Actions

Work Header

Live Forever, or Die Trying

Chapter Text

Altaïr rules his body but cannot rule himself.

He advances up the narrow street that ascends the hill which once was the cradle of humanity. The path he climbs, with Desmond in his wake, alternates between stair-steps and leveled blocks layered with glittering cobbles, strewn with petals and flowers.

A perfumey smell bursts forth from each entrance of community-courtyards as they glide past them, wafts further into the narrow street upsetting the fragile peace that has settled in his gut.

Altaïr smells the city.

Its streets and citizens, its spices and spirits. Nothing has changed. Nothing, except for those who left unchanged seven years ago.

He listens to eager shouts and hustle of life on the streets and they arm him with a ceaseless reminder of what he had fought for. When he left, he brought with him expectations, and returned with a litter of scars. These he bears like trophies—his statements of allegiance to the cause that had led him away from home when duty and creed called for sacrifice. Here, far off the battlefield, song and laughter have swapped place with tears and blood.

This thought gives his agitated mood a brief respite. It calms him to know that things are as he had left them seven years ago. Some of the passers-by recognize him while he strides up the steep path and he dips his head to them wordlessly and keeps his helmet imprinted into his right flank, feels the weight of his sword against the other. The long tail of his helmet provides an occasional brush against the bare portion of his thigh as a breeze carries it. He hasn’t combed his tail in nearly two days.

With a handful of steps standing between him and home, he begins to falter in step for the first time.  

A stab of anxiety pierces through the wall of self-deception, the soft flesh of his vulnerable confidence, and quickens his breath, for reasons unrelated to the strenuous climb up the cobbled path that he knows like his own sword.

Though the city's remained untouched by the grueling war fought far from its borders, the state of his own home yet eludes him, remains an enigma. Altaïr remembers vividly what he had left before embarking on duty, but knows nothing of what he will find at the end of this path.

“What if he’s grown skinny?“

Desmond taunts. He often does these days.

He backhands Altaïr’s naked flank with a convivial slap to staunch a potential retaliation before Altaïr can misinterpret his intentions, “What if he’s dead? Worse, what if he’s been letting other men between his legs—“

Altaïr stomps the ground none too gently, rooting his boot to the pavement, turns to Desmond fiery-eyed with nostrils flared, enraged, and Desmond momentarily knows that Altaïr is terrified.

The years that they've spent together as warriors have gifted Desmond an insight into Altaïr’s subtle facial expressions, an understanding of the ways in which he utilizes each corner of his face to convey emotion, rare as they are. Altaïr flares his nostrils thus on two occasions only. The first, a rare commodity—one that Desmond to this day considers a myth—which only Ezio had witnessed with his own eyes and relayed to Desmond at a later date as a delicate observation. It’s a short flicker of a motion, a hard-to-catch twitch of nostrils that announces a stirring of sexual arousal in Altaïr. And the second one, much familiar to Desmond, is this frozen flare of nostrils that parades Altaïr’s anger.

Altaïr stands provoked by Desmond’s innocuous taunt. Fine way to misplace good intentions.

Desmond fair-mindedly blames himself. Altaïr’s marital issues are a sore spot he shouldn’t have poked at.

“He’s not a whore. He’s not skinny,“ Altaïr falls into a whispery growl, lest someone overhears him, “And he can’t be dead,“ he adds, hastily, to assure himself rather than Desmond, then resumes on his way with an angry tightening of the burlap sack across his shoulder—a crude sack brimming with gold and other riches—his spoils from war. He shifts his shoulder and rolls it back into the weight of the sack to stifle the chink of coins.

“How long since you left him?“ Desmond nags with the rehearsed question he already knows answer to, to kill the silence.

Altaïr, for his own reasons, decides to indulge him.

“Seven years, one month, two days.“

His boots feel heavy, his feet sore; his head swims with the prospect of what he will find in his house. The thought scatters his resolve and he stops mid-step. Desmond, a victim of Altaïr’s fickle step since the start of the climb, doesn’t resume the path either, but stops just as a succession of furious laughter and yelling from a distance ahead causes both warriors to look up.

A stream of adolescent boys and girls dressed in short tunics and merry laughter spills down the cobbled street, carrying garlands dipped in incense and perfumes.

This merry group slips past in rush but makes a stop to hang wreaths of flowers upon each warrior before they depart taking smiles and laughter with them. Desmond shuffles on his spot uneasily, attempting to look disinterested, but his stalking gaze stays true to the girls descending down the path and their short, billowy tunics.

Altaïr feels some stray amusement stir at the sight of him.

He lets the sack of riches fall from his shoulder and shifts its weight into his other hand, then takes the gifted garland off his neck. He takes a passing whiff of flowery scents before he adds it to the one on Desmond’s neck, and gives a cursory push against Desmond’s bare chest.

“Go.“

Desmond breaks into a smirk in response to this order while toying with the new wreath around his neck, “You mistake me for Ezio. I’m not the one who visits every other bed before I visit my own.“

“Then go home. You’ve more distance to cross,“ Altaïr releases him and picks the sack up onto his shoulder again in tacit dismissal. Desmond puts his helmet on in silence and combs his fingers through the tail after he does so, saluting once before taking off.

“I’ll see you at the appointed hour.“ With this, he leaves Altaïr to his own unwanted thoughts.

People live on this island as its inhabitants, they live in this city-state as its citizens, but most importantly, people live as members of their community. A trifle steps up the hill and to the left is where Altaïr’s community is comfortably nested.

To his right, carved into the rocky wall, is a street niche that hosts a statue of Nokem and a boy praying to this god of vengeance. Altaïr feels that he’s imposing his curiosity on the sacred privacy of prayer by giving it notice, but the slow trickle of familiar crimson on the boy’s wrist has wrestled his mind from graver thoughts and provided fleeting distraction. The boy is in the midst of sacrifice. Blood oozes from his cut wrist, trickles on while the boy seals off what is a blessing or curse through silent prayer.

The boy can’t be older than Malik.

When Altaïr left for duty, he—perhaps foolishly—left behind his newly-acquired home in the hands of Malik, a mere child when he was wed to Altaïr. But Altaïr had no one else. And nothing else.

The boy deserts the niche leaving Nokem to solitude, paying no heed to the warrior who had been observing him.

From his sack Altaïr produces a coin and puts it to brief rest in the flat of his rough, dry palm. On the coin is the embossed image of Nokem slaying his enemy. The coincidence must be a will of the god, and he interprets it as such. Ducking his head, he delves into the niche to leave the coin upon the pedestal of the statue, in the company of a handful others. His wish is as modest as his offering. Altaïr craves something easy on the eye to obey him till the rest of his days. He wishes for Malik’s beauty. And his loyalty.

Nokem’s dark gaze judges from beneath his stony hood, his eyes a heavy, stifling black, and Altaïr retreats to shy away from the weight of the god’s scrutiny.

No one is making to leave the community-courtyard as Altaïr slips into the tunnel, and so his presence remains unnoticed. He stays hidden behind the heavy folds of motionless drapery that shields the end of the passage, where to a halt come every move or thought that might have escorted him till that point. He peeks into the courtyard from this scanty cover to behold his community.

Talk flutters around.

The inside opens into an oval courtyard ringed with shadowy benches, a knot of children practicing the cithara on one of them, half-concealed by the curtain of droopy plants ascending down from pots overhead, lush and green. On a massive table sits a tender woman, an infant suckling on her breast. Altaïr remembers her. He unthinkingly recalls seeing her being courted by one of the city guards, an austere and willful woman, he recalls being emphatically opposed to their marriage. Now they number more than Altaïr’s own family.

The notion propels him into widening his vision and he bats his attention away from this mnemonic triviality to seek out Malik. Beside the young mother, two men are salting meat and fish. A little off in the distance, a collection of elderly women sit close—restless beings brimming with knowledge and in constant quest for tidings.

On the water-well, two youths are washing clothes beneath the shade of Daga’s fanned mermaid tails.

One a male, a fetching young man, attractively built, with the wire of slender muscle competing with occasional gentle softness of curves, and a bronze of skin most pleasing to the eye. This isn't the boy of ten that he had left behind, and his heart quickens at such a vision. A surprise beyond all surprises. Altaïr’s wish, though far from being dull, has lacked the terrific vigor of the image before him.

Malik is on his knees, snug inside the curvature of the washing basin, dragging a tawny-tinged piece of cloth through a shallow pool of water and soaking the fabric methodically. This cloth he wrings out and stows neatly into a pail of wet clothes beside him as the warrior keeps on studying him. 

Everything on him appears healthy. He is pretty, less dramatically than some gorgeous women, but easy on the eye.

Malik’s hands are for some obscure reason sheathed in leather gloves that stop short of his elbows. With his inner elbow he wipes the sheen of perspiration collected across his forehead, pressing the damp black, black, hair to sweaty skin. His eyes are as dark as Altaïr remembers them, and wild hair awry and untamed under the dimmed harshness of the sun. His once-soft face chiseled into the sharper features of a young adult. Altaïr’s husband stands a vision of Nokem himself.

Seven years after, Altaïr’s second impression of him is a breathless one. Finding his husband a domesticated creature and in good looks keeps thrusting his joy to unimaginable heights.

Seven years, one month, two days.

That long since he'd applied for a special dispensation to marry Malik, a child of ten falling into this agreement in order to evade certain death, with salty residue of tears fresh on plump cheeks and whispers of revenge upon his lip. The child’s notion of obedience had been fantastically poor, but his sense of loyalty unrelenting, and rare for someone his young age and tragic circumstance.

Altaïr’s sack of spoils is a steady burden but he doesn't dare move, for fear of disturbing the vision before him, and he keeps it on shoulder, holds steady as his thoughts begin to soar to implied delights. Of mind but also flesh. To Malik’s lips, unsmiling but untouched—lips he shall have occasion to taste to full extent later. 

Malik’s appearance in the eyes of his husband depends on Altaïr’s fickle mood. For a moment, he looks fierce in Altaïr’s eyes, with a threatening scowl equaling Nokem’s, and a thick frown contorting his lips. Only a moment after, Altaïr’s tongue darts out to lick across his chapped skin, his head bursting with the image of Malik’s full lips, the heat of his mouth, of his fiery gaze turning soft. A meek and loyal husband to obey him is all Altaïr has fought for. A taste of domesticity all he desires in exchange for years of sacrifice. To find Malik loyal to their home and marriage swells his head with pride and his body with a constant thrum of pleasures to come. Pleasures he's remained patient for for years on end.

He introduces the warm skin of his shoulder into the cold stone of the tunnel and falls into anticipatory reverie of reaping his husbandly privileges, and his cock begins to stir at the thought of stripping the frown off Malik’s lips between picking him up and carrying him up to their bed. Peace pervades this daydream for a few more undisturbed moments, until one of the eccentric characters of the community whom Altaïr recalls through hazy memory strolls into it, carrying an assortment of flowers. This fair-haired intruder—a man of calling Altaïr had failed to decipher seven years ago—comes to kneel beside Malik as they exchange hushed words before the frown is erased from Malik’s face and the flowers entrusted into his wet, gloved hand.

This odd, misplaced gesture chafes Altaïr, recovering him steadily from his little reverie.

When Leonardo’s cold white fingers settle on Malik’s jaw, Altaïr’s domestic fantasy is brought to an untimely death.

Malik’s lips hurry to mirror the smile on Leonardo’s face and its reflection distorts something in Altaïr, he’s afraid to look at it but can’t resist, until he finds himself inflamed beyond reason and frothing like a wild dog.

He thrusts forth like a wounded beast, flinging the tunnel drapery aside, saturating the shout of Malik’s name in accusation.

Altaïr’s sudden presence is given notice by the entire community and because of this he shows far greater restraint than he would on the battlefield.

Malik’s gaze staggers to the source of his booming voice, loud and unpleasant, and tainted with filthy allegations. Altaïr watches how Malik’s confusion takes a shape of panic, a wet cloth still dangling from his hand, frozen in this act of collapse. When Malik sets tongue to purpose at last, his face is dangerously close to terror.

“You’re alive?“ Malik’s question houses utter disbelief, spoken with all the appropriate emotion such implications entail, and Altaïr finds himself further inflamed by it.

“I trusted the word of an unfaithful husband!” Altaïr roars for all community to hear, drawing the above-dwelling people from apartments onto balconies, “I have given my word—the fault lies in you for breaking yours, whore!”

Malik’s mouth remains agape, he scowls feverishly, and Altaïr, wounded, takes the advantage to pounce on Malik’s state of confusion to hurl offense and insult and balm his own cracked pride.

“You've abased and shamed yourself while bearing my name—!”

“You’ve shamed yourself, by accusing me of imaginary slights!”

Malik snaps back, rises, piling up on growing courage, but Altaïr’s keen eyes dig into the spot where Malik’s pulse hammers beneath the skin of his neck, and it’s all the evidence that he requires.

“Don't attempt lies, whore! The fear in your eyes trained your tongue to lie—those flowers in hand speak the truth,” Altaïr lets the heavy sack plummet onto stone and the merry chink of coins joins the rasp of cold steel as he unsheathes his sword.

“Stop now—“ Leonardo inserts himself into the hazardous territory between them, a comedy of protectiveness, but Altaïr’s eyes won’t even touch the man, for if they do his sword might follow. The dazzling flow of chatter all around them is unintelligible to Altaïr, his eyes trained only on his husband’s face, the face that begins to stretch into crisp simplicity of mockery as Malik thrusts himself closer to Altaïr to fling at his face what is to become a spear of ridicule.

“They are for my brother’s grave,” Malik hisses with some dramatic pomp and veers off to storm up the stairs and into his home that is now again Altaïr’s.

Altaïr doesn’t stir a limb at first. He is experiencing what is not-a-complete surrender to this excuse and stands with hunger for more, but he returns his sword to scabbard even as he shouts after Malik and his orders fall on deaf ears.

Then he follows.

He collects his spoils and bolts up the stairs flanked by statues of Nokem and Gdila, passes several apartment doors on his left flank before he reaches what is the breaking point between the ring of first and second floor—a large staircase in the midst of which a tunnel is chiseled providing passage to the remaining circle of the first floor. Altaïr takes the left wing of stairs and counts two doors before he stands in front of his own.

The door is unhinged and he elbows his way inside, and what he finds in the bowels of his home dissolves his jealousy into unflattering shame.

Beneath the heel of boots, he feels the yielding softness of thick carpet and he recoils in the fraction of a moment, leaving two dusty imprints on the amber rim of the cobalt-blue carpet. Carpets are a rare commodity.

The roomy emptiness of this space has been transformed almost beyond recognition, his house vastly removed from the shabby place he had purchased with hard-earned money short before leaving for war. It’s hard to decide where next to settle his gaze. A dining table flanked by benches padded with amber plush. To the left, two entire corners embraced by a low sofa littered with cushions, the ceiling above a geometric pattern painted gold-and-blue. He had not felt such sensory experience crush upon him in waves since he last entered Al Mualim’s camp.

Altaïr falls into a crouch.

He sets his crude sack upon floor with a conspicuous chink of coins, sets his helmet beside it, and commences the tedious task of unlacing his boots. Across him in the midst of the room Malik remains still.

Nothing escapes Malik’s mouth now while the warrior stares openly at the hard-polished floor of what was a creaky-and-weathered wood when he first was brought here, finding, perhaps, that the house will explain to Altaïr what his silence does not.

The truth is almost unsettling.

With Altaïr away, Malik—a child turned orphan overnight and left to fend for its own—transformed the space within Altaïr’s four sorry walls into a cozy home worth of flattery. This proves to be Altaïr’s second unexpected surprise of the day. His third—that Malik has been as loyal as he had promised once, at the tender age of ten.

Altaïr’s mouth parts under the weight of this pleasant revelation, but gentle words find difficult the passage from throat to mouth and remain sitting on his tongue for a while longer. On some rational level, the attractive surroundings inveigle him into feeling like a stray pest imposing on someone else’s home.

A glance to his immediate right provides him good insight into how well Malik managed this household during his absence. The kitchen—a once dingy, smallish room—now a well-equipped wide space with a double-sided hearth cleverly connected to the adjacent bedroom, and a masonry oven resting above. The rest is well-crafted into a pantry and cooking area. Altaïr’s restless eyes wander around and across the colorful assortment of dried foods, an aromatic string of garlic cloves hanging alongside two heavy pieces of smoked meat and fat sausages. Tea and spices Altaïr has meager knowledge of rest perched on shelves above the menagerie of jams sealed off in jars, a collection of pitchers and upturned cups snuggled up on the lowest shelves.

On the counter-top, a half-eaten bread and a basket of peaches. Below, three brick-red amphoras, one of them as large as a small child, and a sack of flour.

It’s food of more variety than Altaïr had seen in his seven years in soldier encampments.

Altaïr removes his gaze from the kitchen he can hardly call his own, and finds Malik inspecting him.

“I was in the wrong,” words suddenly pop out of Altaïr’s mouth as he admits regret that would otherwise rot on his tongue unless spoken absent thought.

“Repeat the words to those who now think me a whore.”

“I apologized,” Altaïr points out in near-growl, impatiently.

If Malik has hidden his flinch, he has done it well, as he's done with the bitter taste of protest, now swallowed to prevent it from leaving his mouth.

He holds still even as Altaïr crosses a distance to peek into the bedroom to Malik’s left. The room is spacious, warm and inviting, with a square bed too large for one adolescent, covered in quilts cobalt like the carpet he stands on, and the overall state of the room further quells Altaïr’s anger.

When Altaïr falls into admiring the polished floor is when Malik next speaks to break silence and shift accusation where it’s well-founded.

“Your pay stopped coming three years ago. The reason given was your death upon battlefield.” I believed you dead for three years remains lodged in Malik’s throat.

Altaïr turns to look at him, his face colored in angered puzzlement, “Who told you that?”

“Abbas,” Malik spits the name forth like a long-festering poison.

“That was a mistake,” or so Altaïr hopes, “I will resolve the matter.”

He ceases his inspection of the bedroom now that his attention has been drawn to awaiting duties. Of his home, he had expected far less. Of his husband, he had expected more. Foolish as he might have been in blind hope, Altaïr had expected his husband to speed to his arms to greet him, to hold his parched hands and smile with teary eyes and thoughts of affection and loyalty. A wrinkled brow and distrust had not been part of his prayers to Gdila.

“Why did you choose to stay?”

Malik at last rouses from his frozen posture and lifts his eyes to face Altaïr, and there is nothing lost of the boy who lost one family in one night.

“You mistake choice for the payment of a debt. And a word of loyalty I once gave. Absent it, we wouldn’t be breaking words now.”

Altaïr has a not-so-distant memory of a child's fretfulness on a bleak day when he first asked for marriage, and of a child’s thirst for revenge that screamed louder than the yes it whispered in front of priests. In the expanse of time that stretched from the Massacre of nobles up to this point, Malik’s thirst for revenge has not withered as Altaïr hoped it might. His loyalty to Altaïr remains a matter of probity, far-removed from any personal devotion. The knowledge does not surprise, but offers little comfort and provides reason for worry. Altaïr sweeps this intricate matter aside for now.

“How did you manage for money?”

Malik lifts his eyes anew and his dark gaze wraps Altaïr into a cocoon of satisfaction. The embellishments of his home may be distracting, but Malik’s dark, dark eyes are even more so.

When Malik chooses to respond, it’s neither with pride nor with indignation, he speaks as if decisions re-crossed his path and once probably made him unhappy, before he settled into this necessity of life.

“I wash clothes,” between the first two words, there almost is no stutter, “Our community has one of the best tailors of the city. He directs his customers to me. Cloth dyers are on the other slope of the hill, so I have a steady influx of customers. I do finery, mostly, cloth that takes time to wash and brings more money.”

Altaïr’s gaze slips down to the odd contraptions on Malik’s arms. Malik’s trade sheds new light on the purpose of his leather gloves. Altaïr assumes they were created resistant to soaps and protect his hands, and he commends Malik’s self-care. His eyes linger until it crosses the line of decency and Malik shows his dissatisfaction by soldering his leather-bound fingers into fists. Altaïr’s intent didn't wander into the realms of insult, even if Malik takes it as one. The gloves look handsome on Malik’s arms, a reality that seems to elude the boy.

“I also draw maps when occasion beckons. Though it’s not a steady source of income,” Malik’s fists unhinge and hang loose once more. Altaïr recognizes the extent of Malik’s sacrifice but cannot empathize. Malik has been born a noble, a descendant of god Nokem. One of the last remaining few. Before the Massacre, he had been unused to work that the majority of the population performs. In its aftermath, mundane labor foisted itself upon him.

Altaïr does not empathize.

He appreciates well-deserved rewards. Admires work that has exceeded initial expectation. For the latter Altaïr admires his husband, who has exceeded his original role and turned into an all-rounder who produces food, washes upmarket clothes, and takes exceptional care of the household.

“Henceforth, you will not have to,” Altaïr announces as he steers a pointing finger towards the sack of coins behind him and Malik reluctantly follows his gaze, “I’ve brought spoils from war. They are yours, to use for your purpose.”

Malik’s tepid gaze rests on the sack until the silence between them grows deafening. It’s not the response Altaïr had hoped to entice.

“I deliver joyous news to be met with tempered response.”

“Your money is not fucking wanted. I’ve long learned to fend for myself.”

A hint of ire roams Altaïr’s face for a split moment and Malik is sure that they will revert to a crossfire of filthy yelling.

“I am the master of this house and you will follow in my lead.”

The ensuing laughter that surges from Malik’s mouth is undisturbed by the indignity of Altaïr’s ruffled look and his angry flare of his nostrils.

“You find my orders amusing?”

“No. The stupid fuck that speaks them I do.”

Altaïr lurches forward but stops in his tracks in the blink of an eye, and Malik does flinch this time, the residual smile on his lips drops to naught. Malik counts three breaths before Altaïr retreats.

Malik expects him to speak. When the realization dawns that this burden has fallen upon his shoulders, he shares a look with the warrior, but finds his own pacifying spirit irredeemably forfeited.

“A man seldom offers obedience to a husband who named him a whore.”

Malik’s tone is soft and softness refuses to make Altaïr’s anger function.

When he looks into the face of his young husband, he finds a hard scowl sitting heavy on his brows, a deep-settled frown chiseled into his lips, and reborn anger searing from the depth of his dark eyes. Despite these shortcomings, Malik is an alluring sight. Altaïr feels an abrupt bark of lust in the pit of his belly, and his nostrils flutter, immediately followed by a drawing of a deep breath to calm his body and tame the fast-growing craving that has been systematically repressed for years on end.

“I said I apologized,” Altaïr repeats even as he fails to realize that he has not.

Altaïr’s gaze stumbles from Malik’s soft black hair down to his lips, much desired, excessively wet and warm-colored, like peaches. He feels his appetite swell but shifts eyes elsewhere. He will have Malik. Later.

“I’m called to duty,” Altaïr informs as he returns to the door and takes to putting his boots back on, “I expect a warm meal upon my return. I entrust the money into your care, seeing how well you handle financial matters lacking my guidance.”

Malik is far from pleased, but whatever words he has to spare remain confined to his own thoughts. He craves Altaïr’s departure and endures every moment spent in his husband’s company with borrowed patience.

“After the meal, I would also enjoy your body,” Altaïr fixes his helmet into place, and this vision wakes unwanted memories and gives Malik no less grief than Altaïr’s preposterous implication.

“Are you asking for sex?” Malik rushes to ask as Altaïr turns to take leave, barely keeping his voice from falling apart.

“I ask nothing. That is how it will be.” From beneath the steely beak of an eagle, Altaïr’s eyes are menacing, and Malik has no doubts he will do as he desires, “And clean yourself, I don’t want to soil my cock.”

Altaïr is turning to leave but Malik’s voice stops him.

Fuck you!” Malik shouts after him as soon as his mind has bridged the gap to his frozen mouth.

For the fraction of a moment Malik considers the location of his hidden sword, but Altaïr remains standing and shows no signs of lashing out at him.

“Talk to me again in such tone and I’ll give you a lesson in manners,” a moment of silence and then, “Make supper. Make me a bed. And we’ll revisit that remark.”

The shuddering shock-wave that ensues after the bursting clap of door is felt long after Altaïr’s departure.

The warrior leaves taking Malik’s hard-earned happiness with him.

 


 

If Malik had time to spare, he would spend another seven years easing himself into the shock of Altaïr’s arrival.

He takes nothing of the food and all of the spoils, and through his veins shoots more hatred than blood when he slips out leaving his home behind.

Malik reconnoiters the area of the courtyard and finds it bereft of people, eerily silent. He twists away from the balustrade and veers left to steal down the stairs while luck is yet on his side. It seems as though the entire community is turning a blind eye to his escape to grant him safe passage unburdened by witnesses. His heart weighs heavy, as does the sack of coins he has stolen and hid amid the entwined bundle of clothes. Fear and haste haven’t permitted a neat arrangement and his two most prized possessions—two golden cups he had saved seven years ago from his burned home—touch on occasion, producing a muted clink.

His home lost once again to Al Mualim’s men. First on the night of the Massacre of nobles and now to his lower-born husband.

As he glides down the right wing of the tunnel-stairs, a recursive loop of muffled clinking follows his steps, until he finds himself on the first floor with the tunnel to his immediate left. He hastens his step and immerses himself into the shadows of the barrel-vaulted tunnel, passing closed doors. For a moment his chest feels dark and bitterly cold before it turns empty. The stones echo under his heels with a hollow, lonely ring before he slows to a stop three doors short of Leonardo’s home-cum-studio.

In the darkness of the tunnel, dark thoughts begin to assail him.

Malik had avoided the thought of visiting Leonardo before his permanent departure, to spare him the trouble. But Leonardo possesses something Malik would bequeath unto his husband before his escape. While his flourishing thoughts start to take solid form he shifts the straps of his bag, re-adjusting weight, hoping to further stifle the noisy tumult of a myriad coins, and then he slinks off into Leonardo’s dwelling.

Inside, he finds nothing but a solitary room.

Upon hearing no noise, Malik slopes off into the corner of stacked wooden shelves, disarranged but with contents well-kept, and digs into the task of finding the desired object. He spends a few moments in savage search before he pinpoints the correct shelf on a height almost too vast for him to reach, but he pulls it out of socket with a single scrap of noise and finds inside half a bulk of hemlock leaves. He revels in this find for a mere moment and considers taking the entire shelf with him. This notion he discards as soon as it arises, aware of the blame that would fall on Leonardo for poisoning Altaïr, should this evidence be found in another’s home.

Malik turns and twists in search for a scrap of cloth to wrap the poison plant into, but finds none. He would best avoid touching the leaves.

He lifts the edge of his long robe and winds it round the poison with as much care as the pressing circumstances permit, and rolls the leaves in, keeping his fist firmly closed around this impromptu wrapping.

A blanket of calm has barely covered his chest when approaching steps hurl him into the rushed feat of slipping the shelf back into proper place.

Malik swirls around just in time to give his alarmed face a false sense of calm as Leonardo catches sight of him.

“Malik?”

Malik doesn’t answer but he does swallow the excess build of saliva beneath tongue as Leonardo begins to approach, an act hidden well in the deep shadows of Malik’s black hood.

Leonardo comes to a halt before him and Malik makes no move, not even a shift of his awkwardly-placed hand clutching the wrapped poison, half-hidden behind his back. His baggage is not visible to the eye beneath his hooded robe, but his hiding of poison has revealed his chest and leather straps open for Leonardo’s inspection.

Malik has long learned that lying to Leonardo is a futile task unworthy of attempt.

He allows the man to slip hands into his hood and flick this shield off, leaving himself exposed.

“Your eyes betray recent tears.” Leonardo’s pale brows contort with empathy as he sinks his fingers into the soft skin of Malik’s neck and digs thumbs up Malik’s jaw to direct dark eyes at himself.

Malik expects another onslaught of empathy he welcomes for once, but Leonardo is not one to be deceived.

“What are you hiding?”

Malik is struck dumb with sudden terror.

Leonardo’s fingers give a short squeeze and his mouth stretches into one of his smiles that stop short of the corners of his eyes and don’t make them crinkle, “What’s in your hand, Malik?”

Malik lets the wave of shock freeze and unfreeze his body before he tries a puny attempt at evading truth, a task set for fail before being uttered.

“What hand?”

“The one you’re hiding behind your back.”

Malik manages half a breath before stammering out, “Leonardo—“

“Show me,” Leonardo cuts in and lets one hand fall to keep it open in silent offer.

Protest is futile and Malik brings his hand up dragging his robe along, and then opens his fist. Leonardo unwraps the contents and is not pleased. A scowl twists his brows while he empties the hemlock onto a counter and lets Malik’s black robe fall to floor before planting him onto a stool. The blond keeps his anger in a more orderly fashion than he keeps his studio in, but his quiet anger is far nastier and more violent that livid shouting. Malik isn’t sure what to expect as Leonardo drags a second stool to sit before him.

“Did you think you would benefit from the murder of your husband?”

“A husband in name only.”

“Don’t change course of conversation.”

Malik lifts his gaze off Leonardo’s sandals and looks him in the eye.

“I’m running away.”

This silencer provides enough time for Malik to continue before Leonardo’s recovery.

“I wished him dead before I went. He would put me in shackles, Leonardo. He ordered meal, ordered my body like a piece of meat. I hate him—“

“And for hatred you would give your own life?” Leonardo bends to seize Malik’s hands that rest on the boy’s knees and fastens his hold on them, “Where in the city will you hide where Altaïr won’t find you? He is as alone as you are. You are all he has besides his home.”

Malik’s face scrunches up in revolt and he shifts his gaze to the side in childish defiance, but Leonardo’s grip tightens around his wrists before the man jerks him closer, and Malik does look him in the eye then.

“You may carry your hatred inside you like Nokem did before slaying his enemy, but be obedient to Altaïr, show him affection—“

Never.” Malik protests in shrill outrage.

“Malik, listen,” the clutch on Malik’s wrists constricts and Malik is compelled to consider Leonardo’s ensuing words just to ease his grip.

“On this day, to this city returned those who think they survived the war.”

Malik looks into these words, truly delves into them, lets them sink in while he waits for the man to go on.

“They’ve grown tired of blood and dust, and poor rations. They hunger for a warm home sweetened by the attentions of their wives and husbands and family, they hunger for a warm meal and warm hands to caress and soothe their battered spirits,” Leonardo takes pause as he notices Malik mulling over his words, and uses the chance to allow Malik’s hands into his lap, “Altaïr wishes to be attended by his husband. Your affection and obedience is all he wants.”

“I don’t want his brutish hands upon me,” the very thought makes Malik sick to the stomach, “I’ll have to tolerate his presence in my home.”

“An unavoidable concession, Malik.”

Malik immerses himself into this notion deeper and moment by moment begins to understand that sleeping beside his husband is a necessity that has to be swallowed. Leonardo’s thumbs stroke unhurriedly up-and-down the lengths of his own, joined together and pressed between the man’s warm palms, and when he next forces himself into lifting his gaze from this sight, Leonardo’s visage grows blurred under onslaught of tears whose origin he doesn’t want to ponder.

“How do I live with a beast for the rest of my life?” he asks in a whisper.

“See the beast tamed then,” Leonardo’s cottony voice is a balm unrivaled by any of those stacked on shelf upon shelf inside his studio. He reaches for the hem of his cape, a much-beloved addition to his tunic, and presses its inner fold to Malik’s jaw to soak up what he’d never wanted to see on Malik’s face again, “You must ascend to your rightful position through gentle touch and make your husband merely the beast you ride upon.”

“I would be betraying my brother. I would be betraying my family...”

Leonardo’s remaining hand joins to frame Malik’s face, keeping his chin upright and his gaze unflinching.

“It’s too late to consider such notions now. It’s been long since you gave your consent to this marriage.”

Malik takes a three-breaths-worth of pause to wallow in this folly.

“He will know I’m pretending. He’ll see through my lies. No words will hide my look of hatred.”

“Play a loving husband. Submit to his will. He will never know that you hate him, he will never know you’re lying, Malik. The day will come when you’ll lose sight of hateful intentions.”

“He gave me grievance, I cannot forgive.“

“You’ve barely spent time with the man. Have you told him what grieves you?“

“He knows.“

“Does he?“

Malik shifts away from Leonardo’s doting to frown in displeasure, but ditches proper response.

“It’s no matter. He holds the reins now.“

Leonardo gives the softest chuckle and lets the dampened hem of his cape fall after he retreats into a proper sit. His soothing proximity is momentarily missed.

“I wouldn’t be so sure in that, Malik. His position is deceptively weak—you require nothing of him, yet he requires a lot from you.“

“How is that helping my case…?“

“You hold the reins. Or rather, you could, if you learn how to hold them.“

Malik makes no move, nor intention to shift hands from Leonardo’s lap where they are resting, awkwardly joined.

“Start with the meal. Feed him,” Leonardo instructs, “Go and hasten preparations for fresh bread and set pot for stew. I will fetch you fresh meat from the market.”

Malik’s eyelids fall shut in the midst of acquiescent nodding, prompting stale tears to escape at last. He doesn’t expect Leonardo to wind his hand round his neck anew to pull him into the comforting silence of his chest. Leonardo parts his thighs to accommodate him and Malik shifts pulling the stool with him as he sinks deeper into Leonardo’s firm embrace and the man indulges him, gives him a moment of peace, losing count of how many times he did so over the course of Malik’s unfortunate childhood.

The day grows short.

 


 

Altaïr finds them seated on the rim of a fountain.

Two fine warriors, most fierce in battle, most warm-hearted in friendship.

Ezio reclines on elbows with head tilted up, buttoned up to his neck in good humor while taking the sun. On his right, Desmond sits hunched over his knees twirling a half-shredded leaf between thumb and index finger, as if assessing its value. They rest thus with their backs facing the colossal temple to Gdila, the patron god of city warriors, the beloved of Nokem.

Altaïr’s eyes don’t stray from the duo while he slips through between two plump bases of massive columns that frame the space of the main forum.

“I’m well-fucked,” Ezio informs with a juicy grin when Altaïr comes to a halt before them.

“And I’m one quarter drunk,” Desmond tacks on.

Altaïr sighs through his helmet and feels a stab of envy at their bare-headed state while a dewy sheen of sweat sticks stubbornly to his temples.

“Good to know,” he shifts his gaze around the forum, watching citizens mill about, not one warrior among them, “We’ll arrive past appointed hour.”

“You excel at making friends, Altaïr,” Ezio jabs, shifting into position resembling Desmond’s.

“I need but two.”

“Good for you, seeing as you only have us,” Desmond’s loop-sided smirk quietens Altaïr’s temper which is easy prey to irritation in present circumstances, “The assembly has been cancelled.” Desmond adds at last.

What?”

“Al Mualim holds the roundup tomorrow, at the very place we loiter at presently.”

Altaïr exhales his ill temper and hooks his thumbs into the eagle beak pulling his helmet off. He ruffles his short hair up and wipes off the shine of perspiration sitting above his upper lip, leaving his temples dampened with sweat and his mood sour.

“Why drag me away from home then?”

“Well we didn’t know, did we?” Ezio pats the tepid stone at his left in silent invitation.

Altaïr response is not immediate. He stares at the fountain floor behind Ezio’s back, the colored mosaic distorted beneath the ripple of water. On it, mermaid-like Daga holds out a fish in offer to the god of death hiding behind Desmond’s form. Altaïr shifts gaze, thinking. He feels hunger licking at his insides and allows it to flourish, until he feels less like a man and more like a belly with some accessory organs.

He chooses to join them anyway.

He had spent seven years fighting beside these men, another hour won’t hurt.

Altaïr takes a seat on the assigned place and slots his helmet alongside the two already resting on the fountain rim, their long tails conveniently coiled into rolls to preemptively dodge dust on pavement. The lining inside is dampened as much as his spirits and he leaves it to dry, but takes to coiling his own helmet tail up while they sit in easy silence. The harsh sun beats down on them, reflects in the phosphor-bronze of his eagle beak and hitting Altaïr’s eyes while he combs through the long strands of tawny horse-hair plume with the tip dyed ivory.

“When was the last time you saw your family?” Altaïr asks lifting his gaze from the thick coil of silky strands, his question is ostensibly a question, and tipped more towards the accusatory part of it. In the void of silence that follows the question, Altaïr listens to the rasp and tinkle of traffic on the main road stretching a distance away before the temple forum. Ahead, the city is spread out, overseen by the vertiginous summit of Hiba’s hill, home to the ancient and most sacred forest of their island. Behind Hiba’s mountain, a glimpse of a flat-topped volcano, frozen in death since the time Nokem killed the god of mountains inside it, now host to warrior encampments. And countless corpses of nobles.

“You’re wasting time on lecture. I’ll go see them so—“

His word ceases as abruptly as his torso shoots backwards, his legs follow in an open-and-frozen sprawl as if some force has pulled at him from behind. There is a spurt of a broken shout before the ensuing luscious splash of water as Ezio falls straight into the fountain.

“Ezio, you scum!”

Not a moment passes before Desmond and Altaïr startle up like coiled springs, drawing their swords at this rowdy impostor who slithered behind their backs on the sly. The hooded figure stands proud atop their forfeited seats, with a coltish smirk stretching ruddy lips that bring to light the identity of the one person that could lash at Ezio and receive their congratulatory pats on shoulder for it. A restless, reckless woman.

Claudia!” Ezio bellows in a mixture of shock and upset, and her mouth parts into a toothy grin, her lips smack of utter mischief.

“Go on, brother, your tears sustain me.”

Desmond chuckles as he and Altaïr sheathe their weapons and watch Claudia pull her hood off to stretch her hands out in tacit invitation. Ezio unleashes his dissatisfaction with a groan and wades through water to worm himself into her embrace. He is half a step away, his cloth and hair ill with desire for a good wringing, when Claudia’s dry hand connects with his wet cheek in a loud smack and Ezio sidesteps from the force of the impact. 

“That’s for not dispatching a message,” she calmly explains in a voice devoid of any passion. 

Ezio’s shoulders hunch inward under some weight of guilt but there’s a frown sitting on his lips as he turns to face her. Claudia kills the ease that Ezio seems to have settled into after a moment with another slap, possessed of more vigor, and Ezio needs a moment to recover from this unexpected turn.

“That’s for not letting me go with you.”

Though her voice stands firm, from the spot he stands at, Altaïr thinks he can recognize an underlying knot of something more profound on her face, a sentiment that, perhaps, steals into the outstretch of arms that now seem more welcoming than before. Altaïr doesn’t know if Ezio, too, has noticed this shift in her demeanor, but Ezio shuffles up to her and lets Claudia wind her smaller-but-strong arms around his soaked form.

A moment of this idyll before Claudia shoves her brother a distance away and delivers another slap to the sore cheek leaving Ezio fantastically astonished, standing in knee-high water with a dumbfounded expression on his face and cheeks inked in fat pink.

“That was removed from my will. It was from mother.”

The look on Ezio’s abused face morphs from utter betrayal to utter horror, and his comrades watch, in something that is an amalgam of growing amusement and mounting sympathy, as Ezio’s confidence shatters into shambles.

“Set mind to ease, idiot. I didn’t tell her. But I will, should you stray from path again,” Claudia assures, and on her face is the look of a gloriously fulfilled, almost fulfilled, woman.

She holds out her hand and Ezio takes it with a wary look. After she steps down he takes her place on the fountain rim, allowing his garment to drip with excess water.

“How many beds did you visit until now? One? Two?”

“You insult me, sister.”

“None?”

“Three,” Ezio gives in. Claudia could, without a doubt, get her hands on concealed truths within an hour from now, through means obscure even to brightest minds of the city, and lying to Claudia is as impractical as it is foolish.

“Lousy performance. Unworthy of an Auditore. I get more women in less time,” Claudia turns to Desmond and her hand comes out and holds itself upwards under his nose demanding money, “You owe me coin.”

“Thank you, Ezio,” Desmond grumbles with no genuine ire and produces a quick coin, as if this lost bet had already been suspected.

Wait—what? How high was the wager?” Ezio hides behind the demand to soothe his insulted sexual prowess, as if this bet hadn't involved his number of conquests at all.

“One kesef,” Desmond replies and allows himself be directed by Altaïr who is shifting their positions towards dryer places along the curvy expanse of the stone rim, but who himself remains unseated, as though preparing himself leeway for departure.

“You’re insane. That’s the daily pay of a skilled artisan,” awed as he might be, Ezio is firmly pressed to his sister’s breast and held there during Claudia’s endeavor to wring his hair out, “And look at the state of me now, sister.”

“A sad sodden little creature. Same as before.”

Ezio’s humphs in mock anger but falls readily into this doting, allows Claudia to maneuver his head up for an onslaught of sisterly kisses.

Altaïr swings his gaze from this odd display of affection to Desmond who sits hunched again, with a hint of a smile on his face while the hum of Claudia’s pleased noises and the soft smack of her kisses peppered across Ezio’s face permeate the lack of conversation. Desmond can probably grasp the essence of sibling affection as good as Altaïr can, which is to say far from good. For one adventurous moment, Altaïr’s mind attempts inserting himself into this picture, with Malik in Claudia’s stead. It doesn’t come as a surprise when this image resists imagination and wrestles itself from Altaïr's mind, claiming improbability.

Thoughts of his husband and the nagging sensation of hunger nudge his limbs into action, and he reaches for his helmet and lifts it without Desmond’s protest, letting the tail unfurl from the coil. He is thumbing along the inner lining to test its dryness and preparing to leave when Claudia halts his intention.

“And you, Altaïr? How do you find your husband?” she calls over Desmond’s stooped figure.

Altaïr looks her in the eye with genuine wonder, and finds upon her face a smile, almost hidden by the swell of her cheek that’s pressed against the crown of Ezio’s head, a smile which knows how handsome Malik has turned in these seven years of Altaïr’s absence.

“You know of him?”

“I know everything,” she tells in a nigh whisper and with an air of conviction that Altaïr has no doubt is based upon foundations of granite. Altaïr needs a handful of moments to select an answer.

“We are at odds.”

Ezio shifts to rest his head upon her lap, and he is oddly silent. Altaïr takes notice of his silence and listens to Claudia.

“Give him time to grow used to your presence. You, too, would fall into distrust if backed into corner and pressed into roles never played before.” Her gaze is knowing, her words both instruction and advice, and Altaïr doesn’t know which class to sort them into. He bends away from this course of subject.

“It seems he had thought me dead.”

“How so?”

“Misinformed. By none other than Abbas.”

Her fingers still in Ezio’s damp hair and her visage converts to repulsion that is mutually shared, “The snake that slithers behind you?”

Altaïr tumbles into a scowl and follows the direction of her gaze shortly thereafter, but he can’t spot Abbas despite best efforts to recognize a face among the roaming people, none of which resemble the target. He turns to find Desmond in a similar state of confusion, and for an instance he doubts the validity of her find.

“He’s not here.”

“Who are you going to trust? Me or your lying eyes?” She pulls her mouth into a quick smirk, “The dark figure in cloak and hood, Altaïr.”

He tries anew and his eyes land on the one shape of such description, and as chance would want it, there stands Abbas, bereft of armor, in plain clothes, and dark hood. His lack of armor doesn’t come as a surprise. His beard does. As does his right eye. An eye not his own, but plain to see, and not unalike Al Mualim’s. Altaïr has last seen him with a cloth and patch hiding the irreparable damage that Malik’s tiny hands had once inflicted upon Abbas’ face. His current appearance brings much amazement. He stands at the foot of the forum in the company of a figure of a more questionable repute, one possessed of riches, if the foreign clothes are a hint to judge by.

“That man has his fingers in everyone’s assholes,” Desmond’s words are uncouth, but worth a sack of gold. Knowledge of their shared sentiment axes some of the anger that simmers in Altaïr at the very sight of this man he once shared ranks with.

Altaïr puts his helmet on and fixes it into place, and fixes his mind on purpose, “I’ve words to exchange with him.”

“Be cautious,” Claudia instructs as he makes move to leave, “He speaks in honeyed words, to conceal the piss that leaves his mouth.”

Altaïr launches into a steady march.

Abbas is bidding his company farewells and doesn't notice Altaïr’s sudden approach. He never was one for the warrior ranks. Honorable discharge must have fattened him up into further idleness.

“Abbas,” Altaïr calls to draw attention and the man turns to him together with a staggered expression upon face. Altaïr’s alert eyes roam his new face in hunt for signs of guilt, but find the beginnings of a bogus smile, baleful and full of ominous verve that doesn’t bode well. Altaïr has no appetite for Abbas, and even less appetite for being swindled of money he had assigned for his husband.

“I seek information.”

“On what subject?”

Strict to the point, no gab. Altaïr hopes to keep it so and to dodge any idle talk. He moves a step closer to make himself appear as assertive as he feels. Abbas’ face slinks a sliver into the shadow of his cowl and his eye flits briefly down to Altaïr’s sword, one Abbas no longer lays claims on. He is growing skittish and Altaïr is pleased with this outcome.

“You delivered false news. And stole money diverted from its rightful course. I would see it restored to proper place.”

“You name me a thief, Altaïr. Be careful who you cross,” Abbas’ voice carries false bravado and Altaïr is convinced of his guilt, has been even before exchanging word. He shepherds that smile to a death as he forges another step, backing Abbas into the gap of space between two columns.

“I name you so because you are so.”

There’s a moment between Altaïr’s methodical cutting of space and his low-spoken words, in which time Abbas manages to hoard salt for Altaïr’s open wound. A wound that seems to be familiar to all those who should not meddle with it, which is everyone.

“What gnaws at you really, Altaïr?” Abbas’ unsightly grin widens, its weight feels like a stone in the warrior’s empty gut, “Do you truly care for the money? Or do you care for how your whelp managed costs of living?” Abbas’ grin is brazen and ugly and growing as he leans in to wound pride in whispers, “I will tell you how, Altaïr. Your little husband, fucked to madness by a thousand cocks—“

Altaïr feels the grip of his fingers on Abbas’ neck long before he hears his own snarling growl—the sound of a wounded animal with rabid hunger for vengeance, and it feels as if Nokem himself is guiding his hands as he drives Abbas’ choking form into the base of the nearest column and rams the back of his skull into the stone, once, before he inclines his face towards the bulging one, misshapen with slow swelling and blotches of purplish-red.

“You will return every. Fucking. Coin. Or I’ll cut off your cock and feed it to your fucking mouth!”

There’s an essential difficulty to keep his sword sheathed and free of Abbas’ bloodied innards, and he makes use of last remnants of good judgment to bash the back of the man’s skull against the column one last time, for a good measure, and releases his hold on Abbas.

He walks home alone, his empty stomach tied in knots, and doubt gripping fast on his heart.

The ego bruises deeper than the flesh.

 


 

Malik is sweating and patting the dough into shape methodically when the door opens.

He is hoping for Leonardo, but Altaïr puts his nose into the kitchen and regards him with quiet suspicion.

It would be a pleasure to flatten this man’s nose. Altaïr’s face darkens into a scowl upon taking notice of Malik’s current work, but this moment of unfounded annoyance unfurls into something that could resemble satisfaction as Altaïr catches sight of awaiting food assembled on the counter to Malik’s left.

Altaïr backs off and away to settle on the table, not a word leaving his mouth. Malik is glad for the silence. Silence he could work with.

The kitchen is hot, sweltering as a result of the cooling oven and recently snuffed fire, and Malik covers the excess dough with clean cloth and cleans his hands, dabs the sweat from his face. The table is laid out, table linen spread, and Altaïr sits wrapped in silence, awaiting meal. Altaïr has an ax to grind with his husband on several issues weighing heavy on his mind, but this wish is halted by a great, redeeming hunger.

Malik leaves the kitchen bearing a large bowl of steaming stew, simmered slowly on low fire, laden with fresh meat and fresh vegetables, and seasoning of price Malik could have wept for were the budget for this costly addition not extracted from Altaïr’s spoils.

Altaïr is expecting a spoon and bowl to eat from, but Malik persists with a steady influx of food.

Malik feels the thrill of accomplishment and postpones setting the cutlery before all his work is laid out on the table like a piece of art. From the corner of his eye, he steals occasional looks to watch for reaction, but his husband looks onto these offers with a black expression. To stifle the surge of disappointment, Malik conveniently blames it on Altaïr’s hunger.

Altaïr regards the table, and everywhere there is food insulting him in huge, wasteful piles.

Small loaves of bread are round and hot, almost spilling from the basket. Silver plates, warm and of unknown origin, loaded with mountains of food—a cheese vast as a grindstone, strings of smoked sausages, a great yellow block of butter, piles of soft-boiled vegetables, and roasted meat tender in thick gravy.

It’s food that became kickshaw in the seven years of soldier encampments.

Malik sets bowl and cutlery before him and his abrupt physical proximity jolts Altaïr from inner lament over this lavish and unnecessary treat.

His husband’s hands look clean and soft, unalike his toughened and rough ones, and his arms smell of scented balms and dough. His tunic has a soapy scent. Altaïr is promptly reminded of Malik’s line of work.

Malik fetches a single cup to fill with contents of the terracotta ewer he carries in hand.

Altaïr has not seen such cups since the Massacre. They are silver, with a bulky base progressively thinning out and expanding upwards into a blossom of steely feathers akin to those adorning Nokem’s turban, seemingly holding the cup in place. Altaïr’s suspicion grows but his tongue stays still. He unfastens the buckle keeping his sword in place while Malik is pouring liquid into his cup, and when he hauls the sword up to set on table, the dishes burst into a clatter. Malik balks at the sheer force of the impact—a motion stressed by the slosh of wine as he jolts the ewer to himself.

Altaïr takes notice of this reaction. He doesn’t offer apology. He takes the sword off the table and lays it out across the amber plush of the bench he is sitting on.

Malik sets the wine ewer down and remains standing beside the table.

“Will you not eat?” Altaïr asks.

“I already did,” comes a prompt lie. His belly is empty and refuses food.

“Sit,” Altaïr orders flicking his hand at the bench across.

Malik complies without protest and settles on the spot where the bowl of stew conceals him most from Altaïr’s sight. When he chooses to glance at Altaïr he finds him eating, not looking, and seeing Altaïr wolf down two loaves before even starting the stew gives Malik only a ghost of joy, directed primarily at his own culinary prowess. Altaïr pours into his bowl a healthy amount of stew between the second and the third loaf of bread, and keeps stirring the steaming dish into something cooler during the course of gobbling up the third loaf.

Altaïr’s vulgar slurping starts to grate Malik’s nerves. His loud chewing makes him irritable. He knows he is victim to this duty, bound to the table until Altaïr’s finish, and he finds his gaze drifting off to the right and through the window to allow the dusk creeping up the sky to sway his attention from his current task. Attending his husband through meal is a chore of more weight than hours of washing clothes. The community they live in looks like two rings stacked upon each other. Like an amphitheater without seats, with the walls as a ring of apartments looking at the arena, which is the community-courtyard. Malik’s eyes slither down the upper apartments to Leonardo’s home, set in the ring of the first floor. Leonardo’s advice enters his thoughts and he vaguely considers how to further mellow Altaïr out.

Maybe if he summons a bit of charm, Altaïr won’t bother him tonight.

“Is it to your liking, husband?” Malik hears himself say without real thought, for if he spent time on working the details of his words out, they would not be as soft-spoken and aimed at pleasing.

Altaïr swallows a spoon of stew, more liquid than meat in it, and says, “Less spice next time.”

A silence grows inside Malik.

He watches the warrior slurp on the stew he had put heart into, left with only resentment in chest and no further wish to please his husband.

Less spice next time. All his work reduced to nothing in a moment, an instant. The remark equal to writing his cooking off as bosh. His hours of sweating in the kitchen were for naught—evidently, his effort is worth nothing.

“You are behaving as I expect of you, at last.”

Altaïr’s words further aggravate Malik’s attempt at keeping calm.

Malik’s tearful anger hisses inside him and the gleam of the sword-handle on the bench looks seductive. It takes a colossal amount of restraint to not run the blade through the mouth that’s formed these words. He had been full of vain hope, and things are marching badly. He is silent because it’s no use arguing. He had seen people attempt to argue with warriors, a task that did not bear desired fruits of labor. As further insult, Altaïr abandons his spoon with a clatter and doesn’t touch the rest of the food. Stew and bread. Stew is all he bothered to taste.

“Clear the table,” Altaïr orders after setting his drained cup down.

The cup he allowed to touch Altaïr’s mouth. The one he had recovered and salvaged from the ashes of his real home, together with a mismatched assortment of silverware he had assembled from charred debris with hot tears in eyes.

Altaïr leaves the table, taking his sword with him to the left wedge-shaped part of the sofa where he spreads himself out on the bolstered cushions amid the lumbar throw-pillows with filled belly and a contented sigh. He burrows his armored, unclean, unworthy body into the soft-padded coziness of his home, reeking of arrogance.

Malik performs the ordered task stripped of any emotion other than the simmering venom of blossoming hatred. His belly is empty, his appetite long dead, his mouth devoid of hunger, but his heart thirsts for revenge.

Altaïr doesn’t move, except for a subtle incline onto his left side to ease digestion.

After his anger grows too much in size to put it off any longer, Malik fixes a pouch onto the belt of his tunic. One blade, one candle, one bouquet, one intention. This is all he collects while making preparations to leave. He doesn’t light a lamp to put on table, to avoid waking Altaïr from slumber.

He puts his robe on and his hood up, but words halt him at the door.

“Where do you intend?”

They are in shadows of the night and shadows of the home, and Malik would find nothing to look at even if he turned gaze away from door to look at Altaïr from beneath his hood.

“I go to put flowers on my brother’s grave.”

“I will come along.” Altaïr rises to sitting position.

“I go alone—“

“No, you don’t understand,” Altaïr says in full height, and Malik refuses to face him, however asinine this move, “You may cease lead now. Ever since I returned you do not take lead here. You follow.”

Malik stares into the dark void of darkness that makes his door, his hold on the cold bronze of the handle tightens in response to this ludicrous notion of a lunatic man.

“The man that follows is forever the shadow on your back.”

Altaïr gives no reply. Nor does he move.

The silence he has immersed Altaïr in gives him strange joy. He recalls the lessons Leonardo had bestowed upon him, lesson of steering Altaïr to his liking through virtue of spoken word, and when he speaks next there is less emotion and more cold calculation, and none of the ominous darkness in his voice.

“You are not invited. Your presence at my brother’s grave offends me.” Altaïr gives no word in reply and Malik thrusts a hint of a push against the door, “I go alone.”

He leaves.

Altaïr doesn’t follow.

 


 

Ten or fifteen people are wandering the courtyard.

Malik pulls the hood over his face and the flowers tighter to his chest and rounds the entire first ring-floor to evade a friend sweeping the stairs of his shortcut. Children are capering around the torch-lit courtyard and filling the space with ringing laughter, their last ambitious play of tonight before being collected by their parents.

After he gets some distance away with two girls and a small boy chasing after his long billowy robes and stopping short before the tunnel, he continues onwards alone. A single torch is flaring at the entrance to the tunnel, the praying niche a few steps down the path and to the left is swathed in darkness. Malik takes the candle from his pouch to set alight against the blazing torch and finds Nokem alone when he slips into the niche to seat himself before the god, and escorts himself into the cozy darkness of Nokem’s presence, a constant companion in his life.

People who carry a blade to Nokem are starving for revenge, or near it.

Malik sets the candle onto the base peppered with coins and sits before the statue with downcast eyes. Nokem’s eyes have seen an abundance of blood spilled from Malik’s wrist, but it has been a long time since he last sacrificed blood. A blood sacrifice is to be pawned in the last extremity, one Malik finds himself facing in this very moment. His lips part with a soft smack while he mulls over his words.

“Father...” he starts with a modest whisper. He stands among the group of a handful remaining who may address this revered god thus. He lifts his gaze and tenderly upon him is the benign gaze of Nokem.

“I didn’t mean to usurp your rest.” The softest smile pulls at his lips as Nokem’s forgiving eyes fill his belly with warmth. He takes the collection of flowers assembled by Leonardo, as every year upon this day, and puts it beside the god’s feet, away from the sputtering candle.

“Give these flowers to your brother and he will give them to mine. I could not visit Kadar’s resting place today, I beg forgiveness for it.” This decision was born of a clear mind but a heavy heart. Had Altaïr followed him, he would have discovered that Kadar’s grave had been shifted. Malik gnaws on his lips and his gaze plummets, for mere moments before climbing up, for he can’t ask favor while looking away from the god who gave birth to his people, now buried dead along the corpse of Nokem’s enemy on top of the volcano.

“Instruct me, Father, I need guidance.” The god’s dark eyes are benevolent and warm, and Malik feels the steely grip of loneliness loosen. He feels for the blade in his pouch blindly and pulls it out by the handle, keeps it steady in hand and tipped downward.

“My brother is no more. Perhaps I should try to forgive. But I cannot. I’m not possessed of two hearts, one for hatred and one for forgiveness. The heart I have knows only grief.”

Malik sits on his robes but the stone below soaks his flesh with coldness. He shuffles up, drawing nearer to the statue to feel the warmth of the god, to feel closer to his cordial presence. He tips his head up to not let his hushed breath stray towards flickering candle and whispers on.

“My prayer and my devotion, my life and my death—all belong to you. But my sorrow belongs to me. As does my hatred. When a single innocent being is killed, it’s as though all have done the crime,” his heart drums with excitement and loathing as he cushions the blade’s sharp edge against his wrist and holds there, “Strengthen me with my dead brother, Father, and see me to proper path. And see my husband swept from it.”

Malik leaves the dripping poison of his last words to Nokem’s ears and drops gaze to his soft, uncut wrist. The veins beneath are a web of vibrant blue, rich with warm offering and ready to be cut. The blade leaves an imprint but doesn’t break skin as he keeps pressing its full length without drawing blood, but he imagines a steady trickle of ruby-red gleaming under the flicker of candle.

The blade stays docile as a piercing something bores into his chest from the inside, leaving it open and vulnerable to fleeting thoughts of hesitance. Malik’s desire for revenge had never grown as thin as now. A faint flush of regret, however muffled and feeble, worms itself into the open wound of his chest and festers there like a burgeoning disease.

Leonardo’s voice of good judgment is groping through the pits of his mind until the realization surfaces amid all the bile of vengeance that he’s been wallowing in. This small slip-up is seized by his conscience in speedy momentum, putting him into manacles at last, until the blade on his wrist is useless and refuses cutting.

Malik has almost cursed Altaïr to damnation.

Almost sits on his tongue like a foul swallow of food, until his mind settles and he puts his blade to a rest. As Malik’s decision takes solid form he feels thankful, for the first time in his life, that he wasn’t born a woman.

Women stood elevated in the eyes of gods for their recurrent bleeding, exempt from spilling blood to seal a blessing or curse. They need only voice it during their monthly sacrifice of blood, their word alone needed to seal divine pacts, which makes them more powerful. This is the power they wield, and they wield it with utmost care.

Malik has been less careful. Yet his blood remains unspilled, his curse remains incomplete and void, for the simple reason of being a man.

Soon he is wracked with proper guilt for the severity of this almost-curse, torn between desire for justified revenge and the crippling notion of irreversible effect of a blood-sealed curse.

Fatigued with navigating between bad right and right wrong, he deposits the blade into the pouch and attempts fending off the regret of quitting the sacrifice entirely. It is direct affront to everything he came here for. He thinks until he can’t think anymore, and lays the riot of emotion to a rest, puts the candle out, and leaves his torn insides in their current injured state to curl up against the cold stone.

 


 

Malik finds Altaïr standing upright on their (His, not their. His.) bed.

Malik’s bed stands at an odd angle. It’s pushed into a corner until all that remained was the corner gap shrewdly filled in with a wedge-shaped shelf, rich in books (a collection of a traveled reader) and rising tall above the bed level. At the crown of the shelf is a sturdy brass hook matching the one protruding from the ceiling and centered above bed. Today, the hooks are bare. During the mosquito season, a canopy net is keeping the bed shrouded by night, and by day fastened onto the shelf hook.

Altaïr stands atop the bed with feet sunk in the blue-shaded bedspread. Malik catches him leafing through a tally where he keeps note of business transactions and expenditures. Malik has nothing to hide and so he says nothing, despite the bitterness at having his possessions disturbed absent his consent.

