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The Story of the Scribe

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The Story of the Scribe

An Assassin’s Creed fan fiction by xahra99

 

 

Jerusalem, 1191.

 “In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate…” Ammar recited as he raised his pen. The scribe had spoken the basmalah a thousand times, and the words were as familiar as the smell of ink to him. He whispered the final part of the prayer, the tasliyah, as he dipped his reed pen in the inkwell.

“Praise be to God.”

The world fell away. His ears were deaf to the din of the souk, his eyes blind to the crowds. He was nobody’s husband, nobody’s father. There was nothing in this world that mattered save for the prayer and the parchment.

He poised his pen over the paper.

 “I’ve won!” Abu Mansur shouted from the street. “Praise God, I’ve won!”

Regret curdled in Ammar’s throat. He closed his eyes tightly, tongue curling in the familiar syllables of the tasliyah. Before he could open his eyes the smooth surface of the stripped reed beneath his fingers became polished ivory counters. The words upon his tongue became a gambler's prayer.

Let my horse race more swiftly than the prophet’s steed. Let my pigeon reach the loft before the flock. Let me checkmate the player’s king. Let my arrow be drawn from the barrel.

Let me win. Me, Ammar ibn Suleyman al-Katib. For once in my life, let me win.

In Ammar’s mind gold dinars spilled from his hands as his friends slapped his shoulders, wishing Ammar good health and envying his triumph.

“At last!’ Abu Mansur bellowed. “Fortune favours me, my friends!’

Ammar’s dream vanished like a mirage. He rested his copyist’s board on his crossed legs and sighed. A drop of ink fell from the sharpened nib and stained the paper’s spotless surface.

I only tried to do the right thing, he thought miserably. But I didn’t play. Didn’t win. Profaned my work with impure thoughts.

Ammar glanced nervously at the minaret that stretched up from the mosque at the corner of the scribe’s quarter. The purse in his sleeve chinked as he shifted, reminding him that he had only a few copper pieces left for food. The purse had been much heavier yesterday. Yesterday, when he’d vowed to renounce gambling for good…

Nobody will know, he told himself. Only God.   

He sighed, lifted his pen and closed his eyes, praying to God for courage and compassion.

If I’d saved every coin, if I’d prayed more fervently, given more to charity. If I’d gone to mosque on every holy day instead of drinking. Instead, I sit here in the street. Alone. Who knows where they rest?

His forehead furrowed as he pressed his eyes together tightly, fingers white around his pen. In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate…”

Someone slapped the board from his hand. “Ammar ibn Suleyman?”

Ammar opened his eyes onto a crowded courtyard. Men loomed over him. They wore serious expressions, leather armour and too many weapons. Jerusalem’s guard cast Ammar into shadow. The board slipped from his grasp and fell face-down in the dust. “W-what- “He swallowed, tried again. “What do you want?”

Al-Asad, their corrupt captain, grasped Ammar’s ink-stained robe and hauled him effortlessly upright. “Pay up.”

Ammar’s hands scrabbled ineffectually against the smooth scales of al-Asad’s leather cuirass. “Al-Asad! I don’t owe you any money.”

Al-Asad pulled a wine-stained scrap of parchment from his tunic and slapped the paper across Ammar’s chest. “This says you owe me plenty.”

Ammar staggered back. He rubbed the scrap of parchment between his fingers and raised it to his eyes, recognizing the linen fibres and the purple stains before he deciphered the script. The paper smelt of rancid wine. “I was drunk!”

Al-Asad smiled like Shaitan’s son. “Very.” He stepped forwards and trod heavily onto Ammar’s drawing board. Wooden boards splintered. Ammar opened his mouth to protest, but the glare al-Asad gave him told him he’d be lucky if tools were the only things the captain damaged.

Ammar hastily shook his purse from his sleeve and counted the coins. There were exactly twenty. He thanked the Prophet as he held out the money. “Here.”

Al-Asad struck Ammar’s hand away. Dirhams fell like copper rain into the dust. “What do you think I am?”

Ammar thought it best not to answer.

“I don’t gamble pittances. That’s not enough.”

Ammar’s heart fell like the coins. “Not enough?”

“You wagered dinars,” al-Asad said. “Not dirhams.”

Ammar gazed disbelievingly at the paper. The squiggles on the parchment could have been dinars, or dirhams, or donkeys. He had to admit it wasn’t his most elegant calligraphy. “I don’t have that kind of money!”

“Then you shouldn’t gamble.”  Al-Asad’s eyes gleamed like his namesake. “It seems you need to learn a lesson.” He drew back his fist. “Let me assist.”

Ammar fell to his knees in the dust, dropping down below the reach of Al-Asad’s fists. He grovelled by the captain’s boots. ”Give me time!”

“What will time do?” Al-Asad kicked Ammar away. “Will time pay me?”

“I’ll work!” Ammar yelped. “Day and night! I’ll earn the money!”

Al-Asad narrowed his eyes. “I could kill you,” he said slowly, “but killing you will only bring me satisfaction. I’ll still be out of pocket, and you’re not worth that much. Very well.”

 “More time?”

“Three weeks.” Al-Asad kicked Ammar again. “And one finger for every extra day.”

Ammar covered his head with his hands. “Yes! Anything!” He peered up through his fingers at al-Asad and saw a man push his way through the guards. Abu Mansur’s deep voice was familiar.

“What’s going on here?”

Al-Asad spat on Ammar’s head. “We’re collecting a debt.”

“Collect it some other time.”

The guard captain bared his teeth. There was a long pause. Ammar cowered, covering his head with his arms.  

“Four weeks,” the captain said at last. He stepped back. “I won’t forget.”

 Ammar cringed, anticipating a parting blow. But one by one the soldiers stepped away into the streets, leaving Ammar in the centre of a widening circle of dusty pavement. When he cautiously uncurled his arms from his head he saw Abu Mansur, arms crossed across his broad chest, backed by a crowd of nervous but determined scribes clutching makeshift weapons. They were a shabby lot, but there were enough of them to give the guards pause for thought.

Abu Mansur extended an ink-stained hand to Ammar. “What was that about?”

Shame burned Ammar’s face. “Nothing.” He climbed awkwardly to his feet, brushing the dust from his robe.  

Abu Mansur turned to the group. “You heard him. Back to work. Stop by my stall later. I’ll buy you wine with my winnings.”

The unlikely vigilantes peeled away one by one, gazing curiously at Ammar as they left. Ammar ignored their scrutiny. The artisans were men he knew. He’d danced at their daughters’ weddings; shared wine when they had it; water when they hadn’t. Their knowledge of his weakness shamed him.

Surely they have sins? he thought hopelessly as Abu Mansur approached him. He forced a smile. “Many thanks, my friend.”

Abu Mansur waved Ammar’s gratitude away. “It is my pleasure. Do you want to talk?”

Ammar shook his head. “It’s a private matter.” He swallowed, tasting gritty sand between his teeth. “It shames me to speak of it.”

