The Tale of the Thief
An Assassin’s Creed fan fiction by xahra99
“That man, who was called al-Zamarrakal, was one devil of a brigand!”
Usamah ibn Munqidh, The Book of Contemplation.
The City on the Hill, the centre of the world, the sanctuary of the earth, the gates of heaven; compared favourably to a pearl of great price by some and (less favourably) by others to a golden goblet full of scorpions, spread out before them like a carpet as they came down from the hills.
Asma reined her horse to a halt, shading her eyes as she gazed at the view. The hills rolled out around them, sloping down to the Valley of Kidron before they reached the city walls. The Dome of the Rock gleamed brightly among the city buildings. The hot wind tugged her hair from beneath her novice’s cowl and brought snatches of music, church bells and prayers to her ears.
“Keep up!” called Malik.
Asma gave the city one last look before she turned away. Her chestnut mare pranced down the hill easily, nostrils wide and tail raised high. Black hair spilled over her rump like a waterfall. The Assassins did not name their horses, but Asma thought of the chestnut as al-Khadra, the dark one. She sat a little straighter as the other travellers made way, floating above the peasants’ donkeys and hand-barrows with lofty, anxious pride.
Malik’s grey, beautiful as Asma’s mare but with the temperament of her rider, rolled her eyes and snaked her head towards the chestnut’s haunches. Malik released the reins and slapped the grey’s neck. Asma pricked al-Khadra with her heels. The chestnut leapt aside, quivering. The grey sidled into a thicket of liquorice-bushes.
Asma called the grey al-Kalba. The bitch.
Asma had been a little scared of the dai before their journey, and a week of hard travel had done nothing to set her at ease. Everyone at Masyaf knew that it was unwise to offer Malik assistance. So instead of helping she turned away to admire the sky, trying to ignore the dai’s increasingly inventive curses. The sky was the same hard blue as the lapis lazuli tiles decorating the Dome of the Rock.
It was midday by the time Malik extracted al-Kalba from the thorns. They reached the stable outside the Lion Gate by early afternoon. Asma lingered over al-Khadra’s tack as long as she could, letting the mare suck salt from her fingers as she loosened her girth.
“Has Rauf forgotten to teach his students speed?” enquired Malik from the other side of the stable. “Can you do nothing fast?”
Asma flushed. She lifted the saddle from al-Khadra’s gleaming, sweaty hide and set it on the stable wall to dry. “I’m ready-“
Somebody shoved her. Hard.
Asma stumbled against the mare’s warm flank. Her teeth snapped together and she bit her tongue hard. Salty blood rushed into her mouth as she spun round, hands raised.
She saw a strange man slouching against the stable wall. His hair was white as carded cotton and his scarred arms and legs poked from a woman’s robe. The robe was belted with a dozen pieces of thin cords that dangled down to frame a camel-hair loincloth. Asma looked away, disgusted, as the beggar stretched out a shaking hand.
“I’m poor and sick and hungry.”
“Good,” Asma said through a mouthful of blood.
“For God’s grace, give me coins!”
“Go away!” Asma snapped. Al-Khadra snorted, shifting uneasily, and Asma decided she had had enough. Without taking her eyes from the beggar, she reached out with her right hand and rolled up her sleeve. Malik ducked under al-Khadra’s neck and caught her arm before she could reveal the blade strapped to her forearm.
“What do you think you’re doing, novice?”
“It was-“Asma bit back her complaint. She could think of nothing to say that would not make her situation worse.
“Speak. Or would you have me read your mind?”
“It was a mistake, dai!”
Malik gave her a hard look and released her arm. Asma’s sleeve dropped down, and Malik flicked the beggar a copper dinar. The old man snatched the coin from the air and scuttled off.
“Beggars are a hindrance,” Malik said, scowling in the beggar’s general direction. He leaned back against the mare. Asma expected al-Khadra to react, but the chestnut stood hip-shot and lipped at Malik’s cowl. “No less. No more. They know nothing. Keep it that way.”
“He’s only a beggar. We are Assassins. It is our duty to take the straight path. To stay our blades.”
Malik sighed as if everything in the world had been built to annoy him. “We’re late,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Asma traced the sweat-streaks that marred al-Khadra’s chestnut coat. “We should groom the horses before we turn them out.”
“No need.” Malik slapped al-Khadra’s flank. “They won’t be here long. Bring the tack.”
Asma bundled up the bridles and saddle-cloths. She forced herself not to look back at al-Khadra as they entered the city beneath the watchful eye of the emir’s guards. The soldiers’ gazes made Asma flush beneath her cowl. Her long sleeves hid her clenched fists, but the guards did nothing more than glare.