Altaïr’s armor is neatly stacked onto the only free footstool, as if he hadn’t known where else to put it. Malik can’t resist a natural impulse to look and his eyes wander timidly over the state of Altaïr’s undress. Only to consider the extent of his cleanliness. That’s how he justifies it to himself. He takes a grudging step forward into his old sanctuary and new prison, pointedly keeping his head free of ideas and unsoiled by thoughts of the other man’s presence. Altaïr has probably discovered the secret corner during his investigations.

He passes the human-sized statue of Nokem sitting with spear in hand—an heirloom carved from precious onyx, a joyful discovery among the wreckage of his home, heaved onto a stolen cart by a child’s hands, hauled and towed uphill for hours on end, polished off and preserved. He allows himself a change of clean nightclothes from the trunk and shambles out of his tunic short of blushing.

Behind him, Altaïr blindly returns the tally to its proper post and climbs off bed without allowing his keen gaze to stray from his husband’s disrobed body, however fleeting the moment. The caramel-colored tan of Malik’s skin appeals to Altaïr’s eyes. It’s similar to his own skin, but unmarred by scars. He finds no fault in the shape of his body, variously different to his own, but pleasing to the eye, with supple skin craving Altaïr’s grip. This momentary desire vanishes as Malik passes the bed and rambles out into the kitchen to return with a pitcher in hands.

Malik knows his time for evading the bed grows short, but he pours libation into Nokem’s bowl and makes a show of praying to the god. Upon ceasing what he’s never began, Malik remains standing, with brooding silence and tightening grip on the pitcher of water, the notion of sex hovering around him like a bad stench.

“Come closer to me,” Altaïr orders from the bed.

“To what purpose?”

“Need there be one?”

Malik knows it’s expected of him to do as asked, but he has more appetite for throwing himself off a cliff like goddess Daga than inching closer to the warrior. He keeps his eyes firmly fixed on Nokem’s incensed visage, shifting focus to Altaïr only after the man begins speech again.

“I find my appetite growing.”

Malik turns his gaze to the man, “You want me to cook again?” he asks this lucid question. A scowl oozes onto his face when he catches on Altaïr’s face something that could be called a smile.

“No, my desires are of a more intimate nature.”

A sense of fear starts seeping into Malik’s limbs, rooting him to spot. Altaïr’s mind is filled with baser thoughts, his words have a vile, sour odor.

“I am to lie with you?”

“It’s your duty as my husband—“

“I will not do it.”

Altaïr’s demand is not met and it colors his face into a heavy frown, “You misunderstand. I do not ask, I command you—“

Command? You mistake me for a slave,” Malik barks back while the untrue bravado still moves him to backtalk.

Altaïr rises from bed.

He stands tall and Malik sees what he chose not to fully acknowledge until present. His husband is not from an army of amateurs but professionals whose sole profession is warfare. It is what they do, it is what they breathe, what they eat, what they sleep—it is who they are. Altaïr is bigger, a soldierly man of twenty-seven years, a strapping and good-looking man. The latter is irrelevant. Malik’s ill feelings for him have grown immensely fat from simply looking at his face.

“I’ve fought for seven years giving body and soul to the defense of my city. Your security and that of the people is all I ever bled for.” Malik assumes that Altaïr is counting him among the your, but his sacrifice is ill-received, unwanted, “Seven years of watching others enjoy sex and spoils. My generosity has been boundless. And this is what I get in return.”

Altaïr is coming up on him to meet him, and Malik’s eyes fall on a small oil-pourer. Extracted from the kitchen, deposited beside the bed, and in all probability filled with the substance which is true to the vessel’s original purpose and intended for purposes not true to the vessel’s function. The sight of this little item probably filled with oil unnerves him. He switches back to Altaïr, now near and drawing nearer still, the prospect of sex sending cool fingers down his gut until he’s caught in a momentary swoon concealed behind a defensive scowl.

“I expect you to behave like a loyal husband. And you defy me, still.” Altaïr accuses. He hovers above him, and Malik is staring at his husband now, into his intricately flecked hazel eyes touched by a bloom of faintest amber. Altaïr’s lashes are thick and dark, like a child’s, and there is nothing child-like in the hardness of his face. Nor in the arousal distorting his visage, the brief flatter of nostrils combined with dilated pupils. 

“You expect me to be your slave,” Malik hisses in low growl because louder is not necessary, because he’s keeping his anger at bay, until Altaïr unleashes a flood, undeterred by Malik’s lack of interest.

“You will bend to my will, or be punished in the denying of it. My generosity demands correction in the face of your behavior.”

Malik’s grip tightens until it feels like the ceramic handle will crumble under the sheer force of his ripened anger, what Altaïr has said he finds the most offensive little speech about extorting one’s desires through abject arrogance. Pride in one stirs pride in another. Altaïr’s own pokes Malik’s, and unlocks something feral in him, until Malik is boiling over with blind rage. His face is tight with mockery as he opens his mouth to hurl words he has long yearned to speak.

“You are a jest. A husband tolerated because of his ownership of a house I cared for.” Altaïr’s face darkens and Malik’s is misleadingly bold, “You may be bigger and older, but you are beneath me.”

By a very grim and fortunate coincidence, Malik still holds the pitcher in his hand.

What comes next does so devoid of thought and fueled by hot-white-black anger. Malik swings the pitcher with a might he hadn’t thought himself capable of—he doesn’t break the vessel, but lands a heavy conk on Altaïr’s temple and bolts from the spot. His legs feel weightless, his feet divorced from sensation, but he makes off with a thudding heart, with the dull impact that the fallen pitcher had made in contact with Altaïr’s head and the pitch of his pained groan echoing in his head like music.

He moves in uncanny speed.

He doesn’t need to skid to a halt but slips easily into the first room, and for just one instant, he is captured in a supreme happiness of relief upon sighting the entrance door, a most refined emotion that a human hunted can attain, before that relief is snatched away from his grasp.

He hasn’t heard Altaïr. Neither his step nor his voice.

But arms clinch around his waist painfully as Altaïr seizes him from behind and rushes back to the bedroom like a child with stolen sweets.

Malik recovers from this savagery only with a short delay and manages a single kick to Altaïr’s shin and a misdirected swing of elbow before Altaïr flings him onto bed. He bolts in panic, but in vain—he has scarcely rolled over when Altaïr’s grip shackles his wrists to the soft bed, the heavy bulk of the man’s body chaining his legs, and he is frozen for a second, an instant perhaps. Then the sheer weight of Altaïr’s lower body on his joined thighs comes as a stab of pain and he parts them to aid relief, attempts a vigorous, growling struggle to throw the man off but feels trapped with arms nailed down his body and left thigh pinned between Altaïr’s with the man’s knee pushing against his groin in agonizing pressure.

“You will tend to your words with more care in my presence!”

“My words are carefully chosen!” he shouts back.

In some saner world, devoid of assault and harassment and curbing of freedom, Malik might have drawn the line at the sudden grotesque sight of this man’s fury. In the calm of another time and place where warriors don’t marry children to abate their hunger for loyalty, Malik would have thought twice before setting a warrior on anger.

In this world, there is something ridiculously wrong in his current position and his ill-chosen struggle which only serves to inflict further pain on his own body. He grits his teeth until his molars start to hurt like raw nerve while the burden of Altaïr’s body mass forcing itself down onto his wrists goes on until Malik feels they could snap like twigs. Despite the folly of struggle he writhes and squirms beneath Altaïr, the final clawing for survival of a dying animal.

Altaïr lays himself down, hovering a wisp away from Malik’s torso and the boy ceases the straining and fidgeting.

“I can subdue you with one hand, struggle on and show me your stupidity.”

Malik’s body falls into a lax state of limp lifelessness.

At this, Altaïr’s face divests itself of ire and dons a new cloak of arousal. He expects Malik to resist at first but progressively accept the pleasures of sex. He anticipates conceited resistance out of principle and then expects Malik to open up to him and accept him between his thighs, to allow Altaïr to sink into the shape of his smaller body and taste the sweetness of his lips while he fucks into him. Altaïr envisions Malik on his back with thighs spread for him. That’s how he wants him. This way or no other. Where he can watch the nuance of pleasure on his husband’s face and gauge Malik’s arousal on the state of his cock. Altaïr had tried women once, and they divulged nothing of their real pleasure. Men are easier to decipher. If Altaïr can’t see the reflection of his own pleasure in his partner, he finds himself unable to perform. A secret long known and never shared. He requires Malik to give in to pleasure. 

Malik doesn’t know the worries that assail Altaïr’s mind, but his hands are still under lock and coveting freedom and he shows deference, receives Altaïr with a greater show of hospitality than is necessary—a move of brewing cunning rather than shameful surrender. Altaïr’s eyes bloom with ravenous appetite at that and Malik looks aside to escape the discomfort it brings.

Altaïr’s greedy mouth is a mushy inconvenience on his neck.

One to be endured just like the wide-spaced flurry of kisses down the shoulder gap of his sleeping tunic and down his shackled arm. And kisses they are. Malik must name them as such, grudgingly, and as ravenous as they come. It matters little. Further up, the shock lodged in Malik’s head is slowly dispersing. Altaïr unchains his wrists to set eager hands to purpose, to lug off his tunic. Something shrieks in Malik’s body at this state of half-undress and he moves his limbs into a protest during a flare of courage he is proud of. Altaïr’s lips are below his navel and the hardness of his cock imprinted into Malik’s upper thigh, and so Malik’s movement slips unnoticed, unexpected.

He draws his left arm up to chest, below chin, and lands a sinistral, solid elbow-hook to the same side of Altaïr’s head he had abused before—an eager move of self-preservation. Altaïr sways to the side and loses balance for a moment, which is enough for the warrior to fall far behind Malik.

Victory to him who fights the longest.

He moves quickly, quicker, shunning fear and bolting for the door again, his sole purpose to get away or alarm the community.

The door bangs and he is half-way out shouting for aid, alerting the community his sole way into safety now, but a rough palm slams against his mouth in mid-shout, muffling his voice before he is hauled back inside with a shiver of half-terror and half-panic searing through him. They govern his body as he attempts to release the hold Altaïr keeps on his body while dragging him back towards bedroom and it’s pathetically accidental that Malik manages to stomp on his foot and stumble out from slackened grip. Bitter at himself for not having fled a distance away from the door and for having his only escape blocked by Altaïr, he takes cover at the opposite side of the dinner table.

“You would lie with a child that’s ordered to do so!” He bellows across table. These words will keep him safe till a couple moments later, and he cannot think further than that.

“You’re no child anymore.”

It’s no use, Malik can’t outsmart him into switching positions and they stare at each other like predator and prey before meal, heaving breath.

“No words?” Altaïr mocks.

“Shock seizes my tongue,” he snarls, untruly.

“Then perhaps my cock will aid in untangling it. Seeing as many others did,” Altaïr barks back, standing immune to Malik’s tone.

Malik falls in furious rage.

“No amount of persuasion will save you from jealousy’s grasp, idiot.”

“At every step I find insults to your chastity hurled at my face and shoved down my throat!”

And in that instant, Malik knows it’s Altaïr’s sorest spot, the possibility that he may not have been as sexually idle as he claims. A ridiculous notion made more ridiculous by Altaïr’s ludicrous expectation of their consensual coupling.

Your fault for causing such rumors! You’ve brought shame upon me with your rash acts,” an intent takes form in Malik’s head and he makes hasty preparations to act on it, “Do not press me again with such accusation!”

He starts with anger and his impulse of self-preservation does the rest as he makes a pretentious attempt to fake left and swerve off right. He tries to elude Altaïr by faking a path and rushing straight for the door, but finds his attempt halted at once, once again. As suddenly as Altaïr snatches him up and sweeps him off feet, the idea of kneeing him in the crotch crosses mind, but they tumble onto the bed in unison before he can act. Altaïr doesn’t throw him onto it, for fear of Malik sprinting off this time, and they collapse together, with pained grunts and flailing limbs.

“You are afraid!” Malik hollers, thrashing to free himself from the cage of Altaïr’s arms, “Afraid of what you’ll find because you’ve lived in a dream and you must awaken—“

I know no fear,” Altaïr falls upon him to thwart the flurry of struggles and Malik’s crazed shouts.

“Your fear is for my chastity, if I remained loyal to an imaginary husband or spread my legs for each man that passed the street—“

In a moment of insanity Altaïr seizes him by the throat, tight. Malik struggles, he is trying. Life seems to be playing another extraordinarily unamusing joke as Altaïr holds fast, forcing back his head and staring down into Malik’s pained face with a feverish snarl, the adult face with a stupid, wrathful face of a child beset by jealousy. Altaïr presses down on him until his head begins to buzz through throes of pain, fingers tighten around his neck until the grip coaxes a choking sound from Malik’s throat.

Death as punishment for nothing.

Malik’s breath is stifled, his vision obstructed by specks of dark. Pain ceases. Malik feels like he’s being slowly put to sleep, and for just one long instant he is captured in an echo of past, a vision perfectly plain in his sight. Altaïr’s hands upon his neck conjure up an image long dead and never forgotten, and direct his memory towards the loss of his brother, until tears bead at the corners of eyes and overflow in two plump drops spilling down his temples.

In the next moment, Altaïr pulls himself off with a rupture of regret on his face, as if blaming his hands alone for this act of violence, removed from his own choice.

“I stopped hurting you. I don’t want to hurt you. Why do you cry?” He sputters out, feeling momentarily revolted at this violence of his own creation, waits for Malik’s body to recover from the shock and abuse.

Malik hides emotion behind closed eyelids and restores breath to body. Slowly. Systematically. With laborious gasps. He edges away from the agitated state of his body enough to speak, and opens his mouth just sufficiently to croak out words, “My brother was choked to death by your men.”

“Don’t trouble yourself with denial,” he adds in hoarse whisper.

“I do not attempt to.”

Malik can’t read minds but from the vulgar debauchery that looks like a pretense of repentance on Altaïr’s face he assumes that Altaïr will cease whatever intentions he had harbored before this last debacle. He keeps still to discourage trouble, and hopes for a moment peace.

“Brush away your tears. I don’t want to look at them,” Altaïr tells him then, “You will have to face away. I don’t wish to look at your tears while I fuck you.”

Fuck you!”

Fresh anger boils over inside Malik with haste and rekindles his struggle into a new vigor, and Altaïr’s renewed grip on his body doubles. Anger goads him on, but the tussle is brief, resulting in Altaïr’s entire weight sitting atop his thighs and his hands pressing down Malik’s wrists into his lower back. Malik’s wrists begin to ache and the tight grip keeping them imprisoned leaves him little choice but to bend his body and hollow out his back under this onslaught of pain.

Altaïr’s crotch, pressed to his clothed rear as the man holds him down, is making him dismally uncomfortable. Several fruitless attempts of twisting away later, Altaïr stoops down catching the fabric of Malik’s tunic between his teeth and pulling up. So wild and convincing is his pull that the ripping of fabric paralyzes Malik for a moment, long enough for Altaïr to wrap one hand round both his wrists and allow his other to clasp his bared thigh and smooth up his tensed cheek and knead into the plump muscle.

Malik’s resolve oozes away at this immediate threat. He flees the shadows of bravado and gives a whimper of fright.

Altaïr is unskilled in the way of words, but he is aware of body language. Malik’s is telling the tale of utter terror. Altaïr has picked up signs of it long before words next leave his husband’s mouth:

“Take pause, I beg of you.”

“You are afraid...” Altaïr realizes with puzzlement, the light of his arousal muted by Malik’s fear. Altaïr has a fear also. Altaïr knows he can’t maintain his erection if his partner is in pain, fear, discomfort. He had hoped Malik’s struggle to be born out of prideful resistance to the new role in household. He had hoped that Malik will shed pride when persuaded into the pleasure of sex.

Yet Malik lies with belly flattened to bed keeping his face away from Altaïr’s sight, wrapped in silence pregnant with suspense. Altaïr releases his wrists but lets his hand glide down the swell of plump cheeks, earning a wince from an already tense body trapped beneath his.

“You flinch as if a man never kissed you, caressed your skin, or slipped inside you. Have you been penetrated?”

Malik gives a silent shake of head.

Malik struggles because he isn’t ready.

Altaïr had read the innocence in those features as a lie. He feels guilt for the falsity that he had embraced.

“I didn’t believe it true...”

“I yet remain untouched, my chastity preserved.”

“I fear I cannot return in kind,” Altaïr utters with a pang of conscience, “I have tasted carnal pleasures before leaving for war.”

They remain doused in odd silence and Malik twists his neck to gaze at Altaïr, still sitting atop his thighs and immersed in a thoughtful frown.

“Roll onto your side,” Malik tenses at this proposition but Altaïr rushes to ease his mind, “I won’t penetrate you.”

He slinks off, leaving Malik plenty room for escape. Malik is robbed of desire to attempt flight as the word of promise sinks into his weary mind and spent body. Altaïr retrieves his oil-pourer and Malik turns onto his side, facing away from his equally silent husband. Altaïr is a savage brute. But he’s a man of word. Malik is plunged into the unknown while Altaïr is doing whatever he’s doing behind his back, but he lays trust into his promise.

Thoughts won’t visit him even as his mind nags him to dissect Altaïr’s previous claim. He won’t give his mind opportunity for dissection, not before he’s divined Altaïr’s current intentions. He trains his ear for every sound and hears the slick-and-wet drag over skin, short before Altaïr slips his palm between Malik’s joined thighs and kneads rough, oily fingers into the fleshy portion of his inner thigh, near-hairless and silky. He twists his wrist and slicks both equally, and Malik keeps still, stiff, wide-eyed.

This predicament leaves little chance for anything other than this utterly itchy and sticky feeling. When Altaïr settles behind him and sidles close up to his back, the searing warmth of Altaïr’s chest stitches itself to his clothed back, and Altaïr slips his cock between Malik’s slick thighs just like that. His cheeks put themselves on fire and his thighs tense up like a vice, to a point where he realizes that this is enhancing Altaïr’s pleasure, and he turns his muscles lax out of spite.

“Squeeze your legs together,” Altaïr says with his lubed length wedged between Malik’s thighs, and when he refuses to oblige Altaïr sighs, “I’ll finish sooner if you do.”

Malik does so with a begrudging scowl, sworn to shorten Altaïr’s pleasure where possible, but also to shorten his own torment where doable. It appears that Altaïr takes this as silent permission to slip his arm beneath Malik’s to join them into a farce of an embrace, to roll Malik’s upper body into his own, but Malik growls in hostility and drives him into slight retreat. That Altaïr won’t penetrate him reconciles Malik to enduring the husk of Altaïr’s short breath growing louder during the succession of thrusting and gripping his hip for purchase. The sensation is made weirder by Altaïr’s randomly-timed touch of lips upon a palette of available places on his body—Malik’s nape, ear, shoulder, and crook of neck.

The tufts of fine hair stick damply to Malik’s neck where they’re washed with Altaïr’s moist breath, and his skin begins to burn from the recursive repetition of slow thrusts between the hot flesh of his inner thighs. When Malik had set out into the day this morning, he had never expected to end it with a man thrusting his lubed penis between his thighs, a sensation turning stranger as Altaïr’s aim begins to climb until his cock settles right below Malik’s crotch, bumping and sliding against his sack with each slow, shallow rock of Altaïr’s hips advancing against his body.

It seems impossible to drive his mind away from this sensation, but Malik attempts to. I have tasted carnal pleasures before leaving for war. By implication, this means that Altaïr has not tasted them thereafter. By implication, it means that Altaïr abstained from sex as a gesture to honor their mutually-promised fidelity. By implication, it means that this is Altaïr’s first sexual encounter after seven years of war. That makes two firsts. It is also Malik’s first sexual encounter.

The slick slap of Altaïr’s groin moving against his ass and between his slick thighs rouses him from pondering.

It is then when he first comes into contact with arousal caused by another person. Arriving at this point was a thing he had feared all day, a thing he knew would happen to him sooner or later, and it is so utterly and prosaically different now that it has happened. He’d thought it would be simpler, not as extraordinarily complicated. He’d thought it would be terrible, but his belly is growing hot in sporadic pulses.

Altaïr's parted lips are a breath away from his shoulder and occasionally dipping in to brush against his skin under the pretense of hips movement, as if this could cover up his deliberate kisses. Breezy puffs of air prickle Malik’s skin, driving the fine hairs on his nape to a stand. The heady scent of arousal starts to fall heavily upon him during this dizzying repetition of thrusts. His brain had told him (it had been some complicated explanation) that coming anywhere near an enjoyment of this is a sacrilege, but his body lulls itself into the pull of Altaïr’s body anyway.

Malik glances down his own body to have a furtive look, trying not to upset the position of his neck and draw Altaïr’s attention to this subtle movement. His eyes stare beyond his own thickening shaft to inspect Altaïr’s length, appearing recurrently in his sight after each push. Altaïr’s cock is of impressive size when engorged. His girth is more noticeable than his length, thick enough that Malik can feel it nick into the tendons of his inner thighs whenever Altaïr presses forward. His balls feel heavy and a handful.

Malik looks away. His body is streaked with arousal and he’s not proud of it.

For one mad moment, he contemplates letting Altaïr have a share in this knowledge, for the simple reason of seeing his reaction.

He measures the pitch of his voice before allowing a sugary soft moan to roll from the shallow depths of his mouth, its volume deliberately calculated to appeal to Altaïr’s ear.

Altaïr’s response is instantaneous and Malik isn’t sure what draws his attention first—the deep, throaty moan of pleasure-and-surprise that vibrates against the back of his neck, or the abrupt change in the cadence of Altaïr's thrusts. The hand that coils around his waist to pull up his tunic and splay itself fingers-spread atop his belly doesn’t come as surprise.

Malik gives another honeyed sound and receives an unearthly growl against the crook of his neck.

The implication is plain as day—Altaïr finds sexual pleasure in Malik's arousal.

Altaïr rolls Malik's frame back into his chest, plucks him closer, and every thrust pushes him deeper between Malik's thighs. He brushes his hand up Malik's ribs and towards his chest, thumbing across a pebbled nipple shortly before plunging to take the base of Malik's cock into a convincing grip. There is a groan on Malik's neck, rumbling deep from Altaïr's throat as the man feels his hardness and attempts to encourage Malik into a climax through the seasoned twist and pull of his fist, but Malik doesn't allow for this sudden intimacy.

He shrinks away from Altaïr's hold.

Altaïr wrenches him back as he attempts to slip further away, but he removes his arm when Malik settles into former place. Altaïr grunts abjectly in response to this rejection. His erection is starting to wilt, staying just hard enough to guide him through the impeding orgasm. He doesn't attempt curling his arm around Malik's waist again, but his rough hand is digging into Malik's hip, gripping tighter each time he bucks.

This proves Malik's theory.

Altaïr finds sexual pleasure in his partner's arousal, but Altaïr can't perform if his partner is in pain. It is a great relief to know that Malik has this influential knowledge to fall back on in future. Altaïr will not bother him if he finds him unwilling. Though Malik has been underfed pleasure from the start and doesn’t hope for release, but he fights this battle with means available to him, by making this moment of tedium into something bearably enjoyable, and something to extract knowledge from.

His annoyance soon declares itself too ill to function further and he gives in to the grey-ish territory of reluctantly enjoying the feeling of a strong body moving against his. It is an utterly spineless, brainless condition but strongly endorsed by his gut which has amassed on hot-sweet whirl of arousal that he’s persisted in keeping as far from his cock as physically feasible. After the dam of resistance breaks and arousal starts oozing into his groin, he gives himself to the pleasure of Altaïr’s measured motions and lets his ears listen to the needy wet breath on his damp neck. His body grows lax until Altaïr’s rolling hips tilt his lower body ever so slowly closer to the mattress, after thrust upon thrust, until he can subtly hump the bed quilt.

Altaïr's orgasm takes him by surprise. There has been nothing to herald it, no groaning, no hint in the disciplined bucking of his hips, nothing except for the stuttered breath dragged from his throat during the messy and plentiful climax.

The grip on Malik's hip begins to hurt enough to draw attention to it, a sensation far overshadowed by the puddle of Altaïr's seed between his slick thighs, pooling briefly and then dripping down the front of Malik's leg. Altaïr allows his body to turn slack and melt into the tenderness of a long-awaited climax.

Malik’s body refuses to remain molded to Altaïr’s, and with a shove of his shoulder he pushes his husband away, barely stifling a noise of disgust at the slop between his thighs soiling his precious bed quilt. Altaïr rolls onto his back and doesn’t move further, as silent and distant as Malik. With a heavy heart Malik picks a less expensive sheet from under the quilt and pulls the hem up to scrape the milky splatter off his thighs with a disgruntled look wrought with loathing. He folds himself into a position to best avoid the soiled patch of his sheet and inches to the edge of the bed, as far away from his husband as physically possible.

He is stiff with lack of movement, his flank sore where the binds of his nightclothes dig into his skin. This is not the side he prefers to lie on, but he’d rather face away from Altaïr, if he can help it.

The lamp gives up after a sudden sputter of light and he is plunged into darkness, Altaïr is asleep, or at least mouse-quiet, and Malik is lying in bed, wide awake, staring into the darkness with a feeling which refuses to divulge its name. He is itching for movement but it’s hours before he dares to venture into shifting his stiff body again.

Malik feels a stranger in his own bed.

He lies in darkness feeling a leash tighten around his neck until he is suffocating from the suddenness of this arrangement.

 

Chapter Text

Three things wrench Malik from his fickle slumber.

He wakes to the coldness of a nigh-morning chill, the portion of quilt he has managed to annex during the night now entirely in Altaïr’s possession, leaving his body exposed. He wakes to the relentless sting of side-binds of his nightclothes—a shrewd design of Leonardo’s, now the source of pain as Malik is forced to favor the side he doesn’t usually favor and coerced into lying on the side-binds and their hard knots which dig into his flesh. He wakes to the movement of a body.

He strains his hearing in anticipation, despite the shiver of cold crawling up his skin in gentle goosebumps, and then hears the thief that has cheated him of sleep.

Altaïr’s body gives a twitch.

Malik wonders what stirs such a man from dreams.

Something is vexing his sleep—memories of past or spirits of the present. Malik has contradictory feelings about this discovery. He feels sorry for Altaïr only as far as his mnemonic empathy extends, because he remembers the months following the Massacre and nights devoid of proper rest and fitful sleep in Leonardo’s bed. But Altaïr has also woken him, has made him a stranger to his home, has made his bed cold and uninviting, and he feels sorrow at having to live in such conditions and delights in Altaïr’s torment. He explores all avenues of reason and finds not one sprout of excuse to wake him.

Malik breathes slow and thinks quick.

The twitch and spasm of limbs stops as Altaïr’s body eases itself into the nightmare and gives way to stillness. Malik breathes the silence. The knots cut into his bones and muscles, the early morning chill creeps across his skin like cold fingers, his body screams for movement and his mind for peace, but he refuses to wrestle a piece of quilt from Altaïr, and sleep won’t visit him. It’s another hour before he has reason to rise from bed.

There is a tale...

Its pages scattered across the whole island, across their entire city. From temples and fish graveyards, to statues and buildings erected to gods. A tale instilled into every child from early on, until the child knows every corner of it, until all roads are traveled and familiar, until it learns to read the story from the city’s streets and walls. The one tale that Malik used to tell himself when he’d lost all else that possesses value. His eyes seal shut, to escape the shimmer of light that slithers through the crack on curtains which conceal his secret corner, to lay the canvas out inside his mind and let the myth of creation play out in his mind’s eye. He enacts the tale there, from its very conception, to give his heart a distraction and a measure of peace.

The story goes that the Mother of all things visible and invisible, the Uncreated, roamed dark emptiness in solitude. When She grew weary of her journey, Mother gave birth to many gods, divine and vile alike. These gods roamed the worlds in quest for a place to call home.

The story goes that on her last birth, Mother felt a child in her womb too powerful to leave her body. She split the child into two halves and made them brothers. The gentler, meek half She blessed as Hiba. The feral, hot-blooded brother She named Nokem. Then She ceased to exist.

Malik feels something hot and barbed steal slowly up his throat and eyes. To avoid spilling tears at the intruding memory of Kadar, he turns his face into the pillow to let the welling wetness soak in. To avoid the memory of himself and Kadar hand-in-hand roaming the city for a hiding place during the Massacre, he thinks of Nokem and Hiba hand-in-hand roaming the dark world until they came upon an island they would call home.

Weary from their journey, Nokem sang sweetly until he lulled himself to sleep, leaving Hiba to explore the island they claimed for themselves.

Hiba loved their home with such passion that he spent days on beaches toying with the powdery grey sand. Handfuls he kept pouring down his shoulders and arms in game, until the gold from his arms flaked off turning the sands golden, bringing light to the island. Nokem was still in slumber’s grasp when Hiba set out to wander the rest of their home, resolved to heal the greenery withered from cold winds.

What meek Hiba knew less is that this withered greenery was once planted by a god who inhabited the island before them. What the brothers knew less is that they were not first, nor second, nor third to arrive there.

It was the god of forest who arrived to virgin soil and dressed it in rich flora. Ya’ar lived in solitude among his plants, before two gods aligned to contend for the island and drive Ya’ar away. Sheker, the dragon goddess of wind and storytelling, at first unleashed her cold winds on Ya’ar’s forest until he withered into sleep. There was the third god and her ally—Ga’ash, god of mountains—far more powerful than Sheker, but no equal to the newcomers, the brothers Nokem and Hiba. This vile alliance of wind and mountain could not drive Ya’ar away, but it put him to hiding in deep sleep and deep caverns, with patches of withered greenery left behind as testament to his weakened powers. Ga’ash then seated himself as a vast, dark mountain on the southernmost tip of the island, and Sheker traversed the sky watching the brothers. To kill them, their sole intent. Sheker was cunning but so was Ga’ash, and so he knew that killing the brothers separately was his only chance at rising victorious. Ga’ash instructed Sheker to lure gentle Hiba into his trap by sending sad, weeping winds at his path.

Wandering around, Hiba heard these dishonest cries and mistook them as lament for a lost one and followed this forlorn sound to console the mourning god. Instead, Hiba wandered into the trap and found death when Ga’ash swallowed him into the rock of his sheer stony mass, making the mountain Hiba’s grave. Ga’ash killed Hiba. Interred his body into his mountain, into the cold stone, not the earth that was Hiba’s home.

The god of mountains stole one of Hiba’s golden eyes for himself in hope that, once a battle between him and Nokem began, Nokem would look into his brother’s eye and not find strength in his heart to strike Ga’ash down—

Malik opens his eyes with a pulse of shock and the story shatters.

He feels the clammy pang of warmth as Altaïr scoots up to him from behind.

There’s not a thread of bed-quilt between Altaïr’s bared torso and his clothed back, and Altaïr’s body is searing hot against his cold one, Altaïr’s breath is warm on his neck, his arm folding around Malik’s waist as if he had every right to do so. Malik’s body is turning hot and his head hotter. There’s a split moment during which he wills himself to remain still, only to see how far Altaïr’s touching will extend.

The warrior sidles up to line himself down the entire length of Malik’s smaller body. He cocoons them both into the warm wrapping of the quilt and his face imprints itself into the icy nudity of Malik’s neck, his lips fasten onto this-or-that patch of available skin before stomping onto the next. There is a slow, wispy upcrawl of hand climbing up over his chest before the arm settles around Malik’s frame with utmost care and it dawns on Malik that Altaïr thinks him asleep. His husband intended to cheat himself into his dream of domesticity. Leonardo had warned him that Altaïr would want to feel the proximity of another body, to hold Malik close perhaps, listen to his pulse and breathing—through deceit if not through consent. The nest of warmth that Altaïr’s created is of no avail against the branching chill that’s creeping up Malik’s ribs from both sides of his frozen spine.

Malik doesn’t leave the bed as much as leaps from it.

He rams his elbow into Altaïr’s flank and breaks from the lock, and allows his husband’s pained groan to escort him out of bed before he twists to bark insults at this affection:

“Keep your filthy paws off me!” Malik’s eyes sting unpleasantly, from the lack of sleep and surplus of tears, but he won’t allow them a blink in the face of the satisfying image of stupefaction on Altaïr’s face, even as his body thrums from the shock of the man’s proximity.

Altaïr wears the look of amazement well. He keeps still, frozen, stung into silence by Malik’s tantrum, and watches Malik soothe himself through prayer. Malik skips across the puddle of water spilled from the pitcher he had used to bash against Altaïr’s skull last night, and drops into a cross-legged sit before Nokem, bending neck and lifting his cupped palms up for prayer.

Altaïr stares on.

Malik won’t answer his advances. However subtle. However untainted by sexual cravings. It is the first and only defeat Altaïr has suffered in the seven years of battle. Seven years of war, only to return to war at home. His husband will continue disobedience and show his resentment by a much more domestic warfare, unfamiliar to Altaïr. Malik’s prayer is methodical and the soundless words he whispers to Nokem carefully chosen, but his face plunged into devotion and his head dipped in worship. It’s all Altaïr craves. Malik’s undivided admiration for a statue drives him to jealousy—an evil designer, destroyer of minds—and he dares the risk of interrupting the sanctity of prayer in this fever of envy.

“I’ve never cared for surprises. But your disobedience is a surprise that brings much disappointment.”

Malik’s eyes open without a rush, his gaze climbs up the statue until he’s looking directly into Nokem’s calm face, but it’s another moment before his hands follow along and fall into his lap, his prayer expired.

“Disappointment can only come from expectation. You expected the impossible.”

Altaïr sets himself to attempting to solve this dismal riddle but Malik rises and Altaïr’s craving for a husband wins the race against angry jealousy, and he is speaking before he can stop himself.

“The way you bow your head in deference to Nokem... Would I ever be afforded such generosity?”

Malik turns sideways to look at him.

His dark gaze is quiet, devoid of anger, almost thoughtful, but it heralds no illusions and Altaïr swallows the bitter taste of impeding rejection which is bound to happen.

“You would. When you become a god.”

Malik picks up the discarded pitcher.

He confiscates the entire bed-quilt with a mere yank, leaving Altaïr exposed, and hurls it across floor to soak up the water. He leaves dragging the quilt along across floor. It’s long before Altaïr brings himself to break the shackles of disappointment and to leave the bed.

 


 

After Altaïr’s appetite for solitude at home diminishes and his appetite for food starts to swell, he decides to amble down the two rings of apartments and ease himself into the hub of life in the community-courtyard, carrying simple breakfast on a silver plate—the only one that he could find in the kitchen.

No one is sitting on the massive table except for a wicker basket, and the table’s lonesome state amidst this tumult of activity suits him fine.

Except that the basket gives a delighted squeal and Altaïr drops his gaze to find it a bassinet instead. He shifts a sliver to the right along the bench and peeks into it to find a plump, roundish face of an infant staring quietly up from the wicker bassinet. The infant drifts into quietude, with a wistful, guiltless face looking up and away at the sky. Altaïr leaves it alone, short of any disturbance and settles on the bench to have a meal and to survey the courtyard.

He is a new stranger to his old community, and observing before participating might smooth his entrance, re-learning old lessons might remind him of how to fit back into something he had grown out of but missed dearly. He sets the cup of wine aside and puts a dot of butter on a piece of bread roll, and needs nothing besides.

He chews slowly but his eyes are quick to take in the heart of the community.

Malik’s uninterrupted washing of the bed-quilt naturally draws his attention first, but he strays from watching his husband work to wander beyond the water-well. The other half of the courtyard is dominated by the shadowy sprawl of a plump tree, still in leaf and casting a lacework of shades across stony paving slabs on one half of the ground and a square garden plot on the other.

On the paved surface, children of varying ages are contesting for the seat on the sturdy swing hanging from a heavy branch. On the gardening plot that stretches out on the other side of the tree, the young mother of the infant to Altaïr’s right is weeding the community garden, planting more herbs. Altaïr chews on the buttery piece of bread and steeps his mind into memory to try to recall her name. The name Mary surges to the forefront of his thoughts—her wife’s name—and it takes him another moment to connect her visage to Anne. Anne and Mary. The jolly and the grim one.

A shrill laughter tugs him from memory’s grasp and tugs his gaze to his left and across the expanse of pavement stretching between the table and the showers.

Inside the pillared circle of showers, a couple of youths are having a shouting contest with a matching number who are peering down from the second floor to engage in whatever kind of taunting youth thirsts for at that age. Altaïr doesn’t follow this particular exchange of jests, but his eyes linger long enough to frown at the carelessness with which the nude boy and girl are hurling handfuls of water at the ducking pair above, and they linger longer to check if any of them will slip on the wet tiles and hurt themselves.

The tiled, circular floor that’s sunk two steps into the ground does not range far in diameter, it’s a compact space enclosed with as many plump columns as there are shower-heads—provided with water by the circular aqueduct sitting atop the winding columns. A compact circle, still under the furious spray of two running nozzles and slick soapy rivulets of water coursing down the gentle inwards-slope which encourages water into the drain in the dead center of this tiled circle. Compact enough to slip on the slick surface and crack skull upon fall—a probability that seems to escape the two frolicking youths who have interrupted showering to favor a moment of carelessness. Altaïr’s scowl unknots itself as he remembers that Malik is not far from their age. The bizarre thought to ask him if he, too, falls into such carelessness while showering dangles from his mind, but the pair in the shower-circle settles down at last and, for a split moment, Altaïr’s question turns to questioning himself. No one else seems to be watching the bathing youths. Perhaps it is he who needs to tone his grotesque imagery down and adjust to the carefree mood of the society around instead of expecting adjustment to his own whims. Perhaps rests in his mouth until the bite of bread turns into wet mush and he swallows it together with the word.

And then, there is another shrill cry, far closer to him—he jerks his head sideways and his ears, his senses, immediately pounce on the shrieking little thing with flailing limbs which have managed to escape the prison of the swathe. Altaïr’s face is carved with a concern-or-insult and he stares at this deafening, trashing display as if he had never laid eyes upon a wailing infant before.

There are voices around him and maybe they expect something from him as the cries screech comically against Altaïr’s silence, but he doesn’t remove his scandalized gaze from the flailing bundle, not until this bundle is taken up into gloved arms and pressed to his husband’s chest with practiced care. And there is something profoundly captivating in Malik’s shushing coo and the swollen gentleness of his voice as he stands across the table swiveling in a gentle sway and soothing the fussing infant through this rhythmic motion of swinging until all that remains a consequence of the outburst is the baby’s cheeks suffused with a rosy glow.

Malik seats himself across Altaïr with infant in arm and tightens the swaddle, leaving one stubborn little hand to roam free, and on his solemn face is a thick tenderness, but his silvery voice is what extends across the table before Altaïr’s enveloped into the shroud of his soothing song.

Altaïr’s heart twists at the sight.

A small girl, a wisp of a child barely twelve, swings the curtain of hanging plants aside as she bursts from a shadowy bench bearing her cithara, and she shuffles up the bench towards Malik to give his voice some instrumental embellishment.

Keeping her right elbow outward and small hand bent inwards, she picks the strings in tune with Malik’s lullaby and damping the undesired strings with the fingers of her left hand. The chubby, bitty fingers of the infant’s free hand clasp around Malik’s little finger and give a tug and Malik smiles through the song and taps the tip of his index finger against the perky little nose, earning a heart-warming coo in return.

The joined spin of the cithara and Malik’s soft lullaby begins to draw others near and next there is the girl from the shower throwing a folded cloth across the bench to sit at Malik’s right with her nude body dripping with water, and a moment after, her companion joins seating himself beside, equally nude, equally wet, and Altaïr has no time to be troubled by their merged soaking of the table because this display of youth absorbed in a baby is informing him about his cultural faux pas.

On one side of the table is the community. On the other side is Altaïr.

A child is not raised by parents. A child is raised by the community.

The lost-and-regained memory of this sinks in while the tip of Malik’s gloved finger traces along the smooth outlines of the baby’s crochet cap where a few downy tufts of sandy hair stick out. Blue, blinking eyes regard Malik as he sings in a tender voice. His lullaby, at last, starts to wane in volume and the tiny hand around his finger gives a twitch but doesn’t tug any longer, and Altaïr is feeling less and less of a community member, until he feels entirely useless, until the feeling of not belonging chews him out in a way he had his humble breakfast.

Anne is suddenly there, beautiful and good-natured, with hands clean of earth and red hair pulled up and a sculpted look of satisfaction resting on her face as Malik eases the infant into her arms.

She takes him away and this impromptu gathering of people flutters off the table, and Malik and Altaïr sit alone facing each other.

Altaïr is regarding his husband’s face, now devoid of that generous tenderness which had sat there only moments ago, with a clear and somber look upon it. Altaïr struggles to contain his curiosity and he doesn’t know so many things he wants to know—he doesn’t know that the infant is not indoors because Mary is a night guard and Anne allows her to sleep through mornings after return, he doesn’t know that Malik has soothed a handful other toddlers thus, he doesn’t know that Anne is taking the child away to sleep indoors because Mary has awakened—Altaïr had been removed from the community for too long to fit back in seamlessly. He had not even known that his husband could sing.

“You were blessed by Nokem,” Altaïr says. It’s a question and statement at once.

Malik nods in a certain way that is humble. He is a child of Nokem. The gift of singing befits him. Altaïr is suddenly enslaved into a fantasy, a small and shriveling one, that Malik might one day grow used enough to him to dedicate song to Altaïr’s pleasure and enjoyment, possibly, maybe, perhaps. But this wishful fantasy is dispersed with the yell of Malik’s name that erupts from the staircase on the other end of the courtyard, and Malik faces away from Altaïr’s inquisitive look to spin around, and his gaze has no sooner touched the figure when he jumps off the bench and carries himself across the courtyard to meet Mary’s demand, leaving Altaïr in heavier solitude than he had been in when he’d first seated himself there.

Mary stands an austere character of the community, her severe gaze fixed past Malik, on the point where Altaïr sits, her elbow pressing down the throat of Gdila’s statue that flanks the staircase to the first floor as she waits for Malik to catch up. Malik mounts up the steps to meet her and shuffles up before her like a child, looking up and awaiting word, finding in her eyes a sleep-blurred annoyance wrinkled beneath velvet eyebrows. Her hair is down and her braid resting lax down her tensing cheek.

When Mary shifts eyes to look down at him, her resentment scatters but Malik has no doubts she would draw sword at Altaïr, should Malik voice desire.

“Did he force himself on you?” She questions in straight voice while searching his body for signs of abuse and Malik is coming to recognize the power of his imminent decision. At present, he wishes no harm upon his husband. He looks her in the eye to prepare his voice for sincerity despite of what he truly feels. Mary can’t sift through lies with the same talent Leonardo is possessed of and relies on people to be frank with her, but even she can pick apart a blatant lie from truth.

“He did not,” he says plainly, without inflection, refusing her offer of revenge. Mary dips her head into a meaningful nod. The lie has saved a lot of trouble. She doesn’t hunt his face for lies and trusts his word.

“If he attempts, I will take his life,” she states bluntly.

Malik harbors no illusions that she will. His body buzzes with the relief of this protection that he can count on, and he knows her raw skill and her ferocity that matches his own. Mary has been his first teacher in the art of sword. The richness of his own skill is owed to both her and Rauf.

A side of Mary’s face pulls up into a smirk, sleek and incorrupt, and the scar falling down her brow and cheek scrunches up, the expression on her face a temper-devouring familiarity that momentarily robs Malik of gloom and prompts him to return this gesture in kind. She reaches out and fits her hand against the side of Malik’s face, thumbs briefly over his temple and gives a soft tug to the fleshy part of his earlobe—an old token of affection.

Her eyes flit briefly back up to Altaïr who sits alone in the distance before she takes off to follow Anne back into their home.

Her words are uplifting, but Malik fans himself off this good humor as early as he turns around to see two armed warriors strolling through the tunnel and into the courtyard, chattering with a clutch of elderly women as they walk. One of them he recognizes as a noble, and both of them he recognizes as his husband’s friends, if such a thing exists.

Seeing the noble causes Malik fierce pain.

He locks this crushing disappointment away, and slithers up to his abandoned spot on the water-well to wring his salvaged quilt out and collect it into his pail. On the table, Altaïr is whisking away the crumbs to properly welcome them into the community he does or does not belong to, and the two men fit themselves on Altaïr’s sides each, taking helmets off.

“Forgive such disturbance at an unreasonable hour,” Desmond jokes and Altaïr is all too eager to fall into a familiarity he knows in order to escape the burden of exclusion. His fresh quest for fitting in changes its tune, half-attained through their sudden presence, and makes him forget that he is poorly attending the rest of his meal, which immediately gives Desmond and Ezio license to annex it. They split it equally among themselves as they do so. Desmond scrapes the cup away under Altaïr’s nose and drains it without once stopping to question its contents, which makes his discovery all the sweeter as he finds wine and sets the leftover of his impromptu conquest back before Altaïr. Everything in warfare is a form of conquest. From a sleeping place in the tent to the larger portion of bread. Altaïr is torn between labeling their behavior as still living in war or trying to cushion the abrupt landing into society through some familiarity, pitiless as it might be. Desmond rambles his elbows up onto the table and sets his forearms onto it with a wide, fattish smirk on his mouth and a knowing gleam in his eye.

“You took my wine?” Altaïr says.

“Borrowed it. I’ll piss it all back to you.”

Altaïr’s amusement fits itself perfectly into his scowl and Desmond is quick to seize his good spirits with a good-natured slap on shoulder, unwittingly providing Ezio plenty opportunity to gobble up the rest of Altaïr’s breakfast.

“I’m half-starved and half-drunk.”

“You’re always half-drunk,” Altaïr says, but doesn’t allow reprimand to saturate his tone even as he remembers an instance of having to remove Desmond from battlefield and tie him away inside the camp, less for injury and more for the aftermaths of his drunken bout from the previous night. Desmond enjoys the pleasures of occasional drink, a vice neither Altaïr nor Ezio are innocent of.

“Half-drunk and half-sober,” Desmond insists, and Altaïr knows there’s nothing intoxicated about him this morning even if Desmond is trying to keep up a reputation.

His wine is drained but his last loaf of bread is still there, or so Altaïr hopes until the barren state of his plate presents itself to him after he turns to Ezio who is already traversing Altaïr’s community in what is probably a search for sexual conquest.

“How do I go on with my meal now?”

Ezio stops his half-hearted pursuit to share a look, with innocence asprawl on his face, “I didn’t know you haven’t finished meal.”

“What did I tell you when asked me?”

A scowl of puzzlement pops up on Ezio’s visage at the question.

“I didn’t ask y—Oh.”

Altaïr heaves a sigh and catches glimpse of Malik making his way past them with his pail in hand, and he stages what is the worst disaster of this morning.

“Malik!” he calls out, “Fetch us some wine.”

The bundle of laughs sits there expecting to be attended and Malik stands there like a fuddled fly between muslin and pane, like he is going to be sick by just looking at them.

“Get off your ass and fetch it yourself,” he snarls back at him, insistent to reduce Altaïr to a figure of fun in front of his revered company, “I’m not your pet, running to heel when leash is tugged.”

In place of desired impact that he’d hoped to provoke, his words give rise to laughter, and even if there is a difference between Desmond’s and Ezio’s laugh, Malik can’t bother to take them apart from the sheer indignation that bloats him up till he’s snarling at them as well.

“Your pup bares his teeth, Altaïr,” Ezio baits, and on his face is a smug pleasure at having a sting at Malik’s misfortune, “Barely away from his mother’s tit, and still carries himself like a bratty child.”

“And who are you? Aside from being a dirty warrior?”

“I am Ezio Auditore. Of the last families to survive the Massacre.”

“Pleasure to make fucking acquaintance,” Malik grits out at that up-tilt of Ezio’s chin, steeped deep in pride, and stomps up the stairs to remove himself from this sorry lot.

“Praise laid upon your husband has not been exaggerated, Altaïr,” Desmond teases. Yet he doesn’t host any satisfaction at Malik’s misfortune like Ezio does.

“You two jest while my house falls to crumble...”

Altaïr then falls oddly silent, quick in putting a shroud over the stupidity of his wrong choice. Ezio is quiet but not repentant, and Desmond can’t stand to watch Altaïr’s hands splayed out on table collecting crumbs to keep his otherwise idle hands busy during this silence. Altaïr’s gaze does follow after Desmond as he rises and scampers up stairs following the path Malik has just walked.

Desmond finds the door closed but unlocked. He peeks inside before he allows himself in, and immediately to the right in what looks like a cozy kitchen is Malik, assembling food on a simple plate and, judging by the quantity of it, it’s Malik’s own breakfast. He leans casually against the pillar of wall and tilts his head to the side. Malik doesn’t look smothered by his presence but sufficiently put out to offer him a dark look.

“I’d caution softer words towards your husband, Malik,” Desmond says, his tone entirely consistent with the gentle smile resting on his lips. There is no joke, no jest, no taunt.

“Who are you to lecture me?” Malik wonders, keeping his voice surprisingly civil and calm, his question immersed in genuine curiosity. Desmond’s presence doesn’t fester like Ezio’s.

Desmond toys with the ribbed rim of the wall dragging the tip of his finger up-and-down, pleased that Malik’s narrowed his hatred to Ezio alone and allowed him room for talk.

“My relations to you are unfettered by darkness of the past as Ezio’s are. But they’re burdened with wish for my friend’s happiness.” He lays it out on the table without preamble and sugarcoating and hopes that Malik will accept this less sugary offer and appreciate his honesty, “I’m not your friend. But I would like to be, despite my allegiances to Altaïr. And my advice is for the benefit of you both,” he hurries to add.

Malik’s response is delayed.

Desmond catches his thumb pressing down a round roll of bread, more in order to fill the silence with motion than to test its softness, and otherwise all is quiet. Desmond lets him think for a moment and drifts into watching the food, deeply regretting having skipped meal at Ezio’s insistence, and then he speaks to hasten Malik’s decision.

“I can start by earning your trust.”

Malik looks up and for a split moment catches Desmond eyeing the food and there is a shadow of a smile on Malik’s lips.

“If you can make Altaïr not touch me for a start...” he trails on. He cuts out a liberal chunk of cheese and slots it onto the plate, pulls out a smooth bowl with a bright burnish decorating its outside, and loads it with tender meat, and before Desmond can register what the boy has intended, Malik is pushing the dishes and a basket of loaves across the counter in the warrior’s general direction, “Here’s food. Maybe you’ll appreciate it better than my husband.”

Desmond accepts his generosity but his face lends itself to a scowl as he inspects the food for faults, and finding that only meat could come remotely close to deviation from the norm, he peels off a strip for a sampling. Three chews are more than plenty to reveal the source of Altaïr’s discontent and Malik’s ignorance.

“Ah, about that,” a chuckle escapes him as he starts picking the dishes up, “Bland warrior food is to blame. There’s sufficient spice in here to put him off. Others used to sneak out from time to time to pilfer spices from the camps of higher-ups, but not Altaïr. He’s a stickler for discipline.”

“Order and obedience. That’s all he cares about, isn’t it?” Malik brushes this new information quickly off—an otiose, useless gesture to keep thoughts off his own folly and unintentional disregard for a warrior’s palate, and off his own failure to recognize the reason behind Altaïr’s pickiness.

Desmond smirks in a way that is distracting and filling Malik’s head with thoughts of Altaïr, and he has nowhere to run from them.

“Not all.”

Malik stares at him in wonder, even as the spot turns vacant and Desmond ghosts off, and he ponders whether he alone is responsible for his own anger yesterday. By the time he revisits the courtyard, the warrior trio at the table is doting on their helmets and combing their long tails in solemn silence and company of empty dishes.

 


 

 

What happens on the temple forum later that day happens in an massive, excited rush.

It happens in a sudden wave that sweeps the city and drifts them all ashore before the colossal temple to Gdila, where they stand spilling out from the forum ground that’s teeming with people—the mass of them encircles the entire temple complex, they crawl up the first block of stairs in dozens to accommodate the growing numbers of flocking people and to stare up at the man who gave motive for the Massacre of nobles seven years ago, the man who led their warriors into seven years of war and returned triumphant.

Al Mualim lifts his hands and the city falls silent, thirsting for his word.

Malik’s wrath is boundless. He stands among the swarm of people with a fury so rare, so potent that even Altaïr’s hand on his shoulder alleviates it to some extent, as he’s desperately looking for excuses to calm it to avoid doing something stupid. Altaïr’s hand allows its course to drift lower and settles on his lower back during this commotion, and the warrior plays his part as husband admirably—as for the touch, it is ignored by Malik. This blend of warriors and citizens can’t be a fortuitous accident; Malik imagines it is a deliberate intent orchestrated by Al Mualim for whom the crowd now morphs into uncanny silence.

“As a young man, I defended the City of Nine. As an old man, I shall not abandon it...”

Al Mualim commences his grandiloquent speech, his words as hollow as his good intentions. Malik listens to the murderer as the man tangles the citizens in a net of lies, but knows that denigrating his enemy does not add to his own glory. He acknowledges Al Mualim’s power. His cunning. He is passionate and stirs the same in others. Appearance—appearance is everything. Malik is frightened about what this man and his speech might lead to, about the cog that’s already been set into motion, but he tries to convince himself that it’s not too late, even as Al Mualim continues with his empty words and Malik holds still with Altaïr’s hand on his back: one against an admiring crowd, one who is not blinded, and what can one man do so far-removed from his enemy. 

“—this is Gdila’s plan for human happiness and order, and it is our duty to provide order and those who defy it are rebels: not against us, but against Gdila—”

The gathered city erupts into rupture even before Al Mualim’s sentence meets its end.

Malik, too, is cornered into staring at the sight with awe as an eagle bursts from the skies during Al Mualim’s speech, a majestic creature equaling Gdila himself, and flies across the crowd and before it’s seen descending somewhere inside the city behind them. A holy sign. Malik’s momentary awe swaps place with fear, not because of this divine sign, but because of the chimes of awed excitement all around him, the overlapping echoes of joy, and the piping cries of reverence as people turn heads back to Al Mualim, a man frozen in the midst of this divine approval. Malik refuses to believe that gods would sanction Al Mualim as the patron of the city, the very notion is an affront to justice, but Malik feels it in the beaming crowd—the sentiment that slithers between the people and into their hearts, their eyes. Due to no fault of their own, people are starting to see Al Mualim as more than just a ruler—they are starting to see him as a god.

Before long, people will be erecting temples to Al Mualim and worshiping him as a savior.

Malik is so lost to the horror of this possibility, this imminent reality, that he scarcely feels as Altaïr’s protective hand leaves his back, as a body squeezing through behind them now comes forth to wedge between Altaïr and Desmond to whisper to Altaïr that Al Mualim is hosting a dinner in honor of gods and wishes for Altaïr’s presence, that of his family (his only theoretical family being Malik), and that of his most trusted comrades.

Altaïr is too honored to offer more than a nod in reply.

The men he trusts are already at his side.

 


 

 

 It feels as though the three warriors and Malik are the only outsiders invited.

Their entry into the property is uneventful, except for the brief spat between Altaïr and a guard whose search for weapons (a security measure that unjustly only Malik had to suffer thanks to his civilian status) had morphed into something a little less than feeling Malik up during the pat-down. With the shortness of Malik’s tunic considered, a simple look on the guard’s end would have been enough to set Altaïr off. Malik is offended enough at this discriminatory pat-down and the blatant groping, yet amused enough to ignore it for the irrational anger it causes in Altaïr.

As they enter, it is through a large front-chamber that tapers into a massive hallway leading into a colossal atrium. 

Malik goes some distance ahead through the hallway that’s flanked by long, extensive drapery, but finds the trio lagging behind (Desmond and Altaïr specifically, with Ezio preferring their company over Malik’s) as they keep preferring a slower step to absorb their surroundings. The kind of environment Malik had been brought up in until the age of ten. To his eyes it is squalid and boring compared to his snug community-courtyard, while to them, perhaps with the exception of Ezio who is a noble himself, everything must appear extraordinarily complicated and lavish and something they are not supposed to taint with their presence. Malik is mildly annoyed by their admiration, and sickened at the loweness and the moral poverty of this place.

As they escort themselves through the occasionally-populated hallway into the atrium, where they take sight of the swarm of people circling in a lazy, sluggish movement around the impluvium—a marble square sunken into the center of the atrium and filled with water—circling around the long tables flanking all four sides of it, where lavish  amounts of food are laid out. In Malik’s eyes, it all looks like little more than poison. Many of these people are foreigners he had never before set eye upon, but he is immediately inclined to resent them simply for the company they’re sharing.

The four of them stand indecisive for a few moments.

Before they are even given a proper chance to merge into this gathering, Al Mualim is there to halt their attempt—less for intention of welcoming them into the company of this noble-and-vile gathering and more to announce the reasons for their required presence at this place.

Malik seethes. Al Mualim is here, before him, two steps distant, and he is engulfed by an easy furious rage at the mere reminder of this man’s existence, at his proximity and his scarred visage. The warriors around Malik are silent out of respect, and Malik out of fury. He can almost sense the worry waft off Altaïr in waves, his urge to pull Malik’s arms back and shackle his wrists to keep him in place like nothing more than a rabid dog that’s just short of vaulting at the man Altaïr calls master. But Malik doesn’t pounce at Al Mualim’s throat, he is not an animal, he is not without brains, and seethes through his stare while keeping tongue locked behind teeth.

Until Al Mualim speaks and the cacophony of conversation around ceases and Malik’s tongue is given free reign by none other than Al Mualim himself.

“Brave warriors follow their old master. Will citizens follow their new one?” his question is for Malik but loud enough to indicate that its answer is intended for the curiosity of everyone in the room, and for that of those not present, “Is there hope for joined loyalties, or will the city once more be torn asunder between split allegiances?”

Al Mualim’s eye fastens to Malik, a child whose family he’d ordered dead, a child whose home he’d ordered burned to ground, a child whose marriage to a man ten years older he’d sanctioned.

Around them is silence.

Malik is offered a chance he hasn’t asked for and he tackles it, and Altaïr can see it from the corner of his eye, he can sense that something essentially bad is coming, he knows that Malik resents them all but hopes that his resentment has no teeth, that he can restrict himself to watching and letting his hatred brew inside him. But Malik props his chin up and opens his mouth and it’s too late.

“A sad day when the city elevates a cur to such position,” Malik says with all the stature of a born noble, with a complicated meanness, as if words could do something, and they could do a whole lot.

Altaïr’s stomach flips with terror and he turns white as chalk. He can almost sense Malik’s sour delight in the shame that his words provide to Altaïr, but his attention stays tuned on how this gross insult to his master will be received.

There are generally three possible outcomes of Malik’s foolishly daring slur. Malik could be punished, Malik and Altaïr could be punished, or Al Mualim could choose to take the insult with a pinch of salt. And then, as Al Mualim says nothing except wordlessly beckon Altaïr to follow him instead, Altaïr hopes it is the third and suddenly seizes Malik’s hand and gives it a grip that nearly breaks his bones, but Malik looks up at him eagerly, fearlessly, and Altaïr knows two things—that Malik will chalk up whatever he says as gibberish, and that he has no time to fight across purposes with Malik while Al Mualim is waiting.

He tugs Malik into Desmond’s hand to leave him in his care, “He must be distracted, lest he falls to ill temper. I won’t have his tongue flap around absent direction,” he instructs Desmond in a rush, trusting his comrade to keep his husband in line, and starts after Al Mualim in haste, pointedly ignoring the curse that Malik spits after him.

 Malik feels himself being guided away while he stares in anger after his retreating husband, and by the time Desmond has maneuvered them towards one of the tables, Ezio has disappeared off into the crowd and Malik isn’t clinging to Desmond’s presence as much as Desmond is clinging to Malik’s. Desmond has not before been among such company, and although he wears the standard armor of a warrior—no different than Ezio’s and Altaïr’s—he feels conspicuous and Malik’s presence dilutes this feeling of outlandishness in the midst of these people.

He’s led them to a table, but Malik’s thoughts cling no more to the food than to Desmond’s attempts to comfortably immerse himself into his surroundings. He applies himself to different thoughts and he has a sudden, urgent need for a knife, a blade of any kind. A blade that he could discreetly steal, nothing like Desmond’s large sword or a weapon easily spotted. He must find it. Desmond nibbles onto whatever he has nipped from the table while Malik’s eyes skim over the lavish display he has no appetite for, in search of a weapon of justice. He suffers a brief torment of indecision until he decides that his goal is feasible. He only needs a blade. And he finds one. One. It’s sticky, with crumbs of dough clinging to the tacky surface coated in something that looks like honey, but it is a blade, and that’s all that matters.

He glances up at Desmond and both of them are feeling a damp dizzy warmth, for very different reasons.