 “Then let me treat you to a bath,” Abu Mansur said, glancing down at Ammar’s grubby clothes. “I’ll pay-don’t worry about that-and it’ll take your mind off things.”

Ammar glanced down at his filthy robe and found himself agreeing. He’d have to purify himself before setting pen to paper, and he could no longer afford to refuse a free bath.

The closest bathhouse was some distance from the souk. Ammar chatted with Abu Mansur as they walked. His mind raced as hopelessly as a blind pigeon. He’d already forgotten the conversation by the time they reached the bathhouse gates. Abu Mansur paid the entry fee as Ammar resigned himself to an inevitable and painful death.

Abu Mansur thrust a towel at Ammar’s chest. “Cheer up,” he said. “Nothing’s impossible. Perhaps al-Asad will die. God knows he has enough enemies.”

“Maybe he will,” Ammar said without much hope. “Or maybe I will. I know which is more likely.”

They scrubbed each other clean in the bathhouse antechamber and went through to the hot room. The small brick-lined chamber was the same shape and temperature as an oven. Water dripped from the roof and dribbled down the chipped wall tiles. The air smelt of mildew. A man lay on one of the benches. As they came in he sat up and looked about to leave. Ammar moved back to give the stranger space, but Abu Mansur reached out and caught him by his arm.

“Malik!” he boomed. A few drops of lukewarm water fell from the ceiling. “There’s no need to leave! Come, sit down. Meet my friend!”

“Abu Mansur.” The stranger did not seem pleased by Abu Mansur’s interruption, but he sat back down on the bench. “I have business.”

“You? Business? Your shop has not seen a single customer in weeks.” Abu Mansur slapped the stranger on the back.

The stranger did not move, though Ammar saw his shoulders twitch. “Of that I’m well aware,” he said. He turned, and Ammar saw that his left arm terminated in a stump of scarred flesh between elbow and shoulder.  He scowled at Ammar when he saw him staring, and Ammar flinched and moved closer to the solid bulk of Abu Mansur.

“Ammar, this is Malik al-Sayf,” Abu Mansur said, oblivious to Malik’s scowl and Ammar’s unease. “He’s taken the Pearl Street shop. Malik, this is Ammar ibn Suleyman al-Katib, one of my most trusted friends.”

“Peace be upon you,” Ammar said.

“Peace would be a fine thing,” Malik snapped.

Ammar had not expected such a vehement reply. “Er,” he said as he perched on the bench. “I suppose so.”

Abu Mansur laughed as he sat down. The bench creaked beneath his weight. “What’s problem, Malik? Have you made acquaintance with Majd Addin’s guards?” He winked over at Ammar. “They’re legendary for their hospitality.”

Malik snorted. “If you can call it that.”

“How much?”

“Fifteen silver dirhams.”

Abu Mansur sucked in air between his teeth. “Who came to collect?

“He called himself al-Asad,” Malik said.

Ammar’s chest tightened at the mention of his tormentor’s name. He gulped warm, humid air. “I owe him a debt.”

Malik’s smile was like a steel blade. “Then we have something in common.”

“Malik has recently arrived in the city,” Abu Mansur said obliviously. “He could use some help setting up his shop. He threw an arm around Ammar’s shoulders. “You could use the extra money.”

“I don’t need help.” Malik said.

“My pardon. Scattering books across the floor as you do does not encourage customers! You’ll not last long in business like that, my friend. You must stack your wares on shelves, as other booksellers do, stacked neatly.” He gestured to Malik’s missing arm. “I thought you could use some assistance. My friend here is in desperate need of coin. This way you both are happy.”

Malik grimaced. “I see. Do I have a choice in the matter?”

Abu Mansur smiled disarmingly and shrugged. “Of course.”

There was a long silence, broken only by the hiss of steam and the groans of the furnace. Finally Malik said. “Very well. It’s true I have much to learn when it comes to business.” He glanced at Ammar. “When can you come?”

Ammar had almost forgotten that he was a participant in the conversation. “I have to work this afternoon. Perhaps I could come later?”

Malik shrugged. “Do as you will.”

“Then it is settled!” Abu Mansur said triumphantly, determined to do them both a favour, no matter how ungrateful either Ammar or Malik seemed. “May great benefit be with you both.”

Ammar sighed. Whatever coins he earned would be a drop in the vast ocean of his debt. Perhaps be could invest the money in a more profitable venture. He had four weeks, after all. A miracle could happen in such time.

Malik grimaced. “We shall see.” 

They came to terms with only a little argument. Ammar left the baths alone, purified in body if not in mind, and headed to his workshop. He attached a fresh sheet of paper to his board, took up his pen and recited the basmalah with only the faintest of misgivings. 

“In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate…”

I am weak, he thought as he began to write. Weak as a reed. God willing, if I earn enough to pay my debts, I’ll never gamble again.

It took Ammar the rest of the day to finish the manuscript. His wrists burned like frayed wire by the time he was done, and there was a deep indent in his index finger from holding the reed pen. He shook out his hands and took up a magnifying glass to examine the document more carefully. His calligraphy was excellent, as always. He could see no flaws. There was no visible difference in the document to the texts he had copied in a more reverent frame of mind.

Yet there is. This work has no soul. No holiness. I should burn it. But-no. I need the money.

He sprinkled sand carefully across the paper to dry the ink and rolled the paper into a thin tube. Wrapped with cord, the tube fitted easily into his scribe’s satchel. On an impulse he dropped a handful of freshly cut reed pens into the sack before he closed the bag.

The smell of old paper hung heavily in the air as Ammar turned the corner into the bookseller’s quarter. In earlier days the district had been called Pearl Street in commemoration of a sultan’s long-dead concubine. In years since the town markets had been divided into quarters. The blacksmiths touted for business in the metalworker’s souk, hawkers cried their wares from the Street of Bad Food, and Pearl Street became the Booksellers’ Way.  

Ammar weaved his way between the scribes’ stalls. He knew the Pearl Street shop by reputation. The building was half way down the narrow lane. The door was bound with thick iron hinges. A scrawled sign read Open: one hour, each day, in near-illegible script.

Ammar rapped quietly on the door. He heard no answer. He raised his voice above the hubbub of the street. “It’s Ammar, I’ve come, as I promised.”

Silence.

Ammar placed the flat of his palm against the door and pushed it open. The door made tracks in the dust as it pivoted. The room inside was small, and the piles of books stacked on every available surface made it seem far smaller. Furniture floated like islands in the sea of texts. Ammar saw a brazier in the muddle, and a table, and an old counter pushed against one wall. A raised platform above Ammar’s head ran around three of the four walls. But the windows were barred for security, an oil lamp hung on a chain across the ceiling, and the room was still spacious enough to hold a good amount of stock.

A tattered curtain in the corner of the room opened and Malik came in. “Welcome,” he said, without sounding at all welcoming. “I didn’t think you’d come.”

Ammar placed his hand across his heart and bowed. “I have come to help,” he said.

“So I heard.”

“It looks like you could use some help unpacking,” Ammar said politely. He laid his satchel on the counter.

“If you want.” Malik waved his hand. “The shelves are over there. The books are…everywhere. Your work should be simple enough.”