Asma had visited Jerusalem before. Nusaybah bint Khadijah, a well-known lady of Jerusalem, was one of her teachers, and a valuable ally of the Assassins. But instead of dropping Asma at Nusaybah’s house by the Bab Ourika, they crossed the city in the direction of the Jerusalem Bureau.
The weather was hot. To Asma it seemed as if the entire population of Jerusalem had left their stifling houses and taken to the streets. She fought her way through the crowds, already missing al-Khadra’s smooth gait. Nobody ever seemed to avoid Malik, but there was always a clear space for him to walk through. Asma wondered how he did it
“What do you see?”
Asma looked carefully around. Every street was dusty and every man short-tempered. The Crusades had been over for three years, but there were still swordsmen in the streets, and she noticed several groups of the young men who formed the city’s unofficial militias within a few blocks. She said as much to Malik.
“You’re right. Times have changed.” He sounded irritated, as if this had personally offended him. “Salah al-din’s sons fight each other. His brother can’t keep the peace forever. The Crusades united all of Syria against a common foe. With no enemies to fight, we’re tearing each other apart.”
“We’re part of this land too.” Malik gave her a sharp look. “Let men of war pursue their war. Let the people remain at peace. There’s no point in killing. It was Salah al-din’s death that left us in this mess. And now there’s news of a fourth crusade among the Franj.”
Ah, Asma thought. The news explained Malik’s short temper. Crusades followed each other like the tide: no matter how the Muslims beat them back, the Franj always came. “But I thought-“
“We’ve arrived,” Malik interrupted, handing his bag to Asma as they stopped outside a large and dilapidated building. “Let’s see if Abbas is ready.”
The house they entered had once been grand. Now it was functional. The stucco carvings had been chipped away, the doors removed. Padded swords and training dummies hung in racks on the walls. The interior courtyard’s pool had been filled in and covered with sand. A heavyset man circled with a boy in the wide space.
“Abbas,” Malik called.
The man disarmed his opponent with a flick of his wrist and turned to face them. “Malik. You’re late.”
“Always perceptive, Abbas.”
Abbas grunted. “Your novice here could use more practice.” He peered at Asma. “Who’s this? One of your lady’s recruits?”
Asma set her jaw. Most people did not notice her sex when she dressed in Assassin robes-but then, assassins were not most people. “I’m Asma of Masyaf.”
“As she says,” Malik said. “Let’s get to work. Altaïr will be a while yet. We’ll have some time to think before he arrives.”
“You think too much already.” Abbas said.
“There’s no such thing.” Malik turned to Asma. “You can clean the tack while we’re waiting.”
Abbas sheathed his sword in his sash. “Help her, Marîd.”
Asma wanted to protest that she could more useful elsewhere, but Malik had ways of making himself very unpleasant if his orders were not obeyed. She kept her mouth closed as Marîd gestured uncertainly to a pile of straw mats laid down in one corner of the wide courtyard. “Over here.”
Asma dumped the saddles on the mats while Marîd fetched wax and rags. Asma set the wax in the sun, examining Marîd surreptitiously while she waited for the block to soften. The novice was shorter than she was, and skinny beneath Assassin-trained muscle.
“I met you once before,” she said to Marîd as she dug her fingernails in the wax to test its softness. She picked up a rag, swiped it over the amber-coloured block and began to work grease into the straps. “At my lady’s house. You’ve changed.”
He looked proud. “You haven’t.”
Asma looked over to the far corner of the courtyard. She saw Malik drawing a map in the dust of the courtyard with his good hand. Abbas wore a deep scowl. “What are they talking about?”
“There’s trouble with the emirs.” Marîd picked up a bridle. “But we’re not supposed to know.”
“We should help.”
“It’s not our task.”
“It should be.” Asma said. “What else are they training us for?”
“If we don’t train, we won’t be ready when they need us.”
Asma regarded Marîd sourly. “You’re as cautious as your teacher.”
“That’s no bad thing,” Marîd retorted. “They teach us to be cautious for a reason.”
Asma sighed and applied herself to her work. Marîd had long been Malik’s partisan. The dai had brought Marîd from the Maghreb after some mysterious mission-she’d never heard exactly what had happened-but Marîd’s loyalty to Malik and Altaïr’s mission was absolute. The other novices mocked Marîd for it, calling him Amir when none of the other Assassins were around. “Yusuf and Ammar say that you’re afraid.”