Malik follows the path Desmond’s gaze is taking and finds at its end a woman, across the impluvium of water, behind the table on the other side of the room. Malik thinks he has never seen a skin so evenly pale dressed in darkest crimson—there, a pale-faced woman with a painted lip and smooth blonde hair stands, an air of authority whirling around her in dizzying maelstrom. She has a funny manner of looking at people intently—not into eyes though, but into their face, as if everyone has a story lodged deep inside them which she could tear out and extract. She looks like she could turn a man into a sentimental pup. Desmond peeks at her with a look which can’t reveal to Malik if Desmond is imagining making love to the woman or weighing whether he is worthy enough of approaching her. Malik decides to prod, for curiosity’s sake, and for the sake of selfishly clearing his path towards acquiring that sticky blade that’s currently employed for cutting cake.

“Desmond. That woman is looking at you,” Malik says in a hushed, sly tone, and Desmond drops his furtive gaze down to look at him. He looks puzzled, as if unaware of there being any woman in the room. Malik doesn’t desist and Desmond lifts his veil of mock confusion, and huffs a smile which is no humor and all self-doubt.

“She’s probably a noble.”

“And so?”

“She is a child of Nokem. I’m a child of Nokem and Gdila.”

Malik’s imagination delves for a moment into the sad joke of Desmond’s words, the sentiment of one man shared by many. Most of the island are now children of Nokem and Gdila. The nobles—those few that survived the Massacre like Malik, and those that were not involved in it like Ezio’s family—remain a handful. The number could not round up even to a hundred living nobles. And yet, the non-nobles, the commoners, still hold them in high esteem, even after the warriors slaughtered most of their kind, interred them into a pit on the flat top of the volcano, inside an unmarked mass grave like common cattle. Malik cannot remember his kind ever placing themselves above others. It is the commoners who lower themselves before nobles on their own accord. That is how deeply-wedged their reverence for Nokem and his children is in their hearts. So deeply ingrained in their conscience that they regard themselves as the lower echelon of society and consider themselves unable to mingle with Nokem’s pure-bred children. A notion which is the very affront to Malik’s own marriage.

“I am noble. And my husband is not,” Malik states gravely, trying to inspire Desmond’s confidence and further the man’s self-esteem. His words seem to give him some courage. Desmond is far from despairing but not excessively confident about approaching the woman. By now, it’s been some time into the conversation between his husband and Al Mualim, and Malik hopes that Desmond will take action. He won’t have opportunity to steal the blade and make preparations for assassination if Altaïr returns to put him on a leash and stall his plans.

Desmond reviews the situation. He might have to salvage his ego in near future, but his anticipation is becoming intolerable and he instructs Malik to stay put, and slithers off to present himself to the woman in crimson.

Malik doesn’t smile in triumph but he is near it. He reconnoiters the people nearest to the table and finds no one looking at him, but must assume that someone might look. He reaches for the blade, seizes it, feels its weight before he cuts into the cake, to test its sharpness. He puts the blade nigh the perimeter of the table, with the very handle balancing off the edge. He is half-way into extracting the slice of cake when the knife falls victim to the gravitational pull and trips over, the clutter of steel against stone drowned by the hum of noise around.

Malik bends at knees and plucks it noiselessly off the floor.

The risk has borne fruit.

 


 

 

Altaïr hastens his step and slips into a dark hallway long enough that they need to pass several chambers and enter the last one before the hallway finally branches left and right. The room is cold and empty, or so Altaïr presumes until a person walks its presence into the solitary chamber, barely sparing him a glance. The man is of light skin, above average in stature, and bald. This stout, important-looking man, obviously a foreigner, exchanges two-three words with Al Mualim and leaves after a few moments, passing Altaïr only a momentary glance on his way out.

Altaïr awaits orders or wisdom in silence and Al Mualim turns to give them voice.

“This evening truly extols the virtues of your husband, Altaïr.”

Through the cavities of these words crawls some air of humor and Altaïr latches onto this little jest with gratefulness. He is thankful that Al Mualim is taking it with a light heart, and this buoys him up into offering an explanation, even as the thought of entangling his master into the intricate net of his domestic difficulties appears absurd to him, like something a man of position would not be interested in, nor should a man of his own position be encouraged to bother his superior with such twaddle.

“I lacked time to properly tame him, Master. I move towards improving my lot.”

Al Mualim replies with a simple nod without harping on the subject.

“My ears burn with whispers of lawlessness as of late,” Al Mualim says in a brooding, pensive voice. Altaïr is less concerned with deciphering whether he is asked a question or providing audience for Al Mualim’s reflections. Altaïr is concerned with the troubling implication of this sentence.

“Apologies, Master,” Altaïr starts, unsure, but with genuine concern, “I was not familiar with the notion of law in our community.”

Al Mualim turns to him after having kept his back to Altaïr for a short while, as if the very question Altaïr’s implicitly asked is the very question he’d wanted to be asked.

“It never had need of it before now,” he agrees, but that is as far as his caution extends, “I am disbanding the warrior ranks. Fresh mercenaries are to take place of their former posts. To protect the sanctity of our laws, of those to come, and those that had been violated before, as they are being violated now.”

Altaïr hides his shock in the furthermost corner of his heart but the hurt he can’t dodge, and Al Mualim’s projects for the community are a stab to his chest, robbing speech. He has trouble accepting this. It should not be. The very thought is too daunting to contemplate. In the very way the community is Malik’s family, the warriors are his family, and to see them disbanded makes him feel headless. And it appears Al Mualim is there to search his face for reaction to this devastating news, as if he was a tryout, an experiment to test these news on.

“Why, Master?” he doesn’t stutter, but allows pained wonder to ooze into his tone, feeling an inclination and a responsibility to let Al Mualim know that he is affected, not because he is Altaïr, but because he is a warrior, and warriors speak with one voice and one mind.

Altaïr doesn’t question how, but Al Mualim knows that he speaks exclusively about the disbandment of their ranks.

“The reasons are pragmatic, Altaïr, I do not expect you to bother yourself with concerns of demobilization.” Upon seeing that Altaïr doubts and confusion aren’t banished, he bolsters his claim with some explanation. “Our war is over, Altaïr. We have no need for warrior ranks of such scale. The warriors are given chance to merge into the community, a reward well deserved. ”

Altaïr removes thoughts from this last sweetener but proceeds to see a glimpse of reason behind this decision. The war is over. On a practical and logistic level, disbanding the army, or at least a part of it, at this point is a pragmatic policy, pure and simple. Using leftovers to fill the ranks of these so-called ‘fresh mercenaries’ to look after the laws (if such things exist in their community) is somehow not a betrayal of principle, but incorporation of a smaller number of former warriors into a similar group under a new name. The war is over, and the city needs new guards. This is why Altaïr’s been summoned.

“With all respect, Master, I’m a warrior, not a bodyguard.”

“You are whatever I pronounce you to be, Altaïr,” Al Mualim lectures and Altaïr is promptly reminded of his place and the transgression of disobedience he’s offered in the face of Al Mualim’s generosity, bleak as it is in comparison to the glory of a warrior.

“Apologies, Master,” he corrects himself with haste.

“Good,” Al Mualim concludes with satisfaction, “You will be waged at the same rate of pay as before. Your first mission is to take place in near future. You will be informed of when to offer services to our city.”

“Who will lead this combined effort, Master?” Altaïr asks.

“Robert De Sable, the man you saw upon entrance, and his men. You and the comrades you trust.”

Altaïr gives an acquiescent nod and doesn’t utter another thought.

 


 

 

Malik keeps the blade flattened against his lower belly, hidden away behind the toga fold that’s draped diagonally across his tunic, awaiting Al Mualim’s appearance, only irregularly managing to keep an eye on Desmond—a poor man unsubtly chasing the woman around the tables in pursuit of attention.

His heart thuds behind his ribcage until there is only physical pain in his chest.

To survive, to escape this victorious moment, is not in Malik’s forethought. He commits himself to the task and feels a hot prickling of fearlessness in his belly. One reluctant moment alone could aid his failure and he makes himself remember that he would die to take this man’s life. He longs for it. The final act of revenge cannot be endlessly deferred.

He might die tonight but he can’t see past his own desires.

The odds are not to his advantage. He has one attempt, one chance to succeed before he is killed by the guards. He won’t contemplate the alternative.

The flutter of dark robes catches his eye and Al Mualim slithers into his sight the very instant he enters the chamber. His husband is not there to follow. Nokem himself must have heard his prayer to keep Altaïr away.

He makes off.

No one but the ignorant crowd stands between him and Al Mualim now and the moment approaches, just as he is foolishly moves towards it, trapped in the game of a tainted heart whose rules he can’t question.

Malik may die. He will die.

But the burning desire to kill Al Mualim and even the scales of justice throws everything else into deeper shadows and all paths lead to the murderer as the man strides steady across floor. He knows where to cut and it’s all he needs to know. His doubts all but banished and step steady as he doubles his grip on the blade and dodges people to avoid attention and prays to Nokem to guide his hand.

He is almost there, he’ll risk everything.

The murderer stands with back turned to him and this opportunity for assassination stirs something beyond life in Malik as he starts drawing the blade from the toga.

His eyes move over the point where he is aiming to stab—

—and Altaïr zigzags into his path.

Malik freezes staring at his face, shamed at having been discovered. Ashamed, before it turns into fear.

He is horribly disappointed, for he’s allowed his heart to expect revenge—a great mistake when there is room for failure. The result suddenly lies clear before him. The core of the reason he lives for snatched away before he can deliver justice, and the imminent result of this failure he can no longer control unleashes a cascade of horrors: arrest, shame, torture, death. Death before he can drag Al Mualim along.

Malik has nowhere to escape as Altaïr snatches him from the narrow paths between people and continues to drag him away even as Malik stares at him in mute astonishment, open-mouthed with a question beginning to form on his visage. Altaïr has seized his free hand, the one that’s not pressing the blade back to safety, leading, or towing, Malik across the whole room as they squeeze and thread through the jam of bodies at the mouth of the chamber, and towards a more secluded place. He pulls them into the darkened hallway connecting the two massive rooms, the sound of chatter doesn’t cease but it’s not rising at least, and Malik allows colder thoughts to take possession of him as Altaïr maneuvers them both behind one of the long curtains that they’d admired on their way in.

Malik has no time to react as Altaïr yanks the blade from his belt, nearly cutting him in the process.

“You thought I wouldn’t see you?” Altaïr accuses in harsh whispers, “You would kill my master.”

“It would be a glorious day. One you would see never arrive.” Malik hisses back just as harshly and reads the anger from Altaïr’s face.

“Your thirst for vengeance clouds your judgment.”

“No. Obedience clouds yours.”

They pant and the soft sound of their fiery breaths fills the short gap of talk and the matters hanging between them are beyond definition, beyond words, beyond what they could solve tonight, but they stand there facing each other and don’t know where this will lead them.

“I’ve always known your thirst for revenge and turned from it because it caused me no thought,” Altaïr whispers, lower, following the curious shift on Malik’s face. As if he’s morphed into a deceptively calmer state, a storm-on-the-horizon kind of expression. Altaïr doesn’t like storms, but the look of this one he loves.

“I once sought his quick death in repayment for his slights. But it’s not so anymore,” Malik says, and the storm brews with vigor, it’s already there, Altaïr can feel it on his skin.

“Do not lie to me. Were it not for my interference, you’d have caused the unspeakable, and now you claim innocenc—?”

“I claim vengeance,” Malik hisses and his eyes are wild, insane, and Altaïr towers over him but is the one who feels drunk on the power of retribution that swells in Malik’s tone, “With my hands upon Al Mualim’s throat and his blood on fucking floor, spilled by the drop until his life is drained,” Malik propels himself up on toes to push towards Altaïr’s face and gorge him up with his impassioned speech till Altaïr is unsure who of them two is governed by delirium, “To see light fade from his eye and feel the life flee from his worthless body my only goal in life.”

Altaïr stands speechless.

Nokem himself has found sanctuary in his husband’s feral expression and given voice through Malik’s mouth. He is stunningly attractive in his anger. Brimming with ferocity and wildness. It’s not that Malik is trying to entice him, it’s what he is doing that’s seducing Altaïr. He stares into Malik’s merciless, angry face, hoping for the shiver of naked excitement he’s felt during his little speech to pass, but it’s not gone.

Altaïr doesn’t want any more fantasies, he wants his husband.

The blade slips from loose hold and falls with a clutter and his hands clamp like vice at Malik’s sides and dig between his ribs as he thrusts him into the wall, and his belly tightens with desire even before he bends to take hold of his lips. Malik’s moan of surprise traps itself between their entwined mouths. He struggles to make sense of this rash viciousness of the warrior’s action, the sudden embrace, and hilarity of it, the momentary shock of Altaïr’s lips against his and Altaïr kissing him.

He rebels.

What is remarkable about the mutiny is that it never happens.

Malik makes an self-interrupted attempt to strike his fists into Altaïr’s bare chest, an attempt quickly obstructed by reluctance. Altaïr takes it as encouragement, he doesn’t take it for what it really is. He doesn’t recognize it as a trap. He doesn’t see it as Malik’s attempt at shrewd maneuvering. In this moment, he sees nothing and feels everything he can feel, everything he’s allowed to feel, doesn’t even have the time to compare the reality of it to the imagined fantasizes he used to conjure up between battles.

Altaïr’s kiss doesn’t go past lips but still manages to give Malik an entire narrative story of Altaïr’s rising hope. Of how deeply-desired this action was, how eagerly he’d waited to connect himself to Malik thus, how he’s advanced into the kiss torn between two equally daunting choices—between unbridled aggression and greater caution, to avoid discouraging Malik from the prospect of future kisses.

The warrior then hooks his hands into Malik’s armpits and snatches him up, heaves his weight up along the wall. Malik’s short tunic hikes up as he wraps his legs around his waist and Altaïr allows himself between Malik’s bare, warm thighs, and suddenly there’s the full weight of the man’s upper body as he crashes into him to trap Malik’s form in mid-air to allow hands to plummet lower to cup his ass. He leans him into the wall and flattens himself to Malik’s frame until their bodies are a tight line and lungs fighting for space.

Malik is tense for an instant before his bent, trapped arms wriggle out from the press of their chests to plunge under Altaïr’s arms and latch onto his back, claiming the embrace.

Malik knows why he’s doing this but he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He attempts telling the sensations apart during his disorderly state of body and chaotic state of mind. There had been times, while he was a child, when Leonardo and other adults would kiss him on the cheek. No man has ever touched his lips. Malik doesn’t know what he’s doing when he allows Altaïr to part his lips and immediately feels his tongue, warm and strong, pushing past his teeth. He shuts his eyes. He tries to mimic whatever Altaïr is doing and his husband’s mouth is warm against his. He feels the sensation in form of hot tickling fingers crawling through his lower gut up his ribs and catches himself in a momentary swoon of arousal. He wants to pull away to breathe through this reaction but Altaïr is melding their lips into a new lock and pushing until the back of Malik’s head bumps into the cold stone, tilting his own head to gain deeper access.

His heart leaps into his throat and he feels as though Altaïr will steal it from his mouth and have two, but Altaïr kisses on and steals nothing but a hum of pleasure which Malik regrettably fails to catch in time, and his heart remains in his chest thudding wildly but makes it difficult to focus on all that’s happening at once.

His body, apparently, enjoys being trapped between a wall and the firm, muscular body of his husband. The warm ball of a different kind of excitement has snuggled inside his groin by now, and he starts to recognize a litany of excuses as they throb through his head: he’s allowed this for a reason; he is not intrigued by this; he hates Altaïr; it’s too late; he’s too embarrassed to end it; he’s too embarrassed to repeat it; he could have easily avoided it all—in fact, he didn’t, he’s just noticing it all now; he is aroused. And he feels faintly betrayed by his own body. Altaïr’s tongue is in his mouth until he strays into Altaïr’s as he starts to get lost in the mess of his own competing thoughts, and there is an excited urgency in this returning of kiss, mutually and diligently shared.

It feels to Altaïr like Malik is equal in desire at last and he drinks from every kiss that Malik returns, and offers more, until he is giddy with the thrill of Malik’s consent. Perhaps one day soon Malik might allow Altaïr’s cock between his soft, beautiful lips. But that’s a thought he scampers away from when he feels himself already growing hard enough to show through the armor feather-skirt. He allows the image of Malik taking his cock into his warm mouth to swirl around his imagination for one more instant before he scrambles away from it.

Malik kisses with a fierceness matching his earlier blood-thirst and in these few moments of this furious kissing, he’s blown past the point of meaningful-connection-through-shared-experience into the less appealing and more appalling state of enjoying-what-he-should-not. Enjoying what he’d intended to use for his benefit, not his enjoyment.

He avoids giving other noises, for the contraction he feels around his heart when Altaïr bucks into him in response to his moans. Yet he listens to the noise of it all, to the faint hum of Altaïr’s low moan, to the staccato of Altaïr’s little thrusts into his body, to the soft smack after a split-up before the new lip-lock. His skin erupts in goose bumps each time Altaïr grinds his pelvis upwards and feels the leathery feathers of his armor skirt press into his groin urgently. He glides his hands up Altaïr’s back and feels the strength of this body, dragging up the inward arc of his spine and over the leather strap keeping his massive shoulder spauldron in place. He is insanely hot to the touch. Malik allows himself to grope Altaïr’s back muscles as he fumbles with the kiss and his head reels from the information he is trying to pour into it for processing.

He is strong. He is coiled with muscle power and bursting with strength. The things Malik could do if he found a way to control this power like a machine and maneuver it towards his own goal. The things he could make Altaïr do for his favor, if he offered Altaïr fine enough reward. Altaïr won’t dare refuse him, should Malik offer what Altaïr craves above all else.

Altaïr’s muscles feel taut as they flex under the pressure of his rough touch, but he doesn’t indulge in this line of thinking for too long. The focus grows nearer to head than to groin, a cool head attained only gradually at the idea of Altaïr’s body lending itself to his use. The reason for consent comes to his mind again. Altaïr wants a taste of his husband and Malik intends to lure Altaïr in with the promise of more now that he’s allowed him this trial, this little sample.

He pulls off to catch his breath, turning sidewise further before Altaïr can take his mouth into another kiss, but Altaïr stays restless and refuses to part his mouth from Malik’s body and migrates to his neck instead. The kisses that follow are ravenous but feel strikingly different compared to those from last night, for reasons that elude Malik at present. The warrior shifts onto the other side of his neck, only grazing their lips in a wet brush before setting his mouth to work on Malik’s skin. Malik’s thoughts plunge between his legs where Altaïr is grinding like a man starved for intimate contact, and the harder thrusts during a new lip-lock that Altaïr manages to trick him into are giving him the radical suggestion that Altaïr could move to something racy and altogether too indecent for both the place and Malik’s liking if he allows this to go on.

His body turns frosty and his kiss grows remote until it ceases and he pushes against Altaïr’s hard chest allowing his hands to rest there briefly, splayed across Altaïr’s hard pecs with palms pressed into his pebbled nipples, collects his thoughts while Altaïr continues to struggle with his own. He abstains from jerking his head to the side as Altaïr leans in, to make himself appear no less inviting while he pushes himself free of Altaïr’s arms and totters to his feet, his body cramped from the unresolved thirst for release.

When he looks up, the torch light stealing through a gap in curtains lights his husband’s hungry, hopeful face. Malik allows his own face tenderness and fixes the expression firmly across his face. He loops his hand adoringly around Altaïr’s neck and borrows Sheker’s honeyed voice for this ensuing task.

“Please let me. I’ve been waiting for seven years to do this,” he whispers in hushed tones, as if his homicidal intention isn’t any different from a proposal for a beach visit, “I’ll be an obedient husband if you lend aid to my cause. I’ll kneel to you—”

“What fever seizes your brain that you’d think I’d agree?” Altaïr growls, with heavy heart but clear mind, “Never speak these words again,” he lectures.

Malik doesn’t allow his expression to fall and needs but a moment to collect himself.

“What’s been said cannot be undone. And what’s been done cannot be unmade.” He tightens his hand and digs into the back of Altaïr’s neck, a gesture which is not affectionate at its conception but soon rectified as Malik props himself up on his toes again to trim the gap between them without closing it, “Prove yourself more than a monster and stand as my husband and I’ll yield to you.”

It hits Altaïr like a slap. He is ashamed at the amount of time it’s taken him to recognize what Malik has been trying to seduce him into. Malik’s enticing offer is no less than plain deceit, his husky breath and sultry, beautiful eyes no more than cheap bribery. It dawns on him why Malik’s allowed him to come this close. That Malik might have faked enjoyment makes him instantly nauseous.

“You did this to grow favor...” he realizes dully.

Malik say nothing. He, too, is grasping the sinking reality that he is losing his battle against Altaïr’s reason. On his husband’s face is less injury than he’d expected or hoped to find, but he suspects that Altaïr is hiding what he doesn’t want him to see and unleashing his dormant anger instead.

“Continue with your present course and see it wither.”

“Altaïr—” Malik starts.

“That you would think me a fool is insult enough,” Altaïr cuts off. Malik clamps his mouth shut and the gesture is supplemented with a scowl. Altaïr snatches the hand resting awkwardly around his neck and removes it, holding it between them, but bereft of intention to hurt him physically, “Set your attentions towards our marriage and do not see them stray again.”

Altaïr doesn’t intend to leave just yet.

A shift in shadows and light filtering through the crack between the floor and the heavy curtain is subtle but visible to keen eye, and Altaïr begins to feel another presence behind them and suspects an impostor. It’s a long enough track towards the end of the curtain to persuade him to a shorter path so he stoops into a crouch and lifts the heavy folds to find a now more familiar visage of a man listening in on them or spying.

Abbas’ mouth pulls into a smug smile and for a mere instance Altaïr is awash with fear and cold sweat. But Abbas is alone in number and alone in his wayward intentions, whatever they be. No one is there to arrest or kill Malik for attempted assassination and it’s as if Malik senses this as he emerges behind the shield of Altaïr’s back glaring daggers at Abbas.

“Ah, there is your little pup,” Abbas grins sickly at Malik-not-Altaïr but makes himself the enemy of both, “His tongue is sharp. Perhaps because it’s been wrapped around less esteemed places than men’s cocks.”

Abbas’ grin grows tense, his hand stiff between the folds of his robe where he is keeping a weapon at the ready, hoping to provoke a clash, but this time the tables are turned. Altaïr feels nothing more than simple pity for him.

“Jealous men torture themselves, Abbas.”

Malik’s hand is in his as he pulls him along and Malik follows after him wordlessly while they walk back into the atrium with his hand in Altaïr’s and fingers wrapped around his husband’s. A show of unity only for Abbas’ nosy eye, a man a common enemy to them both.

They return and Malik acts as little more than a puppet led around by Altaïr as the man collects Ezio and a crushed Desmond who is still regarding Lucy (Ezio had revealed her name to him) from afar and feeling like she’s someone beyond his reach. She is exchanging words with Al Mualim with an informality which makes Desmond question his own earlier readiness to approach her, a woman of position which makes the gap between them insurmountable and ridiculously vast.

Altaïr collects them aside to relay what had transpired between him and Al Mualim, leaving out talk of disbandment at present, and finds them in consent to this privately-led mission the master has prepared for them. They wait until Al Mualim concludes his discussion with Lucy and issues an order for her, sending her off with a handful of guards for tasks unfamiliar the warriors. This dubious group squeezes past Desmond and slips by in a haste as the three of them come to stand before Al Mualim to receive further instruction, and the man sends them off with blessings after this altogether quick and unexceptional affair.

They breathe fresh air before Lucy’s shady group has managed to leave the grounds before them, a group only Desmond is paying attention to while they linger before the entrance in odd silence.

Desmond stares in a stupefied daze after the woman that’s leading the men past gates and into the night, as if she’d offended him, his friends, and all his ancestors. In the stretch of silence that expands among them, it dawns on Desmond that everyone is staring at him and that he is expected to explain himself as all eyes bore into him, from curiosity about the bewilderment etched deep into his face. Desmond’s gaze darts from Ezio to Altaïr, and from Altaïr to Malik, before he blurts out in the most urgent whisper:

“She just grabbed my butt.”

Malik is the only one who breaks the night with laughter.

 


 

 

It feels like hours before they reach their community-courtyard, and it feels like it’s too late for children to be outside, however safe, but there they are.

They pass through the tunnel with Malik towing after Altaïr as if pulled by some invisible string, having walked all the way back home in religious silence. Inside, a blazing fire is casting light and warmth around the courtyard, with children of diverse ages huddled around it while old men recite tales from the creation myth.

Altaïr spares them a long look as he walks past, but no more than that, while Malik halts in his tracks and devotes more time to this familiar and cherished sight. Not so long ago, he was one of those children, embraced by the community and fed love and tales and care. He would rather spend the night with the community than linger at home with Altaïr as company. He would rather, but he is too tired to be infected by their enthusiasm, too riddled with darkness to be engrossed by the brightness of fire. He stays still for a few more moments, and during this time he manages to recognize the part of myth that follows Hiba’s murder, a tale retold by a grayed old man with a deep booming voice, and Malik’s ears long to pick the tale up, his heart wants to hear the next words:

“... and the earth cried for its god and mourned that it can’t have him in his death. The earth shook but couldn’t move dead Hiba from the rock, it shook, waking Ya’ar from winter sleep, waking Nokem from slumber to find his other half missing. And Ya’ar found Nokem combing the island in vain search for his brother and told him the evil tale his forest had whispered to him, the tale of how Ga’ash killed and trapped Hiba’s dead body into his mountain...”

The old man’s voice disperses towards the end of his sentence but the words still echo like tinnitus, until a sudden forte of his thunderous voice, the broad splay of fingers over fire, the sharp wide eyes, the wild glimmer of mock anger, all hurl the huddle of children into gasps and big round eyes.

“Nokem’s pain and wrath knew no bounds! His roar of grief traveled the world, driving gods to fear, the heavens wept, the ground cracked and spit fire while Nokem swore revenge. His heart constricted with grief but swelled with promise of vengeance...”

Altaïr calls from the stairs and Malik doesn’t answer his invitation.

He stands and his heart swells within his chest.

One day, he will have Al Mualim’s life. He will have it, or he will die.

 

 

Chapter Text

 “I would have words.”

“I would not,” Malik grouches.

As he passes the bed, both of his hands are occupied and his gaze shunning Altaïr who awaits in bed. He avoids talk Altaïr is anxious for. He puts his double-nozzled oil lamp upon Nokem’s pedestal and lifts the amphoriskos in his other hand—a smallish amphora he tilts up-and-over with a practiced hand, oozing oil into the fuel chamber without spilling a drop. He sets the amphora aside and puts his palms up in quiet prayer. Altaïr listens to it. It’s no more than a dimmed whisper in the vastness of silence around them. The two shy flickers of light that peek from the nozzles of his lamp sputter against the hushed whisper of Malik’s prayer which extends longer than Altaïr is wont of. 

This glow of lights plays haphazardly with the folds  of Malik’s smart bed-tunic, a pristine white washed in warm yellow, except for the two thick linings stretching from the shoulders downwards—they glitter gold under the lamp’s watch.  From his position on the bed, Altaïr can’t see the handsome knots falling down the side of his tunic. Altaïr wishes he could ask Malik where he’d acquired such clothes. He wishes he could ask many more things. He had hoped for an easier exchange of words between them, yet all Malik’s given him so far is an expensive indiference—expensive to maintain after all that’s passed between them that night—and Altair extracts only disobedience through observance of this behavior. The truth is he would rather hold Malik in his arms tonight than have words. The truth is that Malik is playing a game of aloofness to distance himself from Altaïr and everything that has happened.

“I hear you whisper to Nokem. Do you believe he heeds your prayers?”

It’s not the first time that Altaïr’s interrupted what is not meant to be cheated of peace. 

“He speaks to me often, whispering of revenge and blood.” Malik’s hands rest in his lap, though not for long. His tone is soft enough to encourage Altaïr to try his hand at more. 

“Then entreat your protector to cease such thoughts from head. I’d not see soft words replaced with bold terms.”

Malik says nothing and his silence gives rise to impatience. Altaïr wants words. Or his husband in bed. At this point either is welcome. Said husband puts the lamp out and leaves it at Nokem’s feet, and finds his place to bed through a darkness that’s familiar to him with nary a word. Altaïr doesn’t know if emotion or disobedience is driving him to silence, but he changes his course, shuffling across the mattress, closer to Malik without laying touch upon him.

“I would give my life to see your laughter and compassion fill this house.”

“I would not want your life,” Malik refuses the offer without addressing the core of Altair’s desire, his words muffled beneath the half of the quilt he’s secured for himself before Altaïr can wrestle it from his hold during the night. Altaïr’s presence feels ominous behind his back but he is too tired for this, too tired for his husband’s sudden, never-ending quest for words.

“It’s time to release your hold on past. The past can’t be changed. Let us turn eye towards what could lie ahead.”

Malik unfurls to lie on his back with a flush of quick anger that sweeps Altaïr off track, and half a moment later he flashes a hot glare, however dimmed by darkness, that’s no less feral than the one he’d worn after his little assassination attempt—an ugly glare no one wants to have business with.

“Why would I place my love into the hands of a warrior who won’t aid my efforts?”

Altaïr hasn’t mentioned love. But he hadn’t struck too wide off-mark.

“Do you think me a fool?” Altaïr says. From this vantage point he holds advantage, towering as he is over a body he could subdue with some negligible struggle, “I know what you were aiming to do. You’d see me the instrument of your vengeance against Al Mualim. I’m a warrior, but not your warrior.”

“You are no warrior,” Malik mocks, with lip wrinkled by ridicule, “you are a soldier, a dog listening to the commands of a master—”

“Yes, I’ve gladly obeyed orders—”

“Obedience is a word forged by monsters like Al Mualim who seek to enslave people into lies and order—!”

“I burn for no cause but my own!” Altaïr snarls back in kind, “What I did was to protect my people and my husband.”

This softener immediately misses its target—Malik is no more victim to it than he is to Altaïr’s show of anger.

“Is that what you believe you did? Fool.” The anger is vast on Malik’s face. Vaster than Altaïr’s. Aggressive and wild. It’s what Altaïr is starting to find disturbingly attractive, an affront to his years-long image of docile domesticity. “If your cause is to play a blind and obedient dog, then you march towards certain victory.”

Altaïr glares out of sheer sense of duty. He shoves himself up above Malik’s body out of uncontrollable need to get closer to it, and shackles two unresisting wrists to bed out of need to tame the craving, or unleash it. “That’s not loyalty,“ Malik persists despite this turn of events, as if Altaïr is not straddling him, “You’re like a dog trained when not to shit, you’ve never been faced with decisions heavy with consequence, you always fall to your knees absent mind, but you, a slave, wound turn me into one as well, only for your own pleasure.”

Malik doesn’t even resist. He knows. He knows Altaïr can’t force himself onto him, into him, he knows any threat of punishment is impotent.

“These being the words of a man who would throw himself to knees for my aid.”

Malik barks out a laugh, his warm breath washes across the warrior's neck drawing him nearer.

“Oh you’d love that, would you not? Falling to my knees before you. To enslave me as you’d like to enslave my body by shoving your cock inside? Try if you can.”

Altaïr takes the sting well, doesn't dwell on the insult, but his grip tightens nevertheless and Malik resists by means of a contemptuous growl but leaves his body absent any physical resistance.

“My gaze is trained on your eyes and face.”

“Yet your behavior proves worthy of neither.”

Altaïr feels fiercely out of place. If he struck his husband violently now, he’d gain little and lose whatever little he’s acquired until now. Rape he won’t consider as an alternative. If only Malik would let Altaïr persuade him into the pleasures of sex. If only he would allow Altaïr to show what he could offer in bed. If only he would allow closeness. If only he were not blinded by vain vengeance. If only.

He bends lower and doubles his grip to intimidate Malik into reason, then pulls his wrists up and above his head with ease, but Malik doesn’t shrink back, or blink, or shift his expression, or show even a hint of anything that looks remotely related to fear. He puffs his chest out with daring and strains up in pride (a sliver more and he’d be able to feel the state of Altaïr’s arousal), he thrusts his head closer to Altaïr’s and stings.

“Go on and try to kill me like you killed my brother.”

“I did not kill him.”

“Liar.”

“I was not there when it happened.”

“Like you weren’t there to protect innocents from slaughter.”

“There were no innocents that night.”

Malik’s face, dark-lit with fury, plunges into brief scandal.

“My little brother—”

“Your people conspired against the city!”

“Is that what you believe? Poor wretch. I hope Nokem lends you his eyes one day that you may see the truth,” Malik concludes in a tired voice, drenched in dismissal. His attention is beginning to wane in the face of Altaïr’s thirst for word, for touch. Altaïr’s grip grows mellow but he leans in and Malik feels his hardness on his belly.

“Go on and take my body—beat it, rape it, conquer it. You’ll never have my unconquerable will.“

Malik’s words are a mockery but his implication is truthful. His face swollen with pride he scolds Altaïr for. Malik is a husband placed forever beyond Altaïr’s grasp, unattainable. A forbidden fruit he wants to taste. Altaïr is as fickle as him tonight, and Malik catches a glimpse of the brief, telltale flutter of his nostrils, reads its warning, but the trajectory of the lust-filled impulse upon which Altaïr acts is too quick, too swift for him to prevent, and Altaïr plummets to take Malik’s lips before anything can be done to halt it.

Altaïr is too hungry even to try and think of anything except a kiss.

He’s on trial for a mere moment but turns assertive as arousal stabs deeper into his gut. Malik answers in growl when Altaïr parts his mouth and shoves himself in, like some bully shouldering his way into a room. He might as well have fucked him with the manner in which he enters his mouth. One of his hands above regains freedom after Altaïr’s sets his onto Malik’s jaw, digging in to keep his mouth open. Malik’s own tongue folds and recoils in automatic distaste, making even more space for Altaïr’s. The warrior keeps his lips clamped firmly onto his husband’s and probes inside his mouth like he wants to engage Malik’s tongue into some action of its own, absent Malik’s consent. 

Something that could partially resemble a moan tears from Malik’s throat and Altaïr bucks into his belly—too hard to be for pleasure, too tame, too painless, to be for punishment. The weight of Altaïr’s cock draws less attention. The grind of Altaïr’s ass against Malik’s own clothed cock and the subsequent bolt of pleasure that follows from it is what throws him off balance. He begins to guide focus towards struggling, not joining. He puts his free hand to Altaïr’s neck then throat to push him off his face, a move sooner ended than started as Altaïr plucks it off to press it flat above his head while releasing Malik’s other hand to take hold of his jaw anew, thus rendering his own action senseless in any way other than to delay the strike of Malik’s newly-freed fist against his chest. Altaïr is under his tongue, pushing it up against the roof of his mouth as Malik pounds his fist twice into Altaïr’s hard chest, which does very little to nothing at all as Altaïr only lifts his chin to lever up Malik’s head against his and fit more comfortably into this hideous excuse for a kiss.

Altaïr kisses on, enduring the dull thudding of fist below his clavicle, for the simple reason of knowing that Malik has not yet put real fight into it, has not ripped his tongue out with his bare teeth, has not swerved down between their bodies to rip his cock off, has not thrown him off as Altaïr is sure he is capable of, and he is hoping that Malik struggles for some other completely inane reason.

Malik suddenly begins to occupy himself with lifting his thighs off bed, bereft aggression or struggle, and Altaïr aligns his chest to Malik’s and slides smoothly along the side of his tongue as he finds leverage to lift his knee and allow it to be the brace for Malik’s rising thigh and repeats the same with his other leg to accommodate Malik’s mute request for a prop. And then, Malik spreads his thighs and fastens his knees to Altaïr’s ribs, drawing him into familiar warmth. Malik’s bed-tunic is riding up and his calves digging into his husband’s narrow waist, pressing the warrior to himself until Altaïr’s stiff cock sidles up along his own, nothing between them. Altaïr’s body tightens. Arousal begins to prod him all over, whatever thoughts have been left depart from his head leaving no place to investigate the underlying motives of all this. 

It feels divine and suspiciously too welcoming. Malik’s remaining hand, now released, clasps around Altaïr’s hip, as if to put to a halt the ensuing roll of his pelvis, and Altaïr isolates just enough attention to follow this hand’s path up the muscles ridging his spine and its climb to just below his neck, he feels it flat against his nape before it smooths up his scalp. He grinds his crotch down to glide his length along Malik’s and primes himself into thinking they might somehow have sex tonight. It’s then when Malik grips a handful of his short hair, yanks him up, measures his punch exactly to catch Altaïr on the jaw. His left thigh flattens to mattress to remove the obstacle for Altaïr’s sorry tumble sideways and the warrior rolls off with meager protest but heavy disappointment, having learned from past and new mistakes. 

“And stay on your side,” Malik quips for a good measure as he shifts back onto his side, the unfavored one, and wraps himself inside the conquered portion of the bed-quilt. 

Altaïr lies splayed out on his back, with limbs asprawl like a starfish, and cock stubbornly hard from the memory of his husband’s body. 

He revisits his latest lesson. If Malik drops any sign of consent, it’s usually gods playing tricks on him. 

“Your lips taste of honey,” Altaïr says and listens to silence between them. “Your words taste of poison.”

Malik lies awake with a smirk of contempt as a resident on his mouth. He won’t lick his lips to sweep the imprint of his husband’s lips off, to avoid drawing it further inside himself.

He falls asleep with Altaïr’s kiss on his lips.

 


 

And then his luck changes abruptly. 

He is lying with cheek deep-squashed against his downy pillow and the quilt covering him up to neck, for the simple reason that Altaïr hasn’t yet attempted to annex it that night, for the same reason Malik doesn’t want it anywhere near his own body in this very moment. His breathing is stifled, less by the pillow imprinted into his face and far more by the heat—an unexpected turn for this time of year. It had been a mistake adding more sheets to the new quilt to secure a sleep devoid of shivering cold.

Malik lolls between sleep and a state of half-consciousness, then stretches out on his belly, until he arrives at the point where he is wasted enough from the heat. It’s the point when he feels like the sheets are stuck to his skin like honey and he wants them off. He kicks the quilt off sluggishly, with blatant disregard for how this fuss is affecting Altaïr, and this tangled bundle shirrs down to his calves and feet. He doesn’t harbor any wish to look Altaïr’s way, nor the strength to open his eyes to consider the hour. He is too ridden by sleep (much welcomed after the meager amount of time spent in slumber last night) to even consider trying to listen to Altaïr for signs of nightmare, but there is a distinct lack of twitching and spasming on his husband’s side of bed.

He rolls onto his side again, facing away from his husband, and his bed-tunic feels no different than a damp, spongy thing sticking to his chest. The knots dig into him harder than before. With what little conscience he can fetch from sleep’s grasp, he curses Altaïr for taking up the side of the bed that he and his tunic prefer. Not even the heat, nor the knots, can persuade him into facing his husband in bed.

The knots pain him.

His mind is shackled by pining for slumber and doesn’t branch far off from the single most urgent need to rid himself of the knots digging into his flank and he is carried by this most basic and mindless need, with the heat wave slamming into him, until he can’t identify a possible damage in tearing his tunic off and rushing off into sleep. Turning the tunic inside out to avoid knots will cause further grievance as the golden lining stretching across the front will serve only to irritate his skin.

There is some faint warning drumming at the back of his head that forfeiting the sleepwear will leave him butt-naked, but it’s stifling hot and very dark, and it’s enough to lull him into safety. The clothes find the floor. He grabs about for a sheet from beneath the quilt to cover his nudity, and subjects himself to the heat it brings.

 


 

With the morning comes the test to Altaïr’s self-discipline.

He is unprepared for the sight. He lies on his side staring ahead, feeling much alike headless chicken the very moment he registers Malik, feeling as if his world’s shifted on axis like it has been doing for the past few days. He fades out for a moment, but soon returns to the sight of Malik’s nude form, relaxed, melted belly-down into the mattress, with arms pulled up but slack and burrowed beneath each side of his pillow. His head is facing away, but the sight of him keeps Altaïr’s veins hot.

He doesn’t budge, feels his eyes nearly bulging out during the shrieking chaos that ensues in his mind. Malik naked. Naked. Naked. Naked.

Altaïr looks at it and curses accordingly.

It’s tantamount to Malik keeping a firm grip on his cock but never stroking him. A tease without release. His internal cursing collides with a quick memory—a brief reminiscence on what he used to jerk off to in the tiny gap between night and dawn before Desmond and Ezio would wake. The images he used to conjure up to guide himself into the relief of a climax, a figure of his husband as inviting and enticing on their bed as he looks now, waiting for his return, until the day when Altaïr could claim him and bind him to himself.

Every last inch of his body throbs in a way that is bothering him for reasons that include the aftermath of a headache Malik’s punch had caused only hours earlier. Altaïr squeezes his eyes shut to this overexposure to Malik’s nudity, his meekness in slumber, and massages his temples to rub some sense into them. It’s more complex than a simple surrender to the lowest in him. He wants to go closer, but Malik’s stance towards him obviously aggravates the problem. 

The smallest, lazy shift of body tugs his attentions across the bed, but he doesn’t find Malik awake, nor does the youth appear close to waking. Altaïr listens to the cadence of his breathing for a while and again sifts through the sight presented to him absent thought, down the attractive contrast between Malik’s skin and the paleness of the yielding mattress, then the modest gap between the sheet draped loosely across the back of his thighs and his exposed ass.

Altaïr’s eyes spring down to the jutting stiffness of his length, which is a sight undeserving of any surprise, but no less troubling. He stares at his erection like he doesn’t know it before he settles on his back, clasps his hand around the base to lift it off his lower belly, stares at it for a moment longer—anything to avoid Malik’s body which is beckoning his attention. Altaïr keeps endeavoring a bit too hard, still disappointed in himself as he gives in like a man with no discipline and chances another look to follow the rise and fall of Malik’s breath before he plunges down the length of his back, lower, up the swell of his plump little ass. He gifts himself a couple of strokes sans thought, but finds his own palm dry and his fingers tough from gripping the sword for years. His calloused hand is as uninviting as Malik’s dark scowl. He lies on his back, stiff with the lack of joy in marriage, with a hand around a cock that’s stiff for very differing reasons.

His body is increasingly flushing with arousal and his face reddening with obstructed possibilities. Malik wouldn’t allow the solid press of Altaïr’s warmth to touch him. He wouldn’t allow Altaïr to commence a slow journey of kisses from his nape and down the valley of his lower back, but Altaïr puts his worn out fantasies to prolonged use anyway and imagines setting lips upon skin and gliding down his spine, and quickly shifts to more baser thoughts, like kneading his rough grip into the plump mounds of the ass on display, preparing him for cock, having him wake filled to brim with his husband and moaning from the pleasure of it.

The hand on his cock holds still, keeping the shaft upright, but the other tapers down his belly thumbing over the ridged muscles, hard, chiseled from war and battle, not pliant and soft like his husband’s body that’s rich with softer curves shaped by a different kind of work and life. Altaïr would feel like a new man if he were permitted to smooth down his husband’s body and allow his hands exploration to familiarize himself to something other than scars and tough skin and sharp muscles. He wants something else. He wants something new to touch. He wants Malik’s moans to ricochet off the walls of their bedroom, but laying his hands on Malik is deliberately inviting trouble.

And yet he feels an absurd surge of lust coursing his veins. It isn’t so much about fucking—a fact attested by his years of disciplined abstinence from sex—as it is about coming that close to his husband to share the intimate bond and thrusting Malik closer into his own embrace. There is now a different sort of tint to his reverie compared to the one he used to have during war, and compared to the one he’d savored while peeking at his husband through the tunnel for the first time after seven years. His husband is not a meek creature he had hoped to find and his fantasies are shifting accordingly. Instead of blind obedience, he now wants Malik’s trust. Instead of unquestioning admiration, he wants genuine closeness.

Altaïr feels some sense bumped into him and soon feels like not having his itch scratched, so he releases his loose hold on his cock.

He gets to his feet before he is aware of the motion.

The warrior slithers away with determination in shreds but intact, very frustrated about the state of things. Prior to wandering out into the kitchen to snoop around and find himself meal, he swathes his protesting groin into a loose bind of loincloth and sets about his business. He hasn’t got any other to occupy himself with at present.

Inside the kitchen, he rumbles around to see if he could chance upon some clean plates, which prompts him into deciphering the structuring order of things he’d overlooked inside this room. He finds himself momentary relief in the inspection of a newly-discovered chest hiding beneath one of the counters, in a corner behind the flour sack and amphoras that he hadn’t bothered to check yesterday. The discovery is less likely to yield plates, but no less thrilling. He shifts the heavy amphoras aside—one one up to the neck with oil the other with half the value of wine—remembers a moment too late to avoid scraping the weight along the ceramic tiles, but keeps this in mind while drawing the chest out into the open. There is silverware. Affluent-looking engraved knives and forks, encrusted flatware, occasional mismatched cup. That’s how far he can examine without shifting the items around which is a restraint born of caution, to evade waking Malik. Atop this little treasure, wedged between a disproportionate number of oval plates and a stacked collection of wrapped knives, are two identical cups.

Altaïr picks them up with care.

They are not so identical, after all. As early as he turns them over in his hands, he finds the embossed engravings of two different gods upon the polished silver, and gold lettering beneath the images of Nokem on one and Hiba on the other. The cups are of rare beauty. Selling one could potentially provide a good measure of food worth a month, or a few. They are heavy with silver. The grooves of delicate carving are filled in with purest gold. Altaïr has no qualms about pinpointing their origin. The contents of this chest are someone’s heirloom. Malik’s.

Malik’s home had been burned to ground a long time ago. If what Altaïr suspects is true, then a child of ten had wandered out into the aftermaths of the Massacre—into a city torn apart reeking of fires and blood—the very moment Altaïr had been shipped abroad into the first throes of battle.

An odd amalgam of a smile and pain scrunches up his lip and he can’t bring himself to replace it with anger. Fearlessness it had been that had attracted him to Malik to begin with. And loyalty to those departed from this world. A strange notion to fall for in the midst of bloodshed. He can’t bring himself to scold Malik for placing himself out in the open after Altaïr had given him a home to hide in. A child wading through char and blood to collect the broken pieces of his home. The statue of Nokem in their bedroom must be restored heirloom as well. Even with all of Malik’s share of Altaïr’s soldiering pay collected, he couldn’t have possibly bought such treasure.

A vertigo seizes him, engages him as he puts a cup back into the chest to rub his face, pinch the bridge of his nose, dig into his jaw. Malik had brought the statue into his home. Towed it across the entire city with blood-thirsty warriors roaming about preying on survivors, and up hill. Harvested what had survived the fire. Preserved it. Allowed Altaïr to eat off it yesterday.

A hot nausea crawls up his throat and he presses the cold surface of the remaining cup to his temple, jerks away from it as if burned. This whirlwind of thoughts leaves him in the midst of nothing and he finds himself staring at Hiba’s curious face. He holds the stare and cools his head till his faculties return, and ponders the importance of this god whom he has failed to properly venerate. He had worshiped Hiba as a child, once, long ago. Since then, he’s failed to acknowledge Hiba’s influence in the matters of family and household and offered misplaced prayer to Gdila—a god not inclined to listen to prayers concerning domestics. In retrospect, it feels a wasted effort. This thought he keeps far-removed from his heart lest Gdila hears this sacrilege. Altaïr reaches for Nokem’s cup and allows its weight to settle again in his palm while he thumbs across the engravings, crying out at his own stupidity, inwardly, as he promises to dedicate prayer to Hiba and plead his divine intervention in his sorry marriage.

Noise chucks itself from the bedroom and his focus immediately pounces on it.

His hands refuse to part from the cups but he drops into a crouch to peek through the double-ended fireplace, quickly enough to see the drag of a sheet while Malik’s exiting the bedroom. Altaïr is quicker to rise and up soon enough to see Malik swerve left and into the mouth of the kitchen. He must have caught notice of Altaïr’s absence, or heard him snoop around.

Altaïr is expecting to find him gruff—for waking him, for finding him naked, for simply having looked at him, or for some other reason Malik would fish out of the sea of possible insults to his person—but Malik pads into the kitchen bare-chested with the white sheet riding low on his hips, his hair an untamed tangle sticking out at a few quarreling angles, with residue of sleep roaming his face. Altaïr refuses to divulge any expression at this point but knows that Malik could jerk him around by his hard-on anywhere he wants with that look of sleep saturating his pouty face.

It’s an awkward and puzzling position for the warrior to be regarded with a reddening of cheeks while only hours ago he’d been elbowed and punched and snarled at for having the gall to taste his husband’s lips again. But Malik’s blush turns to naught, his confusion-creased brows unwind to offer space for fear and he opens his mouth, closes it, and stands frozen. What is strange about it is that his look isn’t directed at Altaïr but at the cups he is holding. As if Altaïr’s discovered something precious that he can now use against him.

Puzzled, Altaïr evaluates his husband’s focus on the cups in hands and measures the fear in Malik’s eye. He lifts them up.

“Do these hold value?”

They do, Malik’s shy nod says. They hold immense value. He is put out at seeing Altaïr hold what he doesn’t allow anyone to touch.

“Then I won’t disturb their peace,” Altaïr assures and turns towards the open chest.

He leaves the cups be. He wouldn’t drink from them if his life depended on it. Out of respect which Malik still owes in return. He closes the chest and restores it to its former place.

Malik studies him for a handful of moments, takes a contemplating look at his slack hands, blatantly shifts to Altaïr’s crotch and takes passing notice of the weight of his husband’s hardened cock straining against his loincloth. Malik can’t really deny the strength of Altaïr’s given word so he doesn’t. He turns away and pads off into the bedroom wordlessly.

 


 

The community is getting into its full swing when Altaïr makes himself known in the courtyard.

The massive table is deserted and embraces Altaïr’s loneliness as he settles onto the bench carrying food. Two chunks of sausage, a fat slice of smoked cheese, butter, the leftover bread rolls, with innards supple enough to eat or at least not dry enough to be unpalatable. A knife, a wine pitcher, three cups—the ordinary ones. The cups he assigns not for Malik, since he doesn’t expect him to join for meal, but for the uninvited company he expects. As for the bread, he’d felt uninhibited enough to appropriate all of the remaining bread after spotting Malik make preparations for new bread, and because he would spend half his sack of war spoils on nonsense before he’d allow a waste of food. He cuts the smoked sausage into a modest meat tray, adds cheese along the other side of the plate, and cuts the bread rolls in halves to arrange on the second plate.

He eats his portion while waiting for the group of elderly women to return, these carriers of information who wake before sunrise and gather all kinds of tidings from across the city. From who has the freshest fish on the market, to what events are to be held, and what news travel the forum—they spread out like apprentices of Sheker to get hold on every talk and gossip before they return to their communities. Altaïr awaits their return to inquire about the best artisans, best shops to visit on market, to give his house adornment of his choice.

His plots for visiting the market have barely taken shape when he registers Malik hopping down the stairs with handfuls, armfuls, of their bed-quilt and striding over towards Leonardo’s apartment. He tries to not give him notice, tries, and admits himself to shameful surrender as he restores his loyal gaze to pursue Malik and feels a stab of satisfaction at watching him smothered by the disorderly heap of bedspread layers as the boy clutches at them lacking vision. It’s an amusing sight, but Malik’s feet seem to know the path well enough to carry him across it absent sight before he elbows his way through the door and ebbs away into the shop.

Altaïr is lulled into peace and everything seems quiet enough for a moment.

The children are sparse this morning. The majority seems to have decided to collectively attend school today. Altaïr had preferred going to school almost every day. He’d decided from early on to focus primarily on physical training and attend mandatory courses in-between, according to a schedule which was less evasive and more inclined towards his personal predilections. He’d never had a talent for music, though he has an ear keen to its beauty. He imagines Malik as the kind of child who had attended almost all courses, as his skills seem to be widespread. Altaïr had even tried his hand at calligraphy and art, and though marked by average skill, he’d shelved it at fourteen, justifying this decision to the mentor with his aspiration for physical training at which he’d excelled. As an orphan, Altaïr had no one beside the school mentors to bestow counsel on him. During the war, Altaïr had listened to tales of foreign schools, outside the boundaries of their city, and they had appeared vile to him, something a child would not want to attend. Bereft of freedom of choice in the matter of subjects they wish to attend. It appeared to him as organized and orderly as foreign religions—an order of things Altaïr can’t digest well.

Three figures walk in across the sun-dappled path and straight into his dream of a bygone past.

Claudia is at the forefront of this esteemed group, with her dark robes parted to reveal breeches and tunic beneath, with Ezio and Desmond in tow. Altaïr is unprepared for this fourth addition to their band, but hospitable and far from evasive about welcoming her as they all settle round. Desmond and Ezio clean out the table in record time, leaving the plates empty before they can even properly take their helmets off. And how odd, that they would cling to their warrior relics when Altaïr’s lifted the veil of a vain dream last night as they were leaving Al Mualim’s property. Both of them know the warriors are no more. Yet when Ezio produces a satchel and gives them a comb each, Altaïr too takes to preening the tail of his helmet after he quickly retrieves it from his bedroom, bearing more food offerings to Claudia. She feasts on what Altaïr brings her from his kitchen, wrapped in their solemn silence of solemn combing through tails with solemn expressions on face.

Odd, how easily Altaïr is swayed into this show of past. Odder still how Altaïr seems to have managed to start cutting ties first. He attributes this feat to the personal matter of his intricate marriage and Malik preoccupying his attention. Altaïr is one of the rare warriors who are committed to marriage. He is close to no man as he is close to Desmond and Ezio, yet he feels like he’s made of a different kind of metal. After all, Altaïr knows that they will flock to him and not the other way around. He is the one who had settled down first, long ago. He feels their presence profoundly but feels different. Not more mature per se, but bound by different ties compared to the two of them. Ezio and Desmond share no intimate ties, none that Altaïr knows of, and he is unsure as to how well they understand him in this matter. Ezio favors jumping from conquest to conquest. Desmond loves women. He adores them. On one occasion, Desmond had put great efforts into assuring him that he’d rather go down on ten women than receive one blowjob, which Altaïr couldn’t understand, but it hadn’t been his place to understand. It’s a thing Desmond has preference for and not Altaïr’s to meddle with. Much alike to them not meddling in his preferences for what initially drew him to Malik.

What connects all of them now though is this charade of military routine they used to have in common. And by no coincidence, they are as bereft of occupation as Altaïr is, which clearly explains their presence in Altaïr’s community. They are sans pursuit, robbed of their vocation, and in short, they are without employment. At present. And this current echo of past—more pure-voiced bark than echo—is just another way of ruining the reality of the present for a few quiet moments. They should part from their armor, but they can’t, as it causes pain of having to leave it behind forever.

Altaïr holds the dark, tawny root of his tail in a grip and combs down in gentle slopes, until the ivory tip is not an unkempt collection of bushy hairs tickling his thigh but a tip sharpened into a slick cusp. He feels along the gleaming eagle beak at the front, knows every bump and imperfection. He pets down the eagle tail in idle reverie until Claudia starts flicking bread-pellets at him across the table to wrench him from the memory of warriors collectively combing their tails before battle.

Altaïr frowns and she turns his sour expression away with a smile, innocuous enough to look suspicious.

“How fares your marriage?”

She rests her face in her palm and balances a bread pellet at the rim of her cup, the one she is sharing with Ezio, before she gives the pellet a flick with her nail, and it falls plop straight into the wine.

“Same as always. Two men at constant odds.”

The side of her mouth stretches into a half-smile and hides behind her palm, and she ponders something private in this strange way until the other sibling interrupts her wooly thoughts.

“All rules are same, Altaïr,” Ezio says and sounds like it’s taken a great effort to part this prized knowledge from his mouth for something that could potentially benefit Malik, in ways that are altogether too opaque to grasp, “The rules of love are same as the rules of war—if you can win at one you can win at others.” But if one asked Ezio what the rules are, it’d always be some rather complicated explanation Ezio would try to sell as undemanding and easy, although this is most certainly not true.

Ezio doesn’t sulk when Claudia reaches to seize his tied hair—a move sluggish and conspicuous enough to be seen and allowed by Ezio—and tugs his head back by the ponytail, with the source of her grievance most probably being Ezio’s uncalled-for addition to their conversation. She then smoothes his rumpled ponytail down, mimicking what Ezio is doing to his helmet tail.

“We fight across purposes,” Altaïr says to her.

Claudia releases her hold on Ezio’s hair and gives her sweet smile a new touch. On her face is a look roaring of more than it looks, her visage a book of unspoken tales, and even though Altaïr tries turning all the pages of her face, he finds them equally blank and equally unyielding, and her words are equally mystifying to him.

“Then find a way to unite them.”

 


 

“Malik?”

Malik shuffles a sliver to the side, spins on heel, and tilts his head enough to peek past the folds of his baggage.

“How did you know?”

Salai sits on the far end of the room, lodged deep into the sofa yet inexplicably able to look beyond graceful, with a bare foot peeking beneath the folds of her navy dress. There’s a rattle of needles as she switches tools and recommences her stitching without rushing to fetch the baggage from Malik’s arms. It is a debatably rude thing to do, unless it is Salai who does it. Her hair is untamed and spread across bared shoulders in loose curves framing her smirking face.

“I know that quilt. I helped maestro stitch it.”

Malik sighs, promptly reminded of the motive of his visit.

“And I’d recognize your gloves anywhere,” Salai reveals as Malik takes to putting the quilt down in an orderly manner, across a table that seems least messy, “Come look at this,” she beckons.

“Where’s Leonardo?” Malik inquires before sauntering over and Salai rises to let her dress unfold, and then smooths out her current work across her flat chest.

“In his study, stitching his invention together instead of clothes,” Salai waves the matter off as trifle, “Come, take a look. I had to sew it on my own, it’s the latest fashion abroad.”

Malik stares at the uneventful, foreign-looking bodice with distaste.

He doesn’t hide his grimace. It is something a foreign man would wear. Salai cares as much for foreign taste in fashion as she cares for men’s clothing. She presumably cares to make herself attractive to influential or wealthy foreigners that have been growing in numbers and flooding the city after the war, as if dragged along by Al Mualim’s return. Malik is struck with his own frankness as he decides to share opinion.

“I’m more used to seeing you in dresses, Salai.”

The uproarious smile on Salai’s face drops to naught as she looks down the bodice and levels it out across her chest again in renewed examination. Malik has made a mess of the direction this exchange had supposed to take, but he would rather speak his mind than lie to Salai about this matter. He knows, from the contortion on Salai’s sharp face, that she knows his meaning, but she chooses not to address it as directly as Malik does. The whole matter leaves Malik with a sour afterthought, and it upsets him that he is compelled into implicitly telling Salai that adapting to a more foreign type of clothing and conforming to the standard of foreigners in order to attract potential benefactors is playing a role she is not made for. Beneath the comely dress, Salai is a man. In his heart, he is a woman. It is how the community has known her. It is how Salai has been living for years. It is who she is.

A yell of Salai’s name barks from the adjacent room and they share a look. Salai conjures up her previous self and nudges Malik towards the door with mischief plain across her face—to push Malik into the right direction or to evade her own duty, it remains unclear.

And Malik leaps right into a mess as he goes through the door to find Leonardo.

He combines some shreds of knowledge to remember the purpose of this invention, since they are as fickle and wayward as Leonardo’s appetite for discovery, and likely to drift into oblivion as Leonardo turns from one invention to another between tailoring and preparing herb medicines. A water pump, it is craftily called.

“Could you bring the—oh. Malik?” He concludes his ill-starred sentence. Malik offers a one-shouldered shrug and a curious look but Leonardo waves it off, “What prompts this early visit?” He slaps his stool, still warm, and offers him seat. A tacit invitation Malik gladly embraces. He takes a sit while following Leonardo’s tinkering with a misleading look of curiosity and prompts himself into speech as he feels the first clutches of a yawn.

“The quilt you made me. I need it split into two halves,” Malik explains succinctly, absently watching Leonardo fasten the pipes onto the mechanism.

“The quilt presents no problem,” Leonardo waves it off in a slapdash tone, but he looks up from his crouching position and his gaze is anything but careless, “Tell me what does.”

Malik feels prodded all over by his gaze. He combines what’s left of his patience and what’s alive from his watered silence in response to Altaïr’s behavior this morning, and holds silent. It’s not the answer Leonardo had aimed to extract. He winds up securing one of the wider, better-fitting discharge pipes with a sigh and drums his reddened fingers along its smooth leathery surface while he suffers through a brief thought.