Ammar gathered an armload of books and began to stack the shelves. The variety of titles surprised him. Most shops specialized in a single topic: bestiaries, hunting manuals, or anthologies of prose or poetry like the Book of the Staff or Kernels of Refinement. Malik had books on every topic. Historical texts rubbed shoulders with love stories like Nizari’s Layla and Majnun and maps of the Roman sea. Ammar raised one ancient volume to his nose. The pages smelt bitter as gall, and the paper was fragile enough that he did not doubt the book’s age.  “Where did you get these things?”

Malik looked up. “What are you doing with that?”

“It’s old,” Ammar said.

Malik snatched the book away awkwardly, and Ammar realized he wasn’t yet used to balancing his weight without two hands. “I know it’s old.”  

“It could be worth a lot. You should shelve it separately.”

“That’s none of your concern.”

Ammar shrugged. If it was no concern of Malik’s then it was even less of Ammar’s. As he worked, he couldn’t help thinking that Abu Mansur was right. Malik was a thoroughly incompetent salesman. Even Ammar, poor as he was, knew that irregular opening hours, unhelpful staff and an unpredictable variety of goods was no way to make a living. So long as I get paid. 

He found small items scattered amount the piles of books as he worked; a cheap clay oil lamp, a small empty glass vial; a jar of eagle feathers. He put the jar on the shelf beside the books and smoothed the pinions. There were four feathers in the jar, banded white and brown with fluffy tufts of down. The quills were uncut. He wondered if Malik meant to use them for pens.

He looked up and saw Malik leaning on his arm across the desk, examining something rolled flat upon the counter. Ammar recognised the document. He stuffed the feathers back into the jar and hurried over. “What are you doing with that?”

“Just looking. It’s good work.”

Ammar caught the paper between thumb and finger. Malik shifted, leaning heavily on the desk, and Ammar released his grip. If he pulled the document he’d only tear the paper. “You think so? It’s not my best.”

Malik frowned at him. “You did this?” 

“Yes.”

Malik ran one finger along the lines of flowing text. “Then you could teach me a few things.”

 “Are you a scribe?” Ammar said, surprised. Malik carried himself like a soldier. He hadn’t taken him for an author.

“I draw maps.” Malik glanced up at the ceiling, as if recalling different skies. “Poorly, for the most part.”

“Better pens might help,” Ammar offered.

Malik raised one eyebrow. “Why do you say that?”

“I saw the eagle feathers.” Ammar pointed to the jar. “They’re fine enough for Franks, but real scribes don’t use them. Reed pens are finer. Cheap, too. The plainer the quill, the better the calligraphy.”

“The feathers aren’t for pens,” Malik said briefly.

Ammar wondered what Malik used the feathers for. He’d seen vases of peacock feathers used for decoration in fine establishments, but Malik’s shabby shop seemed no place for such luxury. He was about to ask when Malik took his arm from the manuscript and pushed it towards him. Ammar retrieved the document hastily and slipped it into his satchel. His fingers touched something as he tucked the manuscript document inside.

“I nearly forgot.” He dropped a handful of reed pens on the mostly-cleared counter. “I brought you these.”

 “What for?”

 “For you,” Ammar said. “A gift.”

Malik picked up one of the pens and ran one finger across the pointed nib. “Thoughtful of you.”

“It’s hard enough to cut a pen with two hands. We gather reeds from the river every winter. I have plenty.“

Malik inclined his head. “My thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Ammar said as gracefully as he could. As the pause after his words stretched out awkwardly to silence he pointed to the chessboard on the counter. “You play chess?

“Sometimes,” Malik said. “Do you?”

Ammar was grateful to find somebody who had not heard he was a gambler. “Of course. I mean, yes. Some say it’s a sin to even own a set, but-”

“A man’s sin is not determined by the games he plays.” Malik said. He lined the pieces up along the edges of the board and looked up at Ammar. “Enough talk. Will you have white, or black?”

They played chess until sunset, when the light inside the dusty shop became too dim to see.  Ammar won more often than he lost, and he wished that he had thought to wager on the outcome. When the sun outside had dulled to the shade of persimmons, the shop door opened and a man in a white robe slipped through the narrow gap and picked up a book from the nearest pile.

Malik turned and frowned at him. “We’re closed.”

The shopped paused, book in hand. It took a few moments for him to realize that Malik was serious. In a few moments more he lowered the book down, shrugged, and left. Ammar hesitated, simultaneously flattered by his companion’s obvious desire to continue their game and dismayed by Malik’s complete lack of business sense.

Malik moved his rukh towards Ammar’s king. “He’ll be back,” he said.

But will he, Ammar thought, when there are so many fine shops in Jerusalem? Malik didn’t seem to care about lost business-or indeed, as far as Ammar could tell, about money at all. He’d have taken Malik for a rich collector; the kind who purchased shops to store collections of oddities that were hoarded but never sold, if he hadn’t been so obviously impoverished himself.

They finished the game without any more interfering customers. Ammar won. He glanced at the honey light outside and stood. “I know that there’s more work to do, but I must deliver my manuscript. Shall I come tomorrow?”

Malik moved the squat pieces to one side and folded up the board. “Yes,” he said without looking up. “Come tomorrow.”

***

Ammar sold his manuscript that day. He added Malik’s money to the proceeds and bought a sheet of gold leaf and a burnishing stone. The next day he used the new materials to illuminate one of the lesser hadiths for a buyer he knew near the Temple Mount. He made all the required preparations, and when the work was done he examined the paper through a lens, squinting as he scrutinised each hair-thin line. It was not perfect-no mortal work could achieve complete perfection-but it was one of the best pieces he had ever produced.

Ammar wrapped the paper in cotton cloth, tucked the parcel in his satchel and set out for the souk in the rich quarter, planning as he went. Collectors paid good money for skilfully illuminated texts. Ammar could use the money to buy more and better materials-richer pigments, finer paper, sable brushes-and produce yet finer work.  At the end of the four weeks al-Asad had allotted, he’d take his money to the soldier and beg for mercy. He’d promise more cash to come, as long as he was left unharmed. Corpses were cheap. Good investments were rare.

His plans were distracted by a street-preacher’s shouted sermon.

“A curse on the Assassins! Infidels! Poisoners! Plague-bringers! Apostates! They go against the teachings. Against the will of God! They say they follow their infidel Creed-a Creed that preaches murder. They must be made to pay!”

Ammar hesitated. Tempting as it was to blame his troubles on some mysterious sect, he had to admit that he had only himself to blame for his current predicament. The preacher took Ammar’s hesitation for interest, and caught his arm. “What about you, my brother? Will you join me to burn out this heresy from God’s city?”

Behind him in the city, Ammar heard a bell begin to toll. He disentangled himself from the preacher as politely as he could, murmuring “We must all fight for the Faith, my brother.”