“I’m not afraid! I’ve seen more than those Syrian oafs-“He bit back the words and looked down at his feet. “I can’t speak of it. But I’m not afraid.”
Asma glanced up to check that the other Assassins could not hear them, but Abbas and Malik had disappeared inside one of the many small rooms that ringed the courtyard. “Then I don’t believe it.”
“Then don’t.” Marîd said. He chiselled wax and grease from the cracks in the leather with his fingernails. Asma sighed and turned back to her work. She was already bored.
Her saddle was clean and her hands were soft and greasy by the time Nusaybah arrived. Asma leapt up and went across the courtyard. Nusaybah nodded.
Asma pointed to the arcade. “In there.”
“My thanks,“ Nusaybah said. She vanished in the direction Asma had indicated. Asma looked back at Marîd, embarrassed that the other novice had seen Nusaybah spurn her, but either Marîd hadn’t noticed or he was doing a very good job of pretending that he hadn’t.
The afternoon lurched on like a lame donkey. As the shadows lengthened a man ran into the courtyard from outside. His chest heaved as if he had run a long way. He leaned his palms on his thighs and bent over, wheezing. “Is anybody else here?”
Asma held out her hand. “We’ll take your message.”
The man gave her a doubtful glance, but Asma’s Assassin robes gave her an authority that belied her youth. “Then know the emir’s men have taken the horses from the stable by the Lion’s Gate.”
“That’s not much information.” Marîd put in. “Can you tell us anything else?”
“There’s not much to tell. The emir’s soldiers came to the stables and took them. Somebody said I might find the owners here. That’s all I know.”
“Then you can go,” Asma said.
The messenger lingered despite her dismissal, glancing from Asma to Marîd. Marîd sighed and drew a few copper dinars from his robe. “We thank you for the information.”
The messenger bowed and left the Bureau. Marîd deposited his bridle on the mat in a pile of tangled leather straps and stood up. “We need to tell them.”
“No,” Asma said. “We don’t.” She patted the mat persuasively. “Sit down and listen.”
Marîd sat reluctantly, wrapping his arms around his knees. “Why shouldn’t we tell them?”
“Why should we? Malik and I brought those horses from Masyaf. They’re ours. The emir has no right to take them. If we’re careful, we can steal them back before anybody even notices they’re gone.”
“We don’t even know where they are,” Marîd pointed out.
“They’ll be in the emir’s stables,” Asma said, hoping it was true. “Not far from here. We can fetch them.” The more she considered, the better her plan seemed. “Why not?”
Marîd frowned. “The emir’s guards won’t just let us walk in there and take them.”
“I’ll shield you from danger,” she teased.
He scowled. “What do you care about two horses?”
Asma wiped her fingers on the mats, smelling saddle-soap and leather. “My family were horse-breeders before the Franks came. Their knights killed my family and stole our horses. My brothers died and I came to Masyaf. I miss my family, and the horses.” She shrugged. “And we’re Assassins. We shouldn’t let the emir steal from us.”
Marîd squared his shoulders. “All right.”
He shrugged. “Do you even have a plan?”
Asma nodded and leaned closer. “I do,” she said, “Listen-“
They left the compound at midnight. The fidai guarding the Bureau gates glanced at them curiously but let them go when Marîd spoke the password.
Asma trailed her palms along the walls to bricks to roughen her skin as they walked. The citizens of Jerusalem kept lord’s hours throughout the summer, with plenty of oil lamps and candles. The streets were ablaze with light and the markets so crowded that nobody paid the Assassins any mind. By the time they reached the stables, Asma was heartily sick of people jostling them. Her ribs ached from other people’s elbows and her ears rang with chatter. She was glad when they came to the quieter alleys surrounding the stables.
The emir’s horses were guarded more jealously than most men’s wives. The stables had high walls and guards watching every gate, but the Assassins saw no archers. Asma slipped into a covered alcove further down the street and used a carved pillar to climb to the roof of the market next door.
Marîd looked sceptically at her as they crossed the roof towards the stable courtyard. “This is your plan?”
“It’s worked so far!”
Marîd shrugged. “Let’s hope we’re lucky.”
Asma did not deign to reply. She peered down into the stable courtyard and saw a convenient drainpipe to her left. She wrapped her arms and legs around the smooth copper and slid down into the courtyard. Marîd followed Asma silently. They slipped together into the first of the long arcades.