“What you are doing invites calamity. He will retaliate.” Leonardo tells him at last.

Malik sets his chin into joined palms and leans onto his knees looking at the pump rather than the clear blue of Leonardo’s eyes, “What could he do to me what already hasn’t been done?”

“He could beat you. Rape you.” An expression of mockery asserts itself on Malik’s face at the latter proposition and Leonardo continues to lecture him, “His mind and heart have been touched by war, do not think him incapable of such a thing.”

Malik holds tongue even as he gives Leonardo’s first proposition a thought. He hadn’t truly considered the notion of Altaïr giving him a beating. He considers it, yet, somehow, even that seems as unlikely as rape by now. He doesn’t share his musings with Leonardo but the stark contrast to the possibilities he found to be imminent only two nights ago gives food for thought.

Leonardo sighs in response to his lack of chat.

“Should he prove too difficult to tolerate, remove yourself to some safer corner.”

“None exist. Not since he came to my house.”

“Malik.” Leonardo forces himself into Malik’s head, shuffles across the pipes to grasp his hands, and Malik lifts his chin off to submit them to the man, “I know the way you breathe. The way you walk, or laugh, or sneeze. I know the child that spent nights hiding in my bed and embrace. I know the tears that child had shed. I watched you grow up from a wounded boy into a young man of good probity.” Malik is stung into silence by the truth of all this, and stung deeper by Leonardo’s ensuing words.

“I helped you shift Kadar’s bones.”

There’s is a strain on Malik’s face.

He shuts his eyes but these memories fade with difficulty. The dirt on his hands which extracted Kadar’s body bone by bone from dry earth will never wash away. The gritty thump of Altaïr’s shovel digging the first pit for Kadar’s body will never cease thudding inside his skull. Leonardo is cruel but his warm hands are gentle on Malik’s jaw pulling him away from the impetus of this sudden rush of memories. He doesn’t want to look at him, he can’t. Leonardo doesn’t press demand.

“After Hiba’s murder, what did Ya’ar do to appease Nokem?” Leonardo whispers retrieving him from the shudder of past.

Malik whispers back almost removed from thought, by letting his trained memory of the myth pour words into his mouth.

“To appease Nokem, Ya’ar aided in splitting off a chunk of Ga’ash’s mountain, where Hiba’s body lay trapped…” Malik’s whisper blends into the silence.

“And so they separated the mass of rock to steal Hiba from his grasp,” Leonardo prompts, with thumbs drawing a constant path along his jaw.

“And Ya’ar grew a forest atop the mound of Hiba’s grave, the most ancient and sacred of our forests, to rid him of Ga’ash’s influence…”

And as Ya’ar once helped Nokem, so Leonardo once helped Malik. Helped unearth Kadar’s remains by night, helped steal down the volcano and across the fertile gap between the two hills that used to be one mountain—the entirety of Ga’ash’s mountainous body—through its grain fields and orchards that are the mouth feeding the city’s belly, helped sneak up Hiba’s hill and into the ancient forest, helped bury the stolen bones in a proper grave.

Malik opens his eyes and finds Leonardo’s thumbs still on his cheeks. The job of arguing against this man is a task he’s not made to do. But Leonardo owes him this favor, for having awakened a memory that festers deep in mind, and deeper in heart.

 


 

Malik drags himself back home in such engaging confusion that he barely registers he has taken the more revealing route across the courtyard instead of turning right, through the ring-tunnel, and then up the tunnel stairs towards home. He barely registers Altaïr having an exchange with a handful of elderly women or his husband’s morning company. He completely misses the dark figure that trails after him upstairs, and doesn’t notice even as said figure peeks through the door and into his kitchen while he’s unfastening his gloves—not the first unfamiliar person to peek into his kitchen during the past two days. He doesn’t notice until she utters an exceptionally amused:

“Greetings!“

“Greetings,“ Malik mutters mechanically.

She grins and he scowls.

He knows her only in passing as the woman who has the same dark robes as he does, as if Malik had shrugged it off his own shoulders and given it to her, though clearly remembers never having done so—a knowledge supported by the fact that his own robes are folded neatly in the next room.

Malik’s gaze doesn’t flinch but his hands are not idle. He turns to his bread, takes a pinch of flour from his bowl and strews it across the counter to recommence kneading the dough. Her face is steeped in momentary seriousness before she glances at his bowl and shifts as if a smile has just been slapped on her face.

“Is that the southern kind? From Sheker’s market?“

Malik removes his eyes from her bright face to consider the object of this question and it takes him a considerable amount of moments to grasp that she is for some reason referring to the flour.

“Yes. I prefer the city grain over foreign.”

She leans in with a conspiratorial zeal, although there is no one around, and he unwittingly shifts closer to her to hear the whisper first-hand.

“There’s even better domestic grain. Two stores down the one you bought this at. Behind the counters. Only whisper my name and you shall get it for a better price.”

Suddenly her smile feels huge and excitable and Malik is thrilled by this knowledge as much as with the feeling of slowly immersing himself into a new friendship.

“Who are you?” he asks while a smile nips at the corner of his mouth, pulling it up.

“I’m the Masekha of the city.”

“You equal yourself to a goddess?”

The fierce red of her lips stretches into a new smirk that strips him off his scowl. She then offers to him not her hand, but her arm—a gesture far more intimate than acquaintanceship—and urges him on in spite of his floury hands. Malik sees no damage in this binding gesture, can’t see any mistake on the horizon for accepting it, and he extends his arm to line it on top of hers and twists his wrist to grasp at her elbow as her fingers dig into his. She doesn’t mind the dusting of flour on her skin and her presence rings around him from all sides, and for a moment of this contact it feels as though they are conjoined through something more than sheer coincidence.

“Claudia Auditore.” She strips her mask off at last.

“Malik Al-Sayf.” He seals the bond.

They hold onto each other’s elbows until the grip of fingers grows slack, but the bond lingers. Malik feels close to her for no rational reason. She is a noble. She is like Malik, and Malik like she. Though her family’s retained status and property, she is one of the handful remaining nobles still breathing. For that alone, Malik feels connection to her.

“You don’t seem to hate me like your brother does.”

“You were but a child. Your will removed from all that happened that night,” she explains while she trails the tips of her fingers across the bony tip of his elbow, and had this gentle touch taken place before her words, Malik might have foolishly mistaken it for a flirt. Coupled with the guilt-ridden crease in her brow, he recognizes it for an overdue but well-received gesture of consolation, “I hold no grudge against you. Ezio spent too much time removed from home, given time to wallow in what he doesn’t know.”

Malik feels a pandemonium course through his body, from shock to elusive hope.

Malik’s thumb is hard-pressed into her inner elbow and he feels the jump of her tendon as she begins to slip out of their hold of arms, as if regretting having given her own thoughts freedom, but Malik grasps her tighter and won’t allow her arm room for retreat. He digs deep into her muscle, deeper than is comfortable, but his eyes are wild with thirst for knowledge.

“You do know?”

She holds his gaze absent fear of discovery, looks right into his hopeful eyes, but chooses silence over disclosure of secrets. Malik allows her to keep the answer to herself, however whetted his appetite for knowledge which she seems to possess.

“I know the rumors say Al Mualim heard that only nine gods are worshiped, so he found it appropriate to add the tenth. Namely himself.” The humor on her face is thin and scrawny, a speck of dust too small to hold notice against the overwhelming implication of the joke.

“You know more than you show. Why do you smile then?” Malik whispers.

“Why do you scowl, little owl?”

To hide the pain of knowledge is his answer. Claudia smiles to hide the pain.

She hides knowledge because the mere fact of knowing doesn’t invite success. Anyone would be forced to hold those thoughts to themselves. Toss them into the sea and Daga’s fish will whisper the secrets, bury them to ground and see the forest whisper them into Ya’ar’s ear. Such thoughts are better off locked inside one’s chest. Fighting cannot be done alone. Malik wants to give her shoulders a shake or take both her hands to give them a hard squeeze until she realizes she is not alone in desire to uncover the veil of lies that shroud their city. If she harbors such desire.

She slips out of their hold and this time, Malik allows it. This time, it’s an escape.

“Your husband might get ideas if I don’t return.” And she jests, smiles, puts on her mask, and retreats with a clear, cold glimmer of pain in her eyes.

Condemned are those privy to secrets.

 


 

“I see Sheker’s breath upon your necks, driving you to gossip,” Claudia adds after kneading into Desmond’s shoulder and settling on the portion of bench between him and Altaïr.

“It’s not the goddess driving us to gossip. It’s Ezio whining about his conquests.” Desmond cuts away the core of their conversation to present to her, “You have to give him advantage or the poor man’s ego will shatter into a thousand pieces.”

The object of conversation sits across the three of them, with mock desperation on face to bring Claudia’s proud grin to a standstill.

“We were talking about how my sister outnumbers me in lovers. I must keep up my reputation.” Ezio says shifting aside along the bench to evade the curtain of their combined frames obstructing his view. He keeps traipsing about the courtyard aimlessly until his gaze takes a trip to a man (against all odds Ezio does crave men on occasion and he spares them glances here and there), a figure hauling what seems like a cylinder contraption with a corkscrew-shaped top and two protruding pipes dragging across pavement behind him. Ezio considers the apparatus before he considers the man, but when his gaze shifts course his attention is broken, and it feels as if his chest is filled with hot cinders.

The man hauls his machine towards the water-well and applies himself to untangling the leathery pipes. The sleeves of his scarlet tunic are already pulled up for this endeavor, his hair—fair and gleaming in sun light—gathered into a ponytail equaling Ezio’s, the only difference being their length, with bangs put up and pinned to the crown of his head and a few of strands which have managed to escape the bind of his pin loosely scattered across his forehead. He looks busy.

“And I will start this instant,” Ezio announces to the table company, and takes off.

The company of three is driven into twisting around to look over their shoulders, and it is Claudia who initiates and the two warriors who follow as they swirl around on the bench to watch the unfolding play.

“Watch him fail.” Claudia says and takes a swirl of their shared cup and knocks the rest of it down her throat while her sibling marches towards the water-well, chest puffed out and armor in place.

As Ezio approaches the lone figure at the well, he is subject to the endless selection of things he finds appealing on the man. The blond, on his part, appears engrossed into his experiment, lowering a wide pipe into the water-well, but Ezio hopes to rope him into a conversation. It’s hardly worthwhile pointing out that Ezio’s concept of conquering men who are difficult to approach let alone to conquer is no truer to the nature of things than Altaïr’s notion of marriage as a bond where the younger husband is flogged until he falls into obedience to his spouse.

And despite his displaced confidence, Ezio crosses the distance and shoves himself into the crouching man’s personal bubble. Ezio parts his mouth to speak right when he is suddenly assailed by a perfumey scent, as if he’d just wandered right into a flowery forest. It must be the man’s clothes.

“Greetings.” Ezio says as he picks himself up from the sudden distraction.

The man doesn’t lift himself. He continues lowering the pipe into the well with one hand, looks him up and down, twists a loose lock of hair aside, and looks away.

Ezio’s focus begins to skip to and fro between the momentary impression of the pair of two clearest blue eyes and accepting this dismissal. The first impression of the man’s visage dims away and he settles into a stifling moment of reluctance. Disinterest he doesn’t encounter often.

“I am Ezio.”

The man looks up at him anew, then rises.

“Alright.” He retaliates with aloofness, a blatantly interestless tone.

With a dawning dread, Ezio realizes that the man has looked at him like he’s found him to be a cheat, and, what is worse, an incompetent cheat, and Ezio sees the unmistakable possibility of failure dangling before him. Still, he decides to persist, seeing that words are expected of him as the one who had initiated this flirt.

“Will you divulge your noble name?” Ezio tries with a more alluring tone, acknowledges the importance of making a good impression on the conquest. The man chuckles, and it’s a start.

“I’m no noble. I stem from Gdila’s seed.”

Ezio listens poorly because the man’s origin bears no meaning but he nods to encourage more words until he realizes that to the outsider’s eye he might appear like he wants the man to look at him. Like his own incompetence has invited his own desire for the man’s attention. He hopes he doesn’t look too desperate. It is fatal to look desperate, it makes the people want to dump you.

“And your name? Will you give it?” Ezio asks, and he sounds less secure about his making a move—deemed easy from the start—but nothing feels lost as long as Ezio’s confidence is not too thin.

“If I find reason to,” the blond says in a more amiable tone and a more playful lull to his voice.

Ezio pauses at the realization that his own selfish interest in this man precluded any conscious interest in the man’s person. He endeavors to form a coherent picture of this man, but the task eludes him. He appears a humorous, high-spirited man who has in him a strain of adventurous restlessness when piqued properly, and apparently this is his way of doing the business of flirting. Before Ezio concocts a response that would most likely appeal to this kind of man, the blond turns to his contraption to pull a cylinder rod out of the metal cask and push it back into its former post—a task which requires some muscle, and muscle Ezio does have in abundance.

“I can help with that.”

With a precarious lunge into the task, Ezio takes over the post in such a rapid and impatient way that nothing good can come out of his impromptu assistance in an experiment he knows next to nothing of.

“I do this all the time, you wouldn’t know how—”

“Want to bet on that?”

Ezio grins with mischief, an act committed to impress the blond, and the circumstance which leads to this glorious mess is that this stately mechanism requires far less pressure than Ezio has been led on to believe. Ezio puts weight and muscle into the first push against the handles of the metal rod. The pipe whose other end is inside the well tears at the seams and bursts at the point of the entry into the pump, sending a terrific jet of water into Ezio’s unsuspecting face and down his torso, until his entire front is drenched and dripping wet and the pipe clatters to the pavement gushing with residual water.

The burst of Claudia’s hysterical laughter from the table is not loud enough to drown the noise of silence behind his back where the blond is doing gods-know-what and Ezio does not need to know what while he wallows in mortification. After a handful of moments of his absurd lowering of the rod into its sheathe and leaning onto his knees in this less than elegant half-crouch, Ezio feels he should have slinked away into a hole by now while the man continues to pay no attention to him and Claudia revels in his failed courting with laughter that will later be replaced with sisterly affection to mop up his defeated spirits.

And every possibility points to failure as he waits for the man to leave after picking up the contraption Ezio has inadvertently destroyed—he is not sure if he should offer compensation, though he would, given incentive, given any kind of spoken word by the silent man behind his back. Only the man materializes before Ezio and Ezio doesn’t look up but keeps leaning on his knees and staring at the pavement since his pride can’t plummet any lower at this rate, and there are two fingers below his chin pulling him up.

The fingers linger even as Ezio rises to full height, they sweep Ezio’s drenched bangs aside with a wet brush before the man dabs the water on his moistened hand away with the front of his scarlet tunic, and all this he does not to annoy Ezio, but merely as an attempt to make him notice his presence.

His features have shifted into amusement bereft of mockery and his lips are pulled into a smile of confidence Ezio secretly covets at this very moment.

“Well this is unfair. You started before we could make bets,” the blond says in a silvery voice, low enough to be intended for Ezio’s ears alone, “You practically robbed me of easy coin.”

There is a beat of silence, and then:

“Name’s Leonardo.”

Ezio seems to Leonardo like the kind of man who would dodge any expressions that suggest surprise in the aftermath of such a simple revelation, but Ezio doesn’t conceal it and the hopeful look on his face looks almost too pretty to shatter, even if giving the warrior his name he has done to anchor purpose of his ensuing invitation.

“I propose a walk,” Leonardo gives a smile and Ezio mirrors it with his confidence mounting slowly, slouchingly, as his hope continues to run a steady course till Leonardo’s next words, “I need someone to help me with the baggage I carry from Sheker’s market. It’s way to the south and you look like someone who could carry a heavy load.”

To Ezio’s astonishment, Leonardo seizes him warmly by the arm for emphasis. The hint of smile on Leonardo’s lip grows into a looped smirk as he feels along Ezio’s bicep, testingly, or teasingly, and Ezio feels the imprints in flesh long after Leonardo removes himself from his sight lugging his contraption off in the process. Ezio looks a bit disconcerted by the lack of touch and a couple of moments later, he stands listless and tongue-tied after this incomplete meeting.

Ezio discovers what it is to be hungry for attention.

 


 

The entrance to Barzel’s market is as gargantuan as Altaïr remembers it.

What he’d expected to be an uneventful visit to the market (except for the spending of copious amounts of coin) he feels turning into admiration of the city’s beauty. Altaïr had been far removed from anything beautiful—if friendship and his armor are to be excluded. As it’s turning out, this visit to Barzel’s market is starting to invoke memories of a past time, and Altaïr doesn’t have a difficulty in replacing old memories of it with the sight that lays before him and is about to broaden as he begins to pass through the entrance, pulled in by the jolt of activity.

Nothing has changed. The market still rests where they had left it, below the land-bridge connecting the inner city and the communities on the peninsula to the north, between the port to the right and the forum to the left. The barrel-vaulted entrance tunnel is still as vast as before, still teeming with people, and Altaïr watches the first signs of the inner space opening up into the imposing interior of the roofed market as he moves through the jostling crowd of people towards the end of the tunnel.

Altaïr files into the vast open space of the market which drops in degree as soon as you enter it. It assails him all at once—the drop in temperature, the chatter of words that collide incessantly, the yelling and banging that break out at intervals, the ring of activity and selling on all sides, the scented concoction of brimstone, tanning oil, dyes, fabric, steel.

It’s a-few-breaths-worth expanse of time to get used to the sight that washes at him in waves, pulling him into the sea of motion and bustle. He can hardly move a few steps without brushing against someone.

He strides across towards the center and, at last, arrives before the colossal statue of Barzel.

Barzel’s market owes its name to the goddess of war and fire, the patron of blacksmiths. In the dead center of this round roof-covered structure is the statue of this goddess, standing with one leg perched over the body of a slain beast, with her flail—her beloved weapon—flung over her head in victory, reaching towards the very tips of her long soaring braids tied with barbed knives. Her flail is a gigantesque weapon dotted with nine deliberately-spaced spikes—nine colorful stones instead of iron, each representing a different trade blessed by the goddess, each pointing to one of nine different corridors spread around in nine directions which branch off the center of the market. Each corridor reaches up to a height sufficient for a ship to fit inside, each corridor dedicated to a different kind of trade.

Above the goddess, the rounded dome is climbing up towards the oculus in the center, a round-shaped opening at the top of the dome sealed with painted glass rather than left open for rain to drizzle through. The stained glass is tinged with entrancing amber hues, and as its yellowy light falls upon Barzel’s lifted hand—the one limb unburdened by armor—and it appears as though it’s glowing in fire. Altaïr’s neck strains from the prolonged tilt of his head as he soaks in the sight, feels like a speck of dust before this colossal statue, like a child watching the myth unfold in his mind’s eye as Barzel saturates Nokem’s lance with fire so that he could spear Ga’ash’s exposed heart. Her other hand peeks from the cover of armor clutching a scroll—the eternal pact between the goddess of war and the god of death.

“One carpet one kesef! Three carpets for two! Three carpets for two, people!”

Altaïr’s stops reading the myth off the fiery light on Barzel’s hand and the image grows into something remote as his senses turn to the sudden pitching of merchants around. They mingle with the crowd or dispatch their apprentices to do so, they mill around the statue circling about for customers to sway, they are big yellers and bigger sellers. At times there are bursts of two-three pitching bellows at a time, shouting of kesefs and coins, before they return to their shops and new merchants and artisans take their place.

From the statue in the center and spreading outward, colorful paths of cobblestone lead to each gigantic corridor. Some stones have been worn smooth by many soles, some still retain their coarse exterior. The layout of this entire market is like that of a blossom, with petals spread out in nine directions, but only barely avoiding touch with its yellow core in order to allow a circling path with Barzel’s statue in its dead center. Each of nine corridors—a number not waywardly chosen but matching the number of spikes of Barzel’s weapon—is flanked inside by shops of varying sizes, lined along the two walls, providing a passage to walk along but not through since every corridor is a blind one, with a shop at its tapering tip marking its end. Which leaves one single entrance to this circular structure: where the tenth imaginary blossom petal ought to have been is not a blind corridor but the vaulted entrance tunnel Altaïr has passed through. One entrance, unlocked. The shops, locked and bolted by night.

Altaïr knows why he is here.

His motives are triggered by his own desire. He’s come to provide himself straw for his nest. To acquire goods to dress his home with coin that Malik’s declined to use. In a relayed way, Altaïr has come to spend coin on what he had hoped his husband would spend it on. He aims for all sorts of expensive commodities that he could never afford before: pricey fabrics, fur, glassware and crystal, delicate things soft to touch or pretty to look at—just like he’d once imagined his husband waiting for him. Altaïr wants a statue of Hiba. His dream of a welcoming household may yet prove possible, if he shifts his prayer from Gdila to Hiba, and his costly expenditure may soften Malik into realizing how he cares for embellishing their home with riches resembling those from Malik’s early childhood. Altaïr feels he had toiled long enough to finally be allowed to afford himself a taste of luxury, and Malik will come around by the time Altaïr bedecks their little nest in lavishness. Malik will mellow out. He will be keen on the gifts Altaïr will provide him with. They will be praying to Hiba together in no time. The gifts will not vouch for Malik’s anger anymore. All will be well.

With purpose renewed and spirits lifted, Altaïr draws near the stone slab spread out below the massive pedestal of Barzel’s statue and leans in to loom over the market map while bearing in mind the information gathered from two elderly women who had pointed him to the right directions for obtaining the prettiest statue of Hiba, the softest fur, and finest fabric.

Altaïr examines the dark grey slab of marble encased in glass. The stone is ornate, with vines of copper and iron running along the rims, curling into one another like messy braids. Barzel’s market, as opposed to Sheker’s market which sits more to the south, is dedicated to the ‘still life’, as the people are wont to call it—that is, all that does not decay and rot under sun. The carved image of corridors and their individual trades is on the marble, the legend marks which trade belongs to which corridor, from stonemasons to blacksmiths, tailors, goldsmiths. The marble is carved out to represent the entire plan of the market, with each corridor filled out with differently-colored little stones, each color representing another trade. Black for blacksmiths, gold for goldsmiths, white for jewel- and pearl-makers, purple for tailors, colorful for cloth-dyers—a mismatch of stones until the map is a mosaic of colors. This map is organized in a more orderly manner compared to the city marble-map, since each corridor is reserved for one trade (though it is said that many a merchant had sold their goods in corridors of other trades).

Altaïr has re-examined the city map prior to coming here. On it, he has seen the stone representing his husband.

The city marble-map is on the main forum, erected on a massive stone encased in glass, locked, opened only upon need or request. The carved map is a small-scale rendering of the entire city—the two markets, though, have their own at their respective locations. Not every home of every community is carved out to be filled by a stone, as not all citizens sell or trade or offer services. Yet many artists and tailors and healers are scattered across the entire city, working from their homes. The marble map tells the observer where they can find whom, and the stones promote their skills—a jewel-maker could encrust their stone in gemstones to trumpet word of their skill, as long as the color of the stone remains true to their trade. Some communities have no stones at all, some homes take up the space of two or three other homes around them to accommodate the number of trades performed by one individual.

Altaïr had found but two homes in his community with stones inside. One of them was his own home. Malik’s and his. Altaïr had expected to find only a blue one for laundry work, but their home had been expanded on the map to accommodate two additional stones—a scarlet one, and a grey one that’s smartly etched with beautiful calligraphy. The other home is Leonardo’s, equal in number of trades, from the purple one of a tailor to a green one of a healer. His third stone Altaïr can’t decipher.

One person guards these marble slabs, holds the key to the glass encasing, so that it wouldn’t fall victim to childish prank of upsetting the stones or to the weather or to theft. Should someone open a new shop, their home is carved out in the marble and given an appropriate stone. Should someone stop working a trade, they simply request that the guard unlock the map, remove their stone, and return it to them. Should someone start a new trade beside the existing one, they bring a new stone to add to their old ones.

Altaïr knows that Malik’s calligraphy-covered stone stands for map-drawing, but he makes a mental note to inquire about Malik’s scarlet stone on the city map.

With Malik in mind, Altaïr sets off from the map of Barzel’s market, having committed desired path to memory. To a warrior used to the rusty brown of dirt and caked blood, the myriad colors around is a pleasant shock to the eye, and needs getting used to. He keeps a smaller pouch of coins belted at his front, keeps his hand across the coarse material, feeling the weight of coins he is about to spend. The money is worthless in comparison to what the desired results of its spending will bring.

He sets mind to purpose and delves into the first corridor to the right (the brown stone) populated with fur traders. He immerses himself in the glassware corridor next, then into the territory of stonemasons in quest for a statue of Hiba, and into the realm of fabric traders at last. The merchants beset him from all sides, either by beckoning or physical gestures, having set keen eyes upon his sack of coins. Some take his armor as sign of a man seeking to part from his money like many other warriors who have been spending out spoils of war. Some are loud excitable men, some uncouth with a tongue equaling Desmond’s, some gifted with flowery flattery putting Ezio’s to shame. Altaïr doesn’t mind their spasmodic pitching and vying for customers. He buys a collection of furs, fabrics of high value, for his own clothes and for Malik’s, and for the house. He buys a carpet. He feels less confident about this particular gain. It might not be on par with Malik’s tastes, and Altaïr has more talent for admiration than furnishing. He places most hopes in his acquisition of a Hiba statue. This work of art is human-sized, carved from black granite which, though a stone less precious than the onyx of Malik’s Nokem statue, has the surface of its hands craftily varnished with a gilt of gold. This sculpture had cost him more than all other expenses combined, but the strain of this cost is relieved by the thoughts of what awaits him.

Altaïr orders for all these items to be delivered to his home.

By the time he brings current business to a closure, these items will find their way into his home, leaving him time enough to watch for Malik’s reaction to this big venture. With that thought meddling with his wayward path across the market, he wanders briefly into the blacksmith corridor, the one he had no use for presently, and he is unsure what pulls him from his wandering reflections first—the stuffiness of the blacksmith corridor which is saturated with heat that pours from their shops, or the all too familiar sound of clashing steel. Between the corridors of bladesmiths and blacksmiths, in the marked, ringed space allocated to weapon testing, two youths are having a friendly spar. The spot belongs to no one and everyone. Altaïr remembers having had one of his first lessons in sword on this loosely-fenced ring where sporadic sword lessons take place, where friends and foes settle differences, where bladesmiths demonstrate the quality of their weapons, where market crowds gather engaged in watching.

Altaïr spares but a few moments for this display, too innocent to be called anything else but toying with weapons, though it seems to have fetched a considerable crowd and he falls into retreat as people start pressing him for space.

He gives a fleeting look to one of the shops nearest to the next corridor entrance but nothing beyond that, and he doesn’t see as the empty space is swiftly replaced by a merchant that emerges from shadows. Altaïr is making to leave but a presence to his right makes itself known and he turns to find a fattish man, imposing in a secretive and furtive way, dressed in double-breasted tunic and smelling of scent. Altaïr scowls at him in a manner of asking his business but has no doubts this man must have seen his earlier lavish spending.

“Whatever you need, I shall provide,” the merchant tells him, his voice a hushed whisper but his face animated with secrecy. Altaïr has no need of whatever he is bent on offering, so he falls back into his stride again. The merchant trails after but doesn’t sidle up to his side as much as trots after him, almost breathing down his neck.

“You have a young wife?” The man tries, pursues even after Altaïr stops giving him notice.

“Or a young husband perhaps?”

Altaïr doesn’t halt. But he falters in step, a miniscule sign devoid of real attention to his body language, but enough for the man to seize the chance given. The next time he materializes before Altaïr, having to look up at the warrior because of the height difference, he is awash with a wide smile Altaïr can’t decipher, and all in all, it’s a complicated job to read enigmatic merchants.

“You want to dress him in fine clothes? Get hold of finest oil to enjoy your husbandly privileges? It’s not too expensive—”

“I owe no man,” Altaïr cuts off, either in dismissal or haggle, whatever comes out of it.

“I don’t ask much in return,” the man assures, his hands surprisingly nimble as he pulls out a tiny, tiny bundle of cloth from one of his hanging satchels, “I got this fine clothing for a good price.”

The man nudges it against Altaïr’s belly and Altaïr looks down at it. No one gets cloth of this textile and quality for a good price. The man is persistent, prodding Altaïr to have a closer look, and Altaïr takes the bundle for a better examination. The material is so silky, so smooth in texture, that it resists being held in place and folds out, though there is not much to see in terms of size.

Altaïr regards the clothing item as costly. Between his fingers slips the pure luxury of finest fabric designed not to warm the flesh, but solely to please the eye. It’s an expensive offering. One done for a spouse or a lover soon to become so. It’s delicately-wrought, a silken see-through fabric made to lure the observer into sexual temptation, made to entice lovers. Altaïr’s hands are dry and his callouses rasp coarsely against the silken, almost immaterial, fabric and he denies his rough hand touch by pulling away and leaving it in the hand of the merchant.

“One matbea.” The man announces as if deal is struck, wrenching Altaïr from a fantasy.

One matbea is a mind-boggling price for a piece of clothing this tiny. It’s a sum that arrests away Altaïr’s sudden image of Malik in these sheer pants that prune around the ankle, with texture so translucent that he could see through. The price is too steep for a clothing item this insubstantial, however pretty. One matbea is what a person would give for an excellent horse. The image of Malik in these pants bursts into his mind anew and he suffers a loss of strength and gives in.

“Five kesefs,” Altaïr offers. The original price cut in half. It’s bound to rise some, but he won’t allow himself thought of purchase unless the price is lower than eight kesefs. The merchant’s face scrunches up for the briefest of moments—a hint enough to prompt Altaïr into repeating his offer at seeing that the man doesn’t excel at haggle itself.

“Nine,” the man says, threads his thumbs through the gauzy trimming at the ankle, as if to demonstrate to Altaïr the delicacy of the garment, one Altaïr is already convinced of.

“Six.” Altaïr says, resolute.

The merchant is hesitant and Altaïr is aware of this. The man glances around as if some other customer will enter their milieu, someone else he can follow around and pester about a pair of pants, but there is no one and both are growing impatient. Had the man been less easy to fall into reluctance, Altaïr might have refused the offer swiftly.

“Be quick, I will no longer linger in this heat,” Altaïr says barely short of snarl and he takes a breath that fills out his lungs and puffs his chest out in a show of dominance while they stand at the mouth of the hot blacksmith corridor. He aims to hasten decision by mellowing the poor haggler out with threat of departure.

“Seven.” The man offers it for this lesser price only to entice further perchance, an expectation Altaïr doesn’t intend to fulfill.

Altaïr pays with seven kesefs from the purse that’s grown tremendously lighter after all his purchases, and buys the delicate pants, wrapped into a bundle of different fabric and kept close to Altaïr’s chest, thinking that Malik will not refuse after seeing how pricey the gift is. He grows confident that Malik will find a liking for it, for Altaïr has also bought the statue of Hiba to pray to now, and that is bound to give favored results.

 


 

Altaïr visits the nearest beach on his way home.

He intends to center his attentions on Hiba for the good of his marriage and household, and prayer to Hiba requires sand.

Hiba’s golden eye hangs low on the horizon ahead. Altaïr keeps the small bundle of gift to husband hot-pressed to his chest and lifts his right hand, extends it outwards to reach out for Hiba’s eye while its last gentle sun-rays lave at his body. A sliver more and the eye will set into the sea where Daga will accept it into her hold to guard it overnight. Altaïr catches its shape between thumb and index finger, as he used to do as a child, playing Nokem who once held Hiba’s retrieved eye thus, before he gave it to Masekha to make the sun out of it. He keeps his thumb in place and follows the sun’s lazy sinking into the sea with the index finger, until his fingers are pinched together. There are silvery peals of laughter around the beach as the hour of beach worship comes to a closure, and families who had come earlier commence tidying up after themselves to return to their communities.

Altaïr used to worship alone as a child, however odd worshiping Hiba alone might have appeared to others. There were families who had invited him into their circle at seeing a lonely little child pray, and Altaïr had indeed once played in sand with other children, but he used to worshiped alone, hoping for a family to worship with when he grows old enough to marry.

Beach worship of Hiba consists of a family venturing out for a meal on the beach, spending a day there if possible—for the adults, it is a custom for tying bonds between family, and for the children a day for collecting gaudy little stones and shells to put on shoulders and pour sand down them, just like the god once had. Altaïr hopes to one day worship Hiba on beach till a rose-hued sunset with Malik as family.

All around is dimmed with sunset as families depart moving past Altaïr, the dark is about to veil the city and prepare it for Masekha’s nightly arrival. Altaïr wonders how many children will be up tonight, peeking through their windows with endeavor to hear the four-headed goddess galloping around the city on her horse, in robes dark as the night, slipping into every street to bring moonlight to every corner of the city. Altaïr had never heard her. Ezio swears on his life that he had. More than once. Altaïr believes him. There had been people who had heard but not seen the goddess at night. She is too cunning to be beheld with bare eye.

Altaïr falls into a crouch and fixes the little bundle into his lap. He takes a sack he had acquired earlier at Barzel’s market and begins filling it with fine, dry sand. He takes as much as he deems enough for a few days of prayer to Hiba. He lets its weight sink into his palm and washes in the stillness of the beach, breathes the scent of sea that ripples in the breeze, listens to the gentle lashing of waves upon sand. The darkness has gained in hue when he next looks up and around.

He is still in a crouch, absorbing the blend of sand and sea ahead, when he catches glimpse of a cave far to his left. It’s one of Daga’s sacred caves. Only couples are allowed inside to perform the sacrifice to Daga, the goddess of fertility. The mermaid that was born a human. Access to the cave is barred by sea now due to high waters, but when the first clean night comes, there won’t be water and the path leading into the cave will be dry. Altaïr knows about the sacrifice. In theory, he knows every minuscule detail of it. In practice, he’s never had a partner to perform it with, though he craves Malik’s company in it now, as the only other person he could perform it with. Altaïr had been secretly convinced that Ezio had done it before, until Ezio confessed that he had not. He did not give reasons. Altaïr knows Desmond had never performed it either.

The thought of making a sacrifice to Daga simmers low in Altaïr’s belly until he yearns for it. It seems inaccessible for a moment, as barred a possibility as the current entry to the cave, too distant to ever reach within a lifetime. But as he presses the bundle of wrapped clothes to his burning belly a sudden change comes over him. The set of his shoulders alters, all burden of hope and desire unloads, drops off in an instant. His mind glides over the possibility of shortening the distance between him and his husband.

Malik yearns to see revenge enacted. He desires the scales of justice to be balanced by equal amount of spilled blood. Altaïr is eager enough to speed up the process of drawing Malik into his embrace to spill blood as a gift to his husband. He can’t bring harm upon his Master. The thought is too removed from Altaïr’s heart to even consider such notion. But he feels the tide of a different, sinister train of thoughts.

Altaïr is game to kill Abbas. In exchange for Malik’s trust.

He can’t offer Al Mualim’s life, but he feels little qualm about presenting Abbas’ head to Malik as a sweetener. Altaïr would stain his sword with blood to have their breaths mingle inside one of Daga’s caves.

Altaïr stares off towards the cave he can barely see, raring for blood as much as he is raring for his husband’s touch.

With resolve cemented, Altaïr takes off.

 


 

Their home smells of fresh meal and commotion when Altaïr arrives.

On their table is a piece of bread and table condiment and leftovers of what looks like a sophisticated meal of veal escalope in a sauce mixture—Malik’s abandoned dinner.

The first room is in a sort of delirium. And Malik is very near it.

The essence of the situation is that a dozen of people are charging back and forth through the narrow passage of bodies and collisions, and yells of carriers hauling in the heavy carpet, thick rolls of furs, bundles of fabric wound around bulky spools, crates of polished brasswork, spotless glass- and silverware Malik had nowhere to store—a Barzel’s market in small inside their house.

Malik is struggling through this commotion. Half a dozen instructions wait pending around him in increasing numbers, a carrier man follows him around making a fuss about the placement of the statue as Malik argues with another delivery person who’s laying the carpet across the table absent his consent. Malik looks like he could bang a few heads together out of rage before he comes to a standstill, there, in the midst of this whirl of motion, looking vaguely confused and distinctly angry at having his home disturbed by these objects. He is too torn leaping to and fro between a multitude of deliverers and sorting information to notice Altaïr’s presence. Altaïr slips through the bodies to join his husband inside and settles at his side to wordlessly announce his presence.

Malik has only a moment to look at him before the interrogations stop and the grand turmoil falls into quiet. Everything stops very suddenly. This fold-up of activities is brought about by Altaïr’s appearance.

Another few moments of tumult arise as the carriers drop their baggage off and pick themselves up and the pandemonium boils down to nothing after they leave with appreciative quips and invitations to further purchase in future.

“Can we afford such commodities?” Malik asks with a stretch of concern in his riled up tone and his voice warms Altaïr’s mood, he has missed it despite the short span of time since last hearing it.

“I want the best for this house. Silk and fur. Glass and statues.”

“We need no embellishments,” Malik says, assuming a bizarrely gentler tone—an occurrence that, linked with Malik’s sudden proximity as he comes to stand before Altaïr, almost drives the warrior to picking Malik up off floor into an embrace. But Malik stands there looking up at him and concern is shifting across his face and morphing into frustration.

“We need spices and food to store, and linen and pottery and grain. Oils and soaps, not luxury.”

Altaïr only now realizes that what he’s read as a gentle voice is in truth a lecturing tone made lower but firmer so that Altaïr would pay attention and receive the message properly.

“Money slips through your fingers like sand, you’ve no sense for keeping a household,” Malik scolds on.

Malik is bitter. He is not happy. He is not satisfied. Altaïr’s visions are dissolving.

“Dinner is in the kitchen,” Malik says as form of dismissal, as if his sudden, ungrateful departure doesn’t send the lesson across. Altaïr watches him gather up his uneaten meal and set it aside inside the kitchen. He watches him walk out of the house he had worked hard to acquire, and even harder to embellish. Yet the embellishments are nothing absent his husband’s light.

 


 

Altaïr is not discouraged enough to put off a prayer to Hiba. It may yet bear fruit.

The statue he has moved into their bedroom, set it into the space beside Nokem, so that the two godly brothers can be in each other’s company. As Altaïr gazes into Nokem’s face, his visage appears less threatening, less menacing than the last time he had looked at it. He brings his sack of sand and a blanket to spread before Hiba’s statue.

Altaïr’s torso is bared.

He adjusts the sack before him, unlaces the string that keeps it tied, takes a handful of warm sand. He bends his neck and lowers head in worship and keeps his hand positioned above his shoulder, soldered into a fist keeping the sand trapped. As the first thoughts begin to form in mind and words see them whispered to Hiba, Altaïr begins to loosen his fingers, slowly, deliberately, pouring the sand down his shoulder and arm. The sand keeps dusting down his limb gathering around his cross-legged form and across the blanket. He prays in hope of love to come. He beseeches, pleads for his household to be imbued with laughter and saturated with his husband’s care and affection.

Altaïr keeps strewing the sand down his shoulder in a playful sprinkle, to imitate what Hiba was doing when he first arrived home. This toying with sand is a libation to the god, a way of connecting intimately enough to talk to him and ask favor.

Altaïr asks for favors because he can’t hear the god whisper to him as Malik claims he hears Nokem. As Gdila had whispered to him before battles. He wishes Hiba would tell him what he doesn’t know, but the god is silent and Altaïr keeps dusting the sand across his arm in reverence and hopes for a welcoming household despite the quiet.

He doesn’t know that Malik considers his gifts a waste of money—not because they stem from Altaïr, but because his knowledge of keeping a household far exceeds that of Altaïr’s and he recognizes waste. He doesn’t know that, though Malik had refused the war spoils, he is bitter about Altaïr’s lightened purse. Malik can’t provide for them both during winter if Altaïr spends his entire sack of coins within a week of returning. He doesn’t know that Malik’s mind doesn’t wander into gratitude at Altaïr’s vain attempt to fill the many gaps with gifts, as if nothing bad has happened in the seven years that span between their first meeting and now. Like the holes could be stitched with coin.

Altaïr knows nothing of this, but he prays on and he is in the process of pouring his third hand of sand when Malik returns.

He strolls into the bedroom fresh out of the courtyard’s showers and he’s a comely image to look at, with skin awash with droplets while a white bath-sheet folds around his waist and hips, with fresh face and sleek black hair. An image that Altaïr misses due to prayer. Malik slips his new nightclothes on while Altaïr is praying—the old design altered to suit his current needs—and then he imposes himself on Altaïr by proximity, looming behind his back as he stares at the atrocity of Altaïr praying to Hiba. He humbly waits for a moment from this inappropriate distance, but then breaks the prayer through spoken word, in a manner Altaïr is guilty of.

“I hear you whisper to Hiba. Do you believe he heeds your prayers?” Malik borrows Altaïr’s own words from this morning, with an excess of mockery in tone.

Altaïr avoids confrontation or doesn’t acknowledge Malik’s interruption. Malik watches him pray, with mild distaste, finding that his husband is unworthy of addressing the god of family and household, finding zero reason why someone like Altaïr would pray to such a meek god to begin with. The whole affair of finishing the prayer lasts several more moments. Malik hails Altaïr’s abnormal silence because he finds it more welcoming than words, and he doesn’t ruin Altaïr’s packing up. The warrior rolls the blanket up to dust off tomorrow, ties his sack, and as Malik is making to leave for bed, he feels Altaïr thrusting a small bundle into his hand.

Upon seeing Malik’s cross look, Altaïr gives his throat voice.

“I got this fine piece for a good price.”

Malik keeps a suspicious eye on him but unfolds the bundle by digging his fingers into crushed velvet of this item and allowing it to unfold before his eyes as he straightens it up with both hands. No one gets fine materials like this for a good price. Two pant legs spread out, pruned attractively at ankles, dyed an expensive purple, hiding nothing. Altaïr has brought him what is felicitously called ‘the gift to lovers’. Anger strips off Malik’s face to make space for heavy confusion.

“I won’t wear this. It’s made to entice partners,” he realizes with puzzlement, incapable of caring for anything that revolves around incentives of sexual pleasure. It’s an investment misplaced, though the fabric could yield some gain if sold, which renders Altaïr’s clumsy purchase a little less damaging in terms of cost. Malik considers the price it would fetch when sold, considers if the recompense would be large enough to cover the expenses, when suddenly the shift in Altaïr’s face draws his attention as he catches glimpse of it through one transparent pant leg.

Altaïr has the gall to drop gaze to floor and allow his face a furtive, coy smile. When Malik still remains oblivious to the subtle hints of this display, Altaïr moves to bolder words.

“Well... yes. I was hoping you would wear it.”

And the full realization of Altaïr’s intention—so clear but made obscure by Malik’s innocence—plummets upon him driving him into a dark-faced fury.

Fuck you!”

He feels like he should snarl some more at the idea of making himself more attractive for Altaïr by wearing this gift but finds his body carrying him towards the bed where he drops down with an angry, energetic pulling of quilt over his form, and turns to the side facing inwards across the bed to avoid looking into his husband’s face. Until the man comes to assume his own place in bed, that is, whereupon he plans to roll over to fit himself into the position he’s been forced into since Altaïr’s arrival.

Altaïr remains, with the gift worth seven kesefs spilled at his feet. He feels his gorge rising, and a tide of dark, hellish anger, whatever civility has gathered in him turns frail as he watches his husband, intolerably arrogant and tucked into the bed, until his fists tremble with the want to be used. An anger which ends, somewhat disappointingly, in growing slack. Malik remains stony and hardhearted. To have him but not have him feels like a curse beyond repair.

“I was woken from a fleeting dream,” Altaïr whispers hoarsely, as if to himself, as if not expecting words in return.

“Every night breaks, and we must wake,” comes a desired voice, in half-desired tone, and undesired answer.

Altaïr’s chest is hurting. It’s a sudden shift in the way he feels physical pain. It’s not the stab of blade or arrow, not the flesh parting beneath sharp weapon but heart splitting with the revelation of being unwanted. Unwelcome. Undesirable. Not once during his childhood in Hiba’s orphanage did he feel this discarded by another human being. His initial impulse was to punish Malik for injury inflicted. To retaliate against the agony of rejection. Until he starts to tell pains apart to find it not of flesh but of sentiment, undeserving of retaliation with violence, as it would only serve to further sever whatever is there between them. It would serve to cut bonds between him and the community too. All would take Malik’s side if he were to punish his husband with savage violence. They would tear him apart.

Altaïr has a prodigious memory of what he receives when he lashes out at Malik. They will never budge from the spot they loiter at while Altaïr keeps retaliating in response to Malik’s anger. Altaïr has learned his lesson. Now he means to balm wounded heart with a last attempt of getting closer to his dream of peace in the household. He entombs his anger for good and circles the bed, slipping into it from his side. Malik has not yet fallen victim to slumber but to a dark scowling instead, and as Altaïr climbs into the bed without moving under its cover, Malik flips over to face away.

“I seek no quarrel.” Altaïr assures, softly.

“Your presence around me states otherwise.”

The recognition of Malik’s discomfort is difficult to bear, but Altaïr hopes to approach the lofty halls of peace through a different route and teaches himself patience before he speaks.

“I know there have been tensions between us. Yet I see no cause for our current arrangement to fall into unpleasantness,” he says short of whisper, and it would be amusing to watch Malik’s face in response to words that probably come unexpected, “Let us lay our mistakes past us or find them repeated.”

Malik is holding silence evasively.

Altaïr’s mind is scattered across all the words he wants to utter and things he wants to do, but his body manages, somehow, by dint of intuition and a kind of natural bounce of attraction, to slink across the quilt and closer to his husband. Once he is within a breath of distance, he gives life to the dark thoughts that have been birthed at the beach.

“I cannot give you Al Mualim’s life. Whatever else you wish for... give voice to desire and see it satisfied.”

From his angle, Altaïr can’t see the slope of Malik’s face, but he hopes to nudge him into asking for Abbas’ death to even scales of justice and see his family avenged. Malik is stubbornly silent and doesn’t allow a glimpse into his wants. For yearning of coming even closer, Altaïr is pressed into suggesting it himself.

“I may find means to kill Abbas, if that will please you.”

Altaïr’s whispers of a deserved death suffuses Malik with amazement that makes his tense shoulder fall slack and his grip on the quilt loose. Loose enough for Altaïr to seize chance and slip it down his husband’s shoulder and partly down his flank as he scoots up to slot himself against the smaller body. He yearns to wind his arm around him and draw him against his chest, but he awaits an answer, a green light to carry on with touch.

“If you hold means, kill that son of Ga’ash.”

Malik is aloof but aloofness alone is not enough to discourage him. His mind is far from sexual appetite and wanders around the territory of light touching and affection as he hooks a finger into the wide neck of Malik’s bed tunic to draw it down his shoulder and set mouth to work, a reward he thinks is well-deserved after the promise of blood. Bliss takes him into its hold as Malik doesn’t utter a sound of protest and his path is cleared. Altaïr’s heart doesn’t open wide enough to allow himself thought of a whole night spent in this proximity, but he hopes to hold his husband for at least a while. He peppers a collection of kisses—wet and dry and wispy and well-pressed—until he has no corner left to kiss that his lips haven’t touched. Through fleeting advantage he glides his hand down Malik’s flank, across his ribs and down towards his waist where he bumps the quilt away to settle lower, on his hip. He feels the intricate pattern across Malik’s side through sense of touch before his gaze joins to gorge itself on this display.

The knots are falling down his left flank in an orderly line of five. Between the knots are gaps. He allows his hand to part from Malik’s hip to sweep across the two lowest knots, the nearest, pressing harder along the gaps to permit his fingers access to the warm skin resting beneath. His fingers are rough from callouses and he fears his touch is not as soft as he had intended, so he pulls himself a sliver down Malik’s back to replace fingers with lips. He nudges the first slit apart with the tip of his nose and lays lips to a rest upon patches of bare tan skin that peeks from the pristine white fabric and pretty knots.

Malik is going along with it.

Altaïr is torn between wanting to decipher his motives and wanting to dive down every gap to brush lips upon every spot of exposed skin and drain his thirst for touch, and the latter rises as the victor, at least for a moment of muddled sanity. Malik smells of washing soaps and mild clean scents, and fine fabric, and baked bread. It’s the scent of home Altaïr had yearned to return to after war. And if he died here this instant, it would be in the elusive embrace of a dream, and it’s a better death than the biggest glory upon battlefield.

After every gap between the knots has been appropriately attended to, Altaïr pulls himself up to former position with a blend of joyful moan and contented sigh—an odd noise of bliss, a stranger to his own throat—and coils an eager arm round Malik’s form, finding it tense. He props himself up on elbow keeping the settled arm around his husband, and tilts his head over Malik’s shoulder to peruse his face. He appears disconcerted by his touch, and a couple of beats later, Altaïr is able to read the single most violent expression from the shape of his sneer, which is a screaming back off.

Altaïr physically feels all his excitement seep away, leaving behind a dreadful sadness, an emptiness that feels as violent as Malik’s hostile expression, as if he’d been gouged out and left a carcass. Altaïr is not even close to rubbing up against him in fleshly desires, he has wrapped himself around Malik’s body in nothing that could indicate sexual pursuit or appetite, it is a completely innocuous attempt at fastening them closer to each other.

The problem of his relations with Malik is that he needs a laborious amount of time to have his heart mended and an appallingly brief moment to have it cracked open by the same person that holds the means to sew it shut.

His chest feels inhumanely carved out with nothing but bones left inside.

Confronted with this grisly sight of Malik’s inhospitable visage, he feels as if his body’s been stabbed into movement and retreats with a gaze lost and shifting around wildly, until it settles on the middle of their bed. Something is different about their bed cover. The quilt looks split apart, so Altaïr picks the corner of Malik’s supposed half and finds it unstitched to his own, two halves torn apart, and the salt of Malik’s action rubs into his open insides and drives him to nausea. A villain in his own house. A border put up between them. As if they haven’t moved on at all but reverted a few steps back, to worse than it had been before.

Altaïr falls completely on his back, pressing the heels of his palms to his eyes and cheeks, forcing them down until it feels like his skull could give in under the pressure and crack open like his chest—a pain that’s welcome against the upwelling of what Altaïr suspects is a breakdown as he vows never to cross Malik’s side of bed again.

He lunges from the bed and his body carries him across the room with surprising sense of direction, he throws on the first piece of clothing that fits him, prepares to leave.

“Where are you going?” Malik grumbles from bed.

“I have pressing concerns.” Altaïr thwarts emotion which threatens to ooze into his voice before it can betray him, appears more coldhearted than heartbroken.

“Of what sort?”

Hurt starts to leak faster into his tone and Altaïr has to keep himself from speaking before his voice is ready to be used, “I won’t have my presence dampen your spirit,” he spits out, takes a breath of mercy, sucking on the remaining shreds of poise in him, “We should be kept separate. Throwing us together in one pit invites calamity.”

Malik’s face is small and inscrutable, the portion of it that’s peeking from the shield of his quilt. He says nothing, offers no insight into his thoughts. Unreadable, like from the first moment Altaïr returned to set eyes upon him. Reserved. Unwelcoming. Detached. Altaïr desires him. Despite his shortcomings, regardless of flaws, even with his snotty reserve. Altaïr wants him. He had allowed his affection recognition and food. And found it severely underfed by the boy that lies wrapped in his cocoon, on their bed.

Malik’s deep, dark eyes follow his departure, a sorry exit marred by a bitter confession as he retreats.

“I cannot remain within these walls and be denied your touch.”

Altaïr leaves, swallowed by night.

The door swings shut behind him.

 

Chapter Text

 

Malik practices restraint when stepping out of home at early hours.

A simple boost of alertness, made necessary by the fact that he is oftentimes an unwitting participant in a quaint little custom that goes by the name of ‘an offering to Hiba’. This useful restraint is what makes him examine the doorstep a moment before he is to set foot upon it. This early morning, on the doorstep sits a small bundle Malik immediately recognizes as an offering to Hiba—a practice he had’t participate in for quite a while, one that puts a smile on his face as he bends to accept the bundle. It fits into his palm perfectly.

It’s been at least a couple of weeks since someone shared an offering with him. Longer still since he himself initiated one.

It rests in his palm, gently warming his skin. Whoever had made it has left the offering here only moments ago. He unwraps the piece of clean cloth and finds the ball of sweet bread, wonders quietly what’s inside. The ball alone won’t reveal to him the identity of the baker, but he is victim to attempts of trying to puzzle it out by tasting its contents. With a smile unwavering on face, Malik re-wraps the ball to keep the offering warm until he can share it with someone and he carries on with intended path, descending into the vacant courtyard.

The truth is, gentle Hiba cares for more than only the household. His care extends exceedingly towards ties of friendship and community.

When someone requires blessings from Hiba for small ventures—those unfit for sacrifices or blood offerings—they rise with first light to bake these balls of cake to spread among community members most dear to them, to deposit them at front doors, anonymously, before the people of their choosing leave homes, so that they may find it upon waking. As the honored receiver of this little offering (as Malik is at present) a person has no means to divine the identity of the one who had left the sweet treat at their door. No means, unless they try to guess by the taste of its dough, or the sweet filling inside, or unless they happen to stumble out of home early enough to catch someone in the act. Malik once disturbed Leonardo in mid-offering, and their jolt of mutual surprise dissolved into a jelly of unbecoming giggles as they split that winter morning with laughter.

As a child, Malik had once wondered why the baker should not reveal their identity if they’d done the effort to bake the offerings before sunrise and steal out at first light and leave the sweets at people’s doors. He had’t cared for asking elders for answers, until the answer revealed itself to him on its own. As a child, Malik had recognized the importance of anonymity in this offering. The identity matters little. It’s an honor to be included in this offering to Hiba, and concealing identities makes the bonds within community grow stronger. It could be anyone. The mere fact of knowing that other members of community care for you prompts return of this care and strengthens ties between people. As a child, Malik understood, as all children are bound to understand at a certain point, that nothing is as treasured, or as valuable, as the sanctity of community.

The hour is early.

The peace of the courtyard beckons Malik to enjoy the quiet despite the reason behind his early waking being to not waste a second between two jobs today, and even though he is hopelessly behind with the work (Altaïr being the main culprit for his repeated procrastination of duties) he resolves that he will pull through even if he spares himself a moment of peace to enjoy the unexpected offering.

Malik is about to snatch himself a seat of choice on the lone bench when his gaze unmistakably lands on the most disgraceful display of the day—a wine-sodden spot on pavement at the foot of the massive table that is currently the residence of two warriors who have drank themselves senseless.

Of all the places and events that had darted through Malik’s head last night—including drowning in sea (a more favorable image) and sharing the bed of someone else (for some reason a less favorable image)—Malik has woken to find his husband a wine-drenched fool cuddling up to Desmond on naked floor. An abundance of wine flasks lies around them, most long emptied, and the sight is a sorry one to behold. His empathy for Altaïr is trying to stifle itself with varying degrees of success, but his empathy for Desmond is indisputable. The poor man has somehow managed to not only get involved in the failures of Altaïr’s marriage, but also to provide Altaïr a body for holding which he so desperately needs. The latter Malik suspects to be not so much a result of a consenting effort as a side effect of a drunken bout. Desmond is most probably not even aware that someone is holding him.

Malik rolls his eyes—a motion that morphs into a shake of head born from a burst of annoyance that’s only slightly marred by a relief Malik chooses neither to acknowledge nor to address—and then he takes his intended seat and unwraps his offering, with the two benumbed warriors snoring gently at his right.

Malik knows what he is supposed to do with the offering next.

Upon receiving the ball of cake, a person is meant to split it in half. One half to preserve for themselves, the other to be offered to someone else, so that this offering to Hiba can be further shared and the circle of involved people spread to strengthen the blessing. Malik’s duty is to share. And while he would gladly offer the other half to Desmond, the warrior is dead to the world, dead to three of Altaïr’s limbs tightly coiled around him while they doze a three-steps-distance away from Malik. At least the night has given them clement weather so that they wouldn’t freeze sleeping on pavement. At least Altaïr hadn’t strayed into someone else’s bed. The latter is relevant only as far as the strength of his husband’s given word extends, as proof that he would honor promise of faithfulness even in a drunken state of a man forced from his bedroom by the impact of a rejection. He is still true to his word. Loyal in pain as Malik is.

Malik heaves a sigh and lifts his feet onto the bench to settle into a cross-legged sit as he traces a blunt nail along the groove running around the ball, indented before baking to ease the splitting of cake into two halves. He presses in until the texture of it begins to crumble under his nail and the ball gives in to intent and breaks off in half. He dusts the crumbs away and holds the two identical pieces, examines its content for clues that could point to the baker, ponders on who to honor with the other half of the offering. Inside is a filling of peach jam and chopped hazelnuts and Malik’s mouth waters with whetted appetite. It’s been a while since he’s pampered himself with indulgence in sweets—an error that requires prompt correction as he promises himself a dessert for a midday meal.

He gives himself over to pondering about cake recipes, for only a short moment which drops off in the instant the first little bird plummets to peck at a crumb and swishes past. He blinks himself awake from thought and finds the next two, then three, then a collection of songbirds feasting on the crumbs that escaped to pavement. He cuts his own state of confusion short with a chuckle, cares little for waking the warriors with the sound, and at last settles on whom to share his half with. His own half he deposits onto the wrapping, into his lap, and proceeds to hollow out the filling from the half he intends to share. He scoops the jam and hazelnuts out, licks it off his finger, and grinds the half into crumbs to spread among the gathered company. He is deliberate in his distribution and takes care to offer equal chance for meal to each bird as he dusts pinch after pinch down across pavement where the tiny beaks keep pecking for crumbs.

Beside him, there is suddenly a rush of a warm moan that sails across the distance from Altaïr’s mouth to Malik’s ear like it’s meant for him, and it is.

Malik...” The gruff, earnest, pleasant moan mumbles from Altaïr’s mouth while he makes a desperate dash to draw Malik’s body closer, an attempt made absurd by the fact that he is fastening himself to Desmond’s back instead to the body of his husband who watches this display of misery. The tight clasp on his body, the face burrowed into his nape, the clammy breathing down his neck, all shake Desmond from remnants of sleep and Malik is privy to the shift of expressions on his face as the warrior starts to his senses at a rapidly growing speed. Desmond doesn’t shake Altaïr off but he does take the burden of Malik’s heavy gaze with more bravery than Malik had expected him to.

“Altaïr, I’m afraid you’re shit out of luck,” Desmond rasps with a hoarse voice and wriggles out of the loosening grasp, “I know everyone wants me but I’m not the one you’re calling...”

Desmond is righting himself into a more presentable position and stretching the kinks from his cramped muscles, and Altaïr lies in shambles behind him, on his back, with hands shielding eyes that refuse waking. Altaïr takes his drink with far less expertise than Desmond. He hears Desmond shuffle towards the table, towards the bench, and he listens to his antics feeling a distant shame at having entangled the fellow warrior into the side effects of his bitter marriage. He opens his eyes at last despite contempt for light, and his gaze lands not on Desmond but, surprisingly, on Malik who is for some reason sitting cross-legged on the bench and feeding a cohort of birds. Altaïr has never seen him in a comelier state nor healthier shade of skin or fresher face that advertises how restful his sleep had been without a husband at his side, while Altaïr had dragged himself through the night with a company of three—Desmond, drink, and sorrow.

Altaïr’s unfortunate position on the ground offers to him a fortunate (or equally unfortunate) glimpse through the gap between Malik’s flank, arm, and knee where he’s leaning his elbows on, right into his lap where the warrior upon closer inspection discovers what is the leftover of an offering to Hiba. This feeding of songbirds gains another dimension, one of blatant disregard for actual family, one that Malik unashamedly flaunts under Altaïr’s very nose.

There sits a husband who faces away in bed, disregards his presence when he’s not hurling words of disobedience or refusing to include him in an offering to Hiba. Warriors disbanded, no husband, no family. He has awoken to a world of shit.

The moment of watching Malik feeding birds with what he is expected to share with him is gruesome and uncomfortable, hurts far more than the hangover. Nausea crawls over his insides and climbs up his throat and he leans forward catching his inner elbows at his bent knees and fastening fingers to the wrist of the opposite hand, and he tightens himself closer during an onslaught of vertigo. His body is cold but the chill that emanates from the stone below is putting it to a shame. 

He catches Malik looking at him furtively.

Altaïr ties the disappointment on his face up so that the holes in his heart don’t show, or at least so that they don’t show too much.