Ammar’s sentence was cut short as somebody struck him from behind. The satchel was ripped from his arms. He stumbled forwards for a few steps, wildly swinging his arms in a hopeless attempt to regain his balance. Too late. He toppled forwards. His palms struck the stone lip of the well, and sunspots danced in his vision. Behind him, the preacher screamed vituperative curses. Ammar gazed dazedly in the well and saw something floating on the surface of the water.

He realized that the object was his satchel just before the bag sank, taking his manuscript with it. Ammar’s heart followed his work to the depths. He dived to the side of the well and let down the bucket in a hopeless attempt to dredge the satchel from the water before the document inside was damaged, but after a few frantic moments he had to admit that it was a hopeless attempt. He shrank back against the well as a patrol of guards ran by in pursuit of his assailant.

A woman carrying a jar upon her head came over to the well. She shook her head as she bent to unload her jar. “They must be crazy.”

“What was that?” Ammar said.

The shock of losing the document made him forget his manners sufficiently that he addressed his question to the woman, but it was the preacher who answered.

“That? That was an Assassin.”

***

Ammar dredged the satchel up much later. The manuscript was ruined. He tossed the shreds of soaked paper to the ground and slumped back beside the well, penniless once more. Without a stake to gamble or money to buy more material, he hadn’t a chance of paying even part of his debt to al-Asad.

He drew his knees up to his chest, shivering, while the sun set behind the arrow-points of pine-trees on the hills around Jerusalem. The tolling bells had long since fallen silent. Ammar could have stayed there by the well until he turned to stone himself. After a while the chill air pricked him to his feet. The woman had gone, but the preacher was still in his place on the corner. Ammar walked over.  

“Did they catch him?”

“The Assassin? No. Nor will they.” The preacher fumbled behind him and drew out a jar of wine. He swallowed, wiped his mouth, and handed the flask to Ammar. “Shaitan speeds those jackals’ heels. They strike where they will.”

The wine went some way to slaking Ammar’s thirst. “Surely someone must have seen his path,” he said, handing the jar back to the preacher.

“There’s money for the man who does.” The preacher peered into the half-empty jar, wiped the rim and took another drink. “Majd Addin has offered a reward. Though the price may be too dear for my liking.”

Ammar agreed. He took his leave and headed back through the cobbled streets of the rich quarter to the bustling heart of the Bookseller’s Way. It was late by the time he arrived, but the streets still swarmed with shoppers. Ammar made his way between vegetable-carts, litters, palanquins and donkeys piled high with packs. He passed hordes of pedestrians; white-robed scholars, dour and serious imams, news-readers, ragged refugees, beggar-women, workmen and fortune-tellers. He expected the Pearl Street shop to be closed when he reached it, but the door opened easily to his hand.

The shop was in the same state as it he had seen it last. Cobwebs hung from the rafters. The air smelt of yellowed pages and the sweet almond scent of antique volumes. Malik was standing behind the desk, writing a letter. He glanced up, pen hesitating as Ammar entered, and tucked the letter within his sleeve as Ammar approached. “Have you come here for a game?”

Ammar shrugged the damp satchel off over his head and rested the bag on a clear square of tiles near the door. The dust made him sneeze. “I came here to work.”

“Work can wait.”

“I need the money.” Ammar picked up a stack of books and sorted through them. A medical manual rested on top of a book of herbal recipes. He went over to the shelves, a book in each hand, and moved the jar of feathers to make room for the texts.

There were three eagle feathers in the jar. Ammar hesitated, his hand cupping the smooth pottery surface. He glanced towards the desk, wondering if Malik had trimmed the missing quill into a pen after all. He saw only reed pens, and no sign of the missing feather anywhere.

Malik honed a knife against a whetstone set into the edge of the desk as he worked, glancing over at the chessboard every so often as if rehearsing tactics in his mind. Ammar had almost forgotten that Malik was there by the time he asked “Why do you need money so badly?”

Ammar wondered whether Abu Mansur had told Malik about his gambling problem. He shelved up a book on Islamic philosophy and said flippantly, “Doesn’t everyone?”

“Not everyone. Scribes make a good living. You shouldn’t be this desperate. You shouldn’t be shelving books for a few coppers.” He frowned down at the chessboard, and up at Ammar. “What happened?”

I ruined myself. “Why do you care?” 

“I like to know the motivations of the men working for me.”

Ammar placed each book precisely on the shelves, concentrating on his work because the alternative was too painful. He had filled a whole shelf and was working on a second when Malik said “You haven’t answered.”

Ammar mechanically continued to sort the books. Dust motes sparkled in the few rays of light that made it through the filthy windows. ‘Do I have to?”

“An answer is not compulsory,” Malik said, “but it is advised. I’ve heard from Abu Mansur that you gamble.”

“He told you that much,” Ammar said.

“Yes. But he didn’t say why.”

Ammar leant against the shelves. He wiped cobwebs from the books and avoided Malik’s eyes. “To years ago,” he said quietly, “I had everything I’d ever wanted. I had silver.  Good food. A house in the rich quarter. A wife and two sons.”

“I see,” Malik said.

“By the end of the year I’d made enough to buy my wife a slave from the market. The girl I bought-Layla, her name was-had skin powdered with ochre.” He brushed a hand across leather. “The slavers use it to hide sores, but I didn’t know that then. She had the lion-sickness.”

“Leprosy?”

“Yes. Six months later, my wife and sons did too. When my wife’s nose began to rot, she begged me to divorce her.”

“Did you?”

Ammar turned his back on the books and held Malik’s gaze for the first time. “Yes.”

 “What happened?”

 “I saw them begging on the road,” Ammar said.  “I’d already spent most of what I had on medicines that didn’t work. I thought if I had more money I could buy them better treatment. So I began to gamble. Bit by bit, I lost everything.”

“And your family?” Malik’s voice was clipped, his words precise as arrows.

Ammar’s jaw tightened. “I don’t know. Perhaps they left the city. Perhaps they didn’t. Leprosy’s a slow disease. I never saw them again.” He swallowed, tasting bitter regret. “Or perhaps I did, and didn’t notice.” 

“I see,“ Malik said.

Ammar searched Malik’s face for condemnation, but it was like reading blank parchment. “I have no reason to gamble,” he said, “but I can’t stop. I bet against the captain of the guards last week. I lost. Al Asad’s a cruel man, but he gave me four weeks to raise the money. If I can’t he’ll take my hand.”

Malik glanced up, and this time his gaze held open contempt. “No surprise. He’s a stain on the city, that one. I don’t approve of all your choices. But I may be able to help. “He reached beneath the counter and pulled out a worn pouch. He pushed the bag across the counter to Ammar. “Take this.”   

Ammar made his way around the piles of books towards the table. He opened the bag. Inside were coins. They were not gleaming gold coins, fresh from the mint and stamped with prayers, but old coins, worn and clipped, the figures engraved upon the dirhams barely visible. He looked up at Malik. “This is too much.”

Malik picked up his knife and began to strop the blade. “Take it.”

“I can’t.”

“It wasn’t a suggestion.” 

Ammar poked one finger into the bag of coins, half-expecting to find grain or rags beneath the shining surface. Metal pressed against his fingers. The cash wasn’t enough to clear Ammar’s debt completely, but it would be enough to placate al-Asad. “You can’t afford this.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” Malik said.