Asma was immediately entranced. A long corridor stretched out before her. The arches glowed with golden torchlight. Each arch had been partitioned off by carved wooden pillars. Velvet noses poked above stable doors, imperiously demanding grain or handfuls of sugar. Asma had brought no gifts, but she peered over each door as she passed. Horses munched hay from stone mangers or stood dozing in deep sweet-smelling straw. She picked up a twist of hay from the floor and ran it through her tender fingers.
“Are they here?” Marîd asked.
“I don’t know.” Asma turned away from a black horse as tall as a camel. She peered over sleek backs and saw al-Khadra’s ears, pricked and curved like crescent moons. “Yes.” She pointed. “Over there.”
“I don’t see how you can tell the difference. At least camels are soft-footed. How are you planning to free them?”
Asma shrugged. “We’ll pick the lock on the front gates and ride out.”
Marîd looked unimpressed by her brilliant plan. “You know what’ll happen if we’re caught.”
To Asma, al-Khadra was worth any risk. “Let’s try the lock,” she said.
She crept across the courtyard on soundless feet, and took a lockpick from her sash. To her surprise, the stable gate swung open as soon as she touched the lock. “It’s open,” she whispered.
“I’m impressed,” Marîd hissed.
Asma didn’t bother to correct him, though she frowned beneath her cowl as they made their way surreptitiously back to the mares. She’d have sworn that the gate had been closed when they’d arrived.
“These are the ones,” she said to Marîd as she took a pair of braided halters from a hook next to one of the stable doors and handed one to him. The horses had been well cared for. Their coats gleamed like silk in the lamplight. No trace of their long journey remained. “Let’s-”
A pile of rags and straw stretched and shook itself. “Not so fast!”
Marîd drew his dagger. “It’s a guard!”
Asma caught his sleeve as she recognized the man. “No!” she hissed. “He’s just a beggar.”
Straw scattered. As the beggar sat up, a wave of pungent sweat drifted towards them. The cords around his waist loosened as he moved, exposing more of his scarred limbs and dirty loincloth than Asma wanted to see. “What are you doing here?” she asked.
The beggar stood, clutching more of the loose cords in his hands. A calculating expression lit his dark eyes. Asma realized that the cords weren’t fastening his clothes. They were cheap cord halters, several of them. “You opened the gate,” she said aloud.
Marîd’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “Who is this?”
“We’ve met,” Asma explained. “We saw him at the stables by the gate, begging for coins. But he’s no beggar.”
Asma sighed. “He’s a horse-thief.”
Marîd gave the beggar an irritated glare borrowed from Malik. “Who cares?” He reached up to al-Khadra and slipped the halter over the chestnut’s nose. “There’s enough horses here for everyone. Let’s go.”
The beggar scowled and stepped forwards, halters swinging around his knees. Al-Khadra tossed her head at the sudden movement. “Not so fast. What are you doing?”
“We’re taking these horses,” Marîd snapped.
“Right. I’ve been hiding here since supper just so you can steal the horses.”
“Don’t talk nonsense,” Asma said. She found al-Kalba in the stall next to the chestnut and fastened the halter over the grey’s nose. Al-Kalba rolled her eyes and kicked the door impatiently. The door rattled with each blow of the mare’s hooves as Asma bent down to slide back the bolts.
“Don’t fool yourself. By God, I’m not about to let you take anything!” The old beggar stepped back towards the courtyard and shouted at the top of his lungs. “Help! Help! Thieves!”
Marîd let go of al-Khadra’s halter and lunged for the old man, but the beggar dodged away into the courtyard, and hit the gate running. Marîd followed him. Asma knew they had been discovered. She sacrificed concealment for haste and tugged at the bolts. Al-Kalba snorted and wheeled. She struck the door with both front hooves. The bolt jammed.
Asma left the grey and ran for al-Khadra’s door. The bolts on the chestnut’s stall slid open easily. Asma flung the lead rein around the chestnut’s neck and tied it to the other side of the mare’s halter, then used the stable door to push herself up. Gasping, she leant down and tugged at the bolt on al-Kalba’s door while the mares squabbled and snapped over her back.
Marîd ran into the arcade, panting. “Asma! Soldiers!”
“Did you catch the beggar?”
“No. He ran off.”
“Pity.” Asma spun the chestnut mare around and flung a hand out to Marîd. “Get on!”
Marîd ignored her hand and leapt up from the floor, landing face-first across al-Khadra’s back behind Asma. His elbow hit her in the face as he swung up behind her. Asma yanked on her makeshift reins and al-Khadra responded as beautifully as if she wore bit and bridle. As the mare wheeled, Asma saw a dozen guards in the square, all armed with short swords and pikes and padded black-and-gold armour. One man aimed a bow at them. Asma shrank down instinctively, but the soldier behind the archer cursed and knocked his companion’s hand away. “Fool! Do you want to shoot the horses?”