If Malik can read anything from the wrinkles of his face Altaïr doesn’t know, but he sits on ground with Desmond watching him in pity while he, in turn, watches Malik giving away the last crumbs of what he is supposed to share with him. He sits there in drags and a haggard face and heart left hollow after the wine’s been drained from it, watching the birds feast on what should have found way to his mouth and heart instead. He suffers the torment of hunger—not for food but for husband—and his craving for Malik seems not to have grown thinner overnight.

This botched offering to Hiba weighs heavy on him till the point of devastation, till his supplies of hope have drained away faster than yesterday.

Malik unwinds and hops from the bench to wash his hands at the water-well.

“I wish I’d never married,” Altaïr says thoroughly sodden with regret, to himself or to Desmond, “My home would be empty. But absent this entanglement.”

From the table doesn’t come as swift a reply as he expects but he doesn’t turn to watch Desmond fidget and keeps his muddled gaze on Malik who is following his morning routine on the water-well. When Desmond offers response, it’s not the hesitant tone that he expects, nor the words he’s been hoping for.

“There, um... there are men expressing interest towards marrying Malik. If you release him...” Desmond trails off after a false start.

Altaïr’s stabbed into glaring at him, with a strange addition to his existing visage of regret—a blaze of pure-faced anger and a filthy snarl at the very proposition of divorce or, even worse, entrusting Malik into another man’s hands.

“You may as well have cut off the balls from my shaft,” he hisses from the floor and the flare of nostrils is the same one that Desmond had provoked when they had climbed this hill upon return. How often he seems to provoke Altaïr’s anger when he doesn’t intend harm.

“Remove the thought. My heart doesn’t move towards letting him go,” Altaïr ends his sentence with a flutter of shame, as if he’s recognized the absurdity of hoping for anything while at the same time being unable to part from the one who is causing him grief. He pulls himself up onto the bench beside Desmond and pats him on shoulder, to relieve him of guilt and the burden of his former outburst. He keeps his hand there, less for Desmond’s comfort and more for comfort to himself, and Desmond lifts his arm and slings it around Altaïr before commencing a sympathetic rub across Altaïr’s icy back despite his own coldness, and he slowly warms the man into something that might appear human.

“Perhaps you will find common grounds,” Desmond whispers to him with a whiff of wine upon breath and arm wound around his back and hand idly kneading into the muscle of Altaïr’s shoulder.

“Perhaps I’ll sprout wings and flutter off like Gdila.”

Altaïr shrugs himself out of this embrace, not to shake off the comfort it brings (remembering that comfort, physical comfort included, is as common an occurrence among soldiers as among all other men) but to deprive Malik of knowledge of how deep into despair he has descended.

The other half of offering to Hiba sits on table unattended until Malik’s return, until he seats himself on the bench across them as if to flaunt off to Altaïr that he won’t give him a share of what he is enjoying.

Altaïr has no time to wallow in this display as Malik’s return to table seems to have drawn two other figures—three, upon second examination.

Anne takes a seat with infant in arm and Mary remains on foot a moment longer, stands at Malik’s back smoothing down his black hair, then tugging at the rim of his ear lovingly, and Malik doesn’t need to look at Anne, nor at the perpetrator of this touch, to know who is guarding his back. Mary seats herself at last, with back turned to Altaïr, perhaps even to Desmond, with elbows set upon table behind her and ankle drawn up on her other knee. Her stance is wide, her territory vast, and her smirk equally conquering as she sluggishly lifts her hand towards Malik’s face where she whisks a stubborn crumb away from the corner of his mouth as a caring mother would do to a child—an image in much disagreement with the austerity of her overall appearance. What the two warriors can’t see but Malik does is the frisky little twitch of her eyebrows which is in meaning far inferior to her shifty look at Anne, but they do see the shadowy tug of Anne’s rosy lips upwards into a smile-or-smirk which is far superior to her wife’s expression. Both their expressions combined put Malik’s face on a pedestal between them where he stands with elaborate confusion pulling at his face as he looks to and fro between the two women.

The warriors watch this elaborate caste system of facial expressions from across the table, mindful of how Malik’s gaze drops suddenly to the last bite of Hiba’s offering and then goes on a strenuous climb towards Anne’s awaiting face as he realizes at last that the offering to Hiba had been baked by none other than her. The secret remains unspoken but the loud truth of it is spoken through a silent exchange of looks.

“The kid needs a chaperon for a day,” Mary jumps straight to the point. Malik doesn’t blink an eye at the request but leans in towards Anne to smooth down a chubby little cheek with the back of his index finger, an untamed smile growing on his face.

“When?”

“Tomorrow,” Anne tells him. She has one arm firmly settled around her child—a hold of a practiced, able-bodied woman who is an experienced multi-tasker—and the other resting on Malik’s jaw while he hovers over the sleeping bundle. She shifts between catching the supple skin of Malik’s cheek into a pinch and stroking across it while he showers rivaling affection upon their baby. Between the two women, Malik could pass as the second, grown child.

“Where do you intend?”

“We’re sacrificing to Daga,” Mary clarifies, a piece of information that prompts Malik to right himself fast enough to catch the misty-eyed look that passes between the wives.

“But the first clean night is far off,” Malik happens to remember, but takes no pride in accidentally forgetting another possibility that springs to his mind far too late for him to be able to correct it. Mary is there to remind him.

“We’ve no alternative but to sacrifice privately then,” she says with a stretch of fresh smirk upon her lip and Malik doesn’t need to follow the path of her gaze while she looks past him with a flirty look to know it’s directed at Anne, “She will insist on this terrible sacrilege. Nothing is too holy to trample over when she’s desperate for her wife.”

Anne rises from the bench.

The movement is done in response to Mary’s tease, a lurching motion softened by the burden of the baby in her arm but no less imposing as she drifts past Malik’s back and towards Mary’s awaiting smirk, and when Anne takes a swipe at her cheek with a free hand to slap it from her smug face, Mary shackles her wrist with an effortless catch and tugs her down until Anne guides herself straight into her lap.

The company around them has mixed feelings about their ensuing kiss.

While Malik’s amusement gives rise to a stifled chuckle that drives his entire frame into a spasmodic tremble, Desmond drops his gaze to the table to avoid inappropriate staring at the appeal of their lip-lock, and Altaïr glares, as if Mary’s acts are worthy of blame for Malik’s refusal to slip into his lap in the same manner. One woman’s domestic fluidity can be another man’s domestic mess.

Anne’s hand is released in mid-kiss and she combs it through Mary’s hair—loose, ripe for tangling fingers in it or pulling at it, and Anne seems to settle on the former, closing a fist around her hair-beads and a handful of hair for a moment. And having regained reins of their kiss, Anne lifts herself with the slightest delay in removing her lips from Mary’s and recommences her interrupted motion from before with such a vigor and strength that her slap connects with Mary’s cheek in a smack fat enough to spill across the vacant courtyard and disperse with a lasting tinnitus. By the time Anne saunters away with a deliberate sway of hips and retreats into their home at an easy pace, Mary has recovered from the slap and put eyes to trailing after her with a riotous excitement across her face and reddened cheek pulled into a toothy smirk.

“That’s my girl,” Mary boasts with a certain profound admiration and sets her teeth into a smiling lip with pride and anticipation mixed—an expression of someone who is most eagerly looking forward to Daga’s sacrifice. Malik is not wont of breaking the bubble of her eagerness but curiosity wins the race in him.

“You’ve not been on duty last night?”

She turns to him, smile diminished, a sober expression on her face.

“Duty rotation is to blame,” she enlightens him, rubbing over her stinging cheek to help the color drain from it, “Haven’t had it in years. These new foreigners are to blame. And those who offered invitations to them.”

The latter is an implicit sting at the duo that sits at the table behind her, one of whom is bothered by it enough to retaliate at the insult.

“If you have a point to argue you are free to do so. But to my face.” Altaïr’s tone is acidic and seeking trouble which he hungers for, to divert attention from personal heartbreaks.

To Malik’s unfolding horror, Mary shifts to face his husband, setting boot after boot into proper place until she is leaning on elbow to complete this circle. Malik is mindful of her other hand on her hip. Mary has her sword strapped at her side. Altaïr is weaponless. His disadvantage is vast.

“And here is a warrior showing how much he actually gives a toss about what’s going on.”

“And what is?” Altaïr grits out.

“Foreigners.”

“And so? Foreigners have always been present in the city.”

“These are not ordinary foreigners. Traders, artists, merchants. These are the scum that you brought along—“

An eerie trot of hooves bursts from the tunnel-entrance, a sound muffled by the heavy drapery covering its mouth, before a long-maned beast of a horse canters through, tossing its charcoal mane into the folds of the curtain. There is only a set of limbs to behold until the riding figure boosts itself upright after the mare exits the tunnel entirely, and this fuller image reveals a pair of familiar, ruddy lips in the shadows of a dark hood.

“Greetings,” Claudia hails.

She holds herself in strange poise, looks as if she’s drifted by to impart some grave knowledge, looks as if she’s traversed the city for many dark hours on end to gather what she knows. She takes a brief meander while they follow her expectantly, and her beast applies itself to circling the massive table. The burnished coat of the black mare glimmers under the light, appears as if the daylight that plays across her back is seeping into her dark color and morphing it into an ashy tint, as if the darkness of her coat is receding by her mere presence in light.

Claudia is soused in enigmatic silence. While she canters around the table she is sitting up straight and proud, an imposing figure in her dark robes lifting the weight of her upper body from saddle and rocking her hips forward on par with the cadence of her beast’s trot. She rounds the table one last time before she approaches Mary directly, from the side, until the beast drives itself into Mary’s outstretched, awaiting hand. The mare nickers, shakes her head in greeting while Mary’s sure hand glides down her strong, velvety neck.

Claudia says nothing at first.

Her hand is peeking suddenly from the folds of her robe, a lily hand that seems to glow against the darkness of fabric it’s escaped from, and Mary takes it into a hefty grasp. She climbs the bench to utilize it as boost and swings her leg over the mare’s rump, settling behind Claudia in little more than a moment. The mare seems to invite herself into the next hand’s caress as soon as Malik makes a move. He extends his arm to put the hand in the beasts path and she leaps warmly into this call and sets herself under his palm and glides through until his hand is flush against her dusky neck.

“Altaïr,” Claudia beckons, and Altaïr looks up from Malik’s petting of the beast, “Al Mualim sends for you. One of you two is to divine the location of your mission from his second-in-command and to ask for further instruction.”

Altaïr watches her until his expression amounts to something that appears like confusion, but he makes no attempt to demand the source of her findings. He is picking his lessons up with swiftness. One of them is to not pry into Claudia’s sources of information. He nods in recognition and she doesn’t expect more from him and tightens her reigns, nudges her mare into a gallop.

The two figures duck as they scud through the tunnel and fall from sight.

“I’ll go,” Desmond breaks the silence.

Malik is making to leave the table but he halts long enough to listen to the end of their exchange. Desmond’s proposition is not without personal motive. He volunteers because Al Mualim’s second-in-command is Lucy. Desmond's face is brimming with unkempt eagerness which he strains to correct, and he allows a frown onto his face in a puny attempt to hide the zeal that no one at the table scolds him for.

The wonder lies not within Altaïr’s easy acquiescence to this as he gives Desmond a nod in consent. The wonder lies in the sobering speed of Desmond’s preparations to leave. He collects what he deems his from around the table and then mops up his courage.

Malik feels a stab of pity when Desmond scampers off to see the woman he’s placed far above himself.

 


 

The momentous truth of Desmond’s journey is that it’s spent in a state of disorder.

He ebbs and flows between an unsteady confidence and unwavering doubt, but this inner quarrel is a necessary part of this process, for the pace in which he walks towards meeting Lucy can only be kept up if he doesn’t give in to complete hesitation. He walks then marches a steady path passing Ya’ar’s academy on the land-bridge, moving past Barzel’s market to the left, and down into the southern half of the inner city.

He knows where Lucy resides.

They way to her quarters seems simple in theory, from what Claudia has imparted upon him. The more he prods at the possibility of having a closer glimpse of this woman, the deeper he settles into the lull of confidence that carries him towards the fortification. When Desmond is close enough that the walled structure can be viewed from afar with bare eye, an odd display arrests his attention.

At the corner of the street is a drowsy artist huddled against a wall and crouching with her sketchpad on knees where she sweeps across the paper furiously, with pieces of charcoal around her. Desmond can tell artists apart from other citizens after a mere glimpse. They are unpredictable, often invisible. They steal out at night to capture stray nightly figures or wait for Masekha to show herself, they meander among the crowds and between streets on lookout for curious scenes or people who capture their attention. At days of their own choice, they present whatever they’ve captured in their drawings on the forum, and there is where people can sometimes find themselves among the paintings and sketches, if they or something they’ve done had captured an artist’s interest.

When Desmond had still been a boy learning the art of sword, an artist had captured a moment of his training. He’d found it among the collection of other scenes during one market day when he hadn’t possessed enough money to buy his likeness. The picture is still preserved in his home. Altaïr had offered his share of money to cover the cost of that exciting find. Two orphans joining resources to buy what they separately could have never afforded.

Desmond wonders what the artist is capturing. Curiosity tames him until he gives in and peers down the street to share a view.

At the intersection of two neighboring streets, a posse of warriors, his comrades in war, is having a heated exchange with a handful of foreign mercenaries.

This display is no stranger to Desmond—unwelcome but not unfamiliar—and he takes pause in mid-journey for the sake of information that the night guard from Altaïr’s community had passed unto them earlier. The words are fresh and linger still. Mary’s words have been like a door half-opened. Desmond knows foreigners have always been a floating population, but he puts his hand upon the door that’s been cracked open and waits to measure whether Mary’s warning is worth of pushing it open, or ripe for closing shut.

The warriors number almost ten to three of foreign soldiers.

Desmond is not wont to admit, but it is his comrades who look like a collection of drunken bullies on prowl for fights, and not the other way around. Idleness has driven them to aimless paths around the city. Without a clear purpose, they look lost.

“You cower like weaklings, hiding behind steel!” A warrior bellows, her tone filthy and ridicule uncensored as she points at foreign armors. Desmond listens to her, hears her, feels as if it had only been yesterday that he’d spouted same insults on foreign soil.

He’s familiar with this ancient debate between them and their foreign allies. It’s cheap but demands defense in the face of past treatment that foreigners had bestowed upon their female warriors and their customs, when they’d been far away from homes. Here, on native soil, warriors feel tempted by the mere whiff of foreign soldiers, they scavenge for small clusters of them to poke for fun, unaware that the warriors as such no longer exist. Disbanded. Desmond would be guilty of hypocrisy if he condemned his comrades for ignorance. The news of disbandment has not yet spread far and he knows it only through association with Altaïr.

The accused soldier sneers in response to the insult, his hands shake with inaction. The posse of warriors barks with laughter at their hesitation, their dithering. Desmond used to unleash his own fair share of mocks and slurs over their full-body armor. Foreigners rely on steel to protect their ranks. Helmets, breastplates, grieves, gauntlets, vambraces—a body encased in heavy metal. Warrior armor, in stark contrast, consists of the eagle helmet, a pair of boots, a button-shaped shield, a sword, loincloth beneath the skirt of leathery feathers, and one spauldron for their sword hand—modified to shield the breast on female warriors. Foreign infantry that had joined their ranks over the course of the war has for years been a figure of fun, their confining  armors that impede their speed have been endlessly mocked, their reliance on body protection has been ridiculed. Most of all, they had been taunted for their lacking sense of community and comradeship. In warfare, coordination and cohesion of the lines are absolutely critical—they all fight together, or they all die together. And Desmond’s imagination doesn’t extend as far as to imagine dying at the side of one of these steal-encased foreigners. Entering into a fight with a single troop of bonded warriors like theirs is like entering into a lost war.

Desmond lingers. Something is about to happen and he wishes to be present at the scene, but he takes some pride in watching the warrior parade before the foreigners in her armor. A full circle she saunters around the insulted soldiers before one gives voice between the jeers being thrown their way:

“Better a coward than a woman!”

A skirmish swiftly ensues among the combatants.

Desmond seethes but the insult inflicted is not received as noiselessly by the woman who draws her sword and launches at the soldier, ferociously, and though Desmond is aware of the appropriateness of his other comrades who pull her back in time to spare the pavement the gore of bloody entrails, he wishes they would unleash her on the soldiers instead.

The foreign soldier is lucky he is still breathing.

None compare to the ferocity of their female warriors. The first, original children of Nokem. The nobles.

This last thought propels him on and he recommences his path, until he finds himself before a portion of wall reaching far in height, on a side where the fort is clean of any guards. Desmond is acquainted with the basic layout of this fortification but his intention doesn’t wander near the front gates. He inspects the climb, the stretch of bare wall that stands between him and his goal, and finds not even a hint of a crack suitable for scaling the sheer mass of this obstacle. The walls are thick and undressed, an unrewarding barrier to mount. They seem to be marked apart, where a new layer of wall had been added atop in the recent years to give it more height, with a simple, shallow groove in brick that reminds of the height of the original wall.

A groove interrupted by a smallish iron protrusion that stick out from the wall in one place, far above (an inscrutable rod of metal peeking from that single point in wall and creating some confusion as to its origin and presence), and nothing else to upset the complete smoothness of the surface.

There is not one window, or panel, or ornamental addition, that he can use as leverage to scale the wall.

Desmond had planned to sneak into the fort unnoticed. He endures this disruption of his schemes, stands still, skims across the wall once more, and this time the train of his thoughts goes swimmingly without a single obstacle to halt it.

Desmond begins to strip.

 


 

Al Mualim shifts the pawn with Sibrand’s name square forward until it entirely covers the image of the port on map.

Lucy frowns.

“Sibrand to control the port?” she asks with mild distaste and leans across the table to bar Robert from hearing her concerns, “I’d thought that is a dignified position, Rashid. For someone more worthy of it.”

Robert doesn’t hear her from half across the room nor does he make an attempt to do so, but she is attentive to the monotone drone of Robert’s background voice nevertheless. She listens to his dry account of mission planning and awaits judgment from the man who sits across stroking over his silvery beard while his eye flits across the map and pawns strewn about.

“Grain supply is allotted to Abu’l Nuqoud,” Al Mualim ponders.

A decision Lucy presently regrets, one born out of necessity, a sacrifice for moving Robert closer to the position of guarding the port.

“Sibrand already has tied himself to the business of mines,” Lucy presses on.

“The mines are a shared venture.”

“The money?”

“Split among several people to ease suspicion,” Al Mualim rights himself to take the pawn with Garnier’s inscription and place it atop Hiba’s hospital. Lucy offers no protest but her worry stretches to decisions that had already been discussed, and those that had not.

“You heard what the simple citizen thinks of our supremacy over the city. Malik’s words were an act of outrage coldly calculated,“ he reminds her.

“We don’t know whether it was coldly calculated, but it was certainly an outrage,“ Lucy promptly remembers this particular episode from the dinner gathering.

“Whatever the case, our authority must be secure.“

Lucy absorbs the point and to argue is pointless. Malik’s outburst was as inconvenient as it was convenient and it’s given justification to Al Mualim to act on original intentions and shush dissenting voices which had previously been dismissed by her and others.

“You tear at a serpent when it may yet bite,” Lucy repeats an old lesson as a warning.

“Altaïr will see him properly tamed.”

Al Mualim seems convinced. Lucy is less persuaded by the possibility of that but her mind wanders to other ventures.

“Altaïr’s comrades?” she asks dully, careful to keep interest off one of the warriors.

“Easily dismissed.”

Lucy looks up from the pawn in hand (it’s Talal’s, still unsorted) and regards him quietly for but a few moments, and she needs not even speak for Al Mualim to be swayed into her reasoning, whatever it may be that she deems useful. Lucy’s memory is wonderful. Her allegiance to his cause, too, is of crucial importance. As a noble and non-noble they present the perfect show of unity to the public eye. 

“You often disparage such men until they are needed next time,” Lucy says, covertly claiming her slice of cake, “I may yet have use for them.”

Al Mualim’s consent is immediate. He is quick to seize the notion that these men are worth keeping an eye on.

“I won’t stand between you and gossip.”

Her satisfaction she presents in form of silence. And stillness. She doesn’t attempt to remove Sibrand’s pawn from the port, and somewhere in the vast room which they presently occupy, she can hear Sibrand’s voice as well among a dozen others. Her consent is not born of a fond heart.

Lucy couldn’t learn to trust all these foreigners who have swarmed the city even if she had all nine months of a year at her disposal. She harbors nothing but aversion towards this whole lot, not because they are non-natives, but because they are making it a point of honor to insult the communities and all she stands for, the exception being Robert who restrains himself in this regard.

The business of chopping this city up into pieces like cabbage is a veritable gold mine. From export of precious stones to import of even more precious wood. A staggering amount of gold and income is involved in gathering the whole city under one hold. An appropriation made possible by the clutch of their two hands combined, with the power that this grasp brings distributed into all ten fingers. Ten people. Lucy takes issue with how these fingers are assigned but protest is futile. It had been these men who had once helped purge the city of traitors and had aided in war fought on their own soil. And though Al Mualim’s gifts for these favors may be far too generous, Lucy knows that these people have been too deeply involved to be dislodged from their city now.

The decisions are born of a heavy heart but clear mind.

Of all times, it seems as if Al Mualim is seizing this opportunity to delve into Lucy’s visible concerns. He always did seem to believe that their stratagem of dividing the city is perfectly rational.

“Who else once wisely divided up power into pieces?”

Lucy’s frown stands even as her mind jumps to the first of two notables who embarked upon such hazard of power division.

“Nokem?”

When Al Mualim retains his straight face, she tries anew, “Ga’ash?”

Al Mualim gives a solemn nod. It impels her towards considering the lessons of their creation myth in a new light.

Ga’ash once was intimidated by Nokem after the surviving brother made himself the god of vengeance. Ga’ash once did recognize that his own ferocity paled against Nokem’s wrath, that he entangled himself with a more powerful opponent, that in order to defeat Nokem he must find alliances elsewhere. And having understood that a clash would not be to his advantage, Ga’ash split himself into nine parts, nine dark spirits that scattered across the island to hide and slow down Nokem’s quest for revenge.

Al Mualim’s imagery is clear.

They are splitting power into nine parts, these evil spirits, as Ga’ash once split himself into pieces. Lucy’s duty is no different to that of Sheker. As was instructed by Ga’ash, the goddess sent her icy winds to raze all flora to ground to leave Ya’ar mute, so that the god of forest would not disclose the hiding places of Ga’ash’s spirits to Nokem. One of Lucy’s duties is to render dissenting voices mute and allow their scheming to proceed uninterrupted, unopposed.

“Neither of gods was bound to be successful by mere splitting of power,” Lucy remarks with satisfaction which is manifold and heartfelt. Al Mualim doesn’t concur with her words, nor is he at odds with this truth. Powerful as Al Mualim might be, powerful as he will get, he is nothing without Lucy. Ga’ash could not find alliance on his own absent Sheker’s aid, nor could Nokem kill Ga’ash’s evil spirits with his human creations alone. 

Lucy is a descendant of Nokem’s first children and she can’t but hold some pride in this noble origin. They were the first human warriors to roam this island. The first humans crafted by Nokem to aid justice, fierce warriors to help him track down all nine parts of Ga’ash. The second wave of humans, though equal in body, stems from the love seed of Nokem and Gdila. Between love and justice, the latter had taken precedence in the minds of their ancestors. Ga’ash himself recognized how valuable humans are, how powerful Nokem was for having them, yet he could not make them—few gods could—but he could split his power.

“And so we split the city to aid justice...” Lucy trails off, imbued deep in distant pondering.

“And then order is restored, if not human happiness,” Al Mualim tags on.

“I’ll make arrangements for the mission,” she says without dwelling on the sore spot that is this self-proclaimed ‘mission’. If hurt is too deep, better to keep it as far away from thought as possible.

There is jokes and laughter where the lot of foreigners idles away across the room, except for Robert who is immersed in his plans at a shorter distance off. Lucy pins her gaze to one image that is of most interest and most annoyance to her. Abu’l, that extraordinarily disagreeable man, lounges keeping one of the young pages seated on his lap. Lucy seldom looks at this overfed lout whom Al Mualim tolerates only because of his expertise in grain trade, except when he keeps harassing the young pages, and that is when Lucy unleashes all that is stored in her mind.

The page, a boy of youth and beauty, doesn’t seem too burdened by Abu’l’s attentions but Lucy doesn’t want to restrain herself through silence while she holds power far above them all, not when the instinct to protect the community is stronger than her.

“Abu’l!” Lucy calls out unfailingly, a succinct warning to this insufferable brute who is attractive to pages only as far as his generosity in gifts goes. The page lolled in Abu’l’s large lap reads the warning before the man himself does and he slips off his lap to slink away from the reach of Lucy’s disapproval, but Abu’l seizes the boy’s wrist to lock him in place.

“You will lull your guests to slumber,” he calls across the distance between, with a servile smile to contrast Lucy’s incensed face.

“Then spirit yourself away,” she sneers, she is making to rise, but Robert inserts himself into the picture before it can erupt into a quarrel, or worse, a conflict of interests damaging to the entire circle.

“Do as she says,” Robert orders, to conform to her demands. The page does so without a second glance, Abul’l is less keen to follow example but he claws himself up from his comfortable seat and departs with exaggerated gestures of obeisance.

“Gratitude,” Lucy says discreetly, without wasting a moment of time.

“A pleasure as always,” Robert monotones without sugarcoating and returns dismissively to his plotting. Lucy collects herself and departs to her own quarters of the fortress.

 


 

The long hall leading to Lucy’s quarters is partly open to the skies, overlooking the inner courtyard of the fort far below, and partly roofed.

Beneath the roofed half, in front of the sealed double doors, loiters a figure reclined on wall, arms crossed. Her thoughts set off into swift but short race but the light of her astonishment fades gently. He shouldn’t be here. The guards would have dropped note upon letting him through the gates. The walls would have barred entry to intruders. Yet he is here.

She idles a moment away then sets out towards him.

Desmond unfolds from the wall and they meet each other halfway.

“I come in response to invitation,” the warrior says. His armor doesn’t lack a single strand of eagle tail, he is in full regalia. Lucy takes in his form from this proximity, this new angle, and scales up towards his inclined head, skims quickly over the mask clinging to his smart face.

“I didn’t call you,” she counters.

She keeps her eyes firmly set on his lips not eyes. The impetus that pulls his lips up into a looped smile gives her all warning she needs and Lucy is far from stunned when he seizes her wrists, coils thumb and index finger around them spreading the rest of fingers across the back of her hands to maneuver them into a grip as he unapologetically puts them down onto his ass, tugging her closer in the process.

“This did.”

Her hands feel like icicles on his skin.

“You mistake touch for the wrong intent,” she whispers through a smirk that annuls her words entirely, with a husk of voice that shakes Desmond to the core and settles near his crotch. She imposes herself on him then, abruptly, she flicks the leather feathers of his skirt aside and grabs at his flesh without a pardon, bucks him backwards into the wall, renews her clutch to dig into the muscle of his ass until she’s sated herself through means of touch. Desmond is in the midst of conjuring a clear head when she leans in with breath washing over his chin and parted lips—they are of same height, he realizes in a barely borrowed instant—and the eager roughness of her thrust into the wall even at the cost of strain on her own roaming hands can’t be washed off with the meekness of her smile.

“I must assess further to give proper response,” she husks again and her hands tighten immodestly. Emboldened, Desmond tilts his head closer to put her filthy insinuations to an untimely end. She evades his attempt in the blink of an eye as if she’d expected him to lean in for a kiss, but she doesn’t shut off to him and the smile remains.

Desmond,” she drawls in mock surprise.

She jests but in the jest is a clear line and she’s the drawer. She won’t allow him that close just yet and he is content with what he has managed thus far. Despite this setback, Desmond allows her to feel him up at her leisure and simply coils his arms around her waist as exchange for freedom offered.

She knows his name. It gives him joy to know she fosters enough interest to find his name out.

Her fingers continue to knead at his muscles, the firmness of them, and he settles into her groping with ease and smiles in response to her inventiveness in touch. He rests assured that the attraction had been and is mutual, after all. Efforts have paid off. He has a penchant for women like Lucy and his fancy goes beyond the realm of only liking. She leans in again and they settle against the wall till it’s crowded, and though Desmond is in the same trouble as before he’s not taken over by desire to close the gap. He leaves the reins in her hand and waits for a tug.

“Time is pressed, let’s turn to business.” She rids herself of the husky velvetiness of her voice but her body speaks in unchanged tones and Desmond follows its undulations while she continues to drink herself senseless on the sight of his lips.

“To the matter then,” he reminds.

“I’ve a mission for you, Miles.”

“I’ve gathered as much.”

Her left hand closes into a pinch and he smirks at this swap of innocuous jabs and how well she is accepting it. She smooths down the injured spot and tightens her hands on his rear anew, and it's a broad and hungry grip, as if she’s annexed his body for the duration of this exchange, and Desmond lets her have her pleasure. His own touch pales in comparison to hers but he is content to stroke up-and-down the small of her back and wait for her lead.

“You are to assemble at Gdila’s fountain when the moon is at the zenith. All further instruction shall be received there and then,” she explains succinctly. He commits the instruction to memory, then nods. This motion alone brings him closer to her lips for the briefest moment but he doesn’t venture further.

“Don’t fail me, Desmond.”

Desmond feels that the tacking on of his name is deliberate. It draws attention as much as the smooth and noiseless transition of expressions on her features that slowly shift into uneasiness.

“Your associate, the strict, orderly one—“

“Friend,” he corrects her promptly.

“Your friend, Altaïr,” she emphasizes on second try, “Can he be trusted?”

Desmond frowns and looks at her oddly.

“Do you think me a fool?”

Lucy's possessive grip goes limp for a moment.

“There are many words I would have used towards your description, but fool is not among them.” Her masquerade is drawing to a close. For Desmond, it’s the second miracle in less than an hour of time. The first has been having his ancestry ignored by a noble. The second, equally grave, is that Lucy seems to be giving his words weight and his opinion validation.

“You evade?” Lucy asks.

He doesn’t evade. He is never in proper position to have his opinion evaluated with deserved seriousness and that is a completely different set of problems. Lucy doesn’t seem to be pleased with this revelation, and she is frighteningly quick to catch on.

“I’m unused to people listening to my opinion,” Desmond responds and rushes to add word before she can dwell on this, “I trust Altaïr with my life.”

She smiles wistfully.

“How noble, to have such trust between friends.” She paints an elaborate picture of expressions across her face. The art of it is not the genuineness that’s missing from her expression, it’s the open revolt against his trust in someone whom she deems unworthy. Desmond is less sure if she’s displeased with this because she’s involved herself personally, or because of Desmond’s association to someone who she can’t attach strings on and maneuver around.

“One must choose his company with exceeding care,“ Desmond says, with enigma lurking between his words.

The wall is cold against his bare back and he shifts his position, unafraid of the possibility that he might have disturbed their join of bodies through this. She doesn’t strive to untangle herself from him and he follows the thin trail of a genuine smile on her face. She wants to remain there. For whatever reason, she wants. The confidential smile dips into the hollowness of her expression and even though it’s lost, Desmond finds the ease of the exchange between them to be the best link imaginable. Lucy is assigning to him more attention than he’d expected she would. He had known very little of her only a few hours ago, but now he is learning something with every passing moment.

“I need your favor,” she scrubs her words off embellishment but expects consent.

“I like getting my teeth into a nice juicy problem,” Desmond drawls and draws his hands down the small of her back, holds her as if they’ve been in this position for years on end, with Lucy’s grabby hands tight on his ass and his arms gentle around her waist while they plot, and he is consciously inhabiting this little play of theirs.

“You are closer to the city. You walk among the people. Keep your eyes and ears open for me.”

Desmond is closer to the city. He lives among the citizens while Lucy’s myopic gaze is limited by the walls of her fort. He is half-mind to consent at once when she suddenly attempts to drown him in some warm flow of a simpler, a more corrupt notion.

“I won’t let your efforts be unrewarded.”

Desmond recognizes this whole affair to be a bargain. He chuckles.

“You speak sweetly. But you’ve the tongue of Sheker,” he says firmly, bereft humor, bereft scorn too. He is not angry but dampened by her needing to resort to means of bribery to gain his favor. He needs neither money nor sexual indulgence as payment for loyalty. Desmond has her in his arms and feels the difference in her stance, the widening of gap between them as she leans away to look over his face.

“Sheker managed to sway even Gdila,” she reminds.

“While he was yet a fool.”

Lucy grows colder. She releases him—from duty, from ties, from her presence—and withdraws from his loosened hold. His gaze follows after when she breezes past him to retreat into her chambers.

At Al Mualim’s dinner gathering, their courtship (if it can be named so at any rate) had been a pavane, a stately unfolding, bound by rules never agreed upon or voiced but generally observed, and subsequently crowned with Lucy blatant grope on their way out. But here, in the silence of their secluded conversation, Lucy had no reason to polish her act into anything more than a maskless exchange of touch and word unburdened by ulterior motives. And yet she attempted to.

It’s during that miniscule gap of time between unwanted annoyance and memory of their conversation from earlier that Lucy remembers what she’s just turned her back to.

She swirls around but Desmond is no longer there.

She rushes towards the unroofed portion of the passage hall and surveys the fort courtyard frantically, searches for the armored figure along the winding of wall, and she is met with no discovery but utter confusion instead.

Desmond has vanished from sight. Lucy doesn’t even know how he’s got in.

 


 

Altaïr finds his husband seated inside home and immersed in work.

Malik spares him a glance which can be called ‘sparing’ only if exaggerated, since it looks more like charity. He appears to be stitching something, until Altaïr gives it a second glance and finds no piece of cloth but a thread, needle, and silver wire-frame in the shape of a fish.

Altaïr feels unwelcome but he pockets his hesitance and takes a seat across his husband, taking care to look at least half as busy as Malik. He takes to polishing the handle, then the blade of his sword, until he runs out of steel to furbish. The moment is precarious—as is any in his husband’s presence—and he lays his sword out across the side of table Malik doesn’t have use for and waits for his frail bravado to allow him speech.

“You make death catchers?” Altaïr asks at last.

Malik parts his gaze from the death catcher to consider Altaïr’s face and chooses to participate. Altaïr doesn’t require confirmation. He has already led a furtive glance on expedition to Malik’s little tally that’s spread out on table, in which an order of death catchers is jotted down as commissioned business.

“As often as maps. Which is not very often,” Malik says lacking regret since any wish for more death catchers would be craving for more death and Malik’s need for money isn’t greedy enough to wish death upon people for a better earning.

Altaïr now knows what his husband’s scarlet stone represents on the city marble map. Malik creates death catchers. Altaïr had once been tasked by obligation to create a makeshift death catcher on his own, for a fallen comrade in the aftermaths of a battle, but it couldn’t compare in beauty with Malik’s organized, deliberate work. A scarlet stone for a maker of death catchers. A scarlet stone which stands for the scarlet color of the thread. The thread that Malik pulls through the open dots along the fish frame is of the same length to that of someone’s body, of someone who had passed away recently. Measured head to toe after their death.

“Is it someone from our community?”

“No,” Malik appends the word to a brief shake of head. He is not glib today, not inclined to excessive talking.

Between them—between this void sitting on table from Altaïr to the coil of the scarlet thread meandering across Malik’s half of it—sits a thick bowl teeming with sweet little treats Altaïr is deliberately disregarding. It is the kind of treat he’s had meager chance to indulge in during his seven years of soldiering and the beckoning scent of buttery dough glazed with honey is confusing whatever inside him is keeping him from having a taste. He keeps the bowl untouched as a border between them.

“Why are our graveyards named ‘fish graveyards’?”

Malik’s gaze swerves from his work to look up at his husband but he stows his amazement at this plain, unadorned question and regards Altaïr with something that can’t divulge to Altaïr whether Malik evaluates him as some clueless foreigner or as someone who is seeking to ensnare a person into conversation by means of simple tricks. Malik decides to participate in this cross-examination as a way to dodge boredom.

“We didn’t always have graveyards,” Malik sets off, having made the decision to launch a proper start into this little trickery.

Altaïr knows this. Knows every little corner of this playground, but hearing it from Malik’s mouth makes the game more thrilling. He is acquainted with this offshoot of their myth as he is with all others and he knows that between the two only waves of humans—one caused by Nokem alone and the second a product of love between Nokem and Gdila—Nokem had tasked the god of death to guide his humans through it. And Zikaron, the god of death, did request to have the deceased for himself and Nokem did allow Zikaron to have his humans in death.

“Nokem’s children were big in fierceness but not big in numbers. Upon death, they could be interred beneath their homes, or have ashes buried beneath doorstep, for they were few in numbers,” Malik comes to a standstill. Inside the metal fish-frame, he is involved in an intricate thread pattern whose inner workings Altaïr couldn’t unravel with ease. The pause that Malik takes unnerves Altaïr, he doesn’t want to give him room for silence.

“Why?” Altaïr jolts him from whatever pondering he is wasting himself on.

Malik turns eye towards him, to measure Altaïr’s aim from his expression alone, and finds him hungry for words, however unrelated to their marriage. Malik knows what Altaïr asks and he maintains the game, goes on to give him the answer he already knows but craves to hear whispered from a husband’s lips.

“They buried their loved ones beneath houses to keep their spirits nearby. That they could watch over the living and protect them,” he reminds, mulls over the possibility of stopping this odd exchange, but Altaïr is rapt with attention for his words and his expression is the greatest thief of all, stealing Malik’s silence.

“With the second wave of people in the city, maintaining this practice was but wishful thinking. Graveyards were needed. And Zikaron gave humans scarlet threads, to measure the length of a person’s body after they pass away, to... to preserve the life thread in...” In this awkward swapping between silence and intermittent words, Malik simply lifts the death catcher to indicate wordlessly where the thread is preserved. To indicate that the scarlet life thread Malik carefully holds in hand was used to measure the length of someone’s body.

“And people then buried their dead at graveyards?” Altaïr prompts, awaits another ration of words. Malik’s huff of a chuckle takes him by surprise.

“No,” Malik answers, “No one dared the first step. It was believed that whoever buries the first body on a graveyard will invite a curse on their family which will remain cursed until all die out. The family that would defy the risk could not be found. And the god of death was getting restless. He could not guide the dead into afterlife lacking proper burial.”

“And what happened then?”

Altaïr had caught notice of something darker on Malik’s face (the thought, perhaps, that his own family had not been guided into afterlife, as Malik hadn’t had a single scarlet thread to make a death catcher with for his own loved ones) and, to pull Malik from the abyss of memory and darker thoughts before they could take solid form, he’s asked the question. Malik seizes this distraction.

Daga saw all this. To Zikaron she offered one of her fish for the first burial. A fish was then buried in the first grave instead of a human, and since then our graveyards have been called fish graveyards,” Malik answers his husband’s wayward question at last.

“And so Zikaron and Daga forged a close friendship,” the warrior concludes with a wistful smile while he fiddles around the rim of the bowl facing him, as if his fingers refuse to part from its surface until this odd touch amounts to a silent plea for permission to taste the sweets.

“And no humans were pressed into making the first step. So Zikaron could see the dead off into peace and give humans means to preserve their ancestors’ spirits and keep them close through death catchers.”

There are but a few stitches to pull before the death catcher is finished.

Malik’s dark eyes land on Altaïr’s devious hand and show no contempt for his tacit quest for approval. All Altaïr’s discipline depends on Malik’s consent, and now that the obstacle is removed, he nicks one of the small flat cakes from top and fits it inside his mouth. Malik turns attentions to his work giving him free reign over the bowl. He thinks nothing of it. If Altaïr’s warrior palate is close to anything Desmond had warned about, then the seven years in camps have trained his husband’s palate to defy spices and excessive sweetness. He doesn’t expect him to eat more than one cake—two, if his mangled tastes are generous enough to allow him to eat another one.

While Altaïr had toiled away in the war, he and his closest comrades were invariably given the biggest and best morsels from those intended for warriors. Among themselves, the warriors had always complained: the soup’s too salty, the porridge too bland, peas served too often. It had been in the soldier encampments that Altaïr grasped the importance of meals and understood that real food is prepared over the low but steady fire of love.

Marching unit by unit into vast, gusty tents to present their tacky bowls in attempts to solicit bigger portions from the pitiless cooks had not been enjoying a meal, but consuming necessity. Their meals had been fantastically limited affairs. A piece of dried bread, a boiled egg if you’d had a stroke of luck, a cube of rancid butter, a strip of tough jerky, and occasionally a slice of gooey, unsmoked bacon. This breakfast they’d washed down with tepid water from cups that had been absorbing grease for all eternity. Their dinner—if they had been lucky enough to have one—entailed a filling thick bean soup, complete with tiny sprouts that looked exactly like maggots, or cold tuna, or indefinable concoctions of gruel to slurp on in addition to impenetrable dried fruit. Meals that had rarely offered time for conversation, as they’d been meant to be devoured quickly before the warriors make their way into the next ravenous battle. As a child in Hiba’s orphanage, Altaïr had never been left hungry. As a warrior in his tent, Altaïr had often recalled those dinners and spent his moments of elusive peace constructing elaborate meals featuring warm bread and honeyed sweets prepared by his meek, loving husband.

Altaïr has no meek or loving husband.

But the first bite of Malik’s cake—that sublime blend of richly-textured dough and glazed honey and creamy custard inside the core—brings tears to Altaïr’s eyes.

The trouble of this is not the tears he keeps at bay, but the hasty swallowing of a bite he meant to relish, done so that he could clear his throat to put a curtain over his traitorous sniff. Malik doesn’t raise his gaze even when Altaïr tugs the dish to himself with a subtle scrape of bowl on wood, and there’s not a scintilla of regret in Altaïr as he appropriates the sweets and sits there, thick with gratitude while he wolfs the small balls of cake in a recursive loop of bites, like a dam that’s been broken.

Malik is staring, with a look of perplexity floating openly across his face, by the time Altaïr’s progressed deep into the bowl’s contents. The bowl’s baggage continues to shrink until there are only crumbs left in the wake of Altaïr’s voracious appetite. His husband is a sweet tooth. Malik jots this realization down inwardly, for future reference.

The unassailable truth is that his bowl of sweets has just been sacked to the last crumb. The unanticipated truth is that Malik is facing failure while hunting for a reason to be persuaded into anger. Faced with the barren state of his bowl and the contented expression on Altaïr’s face, Malik takes genuine pride in his work, pointless and vain though it’s been. He had spent his entire break between jobs making these sweets—a bowl brimming with Nokem’s and Hiba’s eyes, as they are endearingly called. These dome-shaped cake bites with a dimple on top, filled with custard, frosted with honey syrup, dusted with nutmeg, with their dimples garnished with almonds—the blanched, light-colored almonds as Hiba’s golden eye and those with preserved skins, the darker ones, meant as Nokem’s eye. Malik has managed to eat a single Nokem’s eye, in passing.

Instead of finding his cakes vanished, Malik has expected them to be victim to a cascade of criticism. He has been patiently waiting for Altaïr to pelt him with disapproval about their taste or sweetness, primed himself for letting it go off him like water on a duck’s back.

Instead, his husband’s sweetened lips part with a smack but words of gratitude remain lodged in his mouth. The gratitude for this unexpected, welcome treat is plain on Altaïr’s face, but because he suddenly withdraws voiced appreciations his thankfulness should be deemed a failure.

If that is a failure, seldom in the history of their relationship can Altaïr be said to have failed so successfully.

Altaïr’s appreciation of his food, silent as it is, brings to light the dimmest shadow of pride on Malik’s features and he hides it, drops his gaze to immerse himself into wrapping up the commissioned death catcher. When there is no more work to hide behind, Malik still declines to have a glimpse. Keeping his face behind an invisible shield of ignorance is more familiar than the complete foreignness of Altaïr forging a cozy warmth within his chest.

The sword on the table shifts and Malik jolts up into following its length to find Altaïr’s hand on the handle as the warrior nudges the weapon closer to Malik.

“I entrust the sword into your care in my absence.”

Malik makes an ambiguous noise.

It’s a good sword. Equaling the worth of his own hidden one, the one screaming with want for blood of enemies. Malik stares at the gleam of the long blade for a few moments, by which time the mass of his admiration has accumulated, and he unwittingly lifts his hand to glide down the winding path of the groove channeled ornately into the surface of the sword.

Across the table, he hears Altaïr’s nasal chuckle.

“You aren’t familiar with what happens if anyone but the owner touches the warrior sword?”

Malik looks up at him, at last, to try to decipher the husky addition to Altaïr’s tone, and finds a dusting of color on the cupola of his swollen, smiling cheek. Malik furrows his brow—the result of confused frowning—but finds no knowledge stored in his mind to apply to present situation and waits for Altaïr to enlighten him.

“If anyone lays touch upon a warrior’s sword, the warrior is obliged by honor to kill them. Or kiss them.”

Malik plucks his hand away from the blade with widened gaze.

He knows his answer will be due before long. He takes some pride in keeping up a fairly calm appearance, but the inside of his head wouldn’t astonish anyone in its current state of disorder and frantic hunt for appropriate answers.

“Ezio touched it once,” Altaïr conjures the memory.

Ezio is alive, which points to the only other acceptable outcome. That Altaïr had kissed the noble sets Malik in an impossible dilemma of choosing between measured anger and a more uncultivated anger, and makes him regard Ezio with even deeper hatred. Malik harbors no wish to kiss Altaïr. Yet Altaïr is no one else’s to kiss, for the oath of fidelity they’d mutually promised. It matters not how it had happened, under what circumstances. It matters not that Altaïr had tossed his own sword just in time to save Ezio’s life or spare him a grievous wound in battle, it matters less that Ezio had found himself bereft blade in the heat of battle, it doesn’t matter at all that a brotherly kiss had been the price for a saved life.

“It didn’t go beyond a peck of lips,” Altaïr adds as assurance or as a way to pique Malik into response.

“I don’t care,” Malik grits out between a clench of teeth.

He cares.

It’s enough to escort Altaïr out of home with a smile upon kiss-deprived lips.

 


 

Desmond and Altaïr sit on the rim of the fountain joined at thighs and guard Ezio.

Ezio stands upright two steps ahead of them with arms stretched out above his head and hands attempting to arrest Daga’s tears from the heavens. His fingers toy over the surface of the distant moon thus, with no weapon strapped to his hip to hold on to instead. Without swords, the warriors feel exceptionally robbed, without armor they feel stripped down to bare skin.

From the north-side of the forum, a figure is drawing inevitably towards them—spotted first by Desmond who quickly alerts them to the newcomer—and they turn to the approaching shape sans other significant movements and remain seated until it comes to stand before them. Ezio has long dropped his juvenile act by the time the robed man allows his face the touch of moonlight which sheds light on his much-despised identity.

Abbas takes a survey of their faces, tugs his apish lip into a smirk without finding them soft to it, and ends his silence with a flimsy:

“So we work together again like in old times.”

“You’re so full of shit I can smell it on your breath,” Desmond tosses at him after a stretch of pause. Altaïr hides his smile, tones down the indulgent humor that threatens to pull his face into a gloating grin, but he nudges his naked thigh against Desmond’s in a silent bump of approval and receives a knock in return.

“Ah, yes, all is as it once was,” Abbas holds himself above insult just for the words he is about to utter and stuffs himself with enough pride to turn a blind eye to their denial of past camaraderie, ”Only now I am elevated and your husband is a whore.”

His good eye flits across all three of them as if he yearns for his insult to find all ears but settles gaze on Altaïr at last. He still appears affronted by the fact that Altaïr expects his money back. One among many slights Altaïr had inflicted on him.

Altaïr doesn’t work like an ox to keeps himself calm. Rather, he looks up at Abbas carefully, deliberately, brazenly displaying a tremendous stretch of his newfound serenity and peace. With Malik’s chastity assured, his confidence in this matter has improved.

“I’d spit in your face but my spit is too precious to waste on you,” Altaïr responds.

Abbas whisks his head towards Gdila’s temple—away from Ezio’s domineering presence at his right—and hides the sneer Altaïr suspects is there within the shadows of his hood.

“While you wasted away in camps, Al Mualim installed me on a favored position,” Abbas boasts at last, as if he hadn’t remained chained to the city because Malik had blinded him in one eye at the age of ten, as if he hadn’t found comfort in continually bringing Malik pain throughout these seven years for the maiming inflicted upon his face.

“One he wipes his ass with.”

This time, Altaïr and Ezio don’t hide their amusement at Desmond’s insults and launch into a malicious snicker at Abbas’ expense. Their laughter is cut short only moments after by another presence. From across the stretch of the forum, from its southern side, a disreputable crew is drawing near in utter hush. Altaïr recognizes the man at the forefront as the one he’d seen at Al Mualim’s quarters during the dinner gathering. There is a fearful row of variously-clad men towing behind him, from a frightening man with eyes set too far apart to men that looked like huge, uncouth animals. Foreign soldiers.

Scum that increasingly swells Al Mualim’s mercenary ranks.

The three of them are no more proud of working as part of this group than of having once shared warrior ranks with Abbas. Their ex-comrade saunters past, to greet the leader of this nightly expedition with a show of cordiality.

“Look at the man ensuring his position by means of his tongue in ass,” Desmond mocks in hushed whisper after Ezio draws closer to their position at the rim of the fountain.

“Despicable,” Ezio adds before these men can close in on them nigh enough to hear their whispers.

Altaïr feels comfort in the presence of the two of them despite of having to work with the men that approach steadily. He is comforted by the fact that Desmond and Ezio speak his thoughts with uncanny match of sentiments. They are far from grasp of jealousy. They don’t care for the gifts Abbas wishes to see bestowed upon himself. Abbas has not a trace of skill or interest for positions that do not ensure power. The result of his abject craving is that between constantly seeing the power of these foreigners and hoping to get it, Abbas has come to identify himself to some extent with his betters.

Robert gives the man only enough notice to not allow a sense of disregard to swell in Abbas.

Altaïr tolerates Robert with enough capacity to not disrespect him. He looks like a strict man on the lookout for slackness. He is in a position quite apart from the rest of them and the authority in this assembly is not split among the people but reserved for his privacy alone. Altaïr has done different jobs under different commanders during the war. He will serve under a foreigner, if such a man is capable.

Robert comes to a stand before them and collects the state of their appearances in a mere instant.

“Disguise yourselves,” he orders.

They pull up their cowls and put their faces in hoods with thick silence and no words of protest. They all know that artists are always on prowl for sketching nightly wanderers, but this thought hasn’t crossed their minds as a threat or a damaging occurrence before now. Robert seems to want to preserve anonymity.

“Will you obey all orders given?” Robert questions, one last confirmation before they are to be shackled in obeisance to this man.

“We won’t flinch from danger,” Altaïr says.

He fears for a moment that the answer is not too effective for the man’s demands but his fear turns to ash.

Robert nods and beckons them into standing.

“Let us end discussions then and set mind to purpose.”

Robert sets out, followed religiously by his crew while the three warriors tag along in dead silence. They don’t know the location of their mission, nor its meaning or purpose. They have not been given weapons either. They stalk across the rest of the forum in row, towards the direction Abbas had come from, right towards the temple, and their destination seems to be this imposing structure, since beyond it lies nothing but a hill, and a calm, dark sea.

They don’t climb the steps but go directly for the base level side-entrances of the first gigantic terrace of the temple and stop short of the first chambers which open directly to the forum floor but inwards descend into an underground of rooms. There, Robert quickly splits them into several clusters. What is more, he splits the warriors apart by assigning them to different groups. Altaïr feels no more comfortable about the rift driven between the three of them than about the fact that their odd mission seems to have business with priests.

The underground chambers of Gdila’s temple are home to priests of various gods. Everyone knows that. Even the foreigners, it seems.

Altaïr takes a pause long enough to see Ezio and Desmond descend into two other chambers some distance away from him, then follows along and into the subterranean halls lit by torches. Two men stay behind at the entrance-exit doors as guards, and though Altaïr can’t divine a single reason for disturbing priests at such late hour, in the heavy presence of mercenaries he listens to orders and lets his body answer demands absent his will.

From all the doors that flank a single side of the extensive hall, Robert settles on the last one, at the end of the hallway which is little more than massive walls dotted with torches. They spill into the smallish room in a wave. Inside, two priests are offering prayers to Gdila. Altaïr needs but a blink of an eye to understand that Robert’s presence here is uninvited. They are here to extract some sort of knowledge from priests or bully them into parting from whatever information Al Mualim has deemed worthy. The priests scramble to proper footing and look between the handful of faces in an alarmed, unnerved manner as if they’ve expected an intrusion of the sort and yet managed to face it unprepared. One gaze, the one belonging to the younger priest who is barely above Malik’s age, lands on Altaïr’s lit face and the warrior feels the shame that this gaze brings him course down the length of his body, feels the weight of his own guilt in the moment he is recognized by the boy as a non-foreigner.

“Give your true purpose,” the older priest rasps through throes of anxiety. He is skittish.

The men around Altaïr draw blades. Altaïr follows this motion out of the corner of his eye but avoids staring directly to not appear suspicious, and his head is in turmoil. The priests are not to be harmed. The priests are one of the cogs in the machine that drives their city. The building of Hiba’s orphanage is almost touching the temple forum—Altaïr had spent hours in the calming presence of priests as a child. The mere suggestion of bringing harm upon community drives him to feverish nausea. At least Abbas is not in his group to witness his unease or draw attention to it.

“Warnings have been issued,” Robert references some earlier contact, removed from Altaïr’s knowledge, “You are still refusing to sell these grounds.”

“The holy grounds are not for sale,” the second priest, the younger one, objects in what appears to be the continuation of a long and worn argument, and Altaïr concurs—he would conduct himself to agreeing openly were he not bound by obedience to Robert—but he keeps his mouth sealed and nausea brewing behind it and watches fear stalk across the young priest’s face freely. Two-three men bear down on them swiftly, they converge in a threatening presence to further drive them into corner and fear, and the priests knot themselves closer to each other in their retreat until they are suddenly split apart after a brief, feeble scuffle. Both are equally subdued and held hostage, struggling while the rest—everyone except Altaïr—closes in to restrain them like livestock.

“You are the plague! You are the plague!” The younger priest hollers as if struck and his howls ring around inside Altaïr’s skull but can’t wake him from the trance he’s found himself in and he watches his community being ripped apart in shreds and the bleeding entrails of its core flashing at him while he listens to these last yells of a man who doesn’t call for a savior but for his last words to be heard.

“I’ll see the tongue ripped from your mouth!” Robert growls and it’s the most furious state Altaïr has witnessed him in up to this point. The priest looks to Altaïr for the briefest of moments as if catching glimpse of his only door to escape before his vision is arrested as Robert delivers a blow to his head and the priest buckles to knees, blood spreads on floor and cloth in first splatter.

Terror takes a dip in Altaïr’s thoughts at the sight of red.

He stands removed from the rest of his company, with a disgraceful astonishment of a man who doesn’t want to get involved in harming his community, a man who is keeping himself at bay of urge to protect what he’d defended for seven years, and he feels like nothing could move his limbs from the clench of obedience that weighs on them like a slab of stone.

One of Robert’s men produces a knife from his satchel and makes two swift strokes in the air, as though slashing the priest’s cheeks open.

“Kill the younger one,” Robert orders with his former poise.

Altaïr is stabbed into action.

“Break his arm!” he thunders at Robert.

These men, these mercenaries of Al Mualim, want some sort of consent from priests for their master’s needs, however obscure these needs appear to Altaïr. Altaïr doesn’t torture. But he won’t shy away from beating if that is what will save lives and quicken the obtainment of sanction for Al Mualim’s schemes for the city. It comes to him in delayed discovery that he might have stepped out of turn in front of Robert and his men.

“Apologies,” he promptly corrects himself.

“Fuck apologies,” and there is a smirk on Robert’s face, “Shrewd maneuvering.”

The praise is unwelcome. Robert orders the priest’s arm exposed and tosses the bulk of his broad sword to Altaïr who catches it quicker than he is catching on the implications of Robert’s parting from his sword.

“Break his arm,” he instructs, drawing all eyes to Altaïr.

There must be some grander purpose behind Al Mualim’s orders. There must be. The warrior feels his resolve grow soft the more he prods the possibility of harming a priest through his own actions, but these orders, these foreign men mean something to his Master. The very thought is sickening but enough to condition him into obedience. Altaïr wants to vomit his nausea out. He wants to run this sword through these men’s bowels. He wants to bring the priests out, away to safety, he wants. He is helpless. He wants to flee.

“See nerves calmed, fool,” Robert’s command breaks through the faint whimper coming from the floor and through the haze of delirium that keeps Altaïr stagnant.

“Gather yourself and see it done.”

Altaïr doesn’t stray a look at Robert’s face—one visage that is calm in the depths of this illness of confusion which has infected him. The gleam of tears in the young priest’s eyes and the disfigured fear on his young face is fracturing the bravery he struggles to put on. Yet the boy stays unyielding in his silence. They won’t give consent to anything these men are demanding tonight. The youth lies at Altaïr’s feet with arms pressing down on him, but in position he is high above Altaïr. One shoulder in Zikaron’s hold of arms already, and yet he doesn’t shrink from death’s embrace to protect his community. Of the two of them, Altaïr is the one delivering blow to what he’s sworn to protect at cost of life. And here, a child, a stranger to warfare, doesn’t evade death to uphold the city he believes in.

Imperfections in Altaïr’s obedience appear as tiny cracks. He sways forward, a step, he halts. His free hand trembles and solders into a fist. The result is that he is doing two men’s work—of one who would obey and one who would flee. Desertion is forbidden under severe penalties.

Robert extracts the blade from Altaïr’s still hand all of a sudden, inconsiderately cutting him in the process. His patience’s worn thin.

Having pulled his sword off the warrior’s hand, he finds leverage in a startling swiftness and drives the end of the sword into the young priest. He gores a hand’s length of blade through the pliant flesh of his lower belly narrowly avoiding spine or hipbone, his victim jolts from the stab of pain but drives the blade deeper into flesh from the suddenness of this motion, drops to ground with a grisly scream torn from mouth.

Robert retracts the blade.

The gruesome scream, so unfamiliar to Altaïr who knows only cries of battle, infuses him with a flush of terror, and overwhelming dread that renders his own pain insignificant. His palm is slashed open and dripping with blood substantial enough that he can feel its warmth ooze out when he clasps it over his mouth, to avoid temptation to cover ears instead while they stretch the boy’s body to let his belly bleed out. The howl of pain morphs into a stutter of silence as one of the men unleashes an unchecked barrage of kicks and blows and two others—the ones that are not keeping the body down—join in this beating. The boy faints.

Altaïr breathes his own blood, tastes it on his lips watching the unconscious priest and the hemorrhage that steeps his tunic into a mop of blood. It’s someone’s child dying on the floor, someone’s friend, the member of a community.

An unlabeled sensation gushes through the warrior when he sees one of the men pull at his breeches to free cock from confines. Robert allows it.

The warm stench of piss gives free run to Altaïr’s growing sickness. It doesn’t stop the man from urinating over the beat up, stabbed, bleeding, unconscious body of a youth barely past boyhood. Altaïr stands shell-shocked even as another man moves past him knocking bits and pieces from shelves that fringe the walls, and then the tormentor returns swilling water around in a pitcher before emptying its contents with a deluge across the boy’s face. What urine is not soaked in clothes washes off, and the youth is slapped and manhandled into consciousness with their unkempt roughness.

The youth doesn’t cry when he finds them looming over him but he is near it.

His wet lip trembles and he keens in pain and tries to fold into himself—a vain attempt brought to halt as soon as he tries to set limbs to motion. The staunch man keeping his ankles chained to floor heaves himself up onto the youth’s knees, restraining him in place. He continues bleeding from mouth, choking on it when men above pull tighter on his arms wrenching them, somehow, behind his back and the pain that pierces through puts the boy to choked writhing as they wring him like a rag till it feels like his spine will crack any moment. A boot between his shoulders stomps down and the bones rip from their sockets, the pop of dislocated shoulders precedes a scream that scatters all over the room, ricochets off stone walls and plummets on Altaïr.

The youth breaks into wet sobs a moment before the restrained older priest does, watching this terror and torture helplessly.

It could be Malik in this poor youth’s place. The thought alone drives Altaïr’s bloodied fingers deeper into the clasp of slashed hand around his face and the metallic tang burns violent in his nostrils while the injured hand meshes skin and bone on his jaw, the pooling blood of his palm smears across his deadened face.

He can’t help this boy.