Ammar had to admit that his new friend was right. He’d seen little indication that Malik was engaged in honest work of any kind. He could be a thief. He could be a spy. He could be a forger, but the coins looked far too old. He closed his hand around the pouch. The purse felt reassuringly heavy in his fist. “What can I do in return?”

“Don’t waste the money on wagers,” said Malik. He raised the blade to the dying light and peered at the gleaming edge. “Live well. That’s all.”

Ammar placed the purse gently in his bag and closed the flap. “God bless you.”

“I don’t need blessing. Just keep your wits about you until you reach home.”

Ammar nodded. He fastened his satchel and turned back to the books. Before his hand touched leather, Malik said, “No need for more work today. Hurry home. Return when you can. Work can wait.”  

He hurried Ammar from the shop as if eager to hide all evidence of his good deed. Ammar, still dazed by his good fortune, did not protest. He returned to the scribe’s quarter with the satchel banging against his hip. The smoke of cooking-fires rose from the houses as he passed. A woman played the oud in a courtyard nearby, and the sweet sound of the music followed Amir home.

He had almost reached his house when a hoarse voice drowned out the song. “Tamir the slave-merchant is dead!”

Ammar turned, right hand curled protectively over the flap of his satchel.  He saw a news-seller standing beneath an awning at the side of the street, his mouth a black hole in the light of a flickering oil-lantern. The man saw Ammar hesitate. He called again “Tamir is dead. Killed in the Souk al-Silaah this morning! Heart pierced by an Assassin’s blade!” He held his hand out to Ammar. “Such is the fate of all corrupt men! May God have mercy on us all! Reward those who bring you news!”

Ammar turned away, not wishing to reveal his money. The news-seller hawked and spat into the street. Ammar ignored him and after a moment the news-seller resumed his cries behind him.

Ammar’s small one-room dwelling slumped in a dark corner of the courtyard, propped up by the buildings around it. Inside was a reed mat for sleeping, a jar to store water, and a hole in the wall he’d been meaning to fix before winter. A ragged curtain separated the space inside from the street. The lack of a door had not bothered Ammar for years. He stored his pens and paper at Abu Mansur’s shop. There was nothing to steal.

 Until now.

Ammar hesitated. Then he slung his satchel across his shoulder and set off for Abu Mansur’s, retracing his steps past the news-seller.  News travelled fast in the city. When Abu Mansur opened the door to Ammar’s knock the first thing he said was “Tamir the slave-merchant’s dead.”

“So I’ve heard,” Ammar said.

Abu Mansur threw up his hands. “What times are these? Assassins murder men left, right and centre. Children no longer respect their elders. Neither our lives nor our livelihood is safe! I’d go to Damascus, but,” he gave a little shrug. “It’s Damascus. So I stay. What can I do for you, Ammar, my friend?”

Ammar opened his satchel and handed the purse to Abu Mansur. His friend loosened the string and withdrew the coins. He looked at the money, and then at Ammar. “Where did you get this?”

“A gift from God,” Ammar said.

Abu Mansur gave Ammar a hard look. “Don’t jest.”

“I didn’t steal it!” Ammar protested.

Abu Mansur set the purse down and took a set of weighing-scales from his shop counter. “I’m not saying you did.” He selected a dinar from the pouch, raised the coin to his mouth, and bit the edge. “It feels real. Fetch me a touch-stone.”

Ammar found a flat black stone on the desk and passed it to Abu Mansur. The merchant scraped the coin along the flat black stone and examined the shining trace. “Looks real, too.” He heaped money into the scales. “Tell me the truth. Where did this come from?”

“I told you, it was a gift.” Ammar watched as Abu Mansur lifted the scales. “How much?”

Abu Mansur shook his head. “I’m no sayrafi,” he said, “but there must be at least fifteen dinars here. Will that clear your debt?”

“No, but it’s a start,” Ammar said. “Enough to placate al-Asad.”

“A sparrow in the hand is worth a thousand flying,” Abu Mansur agreed. He set the scales down. “But if I told you that you could use this money to clear your debt entirely, would you be interested?”

“Yes,” Ammar said. “But how?”

“I have contacts in the market,” Abu Mansur said. “I could invest on your behalf. What were the terms of your debt to al-Asad?”

The details were engraved on Ammar’s mind. “Twenty dirhams within four weeks,” he said, “and the first week is nearly over.”

“We should have time to make a tidy profit.” Abu Mansur drew out a pen and block of ink from the desk. Charging interest was illegal by law, but Ammar knew there were a dozen ways to get around the prohibition. “I’ll stake my life on it. Give me the money, and I’ll give you a note of credit for the whole sum you earned from al-Asad. You can’t say fairer than that. Even if the venture fails, I’ll return the whole amount. You’ll be no worse off that you are now.”

Ammar hesitated.

“Think of it this way,” Abu Mansur said, “you’ve got to store your money somewhere. You can’t keep cash in your hovel. You might as well make your money work.”

“What’s the risk?”

“None for you! I’ll take care of your money as if it was my own! I’ll return the whole sum whenever you demand. Will that do?”

“You promise I won’t lose out?”

“Of course not! You know I’d never cheat you. I’m just trying to help! Don’t you agree it’s a good idea?”

Ammar did, reluctantly. He handed over the money to Abu Mansur, who smiled. “You’ve made the right choice.”

Ammar returned home and slept better knowing that his money was in safe hands. He returned to Bookseller’s Way the next day. To his surprise, the shop was still there. Ammar had half-expected the bookseller to vanish, djinnlike, into a swirl of dust. When he pushed the door open, he blinked in sunlight. The windows were scrubbed clean. The floor was neatly swept. Coals lay ready in the brazier. All the books were arranged neatly on the shelves, and three eagle feathers rested in the jar by the door.

“I had help,” Malik said, noticing Ammar’s scrutiny. “An old colleague.”

Ammar nodded. “Much cleaner. He must have worked hard.”

Malik snorted. “Not hard enough,”

“But it seems there’s no more work.”

“There’s chess,” Malik gestured to the set. “I have time for a game.”

Ammar pulled a stool to the counter and sat down. He chose a counter and made his first move. “I can’t thank you enough.”

Malik’s eyebrows twitched together in a frown. “You don’t have to thank me at all. I have my reasons.”

“What reasons?”

“Al-Asad’s corrupt. He’s a plague on this city. I do what I can to make life more difficult for him.”

Ammar moved his first piece. “Is that all?”

“That’s all. Now play. No more time for talking.”

They played for a while. Malik won the first game. They were half-way through their second match when a man in white robes pushed the door open. Malik turned and glared at him until he went away.

Ammar kept his thoughts to himself as he moved his pawns across the board. Despite Malik’s unexpected and uncharacteristic kindness, he doubted his friend’s shop would stay open for long. Books were luxuries in times of war. There was too much competition in Jerusalem for poor businessmen to last for long.