There was a snort and a crash from the stables as al-Kalba jumped the stable gate. She leapt into the courtyard, ears flat against her neck, halter rein lashing her legs. She snorted and swept around the courtyard like a queen, hooves flying. The soldiers cowered away, and Asma took her chance. She bent over al-Khadra’s neck, shouted “Hold on!” to Marîd, and dug her heels into the chestnut’s sides.
The mare saw the open gate and lunged towards it, knocking Asma’s teeth together. She felt a moment of relief before the mare barged into the heavy wood, crushing Asma’s knee between the iron-shod wood and the horse’s warm flank. The blow nearly tore Asma from the chestnut’s back. She reached out with her right hand and shoved herself upright again, then gave the mare her head. “Run!”
Al-Khadra obeyed. Asma heard hoof beats behind them as they raced into the alleys. She saw the grey following over her shoulder, eyes wide, lead-rein snaking between her flying hooves.
Jerusalem was a bad city for riders. The Franks had stabled their destriers in Jerusalem for years, but Salah al-din had banned horses from the city. Stalls had grown out into the streets, and the houses pressed closely together. Marîd shouted a warning. Asma flung herself forwards, reins gripped tightly in both fists. A clothes-line ripped the cowl from her head. Ahead, people fled into the alleys. Asma heard a dog howl, and shivered.
Salah al-din’s sons were hunters, and they hunted Assassins the same way they hunted everything else, with fleet-footed zaghariya-hounds, and behind them, mastiffs. On the rooftops, Asma had never found the dogs a problem. On the ground, they might present considerably more of a threat.
She slowed to a trot as they clattered up a flight of stairs.
“Where are you going?” Marîd hissed. “The gates are locked.”
“There’s a garden-” Asma explained, but a legion of dark figures materialized at the top of the stairs before she had a chance to finish the sentence. Lamplight gleamed on swords and scale armour. In the darkness, something snarled.
“That’s not going to work! “
“I know!” Asma snatched the reins. She hauled al-Khadra’s head to the side and urged the mare from the main street into an alley so narrow her knees brushed the walls. Al-Khadra’s shod hooves struck sparks from the stone. Al-Kalba skidded around the corner after them, forcing a horse’s length between the Assassins and their pursuers.
The chase had already drawn attention. Faces peered down from the rooftops. A few times somebody tossed a stone and once an arrow ripped a hole in an awning an arms’ length from Asma’s head. Their pursuers shouted furiously and after that there were no more arrows.
Nor was there safety.
The Assassins were the opposite side of the city from the refuge Asma had planned. The Bureau was closer, but their enemies were too near, and the Bureau would be closed to them. Their pursuers chased them from well-lit-paths to darker ones. The wild staccato beat of the horses’ hooves echoed from the buildings. Walls, baskets and boxes loomed up from nowhere in front of them, and Asma lost her bearings entirely.
She saw movement flicker in the street before them, and wrenched at the reins. Al-Khadra was slower to respond to each command. They were reacting now, without a plan, nothing real except the chase. The mares’ sides heaved.
At first it seemed the hunt would be a short one; that they’d escape or be overwhelmed within a matter of moments. Yet although the horses skidded around the corners always a length or two ahead of their pursuers, they never quite lost them. There were moments where the quiet pressed in around them and shadows draped the mares’ sides like blankets, only for the hue and cry to be raised in a different street as they paused for water from a courtyard fountain. Sometimes the guards’ torches came close enough to singe al-Kalba’s snowy tail, and Asma loosened her sword in its sheath, certain that at any moment then would be pulled down. Sometimes the streets grew quiet. But they could not shake their pursuers off entirely, and as the light grew pale and Jerusalem’s muezzins drowsed atop their minarets, waiting for dawn, the emir’s guards crept closer. The guard had changed twice overnight, fuelling the hunters with fresh reinforcements. Asma, Marîd and the horses were exhausted.
The end came suddenly. Al-Khadra took a corner too fast and stumbled. She lurched onto her knees, neck outstretched, legs splayed. Asma fell sprawling over her shoulder and grazed her hands on the cobbles. Marîd slammed into the carved pillars of a doorway with a sickening thump.
The impact stunned them both for a second. Then Asma rose, wiping her bleeding hands on her robe. Al-Khadra stood, chest heaving, head down, the soft golden skin across her knees lacerated with the force of her fall. Al-Kalba rested her head on the chestnut’s rump, too tired even to snap.