There is the matter of obedience, the matter of discipline he’s mangled tonight, the matter of punishments for slights if he were to steal the sobbing youth and rush to Hiba’s hospital, there is the matter of Al Mualim’s designs, whatever torture or blood they require. It is forbidden to help. Honor forbids him to stay.

The hiccup of sobs shear the warrior of all trappings of authority. He makes a conscientious decision to dedicate himself to escape. When he swerves around to rush out, the scene he’s fled and left behind remains to fester even after his eyes turn from it, it’s a secret vein of guilt, running through the honor of a warrior like the intestines through a man’s body. He runs his uninjured hand across roughened texture of the stone while he props himself up on wall, keeping mouth sewn to bar nausea that threatens to well up, he achieves a handful of steps and nothing more before a large hand fastens onto his shoulder and he swirls around staring wildly into Robert’s incensed visage.

“Would you come to grips, man?!” Robert growls, unsettling Altaïr’s frail balance after he gives his shoulder a hard shove, “You want me to flay your husband instead?”

Altaïr jolts up, his momentary imbalance turned to naught, his nostrils flare with fear-or-rage-or-terror.

“Struck the mark near, did I?”

“My husband is unstained—“

“No man is unstained by the deeds of his husband.”

Another chilling scream tears from the chamber he’s escaped from and rakes Altaïr’s body with fresh guilt, it tangles with the second shriek and squeals of agony, and remorse is plain on Altaïr’s face. Robert shakes his head at his squeamishness, judgmentally. But this is not what warriors had been hardened for. Not for harming community. Not for torturing innocents for ulterior motives. Robert thrusts him off by the shoulder, Altaïr almost stumbles to ground.

“Scram. Don’t speak of this unless you want your husband to pay for your slights.”

Altaïr stares after Robert as the man retreats and the door falls into lock behind him, muffling moans of agony. He gulps for fresh air, finding the stuffy stench of blood and guilt instead, feels the faded imprint of Robert’s hand in his shoulder while he rights himself into walking. To escape. To escape if he is unable to make amends for what he’s left in his wake.

He is starving for fresh air and silence. For a moment of peace. He teeters off, then past the men guarding the exit and scrambles out into the open half-mad with guilt, confusion, fear.

On the forum is Desmond, no different than Altaïr.

Altaïr is growing weaker and weaker but his body runs itself on its own accord and fuels him enough to reach Desmond—a disturbed, lone figure swathed in darkness—to stand upright enough to face him without shame that sits heavy on his shoulders (where Robert’s bloody hand has been) and they look into each other’s eyes feeling like two strangers, until the hollow ring of steps stabs Altaïr into casting a wild look over his shoulder. He watches Ezio lurch forward into their vicinity, bereft of breath, with disgust smeared across his white face.

Altaïr couldn’t utter a sound even if he put formidable effort into this action. No one speaks. They swap looks, agape and feverish, and neither covets to see the other in the state that they are in, nor the things the other has seen. They look more corpses than men. It’s another moment before any of them can dislodge from the place.

They split apart with nary a word.

The night shivers around them.

 


 

Altaïr barges into his home like possessed.

He carries himself straight to bedroom, finds it empty. The sheets lay untouched, the two quilts—or two halves of one—undisturbed. Malik is not in bed. Malik is not in the house.

Altaïr stills. His hands dart up to quickly rake nails down his skull to quell the burst of fear and he almost knocks himself on the bed shouting his name.

And then, against all odds, Malik’s face peeks from that quirky little corner Altaïr hadn’t know what to make of when he’d first bought this place, and Malik nudges the heavy curtain aside into the smallest gap and peers at Altaïr with his dim, dark gaze. A relief shivers down Altaïr’s spine and climbs up in form of elation that settles in depths of his chest and from there spreads around.

Malik sweeps the curtain aside entirely to invite moonlight into the room and remains silent. He expects words or some question. There are better ways to disturb his mute coziness than Altaïr charging in looking wild and beastly with a smear of blood across mouth and cheek. He had hoped for another peaceful night sans husband and he’d rather not have the animal in his bed lest he be pinched into baring teeth again.

“Why are you there? You’re not sleeping?” Altaïr says grimly after the impact of relief wastes itself away.

Malik knits his brows together quizzically.

Altaïr says nothing further but looks like a man brimming with untold words. His face is bloody but without visible injury, pale and swollen with disorientation and some inner turmoil he’s so openly displaying. A path leads the man towards the raised edge of Malik’s secret corner, it stops, hesitates, and turns to loop around towards the statues of Nokem and Hiba that bask in darkness. It is not quite the path Altaïr had expected, yet his body is ablaze with nervous unrest and he rubs and chafes across his stained face looking around wildly, until no corner of the room is left unseen.

Malik follows the outlandish way in which his husband conducts himself, forgetting for a moment that Altaïr had promised to keep them separate at night, watches how his undomesticated gaze settles on the statues at last before the warrior slithers off towards them as if called away by sudden need for prayer. To Malik’s utter amazement, Altaïr seats himself before Nokem—not cross-legged but with knees joined while sitting on calves—and puts cupped palms upward in prayer. As if he wants to pray himself to calmness.

“He won’t hear you,” Malik says without malice, “You’ve no revenge in you.”

Malik gives himself to confusion. He’s known a mission for Al Mualim wouldn’t bode well, but he doesn’t inquire, doesn’t feel interest pique at him until he realizes that Altaïr is frankly having a breakdown. He takes Malik’s advice to heart even through the haze of delirium and rises again.

A breakdown. Of the like he’d never known before. In war, he’d had two loyalties to rely on—to Al Mualim, to awaiting husband. Tonight he has neither. A dead, cold marriage, a husband not offering comfort, Al Mualim issuing inexplicable orders, priests tortured, foreigners assaulting his community. A breakdown only half-hidden by the mask of sudden stillness.

“I disobeyed Al Mualim’s orders,” Altaïr realizes in a whisper.

Malik vaults from the massive window sill that’s cut deep into the outwardly protruding wall and his silence crumbles completely at these words.

“This will set every tongue in the city wagging! Now all will know about your obedience—how will you find a job!?”

Altaïr drops gaze to look at the riled face looking up at him, he watches Malik but sees only a babyish-yet-mature concern for things removed from loyalty and principle and honor.

“You don’t understand... They assaulted and humiliated a boy who did not deserve such treatment...”

Malik understands little. He doesn’t know who ‘they’ are, he knows less who ‘a boy’ is, and he hosts a brief hope that maybe soon Altaïr will seize the mantle of lies from his master’s shoulders and expose the beast beneath. He should address all this, he should, but his attack swerves without his consent or direction, to matters more close to heart.

“So like you’ve treated me? Well maybe then I can find it in my heart to sympathize, having endured treatment of same kind—“

“You put words in my mouth and deeds on my hand and manipulate the conversation towards accusation of me,” Altaïr snarls—the first real strength in voice he’s found since fleeing the temple underground—and looms over Malik but retreats only a moment after, “We cannot find common word like this...”

“If you are displeased with me then release me. Divorce or wed me to another,” Malik insists out of nowhere, stubbornly.

It’s as if the mere suggestion of anything of the like disperses Altaïr’s agitated state and transfers all attention into anger. He sets himself as a threatening menace over Malik’s form again, taking advantage of his height, approaching an old and ugly jealousy he’d thought dead by now.

“I’d sooner part with my own cock!”

“I can arrange that, too,” Malik utters in a wisp of breath barely audible, his quip misses its target.

“If you whisper wishes of leaving again, see me turn ugly,” Altaïr growls, in a fury uncontrollable, and Malik has to back away, ”To cling to a life beyond these walls is to see your heart parted from your chest!”

Malik’s minds flits back to Leonardo’s warning. Though his husband’s fury is not unfamiliar, this threat of violence prompts him to consider reaching for his sword or escaping the beast that may indeed possess the capacity to beat him as punishment. Something changes then. Altaïr recoils. His anger is formidable but incomplete, so he strives to render his violent outburst down to what it actually is—a mindless moment in wounded confusion. Malik doesn’t distance himself, not entirely, but he faces him with caution and Altaïr grapples with the aftermaths of his outburst and blames it on his headless state. It’s not wise to fall into Malik’s traps in his fatigued state.

“Why don’t you just release me or drive me away if I’m destroying your ideals...?” Malik asks.

Altaïr tries, as he has vainly tried before, but he can’t rid himself of senseless jealousy.

“This home is a pale shadow, absent your light.” And had he been any saner tonight, Altaïr might have laughed at the naked truth he hasn’t even attempted to wrap in some shield before presenting it to Malik as is.

“Divorce such idea from your mind,” Altaïr entreats, and remembers the folly of his former outburst, “I don’t think before I speak. My thoughts are elsewhere,” he says, swiftly revising his addition. Altaïr’s chest constricts at the thought of losing his husband. The house and materials mean nothing. They can be sold, bought, and resold again. Malik is all he has in this world that’s his, even if it’s a loyalty barely hanging by a thread.

“Then break open head and share them...” Malik urges on.

Were it only so easy.

Altaïr’s heart is already knocked open, ready for his husband to openly inform it of foolishness and dishonor of his actions. If he removed his heart from chest and left it out unguarded for Malik’s taking, it would generally be taken and trampled upon. His hope for a close husband goes back to its grave.

Altaïr puts a cork on his thoughts and won’t speak anymore.

He lifts hands anew to rub his face in abject anticipation of Malik’s pending decision—whether he’ll be allowed to sleep in bed or in home at all, whether he will sleep at his doorstep with sword in hand if that’s what it takes to protect his husband—and he doesn’t realize that Malik is staring at the length of his forearm with growing alarm on his face.

He discovers, for the first time now, the source of blood smeared across Altaïr’s sullied face. Altaïr’s hand is blood-soiled, his arm streaked from wrist to elbow with caked rivulets of varying lengths of red. He’s not wont of touching Altaïr on his own free will—unless this touch involved pain and punches—but he ventures down that unsafe passage and decides to have a look at the extent of his husband’s injury, to help Altaïr clean up and stumble upon whatever else lies on the path of that passage.

Malik pulls his hand down first, examines the reach of damage, the depth of wound, whatever he can discern from its messy state in dimmed light, and then he tugs Altaïr along, steering him towards the bed, maneuvers him into sitting on the edge. He orders Altaïr to stay put and doesn’t return for what seems like eternity to Altaïr, though there can’t be more than what you would need to polish an already clean sword.

Malik restores himself to Altaïr’s presence with many additions—a large bowl with warm water, a clean cloth and bathing towel, a tray crowded with paraphernalia Altaïr can’t tell apart. He feels naïve excitement at whatever Malik’s intended to do and he wouldn’t protest even if he decided to poison him right here, he follows feverishly as Malik puts his double-nozzled lamp on bed and fixes the bowl across Altaïr’s lap after laying the towel out across it.

Malik most probably intends to clean his minor injury because he doesn’t want his sheets soiled—a hard comfort softened by knowledge that Malik will allow him into bed tonight, now when he needs it most. And as if Malik’s opulent gear isn’t hint enough, Altaïr’s observation of his husband’s endeavors obtains him an unexpected glimpse into the thoroughness of Malik’s doting.

He immerses Altaïr’s hand into the bowl and lets the lukewarm water soften the caked blood sticking around the gash in layers.

There is a less-than-slim chance that Malik is doing this because he cares but Altaïr seizes the fantasy by the tail and drags it back for a moment, to arrest the image of it. He closes his eyes and gradually grows into the dream while Malik wipes the stains off his face, rubs across his cheeks and mouth with warm-soaked cloth in light, deliberate strokes despite the lack of injury on his face. Once finished, Malik dabs the moisture away with the dry end, catching its soft fabric on the stubble of Altaïr’s jaw—a gentle, insubstantial friction against skin which he doesn’t protest. He weaves through this dream until Malik migrates to his hand again. And though the sting in his lacerated flesh awakens, there is a strange harmony in watching his young husband tend to his injury, a sense of peace which isolates him from all horrors that will happen outside their house tonight. He allows himself into Malik’s nimble hands and feels himself growing closer to his husband with every careful wipe across palm and around the cut that’s pulsing with unnoticed hurt.

His hand is cleaned and the gash cleansed.

Malik picks an item up—a pitcher the contents of which whiff strongly of mixed alcohols—and he holds Altaïr’s palm open above the vessel without stretching the wound out too much and pours a steady trickle over it to let the strong liquid seep into the cut and from Altaïr’s hand further into the dirtied water in bowl. Altaïr doesn’t know whether to laugh or gasp while the alcohol stings him. He is aware that Malik sees not a husband in him but another community member, and the care he bestows on him is dictated by a sentiment that’s instilled in every child from small on until it turns into a crafted instinct to nurse and nurture the community and its members. Malik is only doing what he would do for anyone in the community.

The trickle shrivels up and Malik seals the jar, allowing residues of his antiseptic to soak into the cut tissue and save the warrior an infection and turns to his tray. From it, instead of bandages the warrior expects, he picks up a cup of steaming tea to put into Altaïr’s unscathed hand where it melts into Altaïr’s fingers, its gentle warmth putty against his skin. The tea is herbal, it smells of some aromatic plant Altaïr can’t quite decipher, but having remembered that there is no fire in the hearth behind his back he connects the pieces into solving the riddle of the origin of Malik’s hot water. His earlier absence wasn’t as much a product of gathering his medicines as descending down onto the first floor and into the boiling room—the room where the path of water from aqueducts to showers is warmed for community purposes, a room where you could find lukewarm water at worst if the fire in your own home has been snuffed.

The tea is good beyond measure. Altaïr sucks it all down in one draught without stopping to take a breath and it seems to go straight into his veins and course round his body like new blood.

Malik takes the drained cup and puts it away and returns with some curious ointment and bandages. Something in Altaïr’s chest nags him to let Malik know how appreciated his doting is, but he holds a stubborn silence and as the excuse gives Malik’s dotting of a strong-smelling ointment across the cut and desire to avoid disturbing his work. A feeble excuse. Malik takes pause, scowls at Altaïr’s hand, as if noticing for the first time their overall poor state, the roughness of his calluses, and coarseness of skin that hasn’t seen the nourishment of ointments in a long time. Before dressing the wound, he singles out one of his own salves—those Leonardo takes painstaking care to produce, those he’s been using as liniment for his own hands for years despite gloves to protect skin from washing soaps—and he rubs the smooth, greasy texture around the gash and balms his healthy hand comparably.

Leonardo’s occasional lessons in medical treatment, given to whole community, pay off at the most unexpected of times. Instruction, appended by his inventions, has proved useful beyond measure more than once to all of them.

The wound is dressed at last and Altaïr profoundly saturated in the contentment of a false dream, when Malik suddenly prods his chest with a set of clean nightclothes and the implicit message of this discloses itself to Altaïr without words. He is officially invited into the bed. He is allowed to remain.

“You let me invade your esteemed lodgings for tonight?” Altaïr reads the words from Malik’s actions aloud and gets no answer in return. There is no humor in his tone, not a dram of it, and Malik’s face paints an unusual solemn silence as he bends with precipitous suddenness, close enough to lean his chin on Altaïr’s shoulder in this bizarre position (a move Malik steadily avoids), and he tugs at Altaïr’s tunic to help him take it off to relieve the strain on his bandaged palm.

Conversation is lacking even while Malik collects his gear and mops up the aftermaths of this wound dressing, and he is presented with no other choice but to pull himself up into the bed to wait for Malik’s arrival.

The split of one bed-quilt into two still bothers him.

Perhaps there is some hope that Malik might allow himself into his arms tonight but he doesn’t acknowledge it. Malik finally returns to put out the lamp and slip beneath his sheets and quilt, and just when Altaïr’s heart has warmed itself up into some hope—delicate and shaky, standing on thin, spindly legs—Malik rolls over and presents Altaïr with a dim view of his back.

The curtain is rung down. He is looking again at the naked reality of his marriage.

It’s good to exercise self-restraint when things are going well. Or when he isn’t sure that his advances will be well-received. This, along with the notion that he’s sworn to never cross his husband’s side of bed again, is what drives him into escape from disappointment and into an attempt of sleep. It’s a considerable amount of time before they both fall into slumber and a shorter extent of time before Malik is woken by no fault of his own. First there is an unstrapped twitching of limbs behind his back, not unlike that from his first night spent with Altaïr. He blinks himself to a slow shutting of eyes and attempts new sleep, finding no surprise in this since Altaïr’s disquiet in sleep seems to be a common occurrence. There is but a moment of peace before the twitching grows more violent until it’s a nuisance and obstacle to sleep.

Malik sighs through his craving for slumber, promises himself sleep as soon as he turns over to examine the state of Altaïr.

His husband is in oblivion’s grasp but clutched by claws of some greater troubles he can’t escape even in dreams. His body, so powerful and magnificent in daylight, is now curled up into a tense coil. Whatever nightmare assails him is making Malik restless in return. Altaïr keeps moving and shifting in sleep, the fingers of his injured, left hand contract at sporadic intervals almost forming into a fist for the fraction of a moment, his other hand is clawing at the sheets or pillow depending on where it shifts.

Malik watches with pity licking at his chest. His own face twitches in response to Altaïr’s sudden flinch and fraction of restless moan.

Malik isn’t aware that his husband has only recently absconded from what’s been a traumatic experience for him, but he feels the prickling of empathy and a sudden block in the attempt to wake him, he struggles helplessly through it until his struggles grow more resigned and he can’t distinguish any other sparks of resistance to waking Altaïr from the nightmare that’s robbing them both of proper sleep.

Before he urges himself into any movement, Malik explains this decision to himself with the need for sleep.

When he reaches across the gap between them to put his hand on Altaïr’s shoulder he can hardly imagine doing anything different. His body protests with hunger for sleep but no longer against this movement and decision to wake Altaïr. He shakes him off sleep, stirring him to waking in order to put a stop to his antics. Altaïr rouses with a sudden start, as if tumbled right from the trauma-stiffened dream. He scampers out of it with a perturbed face and protesting muscles as early as Malik shakes him awake, and then he finds Malik facing him with the hand still lingering on his shoulder and pours the calmest look into his haggard face that he can muster.

“Sleep does not come?”

“Nor is it deserved,” Altaïr whispers back.

They stare at each other through dimness, through silence that starts stretching across the gap between them. Malik blinks at last, drowsily, and his hand launches into retreat, away from the proximity of Altaïr’s warm shoulder, and this startles Altaïr into action. He knows he is playing his very last card by bestowing unwanted affection, yet he must move quickly or see opportunity fade. To halt this retreat, his right hand shoots out and seizes Malik’s wrist, and they remain linked thus for a moment—Malik in confusion and Altaïr in hesitance.

A smallish frown settles on Malik’s brow but he doesn’t pull his hand into the safety of his quilt. He is reluctant to offer his hand but Altaïr’s very peace seems to be tethered to it. Altaïr attempts his luck and smooths his hand down Malik’s wrist to take his husband’s hand into his own and Malik is stiff, at first, but his body mellows out into wary relaxation and he consents to their hands remaining joined for tonight.

A hand, that is all. It’s very little but it’s heartbreaking and heartwarming, both at once.

Altaïr links their fingers and commences a slow pull, bit by bit, drawing the captured hand across his side of bed and nearer to himself, until he is able to lay lips upon it. Through a gap of mind which is busy relishing this closeness, Altaïr tries to think of anything that had provided such comfort before. It’s useless, quite useless. There is nothing to relate to except his ordinary cribbing and cramming of daydreams about an awaiting husband during the short rests between battles. Until now, dreams had been his only comfort.

Altaïr is inordinately fond of the scent of Malik’s hands, their clean softness and soapy smell. They are as delicate in texture as his neck. Cared for. Until now, they have been driving him mad with wonder of how they would feel on his own skin, how it would feel to take his husband’s hands and scatter kisses across them, or hold them between his own. He shifts only when he’s meticulously noted all these particulars and he jots down more while he thumbs across the bumps of Malik’s knuckles and then across arches that make the gentle slopes of his clean nails. He drags wetted lip across the tips of his fingers, and breathes the calmness this hand provides.

Malik watches entranced, feels the prickly drag of skin on the back of his hand as Altaïr glides his cheek across it between squeezing and nuzzling and peppering of kisses. His stupor lasts long enough that he settles into it all and doesn’t attempt to extract his hand from Altaïr’s possessive hold.

Movement recedes slowly, till the gust of Altaïr’s breath turns into something deeper, calmer, a warm breeze that’s blowing across his skin in a slow and long draft. A hand alone shouldn’t give him a feeling of such power over a warrior.

And even though Altaïr, too, acknowledges its power, he knows that weapons of this type do not smash a man’s life—they build it. He’s bursting with relief of having been allowed to attend to this soft hand. He links their fingers anew and keeps the hand far away from the border of their divided territories in this bed, at which point he engrosses himself into the attempt to discover what it feels like to have a husband without making a stop to acknowledge Malik’s motives for offering his hand. He cheerfully dismisses reality. He’s hungered for this for a long, long time.

“Confide in me and lift your burden,” comes Malik’s raspy voice, made soft to entice speech.

Altaïr swallows and sighs the tension out of his body and says nothing.

For a moment it seems to Malik that the faint rhythm of his husband’s breath has been suspended, that he has awakened to ensure he is still holding onto Malik’s hand, before sinking again into sleep.

If Malik shifted the tip of his middle finger, he could count the calluses atop Altaïr’s palm. Instead, he lies still.

His previous intentions have drifted aslant and missed their target, but he disregards the failed quest for words and listens.

Now the rhythm has continued, so low that Malik can hardly distinguish it from his own breath, while he lies and listens. He watches how Altaïr falls asleep holding onto his hand. Oh, and he would ask a thousand things—he would talk to Altaïr about all he’d yearned to talk about, but he doesn’t.

He watches him sleep.

 

Chapter Text

 

The last that Malik sees of his home is not his mother, it’s her knife.

That frightening gleam of her knife lingers in his mind’s eye but for a moment longer, his mother’s threat to kill him unless he makes off to hide rings in his ears for far longer than that.

The last time Malik sees his mother, he is thrust through the secret exit of their villa, and in his hold the tiny hand of his little brother—a child wrung from bed, torn from home, with no shoes, no sandals, only a flute in hand. Malik is too small, too removed from the notion of treachery, to understand the reasons his mother hasn’t provided. He obeys because he is told so. He obeys his mother’s threat because remaining loyal tonight is being disloyal, and he understands enough to know that mother has bestowed a vast burden on his small shoulders.

Malik is ten years young when he is driven out of home and ordered to hide, with Kadar’s frail hand in his. Kadar has barely grown into his fifth year when he’s seized from bed and forced out of home, for reasons that will forever be withheld from him.

The sky is alive with stars, the city ablaze with fires. It reeks of blood and treachery and ash.

Malik’s could hide inside the silent bath complex, situated a street south from their home. He could, but the only entrance is barred by night. Inside, there is no one. The walls are like a giant’s fence, the gate locked. Behind his back, a heavy sob breaks from Kadar’s mouth.

“Where is mama?” he moans with atrocious volume, a question that can only invite trouble and Malik is jammed into a corner, a pup caught in a trap and moved by mere instincts as he starts to move. He tugs him, yanks him along as his own helplessness and Kadar’s loudness starts a race through his mind while he searches about for another exit, another hiding place. From the spot they are passing at present, Malik can catch a glimpse of the main road across two long, narrow streets up ahead, towards the north. He is heading there, his eyes hurt from lack of blinking, his heart thuds painfully while he moves towards what feels like wandering out of trap to stumble right into the next.

Before they can reach the tail of the street to investigate the crossroads, a collection of warriors marches past in quick step and the brothers swerve between two properties, two villas, to wait until these pass. The grid of streets they’re threading is open from four sides, with no street safe enough to provide shelter, and he feels exposed and at risk. If they could reach the temple, or the theater attached to it, it might provide sanctuary. Until morning. Until next day. Until they can flee from the city.

When they reach the meeting joint of a side street and main road, they halt. From all corners of the city, ragged families are pouring onto the streets to find escape, or to be slaughtered, from various streets around deafening cries are twining with crazed demands for blood, mingling, mixing, until all they hear is a disjointed swelling of screams, shrieking, yells. The number of escapees is dwindling, but some spill onto the streets. All of them are nobles. Of the common folk, there is no trace.

The temple is a gargantuan building sitting on a giant’s steps at the end of the forum in near distance. Its silence beckons.

Malik’s knees are weak, two worthless lifeless knobs, fear is morphing his limbs into rigidness, into paralysis shattered only by fear for his brother. Kadar is scared but Malik is more. Kadar is scared for himself, Malik is scared for both.

Quicker still is Malik to wake from this stiffness when he spots a swaying mass of warriors sweeping forth from the Chamber of Memories in a steady, frightening march and down towards the navel of the city where the two main roads cross each other. The brothers sidle up to a wall, they are still and small enough to not invite attention, a motionless bundle huddled into the brick wall of a villa.

Malik’s frightened gaze follows until they’ve removed themselves from their sight, he peeks from their spot at intervals, peeks over his shoulder when screams shake his protesting muscles into a panicked flinch, peeks to assure himself that Kadar is there, a mere crumb of a child, even when he feels him clutch at his back with small hands. Malik rummages the street in search for other warriors, and when he finds none for several long moments, he feels certain he will never get beyond this chance if he doesn’t move now.

The main road is strewn with gravel, with grit, with dirt. Kadar is barefoot. He won’t manage on feet.

The routine of carrying Kadar on his back is not unfamiliar. Acquired through game before, now it proves useful, and he settles into the weight when he prompts Kadar onto his back and secures his hands at the back of his brother’s knees, and allows whatever extension of time is surpassing his usual bodily limits to be swallowed by urgency, and the pain of it remains unnoticed.

His longing gaze booms gloomily past the main road and to the forum, then up the stairs towards the temple, he stiffens his limbs into a quick run, and with a quick start he hurries out with face dirty with fear and Kadar clutching his neck. It doesn’t obstruct his breathing. He doesn’t breathe. Between his bravery and fearlessness there is a great joke. Malik carries them towards the temple because there are no people on temple grounds, he draws them towards the theater because it’s dark there. In the blaze of fires around, darkness is their only shelter. Darkness is where the safety lies.

Crossing the main road doesn’t encourage hope, but with Kadar’s tear-streaked face and Malik’s protesting muscles they manage to cross it, they manage to run across the paved forum towards the first floor of stairs. The temple is dim, but the darkness of the theater at its back is what continues to encourage Malik onwards. Kadar’s small hand thrusts itself into Malik’s the moment his bare feet find the first stair, and they ascend hand in hand, breathing the sour mixture of ash and fear.

The temple complex has always appeared to Malik like a giant’s steps up to heavens. Like three layers of their mother’s cake stacked onto one another. They needn’t go past the first. The first layer is where the entrance, the only entrance, to Nokem’s theater lies. There are no other entrances. The rest of stairs leads to the temple on top.

Up the first layer they climb and down the elevated grounds they run, towards the entrance into the bowels of a dark theater beyond, through a floodlit tunnel illuminated by the spires of fire around the inner city, where once the properties of nobles had stood untouched.

They pass the tunnel and break the silence inside the theater, Malik’s steps ring loud. Their patter is carried forth across the imposing semicircle of a myriad steps, it feels as if all sound converges at a single point at the podium down below and spreads outwards from there bursting to the very porticus that runs around the outermost edge of the theater which supports the statues of Nokem. In their presence, Malik feels a sliver of safety coursing his limbs until it pours down into his wrist, into his fingers that clutch at Kadar’s tiny hand and he tightens hold pulling his brother along.

Responsibility doesn’t allow the luxury of fear.

It’s not right.

He is a child of Nokem and children of Nokem are warriors, they don’t give way to fear. The stage floor is lone, there is no one. Its high back-wall supported by columns rests doused in moonlight. Daga’s tears are bright on the skies tonight. Malik considers what path to take, what shelter to seek, there is only so much he can see with Daga’s tears as his only lamp. On the midriff of this imposing semicircular edifice, along the length of its wall between the two belts of seat rows, several blind tunnels are chiseled into the mass of dressed concrete. What is meant to provide visual indulgence and decorum of an otherwise uninteresting concrete wall will tonight be used for sheltering life. As he starts walking there, Malik is half-mind to take his sandals off, to staunch the hollow clap of their soles against the paved passage that separates the cavea, but he will have need of them.

His legs carry him to one of the middle tunnels aligned with the front of the podium below—they look furthest away from the entrance. They soon announce themselves to the safety of the blind tunnel. At its end is the only source of light, an archway in the wall of concrete beyond which a hill winds round the back of Nokem’s theater like a shield. If Malik propped himself on toes high enough, he could, perhaps, see past the height difference between the hilltop and the arch, and the vast stretch of the dark sea beyond. Malik had heard older boys boast of feats like jumping from these tunnel archways onto the hill unscathed but he’d shrugged them off as exactly that—empty boasting. Even if he could jump from the tunnel onto the hill without plummeting into the narrow, frightening ravine between the steep hill and the back of the theater, Kadar would not be able to. Even if they managed together, nothing was waiting for them beyond the hill, nothing but the rocky cliffs of sea and darkness beyond the horizon. Malik doesn’t stray to thoughts of jumping off. Had he wanted to be up on the winding range of hill, he would have ran past the forum, past the temple complex and the theater, and tried to climb up a more easier route from right behind the theater.

He doesn’t stray towards the end of the tunnel either. Its midpoint is dim enough to be called dark and he sidles up to one of the vaulted walls and drops into a crouch, Kadar follows his antics religiously. He is at unease with Kadar being closer to the entrance and shifts to insert himself between his brother and a possible source of threat. His safety for Kadar’s life.

After he sits down, he is reminded of the state of their undress, of Kadar’s lack of sandals, however inane the thought compared to the cloak of dread that wraps itself around them while they huddle breathing fear and terror, breathing helplessness. Two children driven out of home, forced onto the streets, coerced into saving their own skins. Their nobility the only protection they have, and the only curse.

Malik is young but old enough to feel the strain of a new fear that’s settled on his own hideous expression and notched itself into his brows—the abominable expression of weakness. He stares off into the blackness of the wall across until he forgets what daylight looks like, his limbs frozen with this helplessness until the unmoving arm wound round Kadar’s small shoulders shifts with the sudden shake of his brother’s body. Kadar breaks into tears. Then sobs. Malik is near it, he sweats dread, he sees the snakes of fire licking at the sky in his mind’s eye, hears the faraway chant of screams.

Kadar carves himself a path into Malik’s side to mold against him, his face squashed and flattened against Malik’s neck till it’s wet with tears, his spindly arm thrusts itself into Malik’s lap between his chest and bent, frozen knees, until the flute in his clutch starts digging into the soft of Malik’s belly, against his solar plexus. Kadar looks to him to keep him safe and duty weighs down on the older brother with doubled severity. His many worries fight among themselves.

Kadar’s sobs don’t fade out, they deepen gradually from shy to earnest and calming him is a physical necessity, the duty of an older brother who knows that crying tonight is a luxury more than a relief. Crying is for the wealthy. Crying is for the safe. Or for the destitute. Malik is not yet poor enough to cry, he yet treasures Kadar’s life. He has no sensation of poverty, for even if he loses his home, his still has his sibling.

Kadar’s face is almost entirely wet, it’s flooded with tears, his nose stuffy, and Malik has nothing to brush it all away, has not even a blanket to keep them from cold’s grasp tonight, but he pulls his sleeve down to his wrist to clean the worst of this tearful outburst while keeping Kadar off his neck. He won’t part from Malik and the elder is pressed into giving up more than just his side. He shifts, splaying his thighs open for Kadar to shuffle up to him and slot himself more securely inside Malik’s hold and Malik keeps his head up, runs his naked thumbs down his face when the position doesn’t allow for keeping the sleeve up. The bleak moonlight that slants in at the end of the tunnel is generous enough that he can discern Kadar’s plump face, brush tears off without poking his eyes. The brightest blue of his eyes is dimmed by darkness but the welling of fresh tears glimmers when the lazy limbs of moonlight stretch far enough to pet across his face. Malik strokes across briny skin, beneath eyes and towards temples, until his antics make sense no more, until his thumbs are as wet as Kadar’s eyes and he’s simply rubbing the path clean for fresh tears. He emulates what mother does with Kadar when the boy cries, mimics what she must had done when he was Kadar’s age (though he harbors no memory of such event) yet his attempts at halting these tears meet failure and he knows no other remedy than allowing Kadar’s continuously sloping body to fall against him, he allows this comfort. Where his gesture has failed his proximity compensates. Kadar eases his breath from heaving into long, greedy gulps of air and sags against Malik, chin on his shoulder, arms tight around Malik’s ribs, his flute a nagging prod between their bellies. Malik allows it. He allows all.

He fastens his knees to Kadar’s sides and presses a cheek into his hair, always unruly, always defying obedience, and curls arms around him—he’s never been closer to his brother than he is tonight. Tonight, they’ve no other family. Tonight they are two.

Malik is stingy with movement tonight, he shifts if he must, and his limbs stay welded to where he’s first fixed them, until the first hiccup pricks him into movement. The dam breaks, it’s bound to break, and a barrage of hiccups follows. They don’t excel in volume but the strength of their convulsions shakes Kadar’s entire frame, shakes Malik out of stupor. Their petite little squeaks sound loud in Malik’s ear but listening to Kadar’s hiccups oddly feels more pleasant than deafening silence. It begs to be stopped, for their own safety, and Malik must throw dice to attempt new comfort, must risk more to plunge them into unwanted-but-safe silence again.

He rasps the first verse out before he moves his arm, and when his lips fall into proper shape and his voice forms into proper sound his arm does launch into movement and strokes over Kadar’s shaking frame. He could sing better. He hates the shivery breath of his lullaby, he hates the color of his tone, but his song soothes Kadar into a hush and its purpose is well-met.

During his soft hushing the time goes astray and the notion of it is lost on him.

He listens to the rhythm to Kadar’s fickle breathing more intently than he listens for sounds outside the scope of their shelter, his song dwindles to naught but his arms find no rest, stroking as they are over his brother’s back until he isn’t sure whom of them two he’s comforting. He strokes on even when the cadence of Kadar’s breathing begins to shift and he feels its change beneath his palms, feels it through the press of their chests.

“Play the flute, Malik,” Kadar whispers earnestly, and his words are important. Nothing seems quite real to Malik in these moments but this whisper murders the fearful uproar inside him and fills his chest to brim with sadness. He doesn’t know the flute. He’s never learned. He can’t tell Kadar.

Children of Nokem are blessed with a penchant for music and song, like their godly father. All children of Nokem, the nobles, receive instruments upon birth, it’s their talisman, their birth amulet. Malik’s is a harp, one as tall as Kadar, and three times as heavy. Now forever lost to fire. Kadar’s is a pan flute, the beautifully-crafted set of five small pipes prodding at Malik’s chest. The sole reason for its being here tonight is that Kadar sleeps with it, that his pan flute is the only remaining memento of home that wouldn’t slip from his grasp when mother had plucked him from bed.

Malik doesn’t know flute. He would play a little if he knew, even at the risk of the sound escaping the tunnel. To hide that he doesn’t know, Malik blames his inability on the risk of discovery.

“Can we pray to father then?” Kadar begs, hopeful.

Malik’s reluctance wants to stop him.

The business of pacifying Kadar is proving far too grave to be satisfied with mere petting and song. Had he been as difficult to placate at that age as his brother is? He has no one to ask and his mind hates it, it’s unnerved by it, so he migrates to other thoughts. To soothe Kadar he is coerced into setting off towards the nearest statue. The difficulty of his decision lies not within the distance—the outer ridge of the theater is flanked with several statues of Nokem—it lies within the necessity to abandon their shelter in order to reach them. To lull Kadar into a semblance of ease, Malik must guide them out into the open, up to the nearest statue. 

They forsake the tunnel.

They ascend the nearest set of stairs.

There isn’t much distance to cross and the first statue gleams stately up there beneath the moon. Nokem’s likeness is crafted as all other city statues are. With real weapons. Their body is marble, their weapons metal. Where Nokem’s spear is a real one, Barzel’s flail is an iron one, Gdila’s shield and sword are steel ones. They are rock but their gear is not. To touch the weapons is most heinous sacrilege. On the ridge of the theater, the glint of Nokem’s spear is a luster of light hovering above the god’s head. There is—it is hard for a child to express it—a sort of heavy contentment to be found in the presence of a statue. A contentment well-fed by their sudden proximity to the god, a simple sensation which feels so very intricate. And nothing could be more intricate than their ongoing loss of a life they’ve always known. Malik drinks the sight greedily, revels in the presence of their father to forget the intricacies of their tragedy as Kadar’s bitty fingers stiffen around his hand while he’s steering them towards Nokem.

They never make it to the ridge.

The sight of a warrior turns Malik’s belly into a plummeting to abyss of terror.

Moonlight is bright and cruel.

He realizes they’re no longer alone and it’s clear. They see the warrior that stands in the vicinity of the passage-tunnel on the right as clear as he sees them, across the theater, amid the stairs. The man stands there in full armor for a half-witted moment, as if he hadn’t intended to find anyone here, let alone a pair of petrified children. His presence is lone, like that of a man who has sought this place out to cower from the chaos beyond, like that of a warrior who has intended to avoid direct conflict if he could help it because beyond these walls the nobles are retaliating and the injured and dead abound on both sides. He looks like someone who would reap whatever is left after the first bloodshed instead of risking his own neck. To mere children, he is a threat they’ve exposed themselves to. 

Fear pours swiftly into Malik’s veins, his limbs, his feet, and lastly his mind.

The noise of the man’s first step is deafening.

Descending down the stairs is wasting of time, a luxury they can’t afford, with an alternative equally bleak. The children start across the seats instead. The warrior who has wandered afield launches into a run, to catch them before they reach around to the left passage-tunnel, their only escape. Kadar bursts into a shriek, there is a din of steps as all three of them shoot into a faster run—a hunter and the hunted, a warrior chasing after two children. Their flight across the seats of the cavea is thwarted at every step, hindered by every gap between benches. Their escape is made of panic and ungainly steps, of tugging on a small hand and sad towing behind the older brother in upset pace.

For a moment of time the noise of running is scarcely interrupted. Then there’s the first sign of collapse.

The clomps of Malik’s dashing soles expire, the cargo of the Kadar’s hand drops from his grasp and he turns around—he must do this feared motion—to see that the little one’s tripped on a gap between benches. The warrior is upon them. They will never make it.

Kadar hasn’t yet shuffled up to his bare feet, he is heaving with exhaustion and terror, the man is upon them, it’s too late. It’s always been too late.

Stop!” Malik yelps and his word bursts around, past Kadar, but word alone is not strong enough a barrier between the warrior and them. He’s pulling Kadar to feet when the man’s presence falls upon them like a gust of wind and Malik’s howling, his outstretched stopping arms make no difference. The man backhands him sharply, he keels over the seat, tumbles sideways onto a bench below. He won’t run away. The warrior knows this and lays his hands on the smaller one first, because the older will return to him.

Kadar’s shriek rattles him from stupor, up on feet, and he springs off before he can register what’s happening two seats above him, he bounds upwards long before he sees hands on Kadar’s neck and the flailing of his brother’s limbs.

Malik groans-growls-moans to give his presence substance as he charges at the form that looms over Kadar putting weight into the choking, he throws the flute he’s been mindlessly holding in hand before his head can think to pull at the tail of the man’s helmet instead, but it gets the job done, he does attract attention, but not enough to inflict injury, not enough to lessen the hold on his brother’s neck. The man shakes him off like little more than an aggravating fly, an insect, and it’s not until Malik sinks his teeth into a hairy arm that the man responds with more than just a push. The warrior yells, spits a curse, shoves Malik off to send him into a plunge farther than before, until he plummets down the entire cavea, injured, bruised, shaken.

Malik staggers to his feet, knees tied together in fear, his mind grasping at straws.

Kadar’s wild thrashing is beginning to wane into bleak attempts at tapping and scratching at the man’s lifted chin.

Beyond this sight, in Nokem’s hand, his weapon gleams.

When Malik looks back at this moment it’s not knitted with genuine courage but a sham bravery, a foolish heroism. Tonight there are no heroes, the heroes are dead. There is but a child writhing from grasp of death and a child struggling to protect a brother with all means accessible. The closest statue stands a distance above, at the end of the gap that’s grown after Malik’s fall, but he carries himself with nameless speed, propelled by some protective instinct that swells to remind him of his duty. Luck is not terrible, luck aids him—the statue is that of Nokem. Extracting the spear from Nokem’s hand is nearly effortless. Gdila’s sword would have been harder, heavier.

The weapon is real and that’s all that counts.

Malik doesn’t know how to wield it but it’s instinct that guides him, not skill. He pulls it out of his father’s stony hand, scurries down seat rows vaulting from bench to bench, doesn’t growl as he’s dashing down, not until he’s near enough to let his presence be known. A harrowing cry then ruptures from his throat but he keeps the spear steady. He aims at the man’s head.

The warrior’s intent shifts from the choke when he looks up and Malik’s aim shifts accordingly, following the man’s head with the cusp of his spear even as an arm shoots out to halt Malik’s advance. Malik doesn’t throw it—unconvinced by his own skill—aiming instead as he’s running at the man, and it’s the retaliating arm that softens the impact and spares the warrior a far serious injury. The momentum of Malik’s force is shattered, but the damage to the man’s eye has been done. Malik hasn’t killed but he has blinded, he has maimed. It’s enough. The warrior clutches hands against his gored eye, blood streaming down the side of his face generously as he roars like wounded beast. It’s enough.

It’s enough to haul a child in physical shock from the bench with all his might, enough to fare through a handful of steps with him in hand, and no more than that.

Kadar is not the victim of the second assault.

Malik is snatched from Kadar’s grasp from behind, flung over shoulder like a sack of grain. Malik doesn’t give himself to fear through this position, but through the warrior’s injured fury. Until now, the man has been toying with smaller prey, because they are so weak, because they weren’t meant to cause wound, but the man’s face is now bloody and purple with such fury that his blind rage seeps into Malik making him petrified, and he doesn’t know what the man’s intended until the deed is done.

Malik is falling.

His nearest landing far below him.

Malik has neither time nor skill to angle himself in midair, prepare better for impact. His stomach is lurching, he’s plummeting down below, diving into the unknown, he doesn’t know how far off the warrior has thrown him. He is in free-fall and a scream is lodged frozen in his throat.

His blurred vision doesn’t catch more than the moonlit mass of crushing waves before it morphs into a dark blur and he shuts his eyes to the whirl around him, awaits what must come.

He crashes wham into a blend of rock and earth as the collision smacks against his back, his side, it smacks all over. The cry punched out of him too stunning to his own ears. It’s the hill. The ring of rock that shields the back of the theater. He tumbles off into a roll, coughs, spits out a wad of blood, of spittle, of both, gasps for air. He claws at the rock, panting. There is two-three steps till the cliff but he digs fingers into rock and dirt and claws into the crevices and gaps as if he’s about to fall into the sea. To fall off the wrong side of hill would be his death. The drop-off he’s just survived, the height between the theater ridge and the hilltop, doesn’t suffice to kill but promises pain, promises agony, and Malik feels its promise deeply.

Every part of him resists movement.

Above him, on the point where he’s been hurled from, Kadar is crying for aid. Malik lifts his head wheezing spittle and blood and dread, he lifts himself on elbows, scraping and chafing skin as he crawls to edge forward before he can trust his voice. And yet, the warrior intends different pain for Kadar. He doesn’t toss him off the theater, he is not moving to do so.

Malik watches Kadar’s panicked trashing while the man presses down his windpipe again, right there, on the outer ridge where Malik can see. Dread runs thick through Malik’s veins before his own first shriek erupts. It’s no use, it’s useless, it’s vain. It’s giving what’s meant to be taken. The man has wandered out to that very spot with the aim to unfold a play of murder before his eyes, to cheat Malik of any participation other than watching helplessly.

Malik claws at nothing and screams into the skies, imploring for his brother’s life, begging for scraps of mercy. The satisfaction of revenge laughs in Malik’s face, the blood-sullied fury-contorted face smiles down on him while life seeps from his brother’s body. The man is there to scourge punishment upon a child that has maimed him, he is there to force him to watch Kadar’s last struggle, to parade Malik’s helplessness.

Malik screams with tenacious stamina, he pleads, he begs, he curses as pear-shaped tears roll plump down his damp cheeks.

Nothing that is available to him will save Kadar’s life. He can watch, he can glare, but the earth won’t move. Climbing downhill to return to the temple, to run up the stairs and through the tunnel, to scale the theater—it is available, but he can’t race with death which stands a step away from the finish line and smirks back at him with a bloody, maimed face.

He is powerless, weak. He can’t protect the only thing that’s left to him.

There are gaps in his screams now.

Kadar’s frail little arm falls limp at his side, there is no movement, no resistance, the child dead. The warrior’s hands refuse to unclasp from his neck long after this and hands of grief thrust into Malik’s chest ripping and tearing what’s inside. He has failed to protect. He has lost all that holds value. He weeps through a scream-tattered throat. Pain gurgles deep down in his chest choking each breath with the sting of loss. He’s failed to protect.

Strangled before his own eyes. Suffocated. Choked like an animal.

The beast rises above the dead body of his little brother, with blind, bleeding eye and bliss at the grief inflicted. Malik is curling up into a sit to await the body of his brother when he throws it down, but it’s not entrusted into his care. The man picks the corpse up, hoists it onto shoulder, sneers with a misshapen beam, takes off.

It’s difficult to isolate a single pain that hurts worse, hard to tell what bears more damage, whether it’s his bruised body, his shredded chest, the theft of his brother’s corpse. He grows sober with the warrior’s disappearance. He watches in horror at the vacant spot of his brother’s murder.

He has escaped with Kadar’s body, and Malik hurts.

It is at this stage that Malik makes his decision—it comes on its own, he doesn’t make it—and heroism lays itself to a grave to give rise to loyalty instead. He will follow this monster to afterlife to retrieve the dead body of his brother. He need not live after. He need live enough to give proper burial to his brother. There’s nothing left for him after.

The descend downhill is strenuous, a laborious task for Malik’s sore, beaten body. He clambers down scraping whatever skin is left untarnished, wreaking deeper damage to what is already raw, he starves for speed, for the warrior is at the temple by now and he will lose sight of him if he hesitates at the possibility of injury. Pain for Kadar dilutes whatever pain this slide down the rocky steepness of the hill begets. He dashes for the temple front, his legs are straining with the effort. When he skids to a halt, in that short moment of stillness, the ache in his abused body spreads through double-fold, his muscles throb with soreness, the flesh pulses with stabs of pain where cut, where torn.

Nothing awaits at the temple complex. Beyond, across the forum, there is a void.

He looks past, his wild gaze springs to the remaining option and he finds him there, the one warrior-clad form striding down the main north-south road with a dead child slung over the shoulder. Malik starts after the figure keeping eyes on the corpse of his brother. He pursues, he doesn’t hide. It doesn’t occur to him to shield himself, not from the murderer, not from any other warrior.

The people have thinned. The streets are emptying. Whole houses and villas are no more, engulfed by fires that reek across the city.

The air blows cold on his forehead while he tails after the murderer. There is that much that he can do. To steal the body once he discards it. By the time the distance is crossed from start to end of the main road, Malik is not himself anymore. He walks, a lost soul in someone else’s body, his grief wearing thin until it morphs into numbed pain and blind following after the stench of a murderer’s murder.

He vows.

He swears to make him drink blood and pain.

Malik is beaten but there is life in him yet. Had he made the effort to fell his neck and drop gaze to ground, he would have seen the drip of blood he’s following. Had he tried to remove gaze from the bob of Kadar’s dead head, from the wayward sway of limp limbs, he would have known that they have passed Hiba’s hill, that they are passing through the grain fields between it and the volcano. Had he known anything but the dead, mechanical advancing of his own body, Malik would have seen the warriors that walk this same path, to this-or-that direction, or warriors combing the grain fields in search for survivors, he would have seen the stares locked onto his dragging, beaten form, he would have felt the yoke of their threatening, menacing looks. They don’t touch him. No one touches him as he trails half-dead after a dead body. A child is stalking a murderer towards his nest—he is left untouched to be swallowed whole in the trap he is wandering into on his own.

Kadar’s small corpse dangles from the shoulder bereft of spauldron, until the warrior shrugs his burden off, drops the child to dirt. Kadar’s body slumps into the dust that many boot-soles have trodden, Malik’s deadened mind works itself into accepting a possibility and he gambles with the notion of hope, he pines for the chance to steal the body under his nose. To bury his brother on Hiba’s hill, the grave of the god most dear to Kadar.

The warrior’s rotten mind doesn’t move to permitting hope.

He bends, takes the dead child’s wrist into a ruthless grip which is felt elsewhere, not on the body he is clutching but the one watching. He turns away and starts dragging the body with him across dirt.

Malik unbridles the cry that festers in throat at the sight, his grief surges in the first quick burst and dwindles to a woeful, mournful wail that follows them up the path. Malik’s face is wet again, sodden, and it’s not easily remedied—he has nothing to wipe the tears, his hands, his wrist, his arms, are soaked by the time the path uphill starts to curve. He wails. He follows. He pawns all strength that’s left in him to climb up the path after the monster dragging his brother’s corpse along the grime and rock they pass, he scales its flat, sloping, winding zig-zag up towards the top of the volcano.

The story goes that the stench of death once drew the god of death to this island.

The story goes that following Hiba’s untimely death and the perishing of first human warriors, the children of Nokem, during the clash with Ga’ash’s evil spirits, the god of death arrived to soil tugged by the smell of their deaths.

Malik draws up the path following the stench of death that once drew Zikaron, and there, on top, beside the sea of warrior encampments that stretches vast across the flat summit of the volcano, it reeks of massacre, it reeks of treachery.

Abbas twists around then, to sneer at the brat when he realizes he has walked right into a snare while following after him, but there is no one.

The child is gone.

Abbas’ one uninjured eye flits around, rifling the nearest area in search for the imp that’s robbed him of sight, the slobbering creature that wailed after his speck of a brother all the way up to the top. To the right are hills of crates, boxed equipment ready for shipping, to the left is only the underbrush, a thicket of tawny, withering shrubs fading away in preparation for early winter, and not even a sough of noise to reveal the boy’s whereabouts.

Gone. Hidden.

Abbas keeps the naked compression of palm against his gouged eye, keeps the other around the corpse’s wrist. He had followed orders and paid for it with grievous wound. Set out, spread out, kill them all. Bring their corpses back. Gather them on top.

The sniveling brat will turn up eventually and meet his deserved end.

Abbas cushions the pain of injury with this spurt of vengeance and tears himself away from the spot, tugging the corpse with him, letting it drag as he hauls himself over to heap it on a pile of others awaiting burial. He spots Altaïr at the outer lip of the mass grave that has been hastily dug to accommodate all who have and will be slaughtered tonight. Altaïr is preparing the bodies to be thrown into the deep, unmarked pit. It isn’t half as deep as when Abbas had set out into the city along the others. It’s filled with fresh corpses.

Abbas’ pulsing pain starts to chip away at his silence and the dazzling flow of cussing that he begins to mutter under his breath is unheeded or unheard by Altaïr.

He drags himself to one of the piles of bodies, variously tainted by death—some look unscathed, some bloody, some torn, gashed open—and he drops the child corpse beside the rest, can’t even bring himself to slot it atop as others before him have been doing. Altaïr flicks the briefest moment of attention from the corner of his eye, not more, but he begins to stare at Abbas after the blinded warrior boots the newest corpse, kicking it.

“Abbas. Leave it be.”

Abbas doesn’t kick anymore but he glowers down at where Altaïr is crouching and shoving body after body down the slope of the pit, his injured face a mash of repulsed fury and blood, the sudden snarl that’s contorting his mouth pops out an astonishing amount of gum beneath his upper lip. Altaïr receives the expression with open arms and lets is run past him, that’s how extensive his care for Abbas’ grimace and unabashed disgrace is.

“I see you kill children now. A few years more and maybe you’ll learn how to kill a real man,” Altaïr deadpans from his crouch, watches the snarl pull at Abbas’ mouth grotesquely. Altaïr’s mockery does turn his gloating over the corpse into shameful admission of defeat, never voiced, as Abbas turns to report to the nearest healer and have his wound treated.

Altaïr turns to the most recent corpse next when Abbas is out of sight.

It appears without open injury, there is no blood. Winding around the small neck are strangulation bruises where the child’s throat had collapsed under compression, but no more than that. Throttled. Altaïr sighs, a mere wisp of breath to avoid drawing the stench of blood floating around into himself, and picks the child up with more care, to lower it into the pit next before Abbas can change his mind to gloat over it again.

He is taken aback by the strangled moan of protest that stumbles from one of the bushes some distance away.

Altaïr narrows his gaze, combs around for the source of noise, but he does not discover it, it shows itself on its own. A child—Altaïr doesn’t give him more than ten years—stands at a safe distance shrouded by a cloak of withering thicket. A look of panic charges forth from his battered face, his eyes stare at the corpse in Altaïr’s arms, then up at him. The child’s eyes are large in fright, round and dark. 

“Give him to me.”

Were mice able to speak, their voice would possess more strength than the boy’s. His voice small in volume but large with pain.

“I cannot,” the warrior blankly retorts, helpless with the power of decision removed from his hand by orders of his Master.

The boy doesn’t settle for Altaïr’s answer. The child is big enough, it’s small. Big enough to bury a brother, small against the power of a warrior. It stands small at this distance looking to Altaïr with a downright lost face, in tears, broken. A miscast expression on a child’s face which should be steeped in joy and innocence of its age. Altaïr sees some of himself in the boy and feels a sting of sympathy. 

“Give him to me,” he begs, again.

“I cannot.”

Altaïr’s heart is moved by the sight, but his head remains fixed. His hands are tied, removed from personal choice. Obedience governs his mind.

“Please give him to me...” the child croaks out through choked sobs and veils of tears.

Altaïr doesn’t say a word. Mystified, he realizes that the boy doesn’t look fearful because he is afraid of him but of what he might do with the corpse. He imagines that the boy wouldn’t be able to retrieve the body if it were to be lowered into the grave pit with the rest of corpses, particularly once the mass grave gets filled in with earth and dirt after all the bodies of all killed traitors are collected. 

Altaïr lowers the child to ground, not pit, and hoists his shovel up. He is not wrapped in pride as Abbas is about harming a child, but he can’t go against orders. He may momentarily divert discipline, at best, and hope he will overlook his own transgression in a race against compassion. He moves a handful of steps away from the mass pit, he looks at the child and away, to avoid looking at his bated breath and the small face pregnant with expectation.

The spade jabs the ground and scoops the first earth from soil.

Altaïr works fast. The more the interval between his erratic glances over his shoulder shortens, the paler he grows with the risk of someone finding him digging a separate grave. His face doesn’t remain sallow with apprehension for long, it grows hot and red under the steam of strain he puts into digging with haste, hollowing the gritty soil into a new, smaller pit. He labors speedy, in tumult, his muscles scream with overuse.

Twice he ventures a peek sideways to find the child crouching amid the withering thicket in a trance-like stare at Altaïr’s deepening impromptu pit, with scraped arms wound around bleeding knees. The child is perceptive, not dim-witted, not foolish. The knowledge of warriors swarming the expanse of the volcano top keeps him tied to whatever meager cover he has in the bushes. Death could creep up on him from any side, should he be sighted by a warrior controlled by less sympathy and more anger than Altaïr. He crouches there amid shrubbery with a subtle sway and deadened knees and drying, dirty face, and stares into the growing mound of earth, the only thread that keeps him alive to see his brother into a proper grave. Altaïr understands that the child had intended to steal the body from the heap. This is as good a grave anyone could get tonight.

The grave looks deep enough. Once assured that his preposterous task hadn’t inveigled him into overlooking any stray spectators, Altaïr picks the dead child up to carry him to hollowed ground, sinks into the grave with corpse in arms. He doesn’t perform this so much for the dead as much for the living sibling. He lowers the body with borrowed carefulness, his first instance of attention of this kind that he’d bestowed upon the traitors tonight, he lays the child out and scrambles out of the grave. The remainder of burial is carried out with former haste. He has nothing to shroud the child in before he entombs the body in this humble, shallow grave, and naked earth pours down in full shovels until the child is completely interred.

One year from now, the older child will return to this spot. Through a warrior’s errant act of kindness he will be able to tell apart the remains of his brother because of the solitary tomb set apart from a mass grave. One year from now, Malik will steal up the volcano again, with Leonardo at his side, to shift Kadar’s remains to Hiba’s hill that rises across the plunging valley between them.

Altaïr leaves no mound.

He flattens the grave completely and levels it out so that scarcely a sign of his misconduct can be picked up, so that no one would investigate. Whatever excess of earth remains he hurls into the sheer vastness of the mass grave where it falls amid the heap of bodies, too small an amount to hold notice.

He assumes that this abrupt swerve off his otherwise linear course of duty will be the end of it. It’s bound to be. Altaïr has dug this grave to avert this curious case of siblings torn apart by death from haunting him for the rest of his life, to staunch the guilt it would have chiseled into his head. Now he expects the living sibling to scram from sight. To seek shelter and chase after survival. It is what any child would have done.

The child, however, doesn’t flinch from spot.

The child stumbles out, topples over, falls to ground, and his fit genuinely starts.

He smooths himself down the flattened grave, a mournful cry tears from throat. Altaïr stares, appalled, perplexed. With no prior chance given to grieve or suffer the pain of loss in peace, the child now begins to scrape, claw, tear at loosened earth with wet and choking sobs upsetting his drawn-out cries of lament. The pitch of their profound sorrow stiffens the limbs that Altaïr needs tonight. The sight of a child laid out across the grave of a sibling shelves whatever toughness, or the pretense of it, he had dressed himself in tonight. He stands a human, less a warrior.

As a human, he grieves along. As a warrior, he seeks escape. The scales of duty weigh heavier.

There is a scrap of a human in him as he retreats, for he knows the child won’t be alive tomorrow. Not unless he pursues escape. At present, conflicting as the boy’s antics are with all Altaïr is familiar with, the child remains flattened to ground where earth can’t drink all cries that bleed from his mouth and this noise alone, this advertisement of a prey, is invitation for any predator to kill.

The child sobs himself steadily for a few moments of time, loses cognition of the world around him, can’t remember anything but what he last remembers of his brother. He drinks from sorrow blindly and vomits grief, he can scarcely remember to piece himself together in front of the kind enemy in retreat. Altaïr falls from sight, leaves him to what might possibly be the last moments of grief and life.

The surviving child sobs himself through the dregs of a long, desolate night with cold winds whizzing past him.

The child lies there till daylight.

 


 

Word passes round about a child.

He is neither dead nor gone by next morning and Altaïr finds him where he’d left him, with the distinct lack of mourning cries.

He lies flattened to the strip of land with limbs smelted into rigid motionlessness from the harsh winds that had whipped the volcano top all night. He doesn’t pass unnoticed by others, nor is he left to solitude. Warriors gather around him in clusters, between meals, between preparations for war, to hurl handfuls of dirt at the prostrated child and pelt him with insults at best and death threats at worst. Altaïr doesn’t know if they beat him, his welts and bruises are starting to show in broad daylight and it’s hard to discern whether they belong to horrors of last night or to recent daybreak.

The child doesn’t budge from mockery nor does it flinch from the promise of murder. He clings to the flat grave, his loyalty marches beyond the limits of death, he marches across the frontier of mortality with loyalty at his forefront.

Loyalty is a poor method of self-preservation.

 


 

The child’s second day on the grave is too similar to the previous one to be told apart.

Yesterday Desmond had told him one story and today he tells him two.

He had relayed the child’s origin, his family. A wealthy family. One that had lived right across Daga’s bath complex. Something about that location irks Altaïr but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Desmond had imparted unto him that the child’s family is entirely dead, killed in a laborious skirmish that had occurred in their villa, though not before inflicting heavy casualties to warrior ranks. Skilled fighters, true children of Nokem. He had also divulged a name to him. Malik, the child is called.

The Malik who spends night and day lying at the grave of his dead sibling, Malik who puts himself through constant danger and receives the foul dirt thrown and shouted at him, Malik who accepts this looping circle of vultures around his living cadaver as an inevitable cost of this suicidal loyalty to his family.

It is said that people discard what is different from them but don’t recognize the unseen similarities.

Altaïr doesn’t grasp the essence of this child at first, understanding eludes him—he is deeply convinced, had been deeply convinced, that a child’s instinct for bare survival would outshine any higher principles—it rankles him that this child, this Malik, has such meager awareness of mortality, until it dawns on him at last. He sees a mirror of himself laid out before his very eyes.