Life resumed its usual routine. Ammar returned to his work. He kept his tools at Abu Mansur’s house and copied documents with his usual devotion. The city was more restless. Rumours flew; stories of Saladin’s return; tales that Saladin was displeased with his self-proclaimed regent, stories of Assassins in the streets. Majd Addin’s guards did everything they could to stop the gossip. Naturally, this only made the news spread faster. Ammar did not dare to hope that al-Asad would forget his debt, but the guards plainly had more important matters on their mind.  

A fortnight later Ammar found soldiers waiting in the square when he returned to his house. He turned away as soon as he saw them, hoping it wasn’t him they were waiting for, but they had already seen him.

“Hey!” one shouted. Mail flashed in the moonlight. Ammar turned back. He hoped it hadn’t looked like he was running away.

“Ammar the scribe?”

Ammar wondered if he had any chance of successfully concealing his identity. The thought must have shown plainly in his face. The closest soldier shrugged and said “No point denying it. Your neighbour already told us where you live.”

Ammar heard a shutter slam. He glanced around at the tightly closed doors around the square. “Is this about al-Asad?” He tried to sound firm. “I still have two weeks until my debt’s due. That’s what we agreed.”

“The captain’s dead,” the guard said bluntly. “We’re collecting for his widow and children.“ He scraped the sole of his sandal along the stones.

The knowledge that he could pay if required gave Ammar confidence, “I see your point,” he said, “but that’s not my fault.” The thought of his money safely banked with Abu Mansur gave him confidence. “Or my problem.”

At a nod from their commander two of the guards sidled behind Ammar and pressed meaty hands to his shoulders. The commander tilted his spear towards Ammar’s chest. He watched the razor edge approach for a single panicked second before he found his voice. “I will pay! I have the money!”

The soldier lowered his spear and leaned on the haft. “Of course you’ll pay, my friend. You have three days to find the money. If you don’t I’ll carve your liver out and feed it to the Franks.”

“Those weren’t the terms! That’s illegal!”

“So is gambling.” The soldier reversed his spear. He swung the butt up in a movement that would have been graceful if it hadn’t been so fast and caught Ammar in the stomach. Ammar doubled over, fighting back tears.

“I’ll find the money!” he choked.

“Right answer.” The guard righted his spear. “Don’t worry about finding us. We’ll find you.” His gaze scanned the shabby square. “Three days.” 

Ammar didn’t bother wasting time, He turned around and walked straight back to Abu Mansur’s. His friend’s shop was closed when he reached it. Ammar pounded on the shutters. He heard sounds of stealthy movement from within the house, and the noise only made him more determined. “Open up! Please! It’s Ammar!”

His hands ached from hammering the planks by the time the door creaked open. “Quiet!” somebody hissed. The voice was female, frightened and it did not belong to Abu Mansur. “Do you want to bring the guards down onto us again?”

“I need to see Abu Mansur!”

“That’s not possible!”

Ammar forced his hands into the crack between the door and the lintel with the strength of desperation. “It has to be! It’s a matter of life or death!”

He found himself facing a small woman, heavily veiled. She leant on the arm of a young boy, about ten years old, and nearly the same height as his mother.

“Forgive me my rudeness,” Ammar said, more gently. “Are you Umm Mansur? I need to see Abu Mansur. Is he out?”

He could not read Umm Mansur’s expression beneath her veil, but he saw her chin raise. “He’s dead.”

“Dead?”

She nodded. “Yes. Or he soon will be.”

Ammar could not believe it. “What happened? Is there anything I can do?”

Umm Mansur took a fistful of the veil and scrubbed at her face as if to wipe away tears. Her voice was thick. “Do? There’s nothing you can do!”

“There must be something.”

The woman glanced at the boy who held her arm. “Perhaps there is one thing,” she said softly.

“Anything,” said Ammar.

Umm Mansur nodded. “You can attend the execution.”

***

The execution was poorly attended. There was murder in the air, and folk kept to their houses as though death, like cholera, was catching. Ammar skirted the edge of the crowd. He gave the guards a wide berth. It was easy to lose himself in the throng. There were scholars and soldiers, the hoarsely fervent and the merely bored. A group of men loitered on the fringes of the gathering, dressed only in their underclothes. The beggars rocked, skinny hands clasped over their faces.

There were not so many madmen in Jerusalem five years ago, Ammar thought as he adopted an unobtrusive position on the edge of the crowd, where it was easy to witness but easier to run.  He retreated further into the shadow of a pillar and examined the stage.

The scaffold had been hastily constructed across half the courtyard at the base of the Temple Mount. Hanging lanterns cast small pools of light across the crowd. Moths sparkled like dust-motes in the smoky rays against the backdrop of the great cliff.

The prisoners slumped bound to stakes at the rear of the platform. Ammar saw three men and one woman. He hardly recognized Abu Mansur. His friend’s round belly had shrunk to half its size, and his smiling, dark face was sallow and gaunt. The woman slumped against her pole and seemed hardly conscious. The second man was nondescript. The third was an Assassin.

The Assassin was the only prisoner who did not seem afraid. He gazed calmly into the distance as if this day of reckoning was like any other. The other prisoners wore identical faded prison robes, but the Assassin was still dressed in his sect’s uniform. His robe was white as bone, his sash red as blood.

Ammar focused his gaze upon Abu Mansur, willing his friend to notice him and perhaps find a little comfort in his presence. But Abu Mansur’s glazed eyes showed no sign of recognition. Ammar doubted his friend could even see him through the greasy yellow flames of the torches arranged around the edge of the scaffold. 

The crowd cheered as Majd Addin climbed the scaffold and strode across the platform to the prisoners.  The Regent wore a blue robe stamped with gold, and a white turban that glowed in the half-dark. His escort wore similar gold-stamped livery beneath lamellar armour. Instead of turbans they wore conical iron hats with veils of chainmail that brushed their shoulders. They’re expecting trouble, Ammar thought, and moved a little further back into the shadows as Majd Addin began to speak.

“Silence!” called the Regent. “I demand silence!”

The crowd’s cheers faded.

“People of Jerusalem,” Majd Addin continued. Gold brocade flashed upon his sleeves as he thrust his hands into the air. “Hear me well! I stand here today to deliver a warning! There are malcontents among you! They sow the seeds of discontent, hoping to lead you astray! Tell me, is that what you desire? To be mired in deceit and sin? To live your lives in fear?”

Most of the crowd roared denials. But here and there Ammar saw men standing, alone or in small groups, mouths tightly closed, arms folded, shifting in unease.

“Then you wish to take action?” Majd Addin roared. “Your devotion pleases me! This evil must be purged! Only then can we hope to be redeemed!

A few men charged the stage. They died within seconds. Any thought Ammar might have had of freeing Abu Mansur died with them. The corpses tumbled beneath the scaffold, a precursor to the executions to come. Ammar wondered what Saladin would think of the gathering. The sultan was famous for his mercy. It’s as if Majd Addin thinks himself king!

Majd Addin raised his fists into the air. “See how the evil of one man spreads to corrupt others!” he called. “They sought to instil fear and doubt within you. But I will keep you safe! Here are four filled with sin! The harlot, the thief, the gambler, the heretic! Let God’s judgment be brought down upon them all!”

