced through Malik's mind, but none of them were what he wanted. He shook himself irritably. He'd fought a dozen men, negotiated with kings, jumped headlong from towers and turned novices white with a few well-chosen words. And none of it is any use.

Nusaybah threw back her shawl. “That could have gone better,” she said.

“It could have gone worse.” It wasn't what Malik had planned to say, but it was as good as anything. He leaned back beneath the shelter of the awning, hoping that the shadows would give them a little longer, but knowing that they wouldn't be enough.

“I knew you'd be back when I said goodbye to you at the house,” she said crisply. “I hoped it'd be in one piece.”

“I should have stayed longer.”

She brushed rain from her cheek and gave him a rueful smile. “I shouldn’t have let you leave. Though they say nobody can keep the Assassins from going anywhere they like.”

“I swore an oath,” he reminded her.

“You can hardly stand.”

“I can sit a horse,” he said. “The sultan gave us both a chance. It'd be unwise to waste it.”

“Unwise?” Nusaybah's brows met in a frown. “Is that what you think?”

Malik felt as if he was climbing in the dark, fingers seeking out uncertain handholds that crumbled away as soon as he trusted ach ledge to bear his weight. “Maybe. I don’t regret it. The sultan spoke of sin. I don’t believe that. The Creed forbids attachment. Or at the very least, discourages such things.”

She snorted. “Does your Creed not speak of love?”

“No,” he admitted. “Perhaps that's what we're so bad at it.”

“Not bad.” She smiled. “My life will be simpler once you’re gone.” She rolled her eyes. “Munya will be so relieved. But Salah al-din won't live for ever, Malik.”

“That’s dangerous.” Malik’s eye flicked to the end of the street as a patrol rounded the corner. They walked slowly, but closed in far too fast.

“It’s true. One day, you'll return.”

“One day,” he said.

She smiled sadly. “Goodbye.”

He went to rise, but something kept him there.  One day I’ll return, he thought. Unless Salah al-din is lying after all. Or we are killed upon the road. Or I die from infection.

 “I've been a fool,” he said. “You know it's not our way to form attachments.  Al Mualim believed it made us weaker. But I think we fight harder knowing the lives of others are at stake. Those that we love.”

“So your Creed does speak of love?”

“No. But I was wrong. I should have spoken sooner.”

“Yes,” she said as the guards arrived.

The soldiers fanned out around them. They had the hard-bitten look of veterans who had seen war, and the scars to prove their service. The nearest guard cleared his throat. “My lady,” he said to Nusaybah, “we’ve come to escort you home.”

She inclined her head. “Goodbye, Malik al-Sayf. Fare well.”

 “Safety and peace,” he said quietly, and then, “If you find yourself in need, call upon the Assassins. My lady, we-I-owe you a debt.”

Nusaybah nodded. They looked at each other for a long moment, and then she bowed her head, and turned away.

Malik watched her walk away down the rain-swept street, her straight back turning the soldiers around her into an honour guard. She would be safe. He’d see to that. The Assassins would not leave Jerusalem unguarded for long, and there were men in Masyaf who owed Malik a favour.

Behind him, someone spoke his name, and Malik turned. He saw Ismail standing beneath the awning. “I didn’t see you there.”

“I came with the guards,” Ismail jerked his chin towards the retreating patrol. He looked as if he was about to add more, but stuttered into silence as Malik stepped into the light. “What happened?”

“Nothing good,” Malik said briefly. His head pounded. He needed warmth, rest and medicine, and he was bitterly aware he wasn't going to get any of it. “You?”

Ismail shrugged. “Nothing bad,” he said.

Malik frowned, and Ismail shrugged again. “The sultan kept his word. There are horses waiting at the gate.”

The last thing Malik wanted was more travel. His clothes were ragged, his face stained with blood and the salt of dried sweat. He knew the Creed cared very little about what he wanted. “Let’s go.”

Ismail nodded. He offered Malik an arm, and Malik glared at the novice until he nervously withdrew his hand. When he stood-shakily, but under his own power-Nusaybah and the guards had gone.

He imagined her at home as they headed down the street, although he knew there hadn’t been time for her to reach Dar Khalifah. Somewhere, she was keeping her accounts, flicking back ink-stained hair as she worked, or sweating in the baths as she sipped sherbet to keep cool. Somewhere, she survived. But not with me.

Malik paused at the public fountain at the end of the street to wash. The water splashing into the bowl was bitterly cold, but he needed to be clean more than he needed to be warm.  He cupped his hand under the stream and rinsed his face. Pink-tinged water dripped onto the flagstones. His teeth ached. The water numbed the ache of his bruises. Ice-cold droplets ran down his throat and beaded on his cowl.  

His breath steamed in the air as he raised his head, dripping onto the stone, and watched the setting sun gleam on the Dome of the Rock. The minarets of the al-Aqsa rose from the Temple Mount to pierce the sky. The city walls held the Mount gently.