 


 

Ezio had once joked that Altaïr is attracted solely to loyalty.

Loyalty it had been that had attracted Altaïr to his future husband. Loyalty to those long dead.

On the third day, the child is not merely lying across the grave. He is curled into himself with dreadful pains in a belly unused to starvation. Altaïr is, as a general rule, barely possessed of sympathy. Yet his callous interior is raided by this display of devotion to family, his face softened by the impact of such blatant loyalty which refuses even hunger for food. He feels a different kind of sympathy gnaw at his own filled belly. At a second glance, it had been a few little, big things that had amounted to his later grand decision.

They are awarded a bowl of warm milk a day as sweetener along the breakfast. The downside of this is that they have to drink it on spot. Altaïr knows this disadvantage before he allows his hopes to soar too high. He places his bets on another kind of advantage which involves swapping this sweetener for another portion of other meals, such as a savory porridge on good days, and bread on bad ones. Altaïr has the misfortune of having stumbled not upon his own bad day but the cook’s.

“Now that you’ve picked my bones clean, give me my ration,” he demands as the tepid bowl of milk is taken from his hand.

In return for this sacrifice he receives from the stingy cook two lumpy loaves of bread, equally tepid at least. He glares and frowns and stares at the loaves in hands but they just won’t multiply and he scrambles out of the feeding tent. There won’t be enough for both of them, his sour mood shrivels up at a snail’s pace and returns with a rush as he finds a warrior gloating over Malik’s tacit, soundless misery.

Altaïr shoulders him, thrusts him aside with a territorial sneer, and the man relents leaving him free reign over what he considers prey.

Malik’s sullen, sullied visage is facing the other way, towards the bushes and the distant sea beyond, his back clad in a tattered, torn tunic facing the center of the volcano top where the warrior encampments are strewn across in an orderly manner. He is curled up with a pained face and eyes shut and wrinkled around the corners where he’s squeezing feverishly from the pinpricks of pain. This sad picture is entrusted to Altaïr after he circles the grave, with silent step, to examine the small face harrowed by deep discomfort. The face of a child who’s chosen to lie there until the last drop of grief evaporates form his body. Or until someone slits his throat.

He is shivering gooseflesh at night, refusing to budge from his dirty earthen bed and seek shelter. He doesn’t even acknowledge his own limits, his mind clasped tight around grieving, with a body that unquestioningly obeys. Altaïr had never seen anything like it before.

The child has eaten nothing in at least two days.

Altaïr unbuckles the water flask from his belt noiselessly, it’s flat and round, it’s clean—or at least the side that he doesn’t lay on ground beside the child—and he arranges the two cooling loaves of plain bread atop so that they wouldn’t tumble from the flask onto ground. Malik doesn’t unfurl from his cocooned position, he wouldn’t budge for Al Mualim himself, but he squints up, he peers at Altaïr from the grave, and there are signs of recognition in his dark eyes if not on his worn, deadened face.

A diet of dry bread and cold water.

That is what Altaïr can offer.

He offers peace, too. He stands away, to put the child at ease so that his extended distance swindles him out of the finicky stubbornness. When he has removed himself from Malik’s sight completely the arranged loaves topple from flask and plummet to dirt. They are not discarded. They are put on hold while Malik empties the flask, eagerly. He leaves it aside pretending it’s never been there after extracting the last drop of water. He then collects the loaves from ground drawing both to his chest, as if to cherish their very presence before the first bite finds his whetted mouth.

Altaïr doesn’t stir to gather up his drained water flask, not until long after the child had gobbled up the humble meal.

Malik seems to have understood—it is the only way he would ever accept this offering—that Altaïr’s act was not a sign of charity, but admiration. The warrior has vested interest in preserving and sustaining what he is fond of seeing, what he can’t lay eyes upon on common days. This extraordinary show of loyalty. He feeds the child because he admires his perseverance, his devoted fidelity to principles higher than life or hunger.

Altaïr likes to tell himself that what he had done is a selfless gesture of kindness, though he knows, secretly, in some far-away corner of chest, that the reach of his good deed stretches to remote and selfish possibilities he is trying to open. He does it to extract, in advance, a favor he nurtures himself towards with unsteady but growing speed.

Altaïr knows now that Malik’s loyalty to family will carry on long after their passing.

Altaïr craves loyalty like his body craves breath.

 


 

The child predictably doesn’t disappear the next day.

He remains melted to the grave amid this focal point of warriors, the jeers and threats against him grow more violent. It’s a matter of day, or hour, when someone will draw the blade, he is bound for death within this hazard zone for survivors of the Massacre. A general amnesty is in order, issued and decreed by Al Mualim, more looked through than looked up to, not largely followed (because Al Mualim connives at transgressions of his warriors) and therefore still convenient to break where survivors are present. The amnesty is mere decoration writ on paper.

Malik is on the brink of death here, on the very precipice, awaiting a brutish hand between shoulders to push him into the abyss, but his loyalty doesn’t stray.

It’s not empathy that draws Altaïr to Malik.

Altaïr is a young man madly attracted to the notion of loyalty.

Malik is not a splendid self-preserver, but he does not live in a splendid world, and his loyalty is more than splendid. A grown flower in a squalid world and dismal light. Altaïr goes on with swallowing this rare sight until he grows drunk from it, until a different thought begins to dizzy through his head, a decision locked in the safety of his mind before it even ventures out and bolts from its lodgings.

He doesn’t know how to go about it at first. How to preserve this flower before it’s ready for his plucking. The alterations of his mind are galvanized whenever he lays eyes upon the child, changed to different courses after every time he catches sight of him surrounded by vultures, until inaction feels nauseating. To leave such loyalty in the arms of death would be like striking the very blow against himself—a warrior, a man who used to maintain that no man or woman share scales with him, that no person could come close to the capacity for loyalty that he’s been gifted with. Altaïr believes—he used to believe—that no one’s been born as loyal as he has, a trait demonstrated by his devotion to Al Mualim’s cause and the friendship to Desmond who had earned his complete trust since their early days at Hiba’s orphanage. He used to believe it. Now different thoughts fill him until he is swollen up with them like a balloon and his tongue grows heavy, until it unravels before Al Mualim.

Altaïr’s obsession with loyalty and obedience is the unfortunate drive that guides him to Al Mualim. He ventures into asking his Master’s permission to marry.

Like most men in the barracks, he is unmarried with no future to think of. There is one perfect difference that divides him fiercely from others. Instead of jumping day-to-day onto fresh things that make life worth living, Altaïr had long settled on one. A loyal husband.

There is a myriad troubles Altaïr is faced with. He yearns to bind such a loyal person to himself, but Malik is a mere child. Child marriage is unheard of, forbidden, a rare custom from far-off foreign lands, deeply condemned within the borders of this island. Altaïr’s next most grievous trouble is the matter of war. He is to be shipped off abroad as early as tomorrow, to evade home for a time unknown—one, two, three years, perhaps longer. There is also the matter of Al Mualim’s permission, or lack thereof, to marry a noble, a survivor.

Altaïr plies his arguments before Al Mualim with the cunning of goddess Masekha, he knows what will appeal to his Master at present. Voicing public consent to Altaïr’s marriage is less a matter of child marriage and more a matter of mercy, of upping his public image as a merciful and compassionate leader. The gesture of good will towards the handful survivors, particularly children, leaves a good image with the common folk. When the answers to both of Altaïr’s problems meld into one single solution in form of Al Mualim’s permission—his special dispensation for Altaïr’s marriage—the remaining task is to persuade Malik into a marriage.

The issue remains a matter of how, not a matter of if. Altaïr won’t entertain any other outcomes.

He is presented with probably the most intricate of his matters, which is coaxing a grieving child into a marriage. He shuns the prospect of putting himself into Malik’s role, though the notion is tempting, he sees too many similarities between them to allow himself into this horrid position. He wants to tie to himself what is similar to him. He craves to secure the child for himself so it’s him who lays claim on his loyalty first, so that no one steals it away while he is gone from the city. He won’t allow such blatant theft of the child that holds the same strength of character as Altaïr himself, the same traits, the same capacity to remain loyal under the dire weight of death, the child of tender age who doesn’t put its own instinct of survival above devotion.

With blessings bestowed, Altaïr guides himself towards the grave he had dug, and he is surer than ever that he needs to be the first to put a leash on this loyalty before it’s snatched by death, or worse, by someone else’s hand.

 


 

Altaïr finds him in a worse condition than before.

Tired, jaded, burned out.

A dog perishing with loyalty. To seize that loyalty, to claim it, to see it bloom under his care, under no light but his own. This ambition steers him when he approaches the child prone on the small grave. Altaïr skirts around, toys briefly with his way of approach, fiddles with several possible stratagems.

Altaïr’s new offering doesn’t surpass the modesty of the last one by much. It’s the same flask with fresh water, two loaves of bread, cold, but with a dot of butter spread between split halves. When Altaïr takes a seat beside Malik, it’s not on the strip of land Malik alone is laying claims on, not on the grave he had dug. He sits down cross-legged one step aside, closer to the shrubbery. Malik opens his eyes and peers at him forlornly, like the last time. Altaïr knows not if it’s the glint of recognition in his dark eyes or the expectation that widens the seams of his swollen, drowsy eyelids. Whatever confidence he’s eased himself into might as well be a faux mirror of his own hopes, not the child’s theoretical response to his kindness.

Malik rubs his eyes and nose thoroughly with the back of his hand, he lifts himself, first on elbow, then carefully up into a sit.

Altaïr’s food is intended for Malik. He won’t relinquish hold on it until the child attempts to solicit the food from him, but he makes no attempt to consume it.

When Malik doesn’t speak his body does. He begins to glare at Altaïr’s face, refuses to drop gaze down to the warrior’s lap to give the man the satisfaction of seeing him stare openly at the food, but nothing muffles the noisy growl of the child’s empty stomach. Malik’s small face pieces itself into a visage that’s closest to mortification than Altaïr has seen on him until now, and for this alone he doesn’t allow his mouth movement, he doesn’t pull it up into a desired smile, to spare Malik the humiliation.

“You must be mad with hunger to speak with your belly,” Altaïr says, an elaborate earnestness weaved into his face.

Altaïr does what he had done last time. He lays the flask flat on the ground, at Malik’s right side, and slots the two buttery loaves atop this cleaner side of his flask.

“Take it.”

Malik edges forward.

He doesn’t even dignify the warrior with a look as he claims the food. For stubbornness or humiliation, or both, it’s vague. His teeth tear into the bread, chopping off hungry, greedy chunks of it while Altaïr watches from the corner of his vision, mulls over the debris of past thoughts in search for a fitting way to lay everything out in the open. Malik feeds on the second loaf with less haste, he breaks the round loaf at seams to regard the buttery innards, as if wondering how it found its way inside, who’d put it there. He appreciates the addition, doesn’t inquire about this particular generosity.

The child is old enough to take charity with dignity but innocent enough to believe in kindness.

While Malik is relieving the flask from water, Altaïr feeds his own expectations, of what sort of outcomes may await after this conversation, and he waits until the moment of quality arises. It’s a bleak day today, not a trace of Hiba’s eye on the horizon. Altaïr’s last day before departure.

“We go to war. Tomorrow.”

Malik nudges the flask back to him, and says nothing. Altaïr feels the narrow neck of the flask dig through the leathery feathers of his warrior skirt and receives no answer even after a while, not even a hint.

“Your name?”

“Yours?” The child promptly counters. The warrior smirks, with the side of his mouth that the child can’t see. Malik’s name is not unknown to him and he grants him this demand for the advantage he holds over the boy.

“Altaïr.”

“Malik,” the child returns the gesture.

A silence stretches on without much variation, and then:

“Do you wish to live, Malik?” The warrior makes an innocent advance, to help him conquer any shame that might come with his future reply. Malik will accept his marriage proposal, he thinks of no other alternative. Altaïr is mellow and subtle, so different from his usual self, to soften the impact of acceptance that Malik can’t refuse.

“I welcome death,” the child says. No whispers, no fear. “I can’t forgive myself the mistake I can’t erase.”

He recites, like from some open book. The child is the owner of a rare well-spoken shrewdness. Rarer still is his profound sense of loyalty. Maybe it’s a noble thing. Altaïr doesn’t know many nobles and even fewer he knows well. It strikes him as something that comes with noble upbringing. He is awed, he admires what he is endeavoring to capture, to ensnare into his own trap. But time is slipping through his fingers like sand and his frustration swells, he has little appetite to harangue a child about mortality.

Altaïr then enlightens him about the special dispensation he had received from Al Mualim. He doesn’t detail but he lays it all out as succinctly as doable, he asks for Malik’s nod to the marriage, hoping to cajole him into consent with promise of safety. He receives a singular answer.

“No.”

There is some briskness, some arrogance and vanity, and some self-esteem in the crisp answer to Altaïr’s prior account of affairs. It’s an odd blend that mixes well with the child’s dogged stubbornness but doesn’t do much to appease the warrior’s impatience.

“Look, child,” Altaïr starts patronizingly, “I can’t give you what you’ve lost, but I can give you life. An escape from imminent death. A shelter, a bed, safety. You’d be removed from Zikaron’s embrace—“

“Help yourself to Daga’s path, warrior,” Malik spits harshly at him.

Help yourself to the nearest cliff. Throw yourself off it. Kill yourself.

With that defiant proclamation, Malik returns to his previous sulking. He stares off across the shrubbery and far beyond at the calm line of the sea, as if he hadn’t just insulted the one warrior that’s fed him bread and esteem.

What Altaïr had hoped for is that he could easily change Malik’s mind, which is why he had opted for emotional blackmail as the next best solution yet this appeal to self-interest has fallen on deaf ears. The silence that follows, however, is continuous, unbroken and deafening. Altaïr has thrown up a good chance for nothing.

The warrior admits to himself that what he is about to do is going too far.

Malik’s blend of stubbornness and noble manners make him very hard to deal with. Altaïr is simply not equal against a child who has lost everything to be able to rip this last price of dignity from him. Malik is not afraid to follow his family to death and devoted loyalty to them clearly takes precedence over life, he is not scared. Only he is. Perhaps he is not. He might be. Altaïr decides to test it.

He unsheathes his knife sans noise. He grips the handle in the hand that’s removed from the child’s field of vision.

Altaïr had been in need for more patience, to progress in a direction that’s most favorable, but he is denied the possibility of wait—it’s not available to him. Altaïr is hurry and bad temper. He is getting hungrier and hungrier for immediate results. Only a miracle can pry the boy open. Malik’s earlier curse seems to had been generated spontaneously, a squeak released at the tight gripping of loyalty around his neck.

Altaïr mirrors its grip around the handle of his knife, waits for a favorable moment to strike, waits until but a smoke is left from Malik’s earlier fire of pride. The first shove sends Malik tumbling sideways, the pounce stabs him into a yelp, the blade digging into tensed tendon of his neck casts him into a panicked look at his assailant. The warrior looms above him like death, with knife pressed to his throat with something that stinks of rushed folly and eyes molded into perfect menace, and fear swallows Malik’s limbs into a rigid stillness. A look of dread passes over his face before he can even think to resist—he can’t call for aid, he can only struggle-kick-fight—but before he can persuade his beaten body into response Altaïr removes the knife, leaving only a raised welt where the line of blade had been pressed, he doesn’t retreat.

Altaïr seizes him by the arms and holds him down and Malik doesn’t feel equal to a warrior, he watches as the looming anger, the sham of it, disappears from the warrior’s face without a trace.

“I sought to spare you further humiliation and death,” Altaïr explains in a whisper.

Altaïr’s faked attack reveals itself for what it was. A heinous act that the warrior is content to obscure behind a simulation at the possibility of its aid in obtaining Malik’s favor. A threat, a reminder of mortality to show him that he will want life when faced with death, to stoke the spark of craving life in this violent act and bring the lesson across. He must tie Malik to consent now or see him dead by tomorrow. And Malik has just admitted to being scared, physically if not verbally. Malik’s face scrunches up in sheer anger, and some betrayal, but he sees the stratagem behind the warrior’s faked assault, his anger turns pale and his face doleful, his limbs go limp. The humiliation of having revealed to Altaïr under duress that he does want to live suffuses his cheeks with a healthy glow.

Altaïr seizes it as something closest to consent he will ever get out of him, a gate opens.

“You would save your life through marriage,” Altaïr reiterates.

“A caged bird. A bought freedom.”

“Better a wingless bird than a dead fowl.”

The child listens. The child thinks.

He may not be as wingless even if his vision is temporarily obstructed by bars. His vision doesn’t stretch beyond blood though. That’s what he tells himself (even after admitting fear of death). He need only retain command over his sharpened beak and talons, just enough gap between gilded bars to tear into the flesh of the enemy once the time is ripe. That’s all he needs. That’s what Altaïr needs not know.

He collapses under Altaïr’s demand without even opening to him.

He proves himself softer to the deal than the warrior had divined.

Malik utters a yes before he thinks ahead to what awaits him. If he wants to even the scales of justice, he will have to live. If he wants to live, he will need a shelter, food, and a roof over his head. If he wants a shelter he must marry. He yet wants to keep his life, he yet wants vengeance, and who knows if Altaïr will return alive from the war. If he doesn’t, all is good. If he does, then Malik can exact his revenge better, because he might edge closer to the murderers of his brother through Altaïr’s presence.

The warrior lifts himself at last, pulling the child to its feet.

For an instant he is so perfectly and wildly happy that even the profound deadness of Malik’s face almost seems worth it. He will swipe it from the child’s face. He will shake the stupor of mourning from his chest. The child will grow into an affectionate, loyal husband.

All will be well.

 


 

There is a ceaseless, nagging chorus of debate among the priests while Malik is being wed to Altaïr.

It has been there ever since the child had issued a demand-or-plea for one of the dark, billowy cloaks donned by priests. Once given to him devoid protest and heavy with wonder, Malik sheets what is intended for priests’ shoulders right around his head, winds the cloak round it like a dark hood, lets the remainder of cloth hang down his shoulders and back, and were he any older the remaining length of the cloak would not be touching the floor as it does now. Dark, black, as Nokem he suddenly stands in the midst of Gdila’s temple. Nokem’s dark colors are not meant for marriage. They have no place here, as the child stands disguised as wounded Nokem, defiantly showcasing his family origins, his nobility. A prideful child.

The strict order of proceedings, orchestrated by Al Mualim, had been bound to produce some grumbling and no meager amount of dissent among the priests present at the temple. They obey this wayward and unorthodox command with unconcealed repulsion showing on their faces where their tongues are tied by orders of a man who has just assumed control over the city. They don’t condone this marriage of man and child.

The ceremony is the oddest affair that the temple had ever beheld and to call it a ceremony would be stretching it far too generously. In the unsightly truth of it, it is clear that the warrior and the child are merely there to voice their consent, to be wedded by a priest, to be subsequently released as if nothing has happened.

Their priest is a priestess.

A woman with red cheeks like the cheeks of an apple, a motherly, interfering kind of woman. She shoulders the scandal of these circumstances away, the many scandals of this marriage—Malik’s age, Malik’s rejection of customs and donning of Nokem’s colors, the swiftness of this matrimony, the special dispensation. The order stands and they are to wed a child to a man, if that’s what the new patron of the city deems right in this grave moment of their history.

There is more to Malik’s blatant disrespect for the colors of matrimony. Wearing this improvised hood-and-robe is defying reason and flouting in death’s face. A daring and unnecessary risk in the ongoing aftermaths of the Massacre that has swept nearly half of the city’s inhabitants. It’s an unwise and honorable outcry of pride at his origins, blood, ancestry, a last shout of loyalty to those beneath ground. It’s the child’s only way to rebel his marriage. And also his sole means to hide face from the man that is to become his husband.

Altaïr’s can catch but the barest tip of his nose through this or that swift glimpse sideways, and nothing beyond. He must read the child through touch if not through face.

Malik splays his hand atop Altaïr’s when the priestess guides him there, she ties their wrists together and falls into the monotone drone of a prayer. Malik’s hand is trembling so hard that Altaïr has to widen the gap between his own splayed fingers and allow gravity to perform the rest. The tips of Malik’s fingers slip through widened cracks unawares, fall right into Altaïr’s clasp. His fist shrinks the gaps, tightens around Malik’s knuckles, arrests his shiver, and holds there.

When prompted, Altaïr speaks his yes. When prompted, Malik holds silence while Altaïr holds his hand.

Had Altaïr been allowed to budge, he would have glanced to the side to stare. Had Altaïr’s sympathy been of less strength, he might have pulled the hood off the child’s stubborn head to search his face. At present, all eludes him. The blush that embraces Malik on both cheeks, the face of a child that turns the color of a beetroot, the child that looks ready to burst into tears. To be cheated of innocence through marriage is torture to him.

A moment longer and Malik would have confessed everything about his true intentions for future, Nokem himself knows it might have happened, but he keeps the thoughts imprisoned in his head, he parts mouth to utter the word he is indebted to speak, he offers a whisper of yes as payment.

The priestess joins them in matrimony before Malik can lose his head.

Altaïr’s trepidation is not allayed but his fear is. He is a husband now, he fears not. Malik’s heart is going to yield, it’s going to open. He is young and pliable. Time will heal his wounds.

 


 

The first signs of Malik’s overdue fatigue start to show as soon as they leave the temple behind their backs. Altaïr had pinpointed the location of his home and the very implication of climbing up a hill to reach the place seems to have imbued Malik with exhaustion. His step is tired and all but wobbly, he trails after Altaïr in tattered clothing and mere shreds of dignity intact.

He is unsteady on his feet, not having eaten proper meal for days, having been denied sleep, having suffered on cold, naked soil, and Altaïr wouldn’t bet all his money on Malik holding out long enough to not collapse along the way uphill. His decision comes quick and feels born of common sense.

Altaïr hoists the child up like something barely heavier than a pillow.

Malik wastes himself on some moments of haggling with his own determination and pride, considers whether to resist or not, but finds no strength left in him. He shirks humiliation that wants to visit him, dismisses whatever remains of embarrassment are in him; he is but a child.

When he coils his arms round Altaïr’s neck, he deliberately or accidentally shrugs himself closer into the man’s hold and allows the hollow gap of space between his own arm and Altaïr’s shoulder to be the cushion for his chin.

The warrior is warm as if he’s been drinking sun.

He holds still and Altaïr whisks him off to his new home.

 


 

Malik’s drifted off in Altaïr’s arms and the warrior’s quickened gusts of breath are what pulls Malik back to awareness. They are climbing uphill. His weight in Altaïr’s arms has long turned into a burden and the man strains with him in arms but his mind doesn’t move to letting him down so Malik keeps his chin low and rolls his gaze down the descend of the narrow path they are scaling. They’re climbing the hill which was once a mound of earth where Nokem and Gdila buried their love-seed, the hill that is the cradle of life to the second wave of humans, the commoners.

Aside, to his left, Malik catches a brief glimpse of a statue of Nokem hidden away inside a street niche, his heart flutters, drums against the inside of his bruised ribcage throughout the span of darkness as they pass through a passage-tunnel.

Altaïr is so very swift in moving them up the stairs, up tunnel-stairs and onto the second floor, that Malik catches only a cursory glance of the community courtyard, nothing beyond the water-well and the behemoth tree with a thick trunk and a thin web of naked twigs against the darkening sky above.

Altaïr lowers him to ground when they step inside.

His feet hurt and his muscles are so terribly sore that it feels like teaching himself to walk all over again. His chest feels icy with the man’s warmth removed from it.

It’s cold inside his new home.

Altaïr stalks the shift of expressions on the child’s face intently, he had already suspected a noble to frown upon his lodgings.

It hasn’t been so long ago that Altaïr amassed enough coin to purchase his home. The sum had amounted to almost all money he’s been collecting for years, from his last days in the orphanage to the couple years in warrior ranks. All of it meticulously put aside for buying a home of his predilection, for getting himself a dwelling on the spot he’s yearned for since his early years. Little money had remained, then, after this purchase, to give his attained lodgings the look of a true home. Yet Altaïr is proud of what little he has in his newly-acquired home. The location is as he had wished it, the inside humble.

The child’s gaze loafs about the dismal home, across the cold floor Altaïr’s had no time to sweep, the austere desolation of his rooms bereft of furniture save for a few insignificant pieces strewn at random.

A dun and bare home.

To a child from a noble home of many luxuries, Altaïr’s home seems suitable for nothing more than a pigsty. A dustbin would be crammed full by a moment of sweeping—that’s how littered with dust the floor is. The hearth is grimy, ashy, it smells of old and wet wood. For firing he has nothing but a handful of twigs that look like they’re there by accident, the hearth is without an oven, and the child will have to procure food from bakeries. When they re-open. If they re-open.

There is no larder. No stored food.

The warrior is comically short of cutlery. The kitchen is bare save for a handful of pots and pans that need brushing and a large knife, and no crockery. The only pitcher lies there on the bare ground, raided by dust. A small pile of plates, stuck together in their grease. The cups that exist are kept on a high (and only) shelf far out of the child’s reach. The only room that could bear resemblance to a home is the bedroom, deemed so for the old bed pushed against a wall farthest away from the only window in the room. The floor beneath Malik’s sandals is a creaky fusion of sounds, but the weathered wood is less cold than the dusty concrete of other rooms. There is a bed at least and bare necessities, some of them.

Malik reacts to his new home as blandly as Altaïr had expected of him.

The child throws a dull look around the barren home before the expression morphs into a distaste, a revulsion, a subtle curl of upper lip that doesn’t escape Altaïr’s notice.

Altaïr is proud of his home, shabby and poor as it is. Proud of having not inherited it but worked for every coin that went into the purchase. He tolerates the child’s fiery look of aversion because Malik, at the very least, seems no longer deadened by his former grieving bleakness. Insulting as it is, at least it’s not as lifeless, not as dead as when his eyes had been on the grave, and Altaïr is glad to see the last of that dismal expression.

“I’m not one of your nobles,” Altaïr defends the poor state of his home to ward off humiliation, to underscore pride in a hard-earned house.

A silence grows around the child.

Malik finds the warrior passionately proud. Proud and lazy men do not make good husbands.

His struggle to accept the new surroundings is unusually painful, the gap between the abyss of death and unexpected marriage is difficult to bridge, it’s landing from one chasm into another, both equally steep, and his landing is scarcely softened by what surrounds him here.

There is no hot water laid on.

Water is needed to wash Malik up and Altaïr won’t allow him to cleanse in a cold bath. Altaïr then finally walks straight out without waiting to be asked about his whereabouts. When he returns, he finds Malik forlorn and sitting on the edge of the bed. He orders him up.

Altaïr’s paid good for a bowl of lukewarm goat milk, he’s paid double for a small square of cornbread—the spoon he’s gotten for free.

Altaïr is a newcomer to this community, the people don’t yet trust him, and the Massacre has put them ill at ease and made them restless at the very sight of warriors. From the nearest neighbor who would even open the door for him, Altaïr’s bought what they had at hand, and they had milk to offer for a child. Altaïr’s paid for the goat milk which he’d reckoned to be good investment as it will be easier to digest for Malik, and he swills the lukewarm milk around in the bowl to mix it with softening crumbs of crushed cornbread.

Malik doesn’t hide his hunger and pours the bowl of this warm pap down his neck before Altaïr can even set up a bath for him.

He has a wooden tub. And a sponge at least. Hot water that he has to collect from the boiling-room down on the first floor with small buckets, and Malik counts eleven. Six are scalding, three lukewarm, two cold. Eleven visits to the boiling-room before Altaïr can fill up his tub at last. The soap is soft and falling apart, but the sponge is there to scrape off the filth where soap fails to do so. The ordeal begins with Altaïr picking the empty bowl off child’s hands, ordering Malik to shed clothes, procuring towels to wrap him into. He is piling one job on another, not through incompetence, but to compensate with care what he can’t offer in material wealth. He is in arrears with offering what Malik used to have in home, but he prides himself on being a dutiful, devoted husband. He gives what he expects in return.

The child doesn’t take the orders well. He’d rather stow his dignity away under his tattered, dirt-soiled clothes and make off right to bed without a wash.

When their vying hotheaded tempers come to a brink of breaking loose, Malik starts to obey at last and peels off the tunic and breeches. Altaïr folds all up into a disorderly bundle for later discarding—all except the sandals. Altaïr unsheathes the knife that had been pressed to Malik’s neck that very morning, to carve out dirt stuck under the nails of the child’s fingers with the tip of the blade while Malik soaks in the tub of warm water. Once the confusion of encrusted blood and caked dirt softens enough for scrubbing, Altaïr starts thoroughly inspecting him for injury as the extent of the damage to his body reveals itself. Beside the bluish splotch below one eye where Abbas had hit him, there are matching discolorations along his ribs, and spots of variously-colored bruises scattered across limbs. There are welts and gashes, lacerations and cuts, skin scraped and chafed off, and dirt. So much dirt.

When Altaïr lathers the sponge up to clean the worst of it, Malik childishly protests his engagement in this cleanup, Altaïr doesn’t relent, they lose tempers again. When it dawns on Malik that he won’t hinder Altaïr’s planned endeavors through mere complaints, he refuses to cooperate entirely as form of protest. He sits limp in the tub barely budging to lift his limbs when Altaïr requires them up for scrubbing. He sits there soaking in the warm tub, he doesn’t wear himself out with collaboration but keeps stealing from Altaïr’s abnormal patience. And despite steadily refusing to help him work, he feeds the man’s patience only occasionally by not protesting at being prodded and shifted around the tub, he hands him this gift of silence as courteously as he can, though not without an obligatory dark frown.

When Altaïr lifts him into a stand he has nothing to dry his hands with at first and wipes them on his bare chest. It’s a comical image, one Malik would have giggled at, were it not for the cloak of mourning wrapped around his shivering form. He has to endure the shiver while Altaïr washes his hair with the last, twelfth bucket of water, he bends over keeping himself steady on each side of the tub while the warrior rubs-and-scrubs across his aching skull.

A plume of blood trickles weakly from reopened cuts and down his limbs. Malik’s added pain doesn’t slow the warrior down though. At least the bathing towel is soft when he dries him at last. His shiver drops in violence but returns when Altaïr unwraps the bath towel once Malik manages to sit on the bed, to minister to his injuries. More than an hour passes in treating his many hurts, in wrapping the deeper cuts, in applying salve on lacerations that haven’t been treated for days. It’s a miracle he’s still alive.

Altaïr instructs him to wait and allow the salve to absorb before wrapping himself up in the blanket laid out beneath the bed cover—he has no more dry towels to wrap him in, he has no clean clothes that would fit him. He leaves him one of his own tunics to slip on during his absence.

Altaïr then leaves the child alone in the desolation of a cold, filthy home.

He has to leave home in hunt of supplies.

After the purchase of his home, Altaïr has found himself light of coin. A circumstance profoundly felt now when he wishes he had more money to leave more necessities to the child. A newly-acquired home, a newly-acquired husband, no coin. That is Altaïr’s affairs collected into one line. With the addition of a war that awaits him with first morrow light. Being fed at work, in warrior encampments, he’s never had to worry about basic necessities following the investment of all his money into one desired purchase. Now he has another mouth to feed and body to clothe. 

He is absolutely at the end of his money.

He goes to borrow one kesef from Ezio with the promise of quick return without explaining his purpose. He can’t ask for more, he knows Ezio’s family is rich, but that family has been cut in half during the Massacre with only his sister and mother remaining, and he hasn’t known Ezio for as long as Desmond who he knows for a fact isn’t possessed of much money either. Desmond would give him what he has but Altaïr doesn’t want to take from Desmond’s equally hard-earned money. Another portion of coin he receives from redeeming his old clothes he may not need after return from war.

Half of the money he spends on clothes for Malik, one quarter he spends on necessities like soap and medicine, the last quarter he spends on their dinner and bread for the child. Some of the coin goes for bread, most goes for commissioning a neighbor to bake bread for Malik until the child can take care of itself, until Altaïr can send him first money from abroad.

People fear Altaïr’s presence, his very appearance. He realizes belatedly he should have left home in civilian clothing but despite his desires the fresh orders issued by Al Mualim declare to not part from their armors outside of encampment or homes, and the orders still stand. It’s an obstacle to an already difficult search for supplies, even with the lack of money excluded from the whole ordeal. There is but a handful of people to buy from in a city where life has been brought to a standstill, where no people wander the streets in the aftermaths of the Massacre, and no shops show signs of re-opening.

Altaïr returns to a breathing bundle of child wrapped inside both blanket and bed cover, sitting perched atop the bed like a guard dog.

On the bed Malik has his first hot meal in days.

Altaïr has no lamps. He has three candles in his bedroom, and Malik claims that three are unlucky, so they have only two. By the time Altaïr lays the bowls of warm stew and a plate of cheese and bread out, the child’s stomach is already clamoring for dinner. There’s no designated seat except for the bed and Altaïr refuses to eat on it, so he sits on the floor. Seeing this, Malik forfeits the bed as well to grudgingly slither down to ground, with a hint of a frown that joins his brow and lip into a dark scowl as a silent protest, but Altaïr quickly orders him back up on bed. The meal goes comparatively easy and no one loses their temper.

Malik is slow and deliberate in chewing and selecting his food. He eats all, but in a peculiar order and arrangement. Altaïr has expected him to wolf it down as he himself had done, and now he sits on floor peeling one orange that he had acquired along the way and studies Malik’s curious eating pattern. It might be some artistic nature or some inherent, intrinsic drive for categorizing food in a certain manner, Altaïr can’t label it as a learned behavior, but whatever the case there is a child making order inside a bowl of disorderly stew, moving the ingredients around and arranging small bites in a desired manner, measuring each spoon with certain amount of meat, certain amount of vegetable, certain amount of cheese he keeps picking up from the plate. Altaïr doesn’t intervene with comments, but he inspects the behavior closely.

Altaïr finishes skinning the orange in time with Malik’s finishing his meal. He rips it in half but gives both halves to the child.

Malik asks for tea but Altaïr has none.

The scent of citrus and melting wax wafts around the silence before Altaïr breaks it.

“I know this marriage was unwanted. Your sacrifice is acknowledged, it was a necessity to preserve life...” Altaïr makes pause. His tone is soft, his expectations humble. He doesn’t ask for more than he himself is willing to offer. “I saved your life. I gave you shelter and food. All coin that I have. Half my war pay will land in your hands with each month. I won’t seek any bed partner during my absence. In return, I expect only your loyalty,” Altaïr makes no more stops until he has listed all his points and demands.

The child’s bruised face is engulfed by darkness at the edges, his eyes downcast and avoiding the glow of candle. He gives a nod, and when this gesture isn’t enough for Altaïr, he speaks his first words after an extended silence.

“I give my word. I promise.”

Altaïr is appeased. The oath of loyalty released, sealed.

He wishes he could entrust more unto Malik, but he only has so much in terms of possessions and money. Whatever has remained from his earlier purchase he leaves to the child. He will leave for war tomorrow without a single coin on him.

The half of whatever he earns abroad he will send to his husband, so that the child can keep itself afloat until his return. Altaïr is young enough. He will amass on more money during and after war to make his home look like a proper home, and as comfortable as he had once imagined to have it.

At present, he can’t give him more than he has, but he can give him a night of peace. He promises to leave the bed to Malik alone.

There is no time to attempt rubbing the grease off bowls and plate properly, no time to sweep the floor, so he lets it lie. He doesn’t shave but he washes his face, he rushes through packing his equipment and the few poor belongings he can carry with him to battle. He collects all remaining coins into a wad of cloth and ties it up, leaves it beside the bed for the child. By the time he’s gotten ready for the morning, the child had already flopped down on bed and conked out the moment he’d put his head to pillow and wrapped himself into a cocoon of blanket and bed cover.

Altaïr makes his own bedding hastily, with incredible shoddiness.

His quantity of bed linen doesn’t exceed the needs of one usual unmarried man. He possesses two—one set for washing while the other is being used. While Malik sleeps in Altaïr’s set of clean linen, Altaïr has to make due with what he has. By the time necessity starts to press, by the time he is forced into washing both sets of linen, Malik will be safe at the water-well in the community courtyard—the citizens, the common folk, have taken no part in the slaughter of nobles and no harm should come upon him down there. There might even be someone in the community willing to help the child wash his clothes. 

Altaïr lays the washed set of bed linen across the floor right beside the bed, but it’s not enough to soften the ground and he turns to other alternatives. He finds another mismatched set—disused warrior blankets, smelling incorrigibly of sweat—and stuffs a piece that was intended as tablecloth and a bundle of his own clothes into a makeshift pillow.

The child rolls away onto his other side, away from the edge of bed Altaïr’s decided to sleep beside, and Altaïr shifts around on the floor until he’s found the softest way to angle his body on the unyielding ground barely softened by folded sheets.

It hardly matters, for he could sleep on cobblestones at present.

Exhaustion has caught up on him. He is worn with fatigue from hauling heavy equipment onto ships, one of which he will board in a few hours, to be shipped off away from home and far abroad into the first battle. He attempts to deliver himself into the hands of much-deserved sleep. But sleep won’t come. His mind is brimming with thoughts of battle. And worry for the child sleeping above him.

The first sound that steals down the edge of the bed and creeps into Altaïr’s ears happens just when his body is starting to ease itself into sleep.

Altaïr blinks, alert.

One flinch upon the other, a shift, a reckless twitching in mid-sleep. The child is suffering nightmares and the warrior listens to it from the floor. The loop of violent twitching ceases with a sudden puff of breath. The child drinks from cold air, awake. Altaïr listens intently, and there is a sniff up on bed where there must be a flood of tears. There is no sobbing. The hush of the child’s whimpering breath pains him, tired as he is. He is unsure what to do, if he should do anything at all—he doesn’t excel at comfort—and ultimately he allows the child the peace of lone mourning.

Altaïr is preparing to close his eyes and ears to the whimpers but there is movement across the mattress above.

There is a hint of another move, a shift across mattress, not of a body but of a smaller limb. A small arm then slips from the mattress down to where Altaïr lies awake. It’s not dropped, not offered either. It’s a silent plea. Malik doesn’t intend to ask for comfort, doesn’t venture into requesting Altaïr to climb up onto the bed to hold him. But he hangs his little arm down the side of the bed, down to where he thinks Altaïr is sleeping on floor. It dangles there in quietude, in hope. He doesn’t even know if the warrior is awake.

His bruised hand is small, frail.

It’s cold and Altaïr thrusts his arm away from the protection of his warmed cover and squares his elbow up and wraps himself around the small dangling hand. He can almost entirely envelop it into his larger one. The child’s hand is cold and bruised, and the warrior swaddles it into a nest of warmth and protection. The bitty fingers clutch at the side of the warrior’s palm and his small finger, until the violence of this grip wears itself out and morphs into a gentle holding of hands. No word is shared between them.

There is some light of hope for them, even if it’s hidden behind upwelling of darkness.

Dawn creeps over the horizon while the ships are being prepared to carry them off into the throes of the first battle. The child eases into the beginnings of sleep and Altaïr listens to the cadence of his deep, calm breathing. It is quiet then, a great advantage. Altaïr can and must give himself rest. He is to rise in a couple of hours. He lies on hard floor holding onto the small hand that dangles from the bed while the child slowly drifts off. If Altaïr shifted the tip of his thumb he could count fresh and old welts atop Malik’s hand. Instead, he lies still keeping Malik in the warmth of his protection and holding all night onto the small hand shielded inside his.

He watches him sleep.

 

Chapter Text

 

It’s deep into the morning when Altaïr’s hand gives the first twitch.

Malik is too awake to be alarmed by this miniscule movement. He feels obliged to glance up to peruse the warrior’s face. On it, there’s no trace of nightmares. Malik considers the serenity of his face for but a moment longer, then resumes watching over the warrior’s hands. Malik’s touch has waned with first morning light, but his curious fingers continue to clamor for it.

His attempts to touch Altaïr had misfired at the outset, during the night, yet once the warrior’s mind had been lulled into sleep Malik’s body started to shift absent his will. Perhaps it’s the opposite. Perhaps his body can be moved only through sheer will to touch. Malik only partially regrets never allowing Altaïr to see the gentleness of his nightly caress. He had found himself helplessly wondering whether Altaïr is aware that he’s being touched, before and now. The possibility seems meager. The man has been arrested by sound sleep undisturbed by any movement other than a single one, shortly after he’d dozed off, in the one lone instance when he’d drawn Malik’s hand closer to himself in sleep.

Malik had followed after that shift, migrated nearer across the mattress to accommodate Altaïr’s unconscious demand.

Here, with the gap between them shortened, Malik enjoys the privilege of stealing warmth and listening first-hand to the calmness of Altaïr’s breathing. It’s evenly-paced, soft. Soft, so unlike his hands. They are hard.

Malik’s hand rests on the mattress, its thumb nestled across the rough palm of the larger hand laid out atop his own. The warrior’s fingers rest loosely curled around his thumb, held down by the weight of Altaïr’s other, left hand that is clasped over this join. Malik’s remaining, freed hand doesn’t lie atop their three combined ones. Instead, it’s curled loosely around Altaïr’s left wrist. At intervals when he feels the claws of sleep scratch at the insides of his skull, Malik digs the length of his thumb into Altaïr’s inner wrist to listen to his pulse. It’s faint, and drowsy, but it’s there reminding Malik of his duty tonight.

Though tonight has passed, Malik’s duty drags on into the morning. He is to guard over Altaïr, to chase away the nightmares that want to assail him. It’s a duty returned in kind. For that one night after the Massacre when Altaïr had guarded over him.

Malik’s thumb shifts anew across map learned by heart. The thumb resting between Altaïr’s palms. Atop the palm, across the curving path at the roots of his fingers, Malik counts the calluses, again. He knows each one of them. Their shape, their number, their unyielding toughness. Counts how long it would take to soften each one of them. In the midst of this path, where Altaïr must have gripped the sword stiffer, he prods against the toughened callus, as if nudging the pad of his thumb around would rid the man of these aftermaths of war. When his touch ceases to have aim or purpose, he puts it to a rest across this tough, curving path and looks up at his husband once more.

His face is slack, a blank page not so bare but speaking tacitly of the warrior’s sleep, of the tranquil rest he is enjoying.

How much sleep did he have to forfeit during the war? How many meals? How many battles had this man seen? How many death catchers did he have to make, how many friends to bury? How many years had he truly spent in war? Was it seven, as heralds and documents accurately report? Or dozens that fester inside a person, unattached to any written number? Malik had lived through one single night of Massacre. He had re-lived countless more. Does a similar weight rest on the shoulders of this warrior? Had Malik been given more time to ponder, he might have started sorting out the variety of answers to self-imposed questions.

He feels the twitch-and-grasp of Altaïr’s hand long before he sees the man wake.

The melody of his breathing gives a small gasp and fades. Between the sudden clasp of ten rough fingers, Malik’s trapped thumb is almost crushed. Altaïr seeks out their join of hands before he launches into a hunt for Malik’s face, he stares, bewildered, he wakes as if from a nightmare where he’s been afraid he’d let Malik’s hand slip from his hold during the night. When he finds them joined still, calmness doesn’t invite itself swiftly.

Altaïr’s face is the visage of a handsome man and nothing very brilliant on it—a naked expression of irrational dread, a mien of fear. The disorder is considerable and many other details of his expression remain unintelligible to Malik, yet panic stands out. The panic in Altaïr’s eyes is a round and filthy thing. Malik takes a positive pleasure in seeing things dirty on Altaïr’s face, and this is the upside. The downside comes with calmness, and the bashfulness that it ushers in on Altaïr’s face.

By the time the amber of the warrior’s eyes assumes focus, Malik is a mishmash of thought, emotion, expectation. The possibility of any sort of communication between them is barred by the strange habit of Malik’s walling up a fence of pride. He is not hostile, but stripped off words and awaiting Altaïr’s instead. Altaïr has none to spare.

The violence of his grip on Malik’s hand mellows out but he doesn’t give up hold on this soft hand, this unending source of safety and peace. Malik offers no word—a bleak version of his own self from yesterday night when he’d prompted Altaïr to speech. In the solitude of his thoughts Malik does poke and interrogate and the question he raises is why his dogged silence persists—what purpose it serves, and who of them two wants it to continue, and why. It can’t be said that it’s mere idleness on his part, for an idle man can’t contemplate as much as he does. He is simply trapped by a prideful routine which makes the thought of giving in impossible. He slaves away for pride. Pride is an exacting master.

Silence is Altaïr’s old friend, rediscovered. He expects no words, since he hasn’t allowed his affection any recognition.

It comes to him, as focus settles more steadily into his other senses, that they have crossed the threshold of morning. It’s already more than Altaïr is used to sleep, and more than Malik would have stayed in bed were it not for Altaïr. It comes to him, as steady as morning light trickles into the room through Malik’s secret corner, that he has unintentionally kept Malik from work. The boy is also curiously closer than he had been when Altaïr had drifted off. One more shift and he could allow himself into Altaïr’s hold. His face doesn’t betray such intentions, nor does Altaïr expect them. Instead, it’s a face tired. Two dark, dark eyes sunken in two dark circles. It’s the kind of effect that fatigue of a sleepless night usually has upon one’s face.

His peace has cost Malik a sleepless night.

He buckles beneath the weight of such a price, the consequences of this sacrifice are unappreciated, but it’s been an expense freely given and Altaïr appreciates it for the free choice it had been. He knows the sweet sacrifices of a free choice, he had once offered them to a child of ten he’d guarded overnight with no regard for self-preservation. Altaïr isn’t obligated to return what’s been given freely, but answering it with affection is a move as desired as it is risky. It’s a wish wedged between his desire and hesitation, it nags and nags and nags him until at last, in pure spite, the wish puts itself right before his eyes, where Altaïr is bound to trip over it.

The smaller body of his husband is already close, he needn’t draw his hand across for his lips to touch it, a small lift is all he requires. He does what could leave a man vigorously beheaded or mercifully spared, he doesn’t know which outcome he will come to face, but Malik’s hand is unresisting as he steals it up, wraps fingers around the join of Malik’s fingers to pull them back in a gentle arch and reveal the stretch of his soft palm.

He kisses once, to relieve Malik of duty. Once, but his lips linger.

Malik’s palm is surprisingly warm for someone who is cold. Malik’s thumb, the only finger free from Altaïr’s grasp, comes to rest above Altaïr’s pursed upper lip, unintentionally obstructing the only passageway for breathing, and Altaïr has as much time to allow his lips to linger on Malik’s palm as he has breath. It’s a disturbingly short amount of time. Until Malik shifts, glides his thumb up to the tip of Altaïr’s nose. Altaïr’s clasp unwinds even as his kiss lingers, but Malik doesn’t retreat. He slinks down Altaïr’s cheek, slopes down his jaw, his touch is timid against the prickle of Altaïr’s stubble, it reaches hesitantly up to the soft of his earlobe where it marks the ultimate border and retreats therefrom. Altaïr allows this retreat. It’s easy to shift the blame on morning work he has kept Malik from.

“Apologies,” he rasps a little before the touch will be gone from his face. The softness of Malik’s fingers remains but a lingering memory and Altaïr’s thoughts are numerous, untidy, miscellaneous, but he knows exactly why he’s apologizing. For borrowing from Malik’s time.

“None required.”

Malik’s voice is a whisper. Much-desired, louder than the growing commotion that the warrior lays aside inside his chest.

“Sleep,” Malik tells him.

Altaïr obeys.

 


 

It could have been anything but free will. It could have been a remembrance of the night seven years ago and a returning of favor, a repayment of a debt.

These thoughts harass Altaïr upon waking.

It could have been an hour, it could have been hours since he’d allowed himself into more sleep at Malik’s command. When he leaves the unmade bed to wander off into the kitchen, he is halted by a display in the first room, their biggest room with table and sofa.

On the table is a bowl. The one from yesterday, refilled.

Of Malik, there is no trace.

He had left pursing duties and work, down in the community courtyard. He’d left behind a bowl of Nokem’s eyes. Nokem’s, for Hiba’s require the task of peeling the almonds and Malik had little time to spare. He’d spared enough to make his husband a treat for breakfast. Or was this, too, a returning of a long-owned favor. A borrowed kindness to even the scales of care Altaïr had bestowed upon him seven years ago? The latter beats the very essence of this sudden care, wears Altaïr’s already battered spirit thin. Altaïr wants no more balance between them. No shifting of weights, no returning of favors.

The round cake atop the pile of sweets is still warm when Altaïr takes it, the glaze of melting honey still victim to the warmth of fresh-baked dough. He takes a bite, and inside the cake is the first hint of Malik’s hurry. Pressing duties hadn’t allowed him to make custard and he filled the cakes with peach jam instead. With crushed hazelnuts mixed in. They engage Altaïr's teeth while the warm filling of sweet fruit soaks his mouth with saliva and his chest with warmth.

Next to the bowl sits a smallish clay pot with contents actively used, as nearly half has been scooped out with time. A salve for skin. A buttery-creamy-soft salve smelling of a plant Altaïr couldn’t classify even if he had to, yet something Malik seems to use on daily basis.

So poor is his understanding of these two gestures that he can’t bring himself to utter a word. But his belly answers for him, with a disgraceful rumble which escalates at the sight and smell of sweets. He swallows another bite but he can scarcely swallow the meaning of this warm food and personal salve for his parched hands. Food made with such attention can’t be mere repayment of a favor. It must be a sign of growing care. With these thoughts filling his head, he may well be on another fool’s path forged by scheming gods, but the path that he must walk today to have Al Mualim relieve him of duty doesn’t feel as daunting anymore.

There is something to return to here.

It’s no faultless household, but they are marching towards improvement.

 


 

“You grieve me, Altaïr. You grieve me deeply.“

The sting in Altaïr’s chest is expected and results quite naturally from Al Mualim’s already anticipated disappointment. He bends his neck before him but his head remains fixed. This gesture of obeisance doesn’t appease the man, however.

“You forget your place, Altaïr. It eludes your memory that my consent once delivered a husband to your arms.” Al Mualim’s voice is not yet hostile itself, but it steeps dangerously near it. Altaïr sees it for what it is. He had rightfully expected Al Mualim to attempt tightening a leash around his neck, with reminders or offers, since his loyalty seems to be slipping through the man’s fingers. Altaïr’s intentions don’t drift towards that particular outcome, yet putting a shield in front of Malik is what springs to his mouth before denial of implied betrayal does.

“My husband took no part in my decision. I would turn towards more respectable ventures, Master. But not as a bodyguard.” His neck is bent low, a sign of submission. For the hardships he had endured in war, he already feels relieved of his command, if not of loyalty itself.

“You do not condone my methods...” A realization, not question. It sounds as if this thought has struck Al Mualim’s mind only now. Altaïr lifts his gaze enough to catch the familiar, deliberate, thoughtful stroking of an ashy beard. He awaits whatever thoughts ail the man to find his ears soon, he is ready to hold his ground against persuasion of any form.

“Your concerns are well-founded, Altaïr. Yet we must sweep obstacles for the better good of everyone. Where grounds are not given freely, we must buy; where they won’t be sold, we must take. Demolition of old allows for new construction.”

Al Mualim’s convictions are a great argument with a striking flaw.

Altaïr’s neck strains from the low bend, his voice endures the strain of a low tone. Yet in his beliefs, Altaïr is loud.

“But it’s not for sale, Master.”

“Everything is for sale, Altaïr. It is only a matter of price. Law must bend towards better purpose.”

Altaïr feels he is in no position to question Al Mualim’s decisions. The man’s shoulders are weighted down with experience, he has a far larger overview of what is traversing within the city and between city-states. Al Mualim had been the one to warn them of foreign threats. He had been the one to prove that the nobles have betrayed them, sold them out to foreigners like mere cattle. Altaïr is in no position to pose arguments against the man’s decisions. Al Mualim has only ever endeavored to sustain their community and there exist only three notions Altaïr firmly believes in: the sanctity of community, the uprightness of their faith, the rare people of unadultered loyalty. Loyalty like that of his husband. Loyalty he has married to selfishly keep for himself, under excuse of saving a child’s life, to offer example of his Master’s mercy in the bloody aftermaths of a Massacre.

“I believe in the divinity of our community,” Altaïr says, hopes his final oath is enough to relieve all three of them of undesired duty, “You’ve been fighting for seven years to keep it upright and I am ever loyal to you, Master. But your way is not my way.”

Al Mualim heaves a heavy sigh.

“You grieve me, Altaïr.”

And with a whisk of Al Mualim’s time-worn, weathered hand, Altaïr’s last cord to warriors is cut off.

 


 

Altaïr has entered as a bodyguard, he exits a citizen.

The fundamental irony of this is that Altaïr hadn’t been a warrior when he’d entered Al Mualim’s fortification, nor is he a warrior as he spills out into the walled courtyard, yet he dons his full armor—a constant relic of past he no longer lays claims on. He can’t part with his own before Ezio and Desmond part with theirs. None dare break the ice.

Altaïr joins them in the courtyard, the three newly-baked civilians in full armor, a comical sight among the throng of armed foreigners that mill about the grounds of inner courtyard of Al Mualim’s fort. The duo has waited outside while Altaïr ventured in to bear the burden of talk with Al Mualim, with their anticipation regularly interrupted by the clusters of foreigners infesting the inner court and then by a collection of newly-arrived wagons.

“I bring you glad tidings—”

Altaïr never gets to relay to them Al Mualim’s decision to relieve them of duty without punishments.

A number of wagons trundles inside, all covered, and the gate shuts behind them.

Where the shapeless forms covered with shapeless cloth atop wagons reveal little of their contents, the stench hides no secrets. Around, the stale, fetid stink of blood begins to spread. 

The wagons are rolled right past the three warriors, as if to spite them. From the wagons, the stench keeps spreading. A horrible hot reek of death, so beastly that they breathe in small shallow puffs, not filling their lungs to the bottom. A stench of many desecrated bodies. Bodies too freshly plucked from life to reek of such inhumanity. The sheets atop are covers of covers, they reveal nothing of the horrors, nor the blood that saturates the layers beneath. Once the gates are shut and public view categorically shut off, the foreigners—the shady bunch collected from last night’s missions—pull the first covers off to expose the fruits of their labor, as if to parade to the warriors what they’d missed through desertion, while in truth they do so to flaunt their helplessness. 

Three warriors, three citizens. Now civilians. Whatever rivalry had passed between them as compulsory allies during the war is not worth this.

On the second layers of sheets is blood. Beneath are heaps of bodies. Completely thrashed. As if they’ve just rolled in nothing more than a wagonload of garbage. A lower part of a body, male, the torso isn’t there. An arm, small—a child’s limb. Bodies in pieces. Even the priest children. Massacred, tortured, mangled—a horror different from that of a battle.

It would be too dangerous to show an honest reaction, it would be a triumph in the face of these foreigners awaiting to see their reactions while the covers peel off to show the leftovers of last night’s ‘mission’.

Altaïr’s grief is civilized only on the outside. Rage now is cheap money. It won’t help anyone. Grief will only serve to lift the rotten spirits of foreign mercenaries. It feels as though they’ve jumped from one war into another, one fought on the grounds of their sacred city, now defiled by those who come from the same peoples they’ve thought they had defeated in battle. Why has Al Mualim allowed them here? For what purpose? For whose benefit? Altaïr plies his mind with these questions, to arrest it from the grotesque sight in front of him.

He ties his gaze to ground and dirt beneath then, helpless. The less he looks the easier he can disconnect the reaction of a grieved citizen from his loyalty to Al Mualim. The less he looks, the less he thinks. He needs an exit. In his loyalty, he is not alone. From the corner of his eye, Altaïr sees Ezio in spirits much alike. Grief and shock and helplessness and other more delicate emotions Ezio has locked in him through sheer weight of shackles of obedience. Shared sentiment is what alleviates present sight that they’ve been exposed to—accidentally but yet on purpose, no doubt—and even though Altaïr can’t catch sight of Desmond’s face, the promise of mirrored pain that he imagines there gives his own grief-and-rage reprieve, since it’s a shared burden.

Desmond is half a step ahead of him and Ezio, has been there ever since the wagons rolled in and past them.

It’s not Altaïr who finds on Desmond’s face not a mirror of his, of Ezio’s, not grief-and-rage but rage-and-fury, it’s Lucy.

A woman who has only now escaped the shadows of the fort to join the commotion in the courtyard. Her work is done with simple efficiency, with no tolerance for the ways of these foreigners, and so erratic are her orders in a foreign language (for these foreigners don’t speak theirs), so dogged her covering of bodies to give them a thread of dignity, that she appears as a woman who’d agreed to aid in something she doesn’t stand for herself.

Altaïr doesn’t see Desmond’s face first. That honor goes to Lucy.

Their joined triple presence is an ill-concealed surprise, as if they are the last people she had expected to see here and now, but she doesn’t pay them attention with more than a quick check-over—a hiding of shame rather than disregard for their persons. She expects them to leave. Altaïr expects them to leave. Ezio expects the same.

Desmond won’t budge.

Ezio taps at his shoulder, he doesn’t flinch. Ezio and Altaïr swap looks, they consider pulling Desmond back, physically if it need be, to arrest him from whatever keeps him cemented to the spot. Ahead, Lucy is still issuing orders. Not for a grave to be dug. Not even for the bodies to be added to the mass grave on top of the volcano. To be thrown into the ocean instead, far from the waters of their island, into seas remote from the grasp of the city. To hide evidence. To feign their disappearance. Altaïr suddenly remembers Robert’s demand for hoods, and has a better understanding of it now. To veil themselves from the wandering eye of artists who roam nights in search of late walkers to sketch, of starry nights to paint, of sights to catch on canvas. Their identities may well have been captured by some wandering artist. The reason for yesterday’s anonymity had been clear to Altaïr even before he’d escaped temple grounds, but pieces start to fit themselves together into a whole picture only slowly. They may ponder, they may wonder. But their hands remain tied. A belief not shared by all three warriors.

Lucy is within the range of the second wagon jotting down numbers when the leader of this questionable group of foreigners—a foreigner of position far above Abbas’ but far below Robert’s or Lucy’s—throws a taunt at Desmond, a man unmoving against the silent attempts of Altaïr and Ezio to fall into retreat. The man pulls off a white cover, he peels back the bloody one below, off the edge of the wagon Lucy had attempted to shroud only a moment before in order to conceal the sight from the warriors. The leader of this subhuman horde of foreigners then points at a particular corpse.

“Good cunny,” he taunts in dregs of their language. A dull man speaking broken language, a broken man speaking dull language.

Altaïr is near afraid to look. When he does, his grip on Desmond’s tense forearm doubles. In retrospect, maybe it had been his and Ezio’s grip on Desmond’s arms that had propelled the man forward—his biceps seem to swell with wounded rage, he slips through their fingers with ease. It’s a curious sensation, being slaves to revenge where they should have intervened to pull Desmond back, being a slave’s slaves. Yet they allow Desmond to march on towards the gloating leader with the hand pointed at two victims of rape, two young priests sullied, defiled, disgraced before death.

Lucy doesn’t know Desmond, and she doesn’t know what to expect as he draws nearer in his furious stride.

The sum of it is that Desmond is a slave of rage, a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work of trying to exact revenge. She expects blows, she expects a brawl. The foreigners don’t stand a chance against these three warriors. But no matter where the scales of strength weigh heavier, Desmond is about to bring harm upon himself and she won’t let him. She nears the captain of the mercenary band in a stride mirroring Desmond’s, they approach at the same time, they meet at the recently-uncovered wagon.

The band is no match for three warriors. But strength matters not. In that Lucy is sure. She knows the outcome, should the warriors provoke Al Mualim’s foreign mercenaries, she knows the heavy price Desmond will pay for killing any of them.

She is there as a translator and mediator, it’s what she tells herself. She is there to keep Desmond at bay, to keep him busy, because her more-than-mere-speculation assessment of him tells her that he will turn into a danger if she gives him even a moment of leisure. She lifts her arm to bar Desmond from proximity to the captain—a foreigner whose face once swollen with gloating has now shrank into muted fear and a farce of confidence. Desmond never breaches the border of Lucy’s arm, he had never aimed to strike the captain. The captain believes the warrior struck still for either fear of consequences or Lucy’s interference, either of those, or both. And Desmond wants him to believe that.

Her arm is not needed, but she keeps it square against Desmond’s bare chest, it appears to everyone like she is pushing him away from folly—a confidence of a woman against the reluctance of a warrior—but the truth is far from it. Lucy stands almost wedged between Desmond and the captain, and she is equally as numbed as the latter. Of the three of them only Desmond knows what he’s doing.