Ammar had to bite his tongue to keep from running.  Majd Addin had whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Between the atmosphere and the well-armed guards, it was only a matter of time before bloody violence erupted. Does Majd Addin think he can kill an Assassin without repercussion?

On the heels of that thought came another. The Regent shouldn’t kill any man without a trial. This is wrong.

Apprehension forced Ammar from the shadows. He pushed through the crowd towards the scaffold with little idea of what he was going to do when he got there. He fetched up behind a group of white-robed scholars who had leveraged their status and education into a front-row seat just in time to see Majd Addin draw his sword and sink the blade into the captive woman. She died with a gasp. Abu Mansur closed his eyes. The thief vomited. The Assassin gazed calmly into the distance. He seemed unmoved, and it wasn’t until Ammar followed his gaze to the rooftops that he understood why. A white figure slipped from roof to roof, unnoticed by the guards.

The Assassins! Ammar thought. They’re going to rescue him!

He wrenched his attention back to the scaffold in time to see Majd Addin approach Abu Mansur. The merchant wrenched at his bonds. Blood oozed from his wrists as he turned to Majd Addin and squared his shoulders. “A game of chance condemns me to death?” he shouted in a voice that carried clearly around the whole square. “Show me where such a thing is written! It is not sin that corrupts our city! It is you!”

Majd Addin hesitated for a moment. Abu Mansur glared, panting, at the Regent. Ammar had just time to hope that Majd Addin would spare his friend’s life when the Regent raised his sword and brought the blade down with in both hands upon Abu Mansur’s head. Abu Mansur fell without a sound. Madj Addin wiped his sword upon his robe and continued past Abu Mansur’s limp body to the thief.    

Someone gently pushed Ammar aside, He looked around and saw a scholar shouldering his way through the crowd. He pushed forwards towards the front of the stage. When he reached the guards he drew a sword from his back and carved through the soldiers as easily as the quick strokes of a pen. The scholar-the Assassin, Ammar realized-leapt onto the stage and sank his blade into Majd Addin’s back. The Regent stumbled back and collapsed to the ground.

The square dissolved into chaos. Ammar edged closer to the stage, careful to keep at least one person between himself and the guards. Nobody paid any attention to him. He grasped the splintered planks, climbed onto the scaffold, and crawled across the boards towards Abu Mansur.

He knew even before he touched the body that his friend was dead. Majd Addin’s blade had done its work well. Abu Mansur’s skull gaped open, split like a melon. Blood streaked his slack face. Ammar closed what was left of his friend’s eyes. He whispered a prayer as he knelt beside the corpse, his tunic streaked with Abu Mansur’s blood.  The woman lay beside him, her long hair streaming over the boards.

The Assassin crouched over Majd Addin like a hawk mantled over his prey.  Ammar heard the Regent whisper “Do you know what it feels like to determine another man’s fate?”

Ammar couldn’t hear the Assassin’s reply, and he didn’t stay to hear more. A moment later the Assassin struck out with his knife and ended Majd Addin’s voice forever.  He drew an eagle feather from his robe and wiped the quill across Majd Addin’s throat.

The guards regrouped and charged the stage. The Assassin tucked the feather into his sleeve and ran. Ammar glanced frantically for an escape route. His days seemed numbered until he saw a hole between the planks of the hastily-constructed stage and the rocks of the Temple Mount. Blessing his narrow frame, he dove for the gap and slid through feet-first. He landed in a pile of rubbish beneath the platform, rolled over and stared straight into the dead eyes of the men Majd Addin’s guards had killed for daring to attack the stage. Lantern light gleamed glassily from the corpses’ clouded eyes.

 Ammar choked and floundered to the edge of the platform. His palms sunk unpleasantly into something yielding. He tried not to think about what he was touching as he rolled out into the square and set off for home as fast as his legs would carry him.

He had not expected the journey to be easy, but it turned out to be more difficult than he’d thought. Abu Mansur and Majd Addin would not be the only corpses in the city that night. The guards were confused and desperate. Some squads hunted the vanished Assassin. Other patrols took what opportunity they could to enrich themselves in the confusion, according to the morals or whims of their commanders. Ammar heard dogs barking and men shouting. Once he heard screams. Patrols of guards headed in every direction. Civilians locked themselves indoors and prayed. Ammar saw a beggar thrown against the wall and beaten until he lay unmoving in the street. He crept past the body without checking for signs of life. He didn’t think he could stand to find another corpse.

He saw smoke billowing into the night sky from a fire blazing near the mosque. The flickering flames gave the streets nearby the semblance of day. Cinders set alight to a canvas awning. A troop of guards ransacking a pottery nearby ignored the fire as they tossed cheap bowls out into the streets. Ammar did not doubt they would break his bones as easily. He tried every route he knew into the poor quarter, but each time he was forced to retreat.

He pulled the collar of his tunic up to cover his face and sought alternative escape routes. Abu Mansur’s house was too far away for safety. He had tried and failed to find a way back to his own house. Any man with sense would be huddled inside his home.

Any man with sense.

Ammar glanced up at the sky to get his bearings and realized he wasn’t far from Malik’s shop.

He crept down a winding alley to the Street of the Scribes and darted under cover of the watched awnings down the lane. At the junction with Bookseller’s Way he hid behind a pile of crates as a party of guards rattled past. Once they had gone he went to the shop of the Bookseller’s Way and bloodied his knuckles on the door. “Open up! Please!”

The sign peeled off and fluttered to the ground, Ammar heard the sound of running feet behind him. “Please!” he begged.

The voice that came from within was Malik’s, but the words were not. “Be silent, Altaïr! You know the Bureau’s closed to you!”

 “It’s Ammar! In God’s name, let me in!”

There was silence from within. Ammar cringed against the planks. Then the bolts scraped back and the door creaked open. Ammar hurried in and slammed the door behind him. He pressed his back against the solid planks. “Thank God!” He saw the gleam of steel and recoiled from the knife in Malik’s hand. “Majd Addin’s dead. The whole city’s gone mad!”

“Anyone with ears knows that,” Malik said. He tucked the knife into his sash. “Are you wounded?”

Ammar looked down at his tunic. The cloth was streaked with drying blood. “The blood’s not mine.”

“Then whose?”

“Abu Mansur,” Ammar said stupidly. His brain felt like it had been replaced with wadded cotton. He couldn’t think. “He was murdered. By Majd Addin.”

“What happened?” Malik demanded. “Did they kill all the prisoners?”

“Two,” Ammar said. “The woman, and Abu Mansur. The Assassin-he killed Majd Addin!” He could hardly believe it himself. Majd Addin had been a snake, but he’d been a familiar snake. With the regent gone, he wasn’t sure what would happen. “The Assassins can’t just murder people!”

Malik’s eyes fixed on his. “I’ll think you’ll find they do.”