She thought for one awful moment that Marîd was dead, but he sat up as she approached and crawled to his feet, shaking his head. Blood stained the arm of his borrowed robe. The stone pillar he had hit was as thick as two of Asma’s legs, carved with spiral patterns in the tradition of the Franks. The carvings were painted with Marîd’s blood. His face was pale. “I think it’s broken,” he said.
Asma drew back his sleeve. Bone glinted in a mess of crushed meat. “Quickly,” she said, glancing round for signs of close pursuit. “Can you climb?”
Marîd clenched his jaw. “I can try.”
The façade of the Frankish building should have been an easy climb. Asma gave Marîd a hand to boost him up, and he fit his left hand into the top of the spiral post beside the door. But as she took her weight away he swayed and would have fallen if she hadn’t reached up to catch his shoulders. He tried again to climb and slipped, cursing and shivering despite the night’s warmth. “What do we do?”
“We walk,” Asma said grimly. “The horses can’t carry us much longer.”
“We won’t get far without them.”
“We might,” Asma said stubbornly. The horses stared at them, waiting for Asma to lead them to shelter or food. Rivers of sweat ran down their flanks. Asma waved her free arm, the one that wasn’t holding Marîd. “Go!”
Al-Kalba tossed her head. Al-Khadra sucked great gasps of warm night air through widened nostrils, rested a hind-hoof, and snorted.
“Get!” Marîd shouted, hissing in pain.
Asma lifted a broken jug from the fountain “Go!” she shouted, heaving the jar at the mares. The jug smashed into pottery shards. Al-Kalba paced backwards, heavy and slow with exhaustion. Al-Khadra did not move a muscle.
Asma cursed. The horses had been an asset while they could still run. Exhausted, they would only draw attention. She turned her back on them and began to walk away, dragging Marîd with her, but something pulled at her cowl. She turned. Al-Khadra was chewing at the fabric.
“Why won’t they go?” Marîd asked her. Blood dripped from the tips of his fingers onto the dusty stones.
“I don’t know!”
There was a loud clatter in the street to their side. Asma looked frantically around for help. A handful of pathways led from the courtyard away into the city. Some were too bright for comfort: others too narrow to lead anywhere but a handful of homes. Exhaustion had drained Asma of her wits and left her lost. She chose one path at random and headed that way, supporting Marîd as best she could. Although Asma was taller, Marîd was heavy, and his weight increased with every passing moment. Asma abandoned the idea of making it back to the Bureau before daybreak. They could hole up somewhere, wait for the dawn….
They had not travelled more than a few bows’ lengths before she found herself staring at the blank face of a wall instead of the route to safety that she’d hoped for. The edifice offered few handholds. With Marîd in tow, it was impossible to climb.
“Not this way,” she said aloud, unsure if the reassurance was for Marîd’s sake or her own. “We’ll go back. Try another path.” She turned, dragging him back towards the mouth of the alley, and saw the mares blinking back at them.
And then the sound of running feet came chasing down the ancient cobbles, and the honey light of torches followed. Asma stopped, heart sinking, as a mastiff stalked out of the shadows. Saliva dripped from the dog’s jaws as it snarled. Al-Kalba lowered her head, snorting, ears flattened. A man whistled, and the dog slunk back behind a wall of guards.
“They’re here!” a male voice called. “We’ve caught them!”
“Not yet,” Asma shouted. The soldiers paused at the sound of her voice, but surprise did not slow them for long. They advanced, spears at the ready, long and sharp and quite capable of skewering them like a kebab before Asma could bring her short sword within range.
Asma let go of Marîd, who staggered, but caught himself with one hand splayed against the wall. “We don’t want a fight,” she said. “You can take the horses.”
“You won’t escape,” said the closest soldier, a strong-featured man with a broken nose. “Come quietly.”
Asma knew she had much more to lose in a fight than the soldiers did. She cast a glance at Marîd and retreated. She had already resigned herself to losing the horses-and with them any chance of mending her reputation-but she had not yet resigned herself to abandoning Marîd. “We won’t.”
The soldier shrugged. “Don’t make this difficult.”
Asma fumbled in her sash for her sword. She hoped to draw the blade with a flourish, but instead the steel clattered from the wooden edge of her scabbard. She tossed the scabbard towards them anyway. “It won’t be.”
The soldier grimaced at her. All the confident cruelty drained from his face. Asma glanced back over her shoulder at Marîd, but he was slumped against a crate. She took a step forwards. The guards backed off.