Malik felt a flicker of satisfaction. Jerusalem was safe, as safe as anywhere in this uncertain world. Altaïr had ordered him to set things right, and if not right, at least events were a little less awry. Peace had never been the Assassins' element.

But perhaps we shall learn, he thought as he straightened.

“Come on,” he said to Ismail. “It’s time for us to go.”

 

Author’s Note:

A lot of Reason You Suck speeches in this chapter.

 

Chapter Text

Epilogue:

December 1191.

In the rich quarter of the city, Nusaybah worked at her desk in Dar Khalifah. The candle clock flickered, burning down as it marked the hours. A fire burned in the hearth. The evening was clear but cold, and as Nusaybah tapped her fingers against her jaw she thought of the snows of Masyaf.

Salah al-din had banned Malik from entering Jerusalem, but he hadn’t prevented her from leaving. He’d told her to be faithful, but he hadn’t forbidden her from sending messages.

The fire crackled, spitting sparks. Nusaybah raised her pen and began to write.

***

The journey from Jerusalem to Masyaf should have taken Malik and Ismail five days. Between Malik’s injuries, the snow, and the Crusader army, it took them a month. By the time they reached Masyaf, it no longer seemed strange for Malik to have the novice at his side.

The guards at the gate admitted them without a murmur. Malik expected the village to be half-empty, the way it had been when he’d departed for Jerusalem, but the streets bustled with life. The newcomers wore scarves wrapped around their faces and spoke with Persian accents. Malik grabbed the sleeve of the first Masyaf man he saw. He had no wish to walk into another dangerous situation without first knowing the facts. “Fetch me Altaïr.”

The man hurried off without a murmur, but it was Altaïr who found Malik a few moments later, far before the message could have reached him.

Altaïr wore the robes of a senior Assassin, a demotion. He looked five years older. The first thing he said was “You’ve returned.”

“Must you always tell me what I know?”

Altaïr’s eyes flicked to Ismail. “What happened?”

“I sent a bird.”

“It didn’t say much.”

“There wasn’t room. What happened to you?”

“The Persians came.”

“I can see that.” Malik said. “Why didn’t you fight them?” 

Altaïr looked uncomfortable. “The Apple,” he said finally.

“That cursed thing? Do you still have it?”

Altaïr shook his head. “It’s locked in the cellars.” He leaned back against the wall, so tense that even at rest he looked as if he was in motion. “It showed me strange things. Many futures.”

“You saw the future?”

Altaïr nodded. “It showed me visions.”

Malik rolled his eyes. “It showed you lies.”

“Not lies. Glimpses of what might have been.”

“What use is that?” Malik said.

Altaïr wasn’t listening.  “I saw I fought them,” he said softly, eyes locked upon a future that only he could see. “Masyaf fought with me. We fell after a hard battle, and the Creed was lost to us. Another time the Persians never came. The brothers doubted me. They accused me of staging a coup, and Abbas took the Order.” He grimaced. “That didn’t end well.”

Malik frowned. “Brother, you’re obsessed.”

He expected Altaïr to protest. They called each other brother, and, like all brothers, they fought easily and often.

Altair only frowned. “Perhaps,” he said. “But when the Persians came, I handed them the keys. I think it is for the best.”  

 “I have my doubts,” Malik said.

“You always do,” Altaïr retorted.

“Who is the Master?”

“A Persian called Nasr. He’s no Al Mualim. And yet-he’s no Al Mualim. He’ll want to see you.”

“I need to see him,” Malik said. “I have news from Salah al-din.” He grimaced. He could have explained the loss of Jerusalem to Altaïr, and Altaïr would have understood. He had no idea how to explain the last month to a stranger.

“And I must go,” Altaïr agreed. He turned away and slipped out the door. Malik guessed something was wrong, but he couldn’t quite grasp it. At last he shrugged, picked up the saddlebags and went to see the new Master.

A caravan visited Masyaf one month later, led by nervous muleteers who unloaded their cargo as soon as they could and left without spending the night. The cargo puzzled everyone except Malik. He helped unload the books without comment, and stacked them in the Master’s library without an explanation, for that was the state of Masyaf in those days.    

 

***

 

Author’s Notes:

My story Favour of Heaven is a direct sequel to this fic. Enjoy!

Bibliography:

Interpreting the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition, by Dwight Fletcher Reynolds and Kirsten Irustad

The Presentation of the Franks in Selected Muslim Sources from the Crusades of the Twelfth Century, by Niall GF Christie

Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopaedia, edited by Joseph Mani

Crusades: Medieval Worlds in Conflict ed. Thomas F Madden et al

Accounting systems and Recording Systems in the early Islamic State, by Omar Abdullah Zaid

Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society, by Yossef Rapaport