Ammar sank back against the shelves. “It’s up to God to judge our crimes,” he said, without really thinking. “Not men. Who knows the Assassins’ motives? Justice means nothing to them. Mercy, tolerance, pity-they are no different from Majd Addin. We must trust in God.”

“Unless we are all there is,” Malik said. “We must trust in ourselves.”

“That’s atheism!”

“Perhaps. But it’s true.”

Once more Ammar had the unnerving sensation that Malik meant what he said. He glanced around the shelves, searching for a topic of conversation that did not involve religion or politics, and saw the jar of eagle feathers. There were two feathers left in the jar.

A cold hand clutched at Ammar’s heart. He counted the feathers again. There were two. Two brown-striped eagle feathers, just like the pinion the Assassin had drawn across Majd Addin’s throat and stained with the dying Regent’s blood.

The money Malik had given him suddenly made much more sense. Ammar had seen the Assassins in the square. Malik’s black coat and white robe might be different colours, but they were the same style of clothing.

“I must go,” he said.

Malik’s eyes flicked to the feathers, and then back to Ammar. “I won’t prevent you,” he said, meeting Ammar’s eyes with a cool glare. “Perhaps it’s for the best. I’m expecting visitors, and you must not be here when they arrive. Just remember, you knocked on my door.”

Ammar backed away towards the door. He cringed as Malik went round the desk and came towards him, but Malik only slipped the bolts.

“Remember that I helped you,” he said as he levered the door open. “Go home. It’s quieter now. You should be safe.”

Despite Malik’s assurances-or perhaps because of them-Ammar felt no safer in the street than he had done inside. It was a long walk back to his home neighbourhood.  The skin prickled between his shoulder-blades the whole way. He spun several times to look behind him, but the streets were always empty.

He fell asleep on his mat as soon as he reached home.

The city woke late the next morning. The square was still quiet at midday, when Ammar washed his face and hands in the public fountain.  A column of smoke rose from the direction of the mosque. People limped through the streets in a daze, nursing hangovers or wounds. Ammar, who had half-expected to wake like Saladin, with an Assassin cake on his pillow, or else not to wake at all, was surprised by how little had changed. Children still needed feeding. Breakfast still needed cooking, and the damage from the last night’s rioting had to be cleaned up and repaired. God help him, he still owed money to al-Asad’s henchmen, and he doubted that Malik would give him more coins.

 And even if he did, I couldn’t take them.

Ammar could see only one more avenue open to him.  He dried his face and hands on his shirt and set off through the streets. Ashes powdered his bare feet as he walked. He passed ransacked shops, vandalised wells, and at least one body laid out in the gutter. 

He hardly recognized Abu Mansur’s house when he reached it. The building was gone. Charred rafters protruded like spears from the crumbling half-burned walls. A corner of Abu Mansur’s desk poked from the rubble, as scarred and fire-blackened as all the rest. Ammar walked closer to examine the debris. Somewhere in the rubble were his papers and his tools. He hoped that Abu Mansur’s family hadn’t joined them.

“You were my father’s friend,” a quiet voice said from waist level.

Ammar looked down and saw Abu Mansur’s son. “Thank the gods!” he exclaimed, kneeling down next to the boy. The child accepted his embrace with blank passivity. “What happened?”

The boy did not answer. Instead he took Ammar’s hand.

Ammar turned away from the wreckage and followed the boy. He hardly knew what to expect. His hopes had risen and sunk like the tides over the last few days-an apt metaphor if there ever was one, for he’d had the same sick feeling in his guts the only time he’d ever set foot on a ship.

The child brought Ammar to a modest but entirely undamaged house a few streets away and rapped on the door. A servant showed them both in. The boy slipped through a door and disappeared. Ammar waited for a few minutes in the courtyard before Umm Mansur’s wife appeared.

“So, Ammar,” she said. “You survived. Did my husband die well?”

Ammar bowed deeply. “Yes, my lady.”

“I am glad to hear your news, and see that you are well. This makes what I have to tell you only more painful.” She paused, and he heard a soft sob through her veil. “I am sorry, but I cannot honour your debt. Forgive me.”

Ammar had been expecting Umm Mansur’s reply, but her words reply pinched out a small flame of hope in his heart that he had not realized was still burning. “There is nothing to forgive. I understand.”

“You don’t,” she said. “I have nothing. I cannot even offer to pay you by instalments.”

“My debt is small,” Ammar replied with more courtesy than truth. “I’ll make it up.”

He left Umm Mansur to her grief with more apologies and set off towards the nearest watch-house before he could give himself time to think. Fear quickened his steps. He had the same uncanny feeling of being watched that he had had the previous night, though this time he did not turn. He followed the streets quickly through their mazy meanderings, beneath arches and down steps, until he reached the nearest watch-house by the Temple Mount.

The watch-house was destroyed. 

Smoke-stains blackened the lintel of the door and the sills of all the windows. Fragments of furniture and smashed clay oil-lamps lay in the street outside. Ammar stared blankly at the destruction. Then he tucked his hands in his sleeves and set off for the second closest watch-house, by the cypress trees. 

It was a short walk. As Amar came round the corner he saw that the watch-house was still open. Mailed figures guarded the door and patrolled the courtyard outside. Ammar’s gaze fixed on the gateway. He did not notice the hooded figure seated on a bench until Malik reached out and pulled him down onto the seat with surprising strength. “Where are you going?”

Amar could have lied. What was the point? They said the Assassins had spies everywhere, and Ammar’s personal experiences only seemed to confirm the rumours.  “You’re an Assassin,” he said. “Tell me if I’m right. Don’t lie. I have to know.”

“The question is,” said Malik, “what are you going to do with that information if I tell you?”

Ammar saw the Assassin sweep the feather across Majd Addin’s throat in his mind’s eye.  “If you are, I have to tell them.”

 “That’s a pity,” Malik said. He shrugged, close enough that Ammar felt his shoulder move against his arm. “But that’s the Creed.”

 Ammar rose and walked away without looking back. Head held high, he smelt smoke on the breeze and felt the cool wind’s fingers brush his face. He concentrated on the small figures of the guards in the distance and saw them come close enough that he could make out the gold-stamped patterns on their uniform. A flock of pigeons beat their wings as they wheeled above his head. Far in the distance, he heard a hawk scream.

He heard Malik’s voice behind him. “If it is any comfort, know that you were right.”

Pain transfixed him. It was worse by far than al-Asad’s blows, worse than anything he’d felt before. Ammar opened his mouth to protest, but words eluded him. He grasped for words, any words, and found the only words he could remember. He began to recite the basmalah,In the name of God, the Merciful, the compassionate,”  but heard only a faint, hoarse gasp.

Ammar had recited the basmalah many times, and the words were as familiar as the smell of ink to him. His ears were deaf to the din of the streets, his eyes blind to the crowds. He was nobody’s husband, nobody’s father. There was nothing in the world that mattered save for the prayer.

 He never finished it.

***

Blame

Keeps the sad game going

It keeps stealing all your wealth

Giving it to an imbecile with

No financial skills

Dear one,

Wise

Up.

‘The Sad Game’ Hafiz (translated by Daniel Ladinsky)