And then, astoundingly, one man vanished like a ghost into the shadows, and then a second, and then, with a whispering of pikes, they were gone. Darkness rolled in to fill the space behind them. They took the horses, but Asma was past caring. She stood, blade bared, trembling, until they had all left, and only then did she turn to look behind her.
A man dropped from the shadows and landed in a crouch on the dusty street. A blade glinted in his hand, steel brighter than the torches. A cowl covered his face.
Asma didn’t recognise him. She raised her blade, ready to fight, but Marîd said “Altaïr!” and Asma dropped her guard, feeling even more like an idiot as the Grand Master of the Syrian Assassins inclined his head.
“Did they hurt you?” he asked, turning his head like a hound to follow the guards’ retreat.
Asma shook her head. “Marîd fell.”
“Can you walk?” Altaïr asked Marîd.
Marîd nodded. “I’ll try.”
Asma had become hopelessly lost during their chase. The walk to the Bureau, though short, was slow torture. The streets were black as pitch and the setting moon hung like a razor in the sky. But the Bureau’s door was open, the courtyard still uncovered, and Asma wondered if they had ever closed the gates.
Altaïr exchanged a nod with the guards as he led Asma and Marîd through the courtyard and into a smoky lamplit chamber. Malik stood at a table, looking harried. Abbas stood at his side, a curved sword in his sash. Beside them Nusaybah stood wrapped in a blanket, leaning on her elbows, and peering at a map.
“I found your missing novices,” Altaïr said, as the call to prayer drowned out all responses.
Asma looked mutely at Nusaybah, hoping that her mentor would defend her, but Nusaybah shook her head, turning away, and Asma’s heart, already sinking, sank lower.
Malik scowled at Marîd’s pale face. He lifted Marîd’s sleeve and examined the wound. “What happened?” he demanded. “Did you fall?”
“From horseback,” Marîd confirmed, teeth gritted.
“Find a bonesetter as soon as it’s light. I refuse to let you live your life a cripple.”
“I know a doctor,” Nusaybah said. She touched Marîd lightly on his good arm, frowning at Asma. “You can tell us. What happened?”
Asma tried to explain. She wished she could have covered her shamed face with her cowl. “The emir stole our horses,” she said. “We went to get them back.”
Malik raised an eyebrow. “Did you?”
Seconds stretched to hours, moments to years. Eventually Asma felt she must speak or be crushed by the avalanche of time. She saw disappointment in Nusaybah’s eyes, anger in Abbas’ gaze, pain in Marîd’s, and mingled curiosity and condemnation in Malik’s. “We met a beggar in the stables. An old man. He was at the Lion’s Gate this morning. He was planning to steal our horses too. When he found us, he called the guard and ran away.” Everything she said seemed hopelessly inadequate. She winced.
“Was he old?” asked Abbas. “Looks like a beggar. Wears a woman’s robe. Scar on his thigh.” He gestured from hip to knee. “Here.”
“You know him?” Malik asked.
Abbas nodded. “Sounds like al-Zamarrakal. He’d steal a loaf of bread from his own house. Made his name taking horses from the Franks. I’ll send the fidai to find him. When we do, I’ll drink his blood.” His words sounded like bluster, but Asma knew them for truth. Abbas was the sincere hammer to Malik’s subtle knife.
“We of all men should know what hides within plain sight,” Malik said. “Though I would not be averse to making a point, should we find him.” He looked over at Marîd. “But that can wait.”
“I’ll take the boy,” Nusaybah said.
Malik nodded. Nusaybah wrapped an arm around Marîd’s shoulders and led him away. Marîd glanced apologetically back at Asma as they vanished into the dim morning light.
“Novices,” Malik said as soon as they had gone. “You don’t think. Not until it’s far too late.”
“The emir insulted the Order,” Asma said, trying to be brave.
Malik glared at her. “The emir was supposed to take the horses. We left them in the stables as a way to save face.” He took a knife from the table and tucked it into his sash. “That’s what we planned.”
“We didn’t know!”
“You don’t know anything.” He jerked his head towards the door. “With me.”
Abbas looked up from the map and shook his head. “She’s not ready.”
“She will be,” Malik said. He beckoned Asma with his single hand. “Come on.”
The knife in Malik’s sash made Asma nervous, but she did not think to refuse. She followed him into streets grown suddenly familiar with the light. Pale hoofmarks scarred the cobblestones in places, though Asma did not recall having ridden that way the night before. They crossed the tangled streets to the square base of a minaret, with glittering green faience tiles.
Malik jerked his head. “Climb.”
Asma obeyed. She grasped at the bricks, feeling her path with the pads of too-soft fingers, working her toes into cracks between the stones. She climbed out of darkness into the golden light of dawn as the sun rose over the hills. The minaret seemed taller than a mountain. Asma found it impossible to judge the height. She climbed beyond her fear of falling, sweat prickling between the shoulders of her robe, fabric tangling her legs. It seemed an eternity before she reached the roof and swung her legs over the wide parapet, rolling to her belly on green-glazed tiles. A flock of pigeons roosting on the tiles swept into the dawn, wings clattering, as she arrived.
Asma tossed back her cowl and gulped cool clear air. Malik came up through a trapdoor in the roof, hauling himself up one-handed. Asma struggled out onto the joist and saw Jerusalem roll out before her, so beautiful in the dawn light, so quiet.
“It’s not the centre of the world like people say,” said Malik, “but it’s close.”
She nodded mutely, wondering why he had brought her here. The knife suggested a number of possibilities, but she didn’t think they’d climbed so far for him to kill her. There were plenty of places to do that down on street level.
“How old are you?” he asked.
He nodded as he drew the knife. “Old enough. Hold out your hand.”
Asma would have backed away, but there was no room. She held Malik’s gaze, and maintained her position, resting on her heels with only a single hands-breadth of splintering dry wood before her and thin air.
“We’ve been training you for years,” Malik said. His words had an air of ritual. “We’ve taught the skills you need to join our ranks. But there is always a choice. You can leave us if you want. Breed horses like your family. Whatever you choose.”
Asma saw what he was offering. The urge to run faded, replaced by confusion. An Assassin initiation was carried out at the Great Hall at Masyaf with everyone watching, not on a rooftop at dawn with one witness. “I choose this,” she said firmly. What other choice did she have?
“Nothing is true,” Malik said. “Everything is permitted. These are the words that lie at the heart of your Creed. When others blindly follow, remember, nothing is true. When others are limited by morality or law, remember everything is permitted. We walk in the dark to serve the light. We are Assassins.” He paused, lifted the end of his sash, gripped it between his teeth, and sliced a wide strip from the scarlet fabric with the edge of his blade.
“Nothing is true and everything is permitted,” Asma echoed.
Malik spat out the cloth and lifted the knife. “Hold out your hand.”
Asma laid her palm on the parapet’s gritty stone. She stared at the horizon as the blade came down, and did her best to be brave. She swallowed as the pain consumed her hand, and tried, but failed, to stifle a yelp. Tears streamed from her eyes. Malik flicked something small over the parapet with the edge of his blade.
Malik took her hand and bound the finger. Asma held the end of the dressing. Her hand trembled as the scarlet cloth stained a darker red. “Do you trust me?” he asked.
He nodded at the end of the joist. “Then jump.”
Asma stood, head swimming. Blood throbbed in her temples and pulsed in her maimed hand. She shuffled to the end of the joist and surveyed the city. The streets seemed a very long way down.
“There will be another Crusade,” Malik said from behind her as she hesitated.
Asma twisted to face him. She staggered slightly, and almost fell. “I thought the Frankish wars were over.”
He shook his head. “This land is a mess. Far too fragmented to fight. We seek to form alliances, Make the fight fairer. But it never ends. We need more men.” His mouth twisted in a wry smile. “More Assassins.”
“What will happen?” Asma asked. “Now that I’m an Assassin.”
“We’re sending an embassy to Venice.” Malik said. “The Frankish ships must use that port to reach our coast. Perhaps we can divert them there, before they even reach our shores. Jerusalem won’t be safe for you for a while. I’m sending you with the ship. I’d planned differently, and you’re not ready, but well, needs must, and there is no time.”
“I-“Asma didn’t know what to say. To be raised to full Assassin, and be sent away, all in one day? “I don’t deserve such a reward.”
Malik raised an eyebrow. ““What makes you think it’s a reward?”
“No more. You distract me, and test my patience. Jump.”
A week later, Asma climbed the mast of their felucca and watched the sails billow out like banners against the azure sea. The ship skimmed across the waves with a horse’s gait as she gripped the rail. She craned forwards, trying to catch sight of a serene city that floated beyond the horizon, just outside her sight.
Venice, she thought. Al-Bunduqiyya. Even the name was strange. The Bride of the Sea. The eastern door to the western world. A city on the edge of a shallow sea, where every street was a river, and men travelled in boats instead of walking. Not the centre of the world like Jerusalem, but undisputed centre of commerce. City of masks, bridges and canals.
A city, Malik had said, without horses.
She sighed. She’d work something out.