“Tell him... that his mother is a whore.”

Desmond’s voice sounds uneventfully calm.

Against the surface of Lucy’s palm, his heart is a restless chime of beats, and she holds her hand against this warm drum in the limp self-conscious fashion of someone whose grasp of the situation is eluding her understanding, before she turns to the captain.

Your mother is a whore,” Lucy translates.

“And that he looks like a pig.”

And you look like a pig.”

Desmond takes a breath unburdened by any words, and then:

“In fact, you’re an insult to humanity,” for the first time, he addresses the man directly. His mask of calm slips a sliver down his face and fury seeps into his tone—a momentary slip-up. Lucy sees through this elaborate mask, she sees Desmond’s act for the cultivated anger it is. It has an aim. She sees the act, not the aim.

In fact, you’re an insult to humanity,” she repeats.

“And if he wants to kill me, it’ll be harder than beating children. But maybe he does that because he doesn’t have a dick.”

Lucy opens her mouth to translate and it sews itself shut in the blink of a moment.

Desmond grabs a handful of leather feathers off the front of his warrior skirt, he tugs down his loincloth. Just like that, he pulls his cock out.

Both the captain and Lucy drop gazes, the latter snaps her gaze away and then up at the captain.

“Get your dick out,” Desmond says.

Get your dick out.”

The captain returns Lucy’s look with one of his own—an ugly crossbreed of smirk-and-fear plastered across lip—and waits to receive her instructions or sympathy, neither of which come his way. Lucy only stares at him to avoid looking elsewhere.

“Do not look at her, I’m your enemy!”

Desmond’s yell startles all spectators. Lucy may have flinched, she is unsure, but she avoids sharing looks with him. It’s useless, it’s foolish. In her eyes is deepest admiration, maybe more. She needn’t let him know. Not while he’s yelling profanities at her subordinate with his cock out. It’s so foolish. It’s utterly useless—Desmond doesn’t even see her in his rage. If she side-stepped to put her face between them, he wouldn’t even recognize her. There is something heart-rending in the solemn expression of his pale rage-molded face. Something that stops the drum in her own chest where his is beating with fury.

“Now come on, let’s see your dick.”

Come, let’s see your dick,” Lucy repeats mechanically. She stares at the captain’s face staring at the warrior’s.

“What are you, a eunuch?”

Are you a eunuch?”

For another moment, Lucy keeps her hand still on Desmond’s chest and her blind fingers soldered into a fist, for just another moment she doesn’t understand what he’s doing and is consequently afraid, not of what he will do but of what will happen to him if he does. The captain stands grounded, and her questions are equally numberless, but she continues to play her role as proxy.

“Or did your mother bite it off when she fucked you?”

Or did your mother bite it off wh—“ she breaks off. She understands now.

“Come on, why do you let me insult you? I thought you were a man?”

Why do you let me insult you? I thought you were a man.”

Desmond’s presented her a sample of his thoughts and put her head to working. Behind, Altaïr and Ezio stand ready to fight, hands on swords. In this fight, they are three. Three men and two paths. Desmond hadn’t come here to draw sword. Spilling blood had been his second path.

“Come on, fucker, you wanna strike me? You wanna rape me?!”

You want to strike me?” Lucy translates picking the anger off Desmond’s words. She, too, is heading down Desmond’s first path, and for this she doesn’t require all details of his rage.

Behind, Altaïr and Ezio stand guard waiting for the first sign of violence. It’s how they think. And they think wrong. They haven’t set Desmond loose by not holding him back. They haven’t understood the simple brilliance of Desmond’s vulgarity, the profoundness of his stratagem. Bright and honorable. Two among many features hidden well behind a habit of no expectation (because Desmond himself has resigned himself to everyone seeing him as nothing but vulgar and obtuse) but Lucy sees his worth for what it really is, however concealed to his comrades. She minds not. She sees in him what escapes notice, what others don’t, and it excites her.

“Perhaps you coward require advantage to still your trembling knees, huh!?”

Desmond unsheathes his sword—it’s flung to ground.

“Come on!”

Translation is needless. Words are needles.

Come ON!”

Orders are needed.

Desmond has given her an excuse to issue new orders. Ones that go against Al Mualim’s. When she turns to the captain (she can’t remember ever allowing her gaze to stray to Desmond’s livid face), she speaks all that Desmond has hoped to achieve.

You’ll bury the remains with dignity. You’ll bury them in the mass grave with the nobles.” Not throw them into deep seas to discard evidence. Not remove priests from their native soil, not from their community. Giving the victims a shred of dignity had fallen on deaf ears when Lucy had proposed it to Al Mualim long before this spontaneous gathering. There had been no pragmatic arguments for leaving the remains on island, no persuasion strong enough to have Al Mualim bury them atop the volcano at least, no reason to leave trace of their disappearance to be linked to the foreigners. Now she has an excuse.

The captain scrams from sight, issuing these new orders to the band.

Of all three—four, if Lucy were to be included in this honorable trio—it has been Desmond who had untied his own wrists from obedience to drive them into changing orders to give his fellow citizens a semblance of a decent burial on the soil where they’d been born and raised. Desmond, whose head hadn’t strayed into folly when his heart had while his mind plotted despite possible threat of punishment. The hearts of his comrades suffer along, yet the hearts within their chests beat on different paths. Ezio’s heart is with his family, his sister and mother. Altaïr’s heart beats for his husband. Desmond has no such restraints. His fears of punishment are more muted than theirs.

Suddenly, for no earthly reason, Lucy feels immensely sorry for him and she longs to say something real, something with wings and a heart, but the words she’s wanted settle on her shoulders only too late, when she remains alone and in no need of words.

On her palm, there is no longer Desmond’s warmth. Desmond starts into a retreat after he makes himself presentable, marches off and then through the smaller gate, with Ezio and Altaïr at his tail.

There is a great deal of hushed whispers.

Resigned to the new orders, the band makes no commotion.

They see Lucy not as a superior who has answered the incensed pleas of a warrior, they see in her a superior engaged in a pacification program, someone who has just stopped unnecessary bloodshed—an excuse she will later be able to present before Al Mualim, an order she can later blame on emergency to prevent skirmish and death. That captain had been too happy to get the order telling him to bury the bodies, thinking that he had escaped death. However much pride he might hold, he had seen these warriors in battle and knows what they’re capable of. Lucy, perhaps only Lucy, now knows that Desmond had only intended to stoke the captain until he is provoked, so that he could kill the man. Waiting for either Lucy to order them around, or waiting to trigger an attack instead of starting it himself. Had Desmond struck first, all three warriors would have been punished severely. Had Desmond been attacked and subsequently retaliated, he would not have been held responsible for the first blow and death that followed it. Desmond had relied on their fear of warriors to open his first path, since the foreign band knows rather well that they wouldn’t survive three armed warriors.

In untying himself, Desmond has untied her hands—he, a man with no ties and a loose tongue.

 


 

A distance off the gate of Al Mualim’s fort, three men that are no longer warriors stand in silence. Of the like that they had experienced after escape from temple grounds last night. In this reprising of silence doubled in grief, they think with the same head even as their hearts beat in different sides of their chest.

“I need a drink,” Desmond cuts through the hush first. Desmond’s expression lends itself to multiple interpretations.

Altaïr’s mind strays to other means of escape, he thinks of soft hands with the scent of soap and dark eyes softened to his troubles. He craves the touch of those smooth hands he’s grown fond of, but he clasps his hand on Desmond’s shoulder, then around it, and down his back to steer him towards the nearest pub. For Desmond, he can drink his afternoon away. Ezio doesn’t follow right away.

They turn to find him rooted to the spot.

“Forgive my haste but I’m expected elsewhere,” Ezio says. His decision is not a threat to their camaraderie, but unexpected. He does approach them then, he does put his hand to Desmond’s shoulder, he does take the man briefly into his arms and encounters no resistance to his offer of comfort.

“I must attend to business. I leave you to loving hands,” Ezio says with a watered smile. He imprints a grip below Altaïr’s shoulder, as a sign of comfort, and departs soon thereafter, assured that Desmond is in best hands.

 


 

“A real rat, you say?”

“And mice, my friend. And small rabbits.”

“All this for an eagle?”

“All for an eagle, my friend. Alive, too.”

“An eagle for a pet. How odd.”

“No one sells rats and mice around here, I know the market inside-out—no one!”

“Eagle for a pet. Very odd, very odd, indeed.”

Ezio listens to this dazzling succession of gossip with half an ear and many a hope that they will soon move on.

He’s been biding his time. Lurking for a proper chance to lure Leonardo into a more personal exchange, half-frantic between greed and fear, for Leonardo is a man with no talent for wandering into traps. A man with an uncontrollable smile. In body he is very handsome, of much shrewdness, most temperate in bodily pleasures, but as for the pleasure of mind—insatiable. Little wonder, then, that he continues to defy Ezio’s advances, however crafty these might be, however wise. Perhaps unwise might not be a failure but path towards progress.

“Leonardo?” Ezio remembers to prompt gruffly—an action long overdue. Had he not interrupted Leonardo’s chatter with a merchant, it would have gone on forever, or his hands would have given in at last. Leonardo sends his farewells as prompted per Ezio’s tacit request, and then he saunters off. Ezio pulls his shoulders back to renew his strength, he shifts the crates in hands and the reminder of this weight only serves to make him sigh, but promise of better outcomes goads him on.

He follows after the blond weaving between the multitude of people.

He makes haste despite protesting muscles, concerned as new stalls and shops begin to inveigle Leonardo’s wayward attention. It’s best if he reminds the man that all his purchase has already been made, loaded onto Ezio’s lone hands, sealed in crates. He skips up towards him in time with the man leaning down to hover over the rich offerings of nuts and dried fruit, from rich prunes and sour cherries to salted pistachios and candied pecans. Leonardo is too persistently on the lookout for diabolical traps (except for Ezio’s) on the market, and Ezio too painfully on the alert lest their chaotic surrounding carries Leonardo’s badly-behaved curiosity adrift. He must step in quickly this time before Leonardo eases himself into more gab and chitchat, yet he is but the dissident toe to the foot that steps steadily towards new and exciting sights and his efforts are entirely useless.

“Look, Ezio!” The man beckons with a rare kind of excitement, pointing at a particular bowl.

Ezio shifts, he has to rotate himself as to be able to look sideways because peering over the top crate in his arms just won’t do, but he settles back-to-shoulder with Leonardo at last. He frowns at the particular bowl of spectacularly ordinary walnuts but he doesn’t want to dampen Leonardo’s lifted spirits.

“I’d prefer almonds.”

Leonardo elbows him playfully—a move altogether too unexpected and sudden but lacking force to throw him off balance.

“Not the nuts, Ezio—the bowl. Look at the bowl.”

Without the slightest notion of what awaits him beyond simple nuts, Ezio sets his gaze loose to behold another one of Leonardo’s unforgettable digressions. He sees the rim of intricate silver-work peeking from the mound of walnuts but he suspects it to be only the crowning of a shell bowl, if the neighboring bowls are any clue. Leonardo sinks into a crouch, he peeks at it from beneath, he prods, he tilts the bowl almost enough for a handful of walnuts to stray into the adjacent bowl of hazelnuts, he thumbs along the side of the bowl Ezio can’t see from this height while the merchant follows this admiration noiselessly, with an air of mute satisfaction.

“Mother of pearl?” Leonardo quizzes with curiosity somewhat soiled by confidence in his own guess. The merchant—a graying, fatherly figure with a mustache thick enough to hide smiles from lip but not from eyes—nods laconically, in a monotone gesture teeming with pride. Leonardo beams utterly helplessly, like a child, with gaze climbing up and down the work of art, snapping up an eyeful of words, reeling them off inside his own head.

“What beautiful craft!”

“My daughter’s work,” the merchant explains and the source of earlier pride delivers itself. The bowls must be a private gift then, a father’s pride and treasure displayed selflessly. Leonardo has preferred putting a bar between his curiosity and his mouth, but it draws itself out and he dives into the realm of luck.

“The price of such craft?”

“Not for sale,” the merchant declines respectfully.

Leonardo clicks his tongue.

“Suspected as much,” he interrupts himself there and cocks his eyes at the bowl, with subtle disappointment on lips where the brightness of his eyes did not quite reach—a defeat. First of a kind Ezio has spotted on the man’s face, one that knocks every Ezio’s spirit to ruins.

“Please convey my admiration for your daughter’s craft, my friend,” Leonardo adds before pointing at another bowl, “A portion of almonds then. Unless they are your daughter’s craft as well.”

The merchant chuckles good-naturedly before he measures a wrapping of plain almonds. Leonardo’s gaze is not glued to the bowl anymore, it’s climbing other stairs on the lookout for new adventures, but Ezio own spirit is yet full of flaws. He tries, laboriously, to resist temptation while he watches coin pass from Leonardo’s hand to merchant’s and almonds from merchant’s to Leonardo’s, but he has a sudden craving to restore Leonardo’s expectations.

“How high a price would be appropriate for the bowl?” Ezio offers glibly, though he is relatively convinced the attempt is wishful thinking. He never receives an answer.

“Come, Ezio,” Leonardo tugs him along as they dive into the stream of people milling through the wide tunnel. Ezio complies, if only because he’s convinced that the bowl has no price and that his arms will truly give out if he doesn’t put his muscles to a rest in near future.

Ezio possesses more than enough coin to order a cart, but his pride won’t allow it. He has made it his task to carry the crates back to Leonardo’s shop even if his arms drop off the moment he unloads his baggage. Muscles may hurt and ache, but pride once discarded can’t be sewn back together.

Ahead of him, Leonardo is untying the wrapping to peek at the almonds, without sampling this impulsive purchase. He then ties it up leaving Ezio to yield to confusion. Ezio is tortured by this sentiment for a moment longer before Leonardo spins around dropping the almond wrapping atop the crates, right under Ezio’s very nose.

“Your reward,” Leonardo explains and the noble stares at it in prolonged confusion, with only a part of its luggage stolen by his brief explanation. Ezio’s quandary is as follows: he had failed in his first advances but this man had invited him to a joined stroll through Sheker’s market so it cannot be regarded as absolute failure. He had hoped to pry the man open but he’d proved to be a bright spirit with a fair smile but precarious nature. Ezio had hoped to lure him in like prey, but for all he knows Leonardo might well be aware of what his aim has been all along. He knows what Ezio wants and it’s not what he wants.

Ezio’s expectation, once light and unburdened by petty complications and sweetened by no more than the man’s handsome appearance, now hangs low with a load which keeps piling up in sync with crates he’s hauling after Leonardo. After hours spent in his company, that same expectation has folded itself in the center and shrank until it has become a mere sprout, at odds with his wishes which continue to grow and swell with each new discovered page of Leonardo’s person.

While Ezio toys with strategy, Leonardo halts for a fleeting moment to extend his arm overhead and snap off a solitary flower stem—it’s time enough for Ezio to catch up with him close enough to have another whiff of him. The man’s scent continues to entrance him. 

Sheker’s market is, in essence, an arced half-tunnel—or more accurately, a whole tunnel made up of two halves, one stone, one living—wound into a semicircle whose ends are blind and conclude with a store at each summit. This half-circle half-tunnel that curves like a bow has but a single entrance, set right in the midpoint of this stunning structure, where one would touch the arrow to the bow in aim. On its opposite side, this exit (also a tunnel) opens up into a wide space that expands left-and-right into the second wing of Sheker’s market which constitutes an open-air cattle-market, lovingly referred to as the cattle-forum since it has over time morphed primarily into a focal point for socializing. Inside the first wing, Ezio and Leonardo stand below the living, flowery half of the semicircular tunnel of this small cog on the big machine that drives the city.

“I’ve heard their perfume increases appetite. How fitting for a food market. Their essential oils, on the other hand, are quite relaxing,” Leonardo sniffs at the flower cluster he’s just picked, for emphasis, then drops the purple flower cluster atop a crate where it slots itself neatly beside the almonds, “You should take your helmet off, Ezio.” He finishes disjointedly.

“I would if you’d cease piling up on my load,” the noble can’t escape some bitterness, reminded of his heavy predicament. I’ve heard they are eaten as aphrodisiac, festers at the end of his tongue, but he doesn’t add that part to the conversation.

Daga’s Teardrops, that is. The purple flower under his nose.

Attractive to the eye, potent for the senses. A flower of gods.

The story goes that Ya’ar, the god of forest, swathed every strip of land with plants, that they could tell him of every corner of the island, that they could narrate to him all that they discover on ground and below. But his plants could not grow in water, in sea. Time and again he attempted to make them grow underwater, with no success. Until the mermaid goddess Daga, upon seeing Ya’ar’s predicament, offered her blessings. Some flowers fell to the bottoms of seas as gaudy coral reefs, some remained floating like soft petals. Daga helped Ya’ar grow plants in water and in return she asked to plant her flowers on land, and once Ya’ar promised to give her plant the life of a flower, she gave him a seed, a kernel made from her tears. Those that she collects at day blossom white, those she collects at night blossom deep-purple. Daga’s Teardrops, a gift returned.

On this market is a sophisticated, mature specimen that’s been directed to grow up the arch of the latticed metalwork that joins into the stony half of the half-tunnel, so that its purple-and-white blossoms dangle over their heads like a living roof, or sway like bells when tickled by an occasional breeze. The only gaps where Teardrops are missing on its own half of the tunnel is where rare, precisely-measured openings in the arched latticework have been cut out to provide a scenic view where passers-by can peruse the artificial pond sandwiched between the two wings of Sheker’s market. The pond is halved by the passage tunnel which makes the only exit of the semicircular wing, and it’s home to the water-loving roots of this vast stretch of Daga’s Teardrops that cover the semicircle like a flowery blanket, like clouds of grapes which change colors in succession. A marvelous display to every native, but especially foreigner.

Though they dangle above head, their smell wafts through the entire span of tunnel, mixing with foods and spices now while Ezio endeavors to catch another whiff of Leonardo’s scent—a mutable, fluctuating, changing scent. Yet between the heady aroma of Leonardo’s purchased herbs inside the crates and the soothing smell of countless Daga’s Teardrops, Ezio is bound for repeated failure.

“One more and we’re done, if gods choose to bless me. I’m after a rare sort.”

“Haven’t you had enough plants, Leonardo?” Ezio staunches off a whine, he’ll have to set his weight down soon to give his arms a respite.

“Wait here,” the herbalist instructs with a drolly wave of hand. He zigzags through the current of advancing people and off into the area of the other half of the winding tunnel, the right side of the bow-like market named the Dragon wing. Dragon wing, after the dragon-like creature that Sheker once was, and the Feather wing for the bird-like creature she morphed into after she switched loyalties during the battle of gods.

Ezio loiters in the Feather wing irresolute of what path to take, with crates in hand and no clear course, with a wrapping of almonds and a shoot of Daga’s Teardrops under his nose.

People wind around and brush against him, some look at him, he must make a comical sight—a warrior in helmet and full regalia following after a beaming man, with crates of herbs in arm. Chasing after a herbalist’s enchanting smell.

He feels suddenly lost. His memory’s most familiar image springs to mind absent his consent, conjuring pictures of dull grays of soldier encampments that had become home and dirty browns of boot-trodden battlefields that had become life.

He startles, looks about himself.

Above, behind, and ahead—flowers of tiny, sweet-smelling purple-or-white hued petals. Spidery stems clutching onto grape-like clusters and glossy green leaves that suddenly catch onto the swing of a wayward breeze galloping through the tunnel and sway on this draft for a long time like frolicking children. To the right, through the gap in tunnel—the pond and a cluster of birds frisking in the water to ease the heat of a parching sun. Along the rim of the pond stretches a strip of bank, a fertile and moist soil to host the woody vines of Daga’s Teardrops that have scaled up-and-over the latticework to provide the tunnel shops of the left wing a cool shade against heat, and privacy against the open cattle-market of the right wing across the pond. To the left—a chain of chambers and stores and stalls, cold and warm, spacious and small, lighted with scented oil lamps day-and-night. Below—a myriad sandals and boots and bare feet passing along the cold stone of the tunnel.

And in the middle of it—Ezio.

Ezio who walks again among the citizens who loaf the streets, Ezio gazing at bright smiles and cheery, purple-lit faces washing in velvet shadows of Teardrop petals, a noble finding himself odd after years of war tents, a man who had listened to whispers of home now a first-hand spectator of laughter and chatter, a warrior who had known a clean bed only on good days now basking in all the sensory pleasures of his city. His arms feel numb, and in his gut there are but two fears vying for his heart—the thought of years lost, the fear of wasting borrowed time. Ezio latches onto other thoughts to avoid falling out into the abyss of memory of a past time.

To catch up. To grasp time by the tail and wrench it back, to pull at its hair until lost opportunities are revisited, to overtake seven years if time permits another pull.

Ezio’s obedience to Leonardo’s command lasts for two more breaths, and not a moment longer.

He wanders off into the Dragon wing along the memorized path and finds Leonardo in a dampened mood at the mouth of another herb store. He arrives to hear Leonardo offer all money he has to spare for some leaves and a polite but unhelpful merchant tipping out absolutely no contents of a long-empty jar for emphasis. Before Ezio can be entrusted with the details of this failed purchase, Leonardo guides them out of the Dragon wing and into the passage tunnel that exits out onto the cattle-forum.

“I need leaves of Daga’s gift to Ya’ar but they’re hard to come by,” Leonardo explains as they drift across the paved open space of the cattle-market, “The only merchant who sells them, and he has none.”

“You mean the Water Blossom?”

“Yes, Ezio, the Water Blossom,” Leonardo confirms without patronizing and gestures in body language what he lacks in words as he guides them out towards the nearest benches to unload Ezio’s burden before they set off for his studio. Ezio has scarcely put them atop a vacant bench when Leonardo begins to open his crates to peek into them as if to check the state of his purchases. The plants alone would not be a weight worthy of notice, were it not for the earthen pots that host them. Rather than for raw preparation, they are to be planted in their community garden alive as they are, to thrive and flourish for extended use over a year’s time. A herbalist, a tailor, a healer.

The scent that follows this man around is a lot like the herbs he works with. When Ezio had first met him, the man had possessed a different smell. When they’d set out into the market, he’d had a second. Now he has a third, or fourth. Beneath the shift of flowers and herbs, there is a faithful and unbroken fragrance, though weak, that seems to be Leonardo’s, and before long Ezio is catching himself in the attempt to breathe deeper and longer to draw it in, to unmask it to distinguish the man’s own scent.

“A fine purchase today,” the man tells himself as he combs through the crates. Though not addressed directly, Ezio pulls himself from a reverie and looks aside, across the right and open wing of the market of Sheker, this goddess of gossip and story-telling and wind.

Here, at the foot of Hiba’s hill, Sheker’s winds once lured meek Hiba into a trap. A once-trap is now the hub of activity. How convenient that the market of the goddess of gossip now swarms with social activity and people exchanging an endless upwelling of stories. What had once been a grave is now the joining point of humans, plants, animals. Gods.

“Teardrops are still blossoming at this time of year... It’s no good,” Leonardo mutters to himself in contemplation.

Ezio takes the pains of parting his surveying gaze that’s stretched across the swarm of peoples away from the wire of large sheds, barns, and stables situated at the very foot of Hiba’s Hill, to look down at Leonardo. The man has taken a seat. The benches, a nearly closed circle of them, are belted around the colossal statue that marks the artificial border of the cattle-forum where the rising hill marks the natural one, each bench a simple varnished plank with a hole at each end. While the holes serve the sole purpose of letting through the miniature tree trunks—no thicker than thumbs and entwined into a woody plait crowned by the lavish pop of foliage—the bench itself rests atop the heavy-and-large terracotta plant pots that have been embossed over the generations with names and initials and caricatures engraved or scratched into the surface of these clay vessels—a canvas of time where one could leave a mark as long as it doesn’t disturb others. It seems as if nothing in this city, not even something plain as a bench, is left to a matter of simplicity. 

“Why is it no good?” Ezio questions as he rids himself of the helmet to join Leonardo on the bench, where the ball of leaves caresses his naked shoulder. No sooner has he claimed the gap between the dwarf tree and Leonardo does the man lean in with a conspiratorial zeal to whisper:

“Sheker fell in love.”

To Ezio, this bears sense. For them to be graced with the pure luxury of a cloudless sky and warm weather during this season can only be the result of Sheker’s warm winds. Only once did her winds grow kind and warm. Once, when she fell in love with the god of death.

It’s rare that Sheker would give them warm weather during the season when foliage withers, it’s uncommon to have good weather when they ought to be holding a festival to pray for the goddess to grant them a short season of cold winds. Why hold public spectacles and offer prayer for warm weather when it is already warm? Yet not holding the festival goes against tradition. Along the lines of the cattle-forum, huge carts of hay have already been steered into the open, wood chopped down in heaps, ready for the pyre to be lit for the festival at the first cold days that arrive. That Sheker would fall in love now and forget to shift winds does sow seeds of worry.

“If she fell in love how come there’s no Water Blossoms you so desperately seek?”

Leonardo says nothing and Ezio doesn’t look at him. His gaze is climbing up the colossal statue set in the center of this fountain in front of them. Above the surface of rippling water peeks a mermaid tail of goddess Daga, chiseled from stone. Her human hand clasped around Ya’ar’s wooden staff, also chiseled from stone. A tangle of vines wind round the thick staff as if sprung from water itself to climb upwards and in the process of doing so these stony plant roots have inadvertently created a path of veined rungs—something that’s only rarely, if ever, used for the purpose of climbing up the statue. Where Nokem’s and Gdila’s city statues have genuine weapons—sacred and untouchable—this statue of Daga offering the gift of Water Blossoms to Ya’ar has a genuine Water Blossom atop the stone staff, floating inside what looks to a mere human as a giant’s drop of water suspended on top, while in truth a roundish glass vessel had been joined to the chiseled staff to appear as if the plant is trapped inside the gigantic drop of water. 

While Ezio’s pensive gaze scales up Ya’ar’s staff at a lazy pace, his thoughts soar to holding onto more profitable concerns that are sure to bring favorable results. It is notoriously impossible for him to fail at courting and there is nothing to be anxious about even if he disturbs the gift of Daga to Ya’ar that’s protected atop the statue.

“I could get you a Water Blossom.”

It’s outside before he is fully aware of what sacrilege he has just uttered.

He leaps from the bench, twists around, points at the general direction of the glass ball at the apex of the stone staff of the statue, bearing Leonardo’s face in mind. It takes him utmost pains to teach his own face not to frown at seeing an expression he may already had seen and remembered when he’d first met the man.

“You would disturb the gods to get me a desired plant?”

“Correct,” Ezio verifies this suggestion of simple brilliance without contemplating the implications of this particular feat. He says these words before it even occurs to him that what he is suggesting is most heinous sacrilege.

Leonardo doesn’t disparage his high spirits, nor does he question the motives of such promise, but he squints his eyes up at Ezio with an expression that a simple look can’t convey.

“You have the balls to do this?”

“Two of them. And rather large,” Ezio boasts in a dazzling husk, whispery in tone but no less pompous.

Leonardo’s calculated squint loosens, for a mere moment, before a smile lurking with utmost mischief blooms across his face pinching his eyes into a different kind of narrow.

“Oh my,” Leonardo answers in tone entirely level, no shame in his smile, “Then I would see your words made flesh.”

“Easily conjured.”

Ezio sees that he is helpless, that he is bolder in this man’s presence. It might be the man’s resistance, or lack thereof on Ezio’s part. Whatever the case, he feels ready to climb a colossal statue to steal a god’s plant. His intentions had initially been not only dirty and shapeless but utterly graceless and he’s not sure if he should pursue a man who deserves more than his shabby intentions. He is beginning to acknowledge this disparity between what he had wanted Leonardo to be and what the man actually is, but Ezio’s appetite for him keeps gaining in momentum instead of waning with first signs of the man’s unapproachable nature.

“Guard this for me while I’m away,” Ezio instructs, entrusting his helmet and sword into Leonardo’s care. The man doesn’t rise from the bench but he sees him off with an intent gaze, and he follows him with rapt attention on the path thereafter.

Even if the gods permit a human to disturb a sacred object, Leonardo doubts the conditions of his community garden will allow for a successful growth of the sacred Water Blossom that grows atop the statue independently of human interference. It needs water and they don’t have a pond. It will have to be dug, with permission of other community members, and that alone is not enough to guarantee its survival. Yet it would be a pity to withhold Ezio the pleasure of this achievement.

The warrior vaults across the wide, stony rim of the fountain and plops straight into the water. He wades out towards the center, with the stream eddying around his legs. He doesn’t climb Daga’s lavish tail which peeks above surface, but he skims along the intricate handiwork of her carved scales wetting warm stone with a hand-cup of water as he asks for her blessing. Then he wades off between the gods where Ya’ar holds his staff upright—thick stone fashioned to look as if made from wood, with equally detailed work of vines creeping up the staff in a spiraling whirl. At Ya’ar’s feet bloom all sorts of flowering shrubs. They are genuine. Ezio doesn’t disturb these plants but he takes a hold of the staff, he reaches above his head, then pulls himself up onto the bump of the first stony vine winding around the bulk of the staff, onto the first that’s not below the water surface. And up he goes.

Theoretically, it appears easy to climb. In truth, it’s even easier.

For a seasoned warrior like Ezio, it’s no worse than laying out his bedding in a tent. He relies on his arms to keep his balance and his legs to help him ascend as he transfers his leverage onto one rung after another, onto the next bump of the coiling vine. He doesn’t chance a look over his shoulder, but whatever gap he leaves below himself he ignores gravely, comfortably. He keeps on pulling himself up and the higher he ascends the more violently a breeze rips at his armor cape, seizing it in an undulating dance. Far below, where Ezio doesn’t look, the belt around the fountain is sprinkled with onlookers, there is a swell-up of noise, the clatter of curiosity, but Ezio presses forward, regularly fed by gratitude Leonardo will offer. He can imagine no other reception. This food is his bread and wine—he won’t settle for charity any longer. He is content, valuing the outcome of this feat more than the path itself.

Ezio shifts eastward, rotates to find a thicker vine tendril, and he spends the rest of his climb upwards on this more convenient path, until he is faced with the thick ball of glass at the summit of Ya’ar’s staff. Though the shape of an orb, the ball is open to the skies on top and almost completely filled with water. Inside there is just enough space for two adults to fit in, or an adult and two smaller children, the bottom is covered in sediment and soil, and on the surface of this body of water is the Water Blossom—several of them—floating.

In a move half-bold half-deft, Ezio grasps at the thick rim of the orb after setting his weight off the highest rung of a stony vine, and pulls himself up and into the ball soon thereafter.

In the process of this, he manages to steep himself into the water until he’s drenched to bone. He stands in water up to his waist. It takes him a few moments to find proper footing removed from any risk of disturbing all Water Blossoms, although he does manage to step onto quite a few roots before he can disentangle his boots to step aside.

The intriguing heady scent of the blossoms finds his nose before he starts to inspect them. He takes a peek over the rim of the glass to look below for the first time.

The height, as regarded from above, nonpluses him.

There are knots of people that stand at all corners of the cattle-forum, all looking up at him. There is less noise, less quarreling among them, and more upturned heads, and faces dressed in curiosity.

It is interesting to watch the crowds that watch him.

The onlookers are no longer a sprinkle around the fountain, they flock crowding the space until they’ve swallowed all traces of paved stones around the fountain. Leonardo is perched atop his bench, and seeing him hop down to jostle his way through the ring of people towards the wide rim of the fountain sets Ezio into motion and hammers through the glass of awed haze that has beset him.

He turns inwards, the air is less feverish when he’s not looking from above.

The sweetish reek hits his senses again.

While Daga’s Teardrops grow from water-up, Ya’ar’s Water Blossoms float atop water. As Ya’ar dropped petal after petal and blossom by blossom into water, Daga helped their roots spread to plant themselves in the soil of pond or sea bottoms. A mutual exchange that gave birth to this medicinal plant of long leathery, fleshy leaves. And while the leaves float on water, the blossom is held well above them. The flower is a burst of thick, carmin-red and waxy blossoms that release an intoxicating aroma which could perfume an entire garden.

Ezio lowers into a crouch until the water is up to his neck, until he can either turn his neck aside to evade the heady scent or gaze right into the blossom while he touches along the bottom to pull out the roots, and he does gaze into it, with no intervention of other choice. He had never seen one this up close. The blossom under his nose appears to be kissed by a touch of gold at its center—a small addition to the dramatic morphing into an intense shade of red. The sight is as overwhelming as its scent. He tugs the roots out without upsetting the rest. He is not greedy, he knows better than to raid the entire gift of Daga to Ya’ar. One he will deliver into Leonardo’s hands, the rest remains where it grows sans human intervention. He pulls the roots out entirely letting the leaves and blossom float as he ponders how to actually deliver the plant to Leonardo.

His first idea proves best.

The warrior takes off his armor cape to wrap the blossom along with its long roots—curled into a loose coil below the blossom—and he ties this impromptu bundle up.

“Leonardo!” he hollers once leaned across the rim of the ball, “Catch!”

Leonardo doesn’t hurry to catch the wet bundle, having divined Ezio’s intentions while it’s still falling down towards them, he allows the wrapping to plop into the fountain first. A warning he issues before this drop quickly falls on deaf ears and even though none have made the move to fall back, there is a concoction of stunned yells and delighted shrieks of children when the smack of the bundle against surface sends a fat splatter of water around.

Leonardo wastes little time. His flicks the back of his red cape over his head in something that almost looks like a hood as he plunges down the same path Ezio has taken earlier but his eyes remain glued to Ezio all the while—before, during, and after pulling the soaked bundle out of the fountain—making sure the warrior won’t move. He puts the gift atop the rim and follows up, then frames his mouth with palms as he shouts up:

“Climb the same way down!”

“I can’t!”

Leonardo stares up, feels a foul bubbling of panic, and a yap of fear echo inside his ribcage.

Far above, Ezio is pulling a boot up onto the brim of the glass bubble. Fear is gripping him by the elbow, rooting him to the spot. He can’t explain the intricacies of slithering down the same path, down the slippery swell of the glass ball, and the uncertainty of holding onto the thick, wet rim of glass as only support while completely unsure of how or if he can get his grip on the staff that he can’t even see. A complication he had failed to acknowledge and consider climbing up.

“I’m going to leap from here!”

“What!?” Leonardo roars, stopping short. Around him struggles the flock of people, shouting and interrupting, there is a confused uproar of voices.

“I need some hay! A lot of it!” The warrior announces to the dense crowd, and the inside of his chest is a crude amalgam of fear, pride at awaiting feat, and remorse about miscalculations—all of which blend into the exhilarating mix of a less-than-smart decision.

There are murmurs of agreement.

“Ezio!” Leonardo bellows again, an impulsive, blank-headed shout in response to Ezio’s suddenly perching atop the outer lip of the glass bubble, “What seized your brains, fool!? You’re no bird!”

In all fairness, Leonardo ought to be grateful—still, he is not. The people that pull the biggest cart of hay (those to be used as kindling for the upcoming festival pyre) amid the parting crowd of people are the ones giving Ezio’s wild ideas a boost and shriveling Leonardo’s chances of persuasion.

“I’ll be Daga then!” Ezio shouts, and the sheer volume of his voice swallows up whatever emotion there is to decipher in it.

“Daga died!”

“To became a god!”

Ezio crouches perched on the outer lip of the glass ball, gripping the rim for balance. Down below, a cart bursting with hay is having its load poked around and disheveled to accept him more readily, the once-tight circle of crowd loosening to give him space, and he listens to them for ten entire breaths, anxious to distance himself from the present and recall the times he’d leaped during battles, the times Desmond and he had leaped from walls into hay-water-shrubs-tents after pilfering spices.

It’s not the shouts but the mermaid tail he had touched on his way up that arrests him back to present, it’s Daga who cancels reluctance to replace it by a definite station he feels growing in mind.

“Daga will guide me! It will be a leap of faith!”

He knows and he doesn’t how far he has to jump. He is tortured by the possibility of breaking a limb, or worse. The cart owners disperse, people are backing further off.

A fist of fear clasps around his heart, and then, he leaps.

In his veins is more void than blood, as if all that drives his body and spirit converges at a single point in his limbs that launch him off, off and enough to cross the border of the fountain below. He tips his body forward in right time, allows the rest to follow—the last he sees of world below is the confused greenery and colorful mass skimming along his last trace of vision before all turns into a single bright-blue. He falls, face skywards.

His abdomen is beginning to heave, it’s heaving, it’s convulsed.

Bravery has hauled him over the brim. Bravery falls from him in drops now and he is left to chance alone, he is gaining speed.

Until, after brief eternity, he sees more than just the blue.

Hay swallows him like the buzz of voices around—he doesn’t hear beyond the shouting.

Nothing hurts. His body he starts to feel only after the churn in his abdomen gives way to exhilaration. He doesn’t move until the tangle of hay is a nuisance to his vision, until the shouts are a cheer, and when he does, the grin on his own face feels alien but too proud to admit that he had once feared.

The layers of hay are too thick to allow a graceful exit from cart, but protection enough to shield him as he clambers out of the hollow he’s created through fall and impact. He dismounts the cart hopping down to the rim of fountain where Leonardo hasn’t budged from spot like others, and his legs feel light, weightless.

Ezio takes the wet sloppy bundle from the stone, dripping wet like the man himself, he extends his hand in silent offer, and for a moment between confusion and bewilderment, Leonardo stands under the spell of Ezio’s cozy, mute mirth.

The warrior is a little pale, considerably wet, and largely disheveled, with hay to show for his latest feat.

“The cost of such favor?” Leonardo says-or-whispers, and one voice is naught, one voice is one wave in the sea of shouts around.

“A gesture of friendship,” Ezio says in half-grandiosity and half-humility.

Leonardo is a simple man of many talents, a man most guarded in not being trapped by the fraudulent nature of men who change partners like they change clothes. Yet this man does a little big trick and Leonardo shrinks borders between them when he had thought himself above such simple ploys.

“Received with much gratitude.” This time, it is without a doubt—a whisper. It’s without a doubt a brush of hands when his grip joins Ezio’s around the wet slop of the bundle. It’s, without a doubt, the most disarming smile a man’s lips have ever assumed in Leonardo's presence.

This is Ezio. A reckless warrior and pillager, a rich noble robbing Leonardo poor of bricks to girdle round his heart.

Leonardo loves the crooked bend of his lips long before the man himself.

 


 

When they introduce themselves to the innards of Leonardo’s studio, it’s after a long trip back and a short detour to Barzel’s market to pick up a roll of fur and skins—more weight to add to Ezio’s steadily growing baggage.

Ezio doesn’t permit his wandering gaze to waste time inspecting past a quick assessment of his surroundings and finds it too overwhelming to decipher in a short amount of time that he’s intended to ascribe to unraveling it. It boasts of a strange kind of disorderly order, with a tangle of herb scents and a tangle of fabrics and cloths, and at least one of three counters of doubtful cleanliness, but all in all it’s a kind of homey disarray that matches well with Ezio, for he has no loathing for disorder as Altaïr does.

He does devote more time to assessing the only other occupant of the studio, that being an ambiguous-looking youth, a lady in a smartish blue dress with the handsomeness of a young man’s jaw. This youth sits on a bench too far wedged against the cleanest-looking counter with hands confused between sewing and picking between tea and a bread-slice of peach jam.

“Salai,” Leonardo greets, or dismisses, perhaps the latter because the youth gives a casual swing of legs short before picking up her current proceedings from the counter, with a glossy, knowing smirk of mischief—a disrobing kind of smirk that almost puts Ezio to sweating.

The youth retreats leaving them to solitude—of sight if not of silence, for Ezio has the distinct suspicion that Salai will listen in on whatever he chooses to raise past a whisper.

But the curiosity of Leonardo’s assistants won’t put a wedge between him and Leonardo. Now that he’s undertaken all the work (and quite a measure beyond) that had been expected of him, he expects a well-deserved reward.

“What for do you intend Water Blossoms for in any case?” Ezio inquires innocently, having at last settled on a good start to set off a conversation. Though he has mere basics of plants at grasp thanks to schooling, any start that is likely to provide Leonardo’s response is deep enough to steer off into deeper waters.

“Where should I start: potent tea against coughing, lung infections, fever? These three are enough to start the approaching cold season,” the blond trails off.

“Are you sure you’ve enough to cover all customers?” Ezio frowns at the damp bundle as he picks it up from the crates, allowing Leonardo leeway to unload the crates.

“For the community, yes. For customers, no.”

A coltish smile spreads across Leonardo’s lips, it scatters across his face a secretive, shadowy look of great importance, quite unrelated to the present topic, as if the herbalist-tailor-inventor had known Ezio’s course long before the warrior set off. Ezio cannot help feeling there is something essentially wrong about the way he is trying to trap the man, and he unhinges his loose jaw further to form a question that is never meant to pass to the man’s ears, because there is a familiar figure that walks quite frankly into the room through the front door, forming all Ezio’s thoughts into one single question.

“You are left off the leash of your husband?”

Leonardo throws him a glare, and he feels it.

Malik dismisses him without a second glance and Ezio is desperately unhappy with his lack of response, searching as he is for something to dump his sour mood on. He is fast-approaching a comedy of trying to ensnare Leonardo into his charm, last thing he needs is Altaïr’s whelp of a husband disturbing his last attempts. Yet the more hostile he is to Malik, the powerful the impact of Leonardo’s mirrored hostility towards him, so he sets his insults against the back of his teeth and pushes at them with his tongue until nothing is left but a mesh of meaningless words.

Altaïr’s husband strolls in with a whole menagerie of fabrics—soft and rough, dull and colorful, fur and cotton—all rolled up into a cluster of neat bundles, probably the neatest set of fabrics within these walls. These fabrics he puts atop a counter—a place that is victim to Leonardo’s sudden raid, a freshly-conquered territory that grows only at the expanse of surrounding parcels of the counter that have to be momentarily swept off—and he exchanges a quick-and-short succession of words with Leonardo. There is barely enough for Ezio to stitch together other than that these are intended for Altaïr’s clothing.

With that, with a flaunt in walk and a haughty scowl, the young noble carries himself out leaving Ezio and Leonardo same as before, only a bit worse.

 


 

Altaïr wants touch or dark eyes to gaze at long before he returns home.

He had spared himself wine so that he’d be able to drag Desmond to the other slope of the hill where he dwells alone in a small home, and he returns sniffing after this long trail of longing. 

He enters his own community beaten and livens up at the sight of his husband.

When his principles and faith crumble giving way to high walls and iron gates to rise like prison around him, Malik’s dark eyes appear like tiny windows on these prison walls, albeit barred. Altaïr looks worn and ill, and owing to his current paleness seems unshaven although he had shaved before setting out, but his gaze isn’t dimmed by it when Malik approaches him coming directly from Leonardo’s studio.

“You’ve picked a fine time to arrive,” Malik says before he steers himself closer, “I’ve just left the fabrics you brought at Leonardo’s. Go to him at once, he’ll take measurements.”

They stand there, shielding the tunnel-exit against a draft that wants free passage into the courtyard.

The warrior isn’t past obedience and he intends to do as he is told, despite hunger nagging at his insides.

Malik is looking up at him with an air of openness, an air of quizzical curiosity, as if he’s expecting an answer. Altaïr consults silence instead. There is a quarrel of two expressions on his face, a vile scene. He, naked down to waist, a man of power to defeat alone an enemy ten warriors strong, violently abusing the last shreds of a sad silence. There must be a flicker of confusion and reluctance on his face even as he does and says nothing. He is less strong than his powerfully puffed-out chest might imply—in fact, he is weak—and the wave of hopeless fatigue that suddenly submerges his top-heavy body, detaching him from reality, is a sensation not utterly unknown to wine he had earlier refused. He feels drunk without a drop of wine inside him.

His appearance provokes reaction.

The furrow of brows on Malik’s face fades away as silently as it has come. Something very serious is about to happen. When it happens, it appears in the form of worry foreign to its bearer, or at least foreign when related to Altaïr. Once the shift of expressions on Malik’s face has amounted to real worry, once his dark eyes finished poring over Altaïr in search for injury, this single expression of worry gives Altaïr an eerie feeling, that former tingle of unreality overpowers him completely.

He could accept Malik’s worry as his personal happiness but he doesn’t cling to this suggestion. He doesn’t, or it will turn into just another number in a sad tally—a sum-up of the things he has lost on the way to hope. Malik can offer worry but he can also take it away just as quick.

He drops his gaze, and there at Malik’s sides are Malik’s arms, his hands hang loosely, gloved, much desired.

Time plunders. Coupled with war, it ravages. All the years in war he had tolerated because the notion that he’d been protecting someone rather than something had livened his spirits. All he did had been to protect a husband, and community, his city. To see the tables turned, to find that a single, soft hand could protect him instead, is a truth he has divined only now.

He yearns to touch them, and to be touched. Past experience has set him against touching Malik of his own accord, but seeing them, unoccupied and unthreatening, reminds him of the treat he’d had for himself from last night well into this morning.

“We were grilling fish earlier. For dinner. I left some for you. It’s in the kitchen...” Malik adds, in a small voice, and doesn’t know what else to add. Altaïr nods but doesn’t pursue a trail up to look at his face. He longs for his hands.

He stands, lodged in that one spot before Malik, unhappy and trying to disregard the quarrel in him. He stands until his simple and complex desire starts growing more and more furious. The desire keeps making little rushes forward, sticking out its face and screaming from this short distance between them to cross it, he is trying to nerve himself to make a move without quite succeeding.

Finally he bursts out as Malik shows first sign of retreat.

He seizes Malik’s right hand, he seizes his left, he means the touch when he pulls them up to join them between his. Malik is too paralyzed by surprise at first and Altaïr is guiltily wolfing down the sensation of Malik’s hands in his before they’re withdrawn.

The warrior would break the ongoing silence to exclaim something, whatever it may be, but he pinches his features together into a sullen, needy look, a shameful unashamed expression of want, and he finds Malik’s hands pliant and unresisting. The same look that had harassed his face last night after Malik woke him from nightmare. It is unpleasant but it’s taught him what expression to use when in need of touch so he gains something from it. He measures that expression on his face, allows it to loiter on his features for a moment longer to learn that one picture as a rule of thumb, like one learns to put a puzzle together.

When he pulls the hands further up, Malik consents through passive acceptance, without giving him the rough side of his tongue. There is more charity than consent in his permission, but Altaïr swallows this warm meal of charity like feasts he used to gobble up in the orphanage. At least he is not treated as beast, cattle, ruffian.

He lifts the gloved hands pressing the tips of fingers to his mouth. The leather is wet, it smells of soft soaps. Of Malik’s warmth, he can feel nothing. It matters little. This touch is all he needs. He presses into the leather three long consecutive kisses, and no more, to avoid making Malik uncomfortable.

He lowers the handhold between them then, into the gap spanning short between their waists, he alternates between caress and tightening of grip. Through gloves, he can’t feel their texture, their icy skin, nor can his trace the tips of his parched fingers across clean nails and soft knuckles, yet he crawls into the beauties of this touch and finds them to be a corner for himself free of all calamities of life.

They both find it a strain to carry on the conversation that’s never happened.

For a while, he keeps his head down and neck bent low, to avoid Malik’s gaze and whatever he could find on his face. A cheap boldness tells him you must be brave, but he is quite weak. So he stays within the firm sight of Malik’s hands, clasped from knuckles down into his own, until a spread of goosebumps begins to climb up his forearms and beyond, and it makes little-to-no sense to allow Malik to see that a simple touch of hands leaves such trace on the hard body of a warrior.

Altaïr takes off the weight of his hold from Malik’s hands, clearing his throat and ignoring the consolation offered by the mere presence of his husband. He nods, again, unsure as to why and to what.

And quite suddenly, in a rush, he turns and bolts for Leonardo’s studio, although there are several hours to spare before dusk.

 


 

“What?” Ezio dashes for ignorance even when the source of Leonardo’s questioning frown is known to both.

“He is a noble like yourself.”

It would be absurd of Ezio to try and persuade him that Malik’s particular presence rather than just any presence isn't what has given rise to the majority of Ezio’s annoyance.

“And so? Daga was noble, and she hated Nokem,” he counters, unwittingly steering off towards a current he hadn’t intended to catch.

“She changed her ways,” Leonardo reasons, with arms crossed, in a manner so condescending and patronizing that it doesn’t befit the man at all.

“Maybe she shouldn’t have,” Ezio says with perhaps too much zeal, perhaps too-prepared, perhaps ready to argue, and probably not ready to give in.

“Why do you condemn Nokem with such fervor, Ezio?”

The tenseness of Leonardo’s shoulders mellows out as if steeped in curiosity and weighed down by this more pleasant burden, and though his arms remain crossed—a stance too loud to allow Ezio to drift closer to the man—he leans into the counter nearest to him, and he cocks his head to the side ready to explore Ezio’s unorthodox point of view.

“I shouldn’t be the one giving answer to questions of this kind. A noble speaking of nobles. Better it would be if commoners asked themselves what’s so special about nobles.”

At this, Leonardo offers a short, curiously handsome chuckle, and says, “Do I need to recount the tale of our myth for you?”

Usually, Ezio would say no, but Leonardo’s voice is somewhere between calming and exciting to his ears and he is hard-pressed to offer a vague shrug as a sign for the man to proceed with whatever he has intended.

Leonardo heaves an important sigh, his gaze falls to floor as if to recollect the pieces he hasn’t revisited for a time, and then he starts:

“The first wave of humans differed from the second in that it was created for a different purpose, a higher purpose—“

“And so the notion of justice is placed above the notion of love? Is love less noble than justice? Are commoners not part of community as anyone else?” Ezio quips in, earning for his intrusion a brief silence.

“During a distant time when death came before love, justice was held above all else. Love, though noble, came later,” Leonardo elaborates. He awaits another clashing viewpoint but no words come, so he picks himself up from his last point.

“They were forged as warriors, these first humans, to aid justice in hunting down Ga’ash after the god split himself into nine parts. Many died during battles with Ga’ash’s nine evil spirits—“

“Many died,” Ezio echoes, interrupts, “And many new were needed.”

An expression of a new discovery weaves itself delicately into Leonardo’s face, it’s solidly bound to it when the man launches into a self-satisfied smile at having grasped the source of Ezio’s discontent.

“It’s this side of the myth that gives you grievance, is it not?” It must be. Leonardo is positively convinced and his pause doesn’t last long enough to allow Ezio room for talk, “It is quite true that many warriors were perishing during the battles against the dark spirits and that Nokem’s ranks of humans were decimated. His warriors, though noble and strong, were not quite as powerful as to defeat them. No wonder, then, that Nokem, seeing this, instructed his fearsome warrior women to procreate.”

“Ordered them,” the warrior corrects the word to his liking.

“We are arguing semantics, Ezio. They were Nokem’s own creation. His invention to utilize at his wish.” Leonardo knows now which puzzle of the myth gives Ezio most trouble. Though he can’t argue his point joyfully, the will of gods is far beyond the grasp of human mind.

“They were human as well. Or has Daga’s fate been forgotten?” Ezio asks wistfully.

Leonardo is quite convinced that Ezio hates Nokem. While their customs don’t dictate which gods an individual should be keen on and pray to, they also don’t forbid dislike or hatred of particular gods. As long as you do not invoke a curse of gods upon yourself through deliberate attempts, no god will take it for a slight if you do not worship them. Leonardo, beside all good intentions, has no grounds to persuade Ezio into accepting Nokem into his personal pantheon. The choice is Ezio’s alone. Removed from Leonardo’s intervention.

“It has not been forgotten. Her story lives on,” Leonardo assures, speaks more directly to the floor than to Ezio himself, and during a moment of quiet he recalls the sad story of this much-revered goddess born human.

Nokem’s warrior women continued to procreate between ardent fights. They had their children, as their creator had instructed, all had them, except for one. A warrior woman who attempted bearing a child, but seed never took halt in her belly, as if the gods decided to withhold from her the joy of children. She fought, she prayed, all in hopes to intrigue them to reconsider their decision, and none answered her prayer—she had no god, nor goddess, to pray to, not one who would plant a child in her belly. And having no one to ask for aid or divine intervention, she threw herself off a cliff and into the vast depths of the sea.

Where gods remained deaf, fish heard her prayers and grief. Her body, they could not save. But her soul they planted into the body of a fish, giving birth to Daga, half-fish half-human. When she ascended from human to god Daga swore to help out all those who seek aid with fertility, she vowed to allow no other woman to share her fate if she did not willingly want to deny herself children. To the pantheon she ascended as Daga, the goddess of fertility and water—a woman who turned from human into god leaving her sister Masekha behind as a human warrior.

Leonardo’s eyes don’t rise to meet Ezio’s for a time. His face is melting into a passive quietude and Ezio watches a silence strutting about between them.

What he’s started has not been fairly harmless. He feels it has put him at a distance, yet he’s learned from Leonardo a number of things which make him wish to learn a good deal more. Ezio had in the past tried before to seduce wrong people, but he’d never paid for it over and over in this kind of suffering. What he suffers is reluctance.

Had Ezio been removed from ties to warriors, their ways of life, both past and present (since past inevitably seeps into the presence drip after drip), he would have found no qualms about approaching a man such as Leonardo without reservations. But years of expecting nothing but quick pleasures and short affairs has lowered his expectations hopelessly, and he does not willingly seek to raise them. He has lived on this filthy imitation of love until his whole mind and body have become composed for inferior stuff, and he may be malnourished in this regard, but he has a lot to catch up on and Altaïr and Desmond aren’t much better off in their own affairs anyway. The fault lies not within Ezio’s refusal to settle, since those comrades who have settled found no measure of peace in their own marriages. The fault is not his. And so he feels entitled to wanting certain things from this man, and discarding other possibilities.

Ezio advances a step forward before what little closeness he has managed to forge between them can flutter off into thin air, but Leonardo shows no inclination to meet him.

The groan of the wooden counter as result of Leonardo’s rising to sit-not-lean on it is an act of avoiding contact. It seems like it to Ezio.

“Is it only me you don’t like?” The warrior asks frankly in a voice cryptic.

“Not at all.” The way he says this, the narrowing of his eyes, the quick sigh he gives before shifting to change subjects, convinces Ezio that it would be a great relief for him to hear more before his sudden illusion is destroyed.

“Somehow I find it hard to believe that,” Ezio maintains, in a voice of hue which confuses the warrior himself. And before Ezio can utter something witty, or unwitty, Leonardo utters his next words in the most elaborate husk worthy of a seasoned seducer:

“What can I do to alter your mind then, hm?”

After Ezio’s leap of faith—an expression borrowed and taken up by the masses on the market—Leonardo’s demeanor hasn’t changed abruptly like Ezio had wanted, yet here-and-now, that stony face breaks showing a glimpse of what’s beneath the mask. Ezio steps closer to attempt widening the cracks on it.

“I could think of something...” he whispers with an air of coy secrecy, and when he dares another step, when he’s near enough to perform this feat, he leans the heel of his palm against the counter, brazenly leaning this hand against the spot where it’s touching the man’s clothed thigh, he doesn’t go further, nor does the man flinch from Ezio’s current enterprise.

“You’re sowing gapeseed, Ezio.”

Leonardo says this, but he guides the side of his index finger from Ezio’s neck up to his chin in a slow, deliberate drag, and his words have no meaning, or too much of it. And then a thumb, warm and gentle, flattens down the edge of Ezio’s lip. Ezio can scent victory like he can scent the whiff of herbs on the man’s hand.

“To the contrary...” he whispers in a husk, to graze the finger with the movement of lips before the touch is removed, “I’m sowing the seeds of gods.”

Ezio has his gift to Leonardo in mind, the Water Blossom wrapped at their feet, and whatever else he has in mind he alludes to without much explicitness, but a bold courage grazes his back pushing him forwards, closer. Closer, until he is within a breath’s distance, close enough that he could map out the curious pattern of Leonardo’s pale freckles if he so wanted, if the man’s eyes weren’t arresting this attention elsewhere.

“Straighten your tongue and speak plainly,” Leonardo says in muted voice, without flushing even a palest pink. 

“One word, and I would be at your command.”

Leonardo’s mouth pulls up into a loop-sided smirk until it breaks to reveal his canine which causes Ezio to stare hungrily after his lips—a reaction which, perhaps, has been expected as confidently as his words have.

“What advantage would I gain by association with a seducer of your caliber?”

Hopeless though it is what his words imply, Ezio is gaining confidence and exploiting this appearance of confidence to summon his next words which never find their way out.

Altaïr stands caught half between outdoors and indoors, without pretense of sorrow at having interrupted them.

“Malik told me to come.”

A shadow of another word flits across Altaïr’s face but whatever apology is floating in his mind remains confined as Leonardo hops off the counter—having brushed Ezio aside—to guide the man inside.

Ezio’s expression dries up, wizened, until there’s only dissatisfaction and loathing at having been interrupted once more. Even if he now signaled to Altaïr to come at another time, it is doubtful that they could continue right from where they’ve left off. Ezio is capable of sharing his last bread crust with his friend. At present, though, he could physically haul Altaïr out of the room with no qualms.

Ezio’s decision to opt for retreat, however, doesn’t involve solely Altaïr. Had Leonardo wanted to continue what they’ve started, he wouldn’t have responded to Altaïr’s intrusion as well as he had, as well as he does still.

“I’ll come by tomorrow,” he promises himself.

Then he marches out in a somber mood and murky face. He sacks the wrapping of almonds Leonardo had bought for him earlier, and leaves.

 


 

Altaïr doesn’t know Leonardo. Altaïr doesn’t even know Malik as one should know his husband. Yet Altaïr cares for Malik, and Malik cares for Leonardo. Therefore, caring for Leonardo should bring Altaïr closer to Malik.

This looping line of logic weaves itself through Altaïr’s mind while the tailor busies himself with taking his measures, and for a long time he is basely tempted to hint at things familiar which may not be so familiar to this man who is jotting down numbers when he’s not prodding Altaïr with the measure tape.

Altaïr stands, extends, moves according to instructions, and for a while he does nothing but inwardly repeat again and again the advice he feels compelled to give before he leaves, even as a handsome youth toddles in from the neighboring room to ogle the naked display of Altaïr’s torso—something that neither bothers nor concerns him. Under pretense of learning the process of measuring, the youth, curly-haired and mischievous, takes a seat atop a counter swinging her gaze up-and-down Altaïr’s torso in tune with her swinging legs. The third presence is not a burden until words of advice accumulate on Altaïr’s tongue and he yearns to unleash them before long. With nothing else to ogle, though, the youth soon tires of her current pretense and leaves in pursuit of other ventures, giving him privacy.

“You shouldn’t attach to Ezio, he is—“

“I know.”

Leonardo is measuring Altaïr’s shoulder slope and the warrior is able to look him in the eye. The tailor works, the gaze is not returned. It’s as if he’s said nothing. He’s said nothing. He’d intended to say what would be a small loss to Ezio but large disaster to someone honest enough to attach to his friend. But this man seems to have known already what Altaïr has wasted thought on, and the folly of his stunted advice is becoming increasingly clear and increasingly embarrassing.

“My apologies if I’ve interrupted.”

Leonardo does look him in the eye now, with a smile that’s a little way off a proper cheerful smile.

“You interrupted nothing,” the tailor says, switching to Altaïr’s neck, “The real question is, why do you speak against your friend?”

“I would die for Ezio,” Altaïr maintains vigorously, despite the pressure of measure tape against his neck, in the same conscientious fashion he would defend his loyalty to Desmond.

“The better question then is, why give advice to a man you dislike? Your impression of me had not been a good one.”

At this, Altaïr lowers his gaze to floor. The dismal tale of his second meeting with Malik is sufficient (and necessary, absolutely necessary) to remind him of slights of a not-so-distant past. It takes him a few moments—enough time for Leonardo to switch to another body part—but when he says it the words are strong and clear, clear to both receiver and speaker.

“I made wrong assumptions.”

Leonardo tightens the tape around the fullest part of his chest until the fit is snug, and Altaïr believes that the smile on the tailor’s lips will be his only answer and takes no quarrel with it.

“You admit your faults. It’s good,” Leonardo says with smile widened. He reads the tape and jots down one of his last measures. Encouraged, Altaïr intends to ask more, but the time of his required stay is running low and he is compelled to speak before properly mulling over his direction and words.

“He doesn’t seem to share your opinions,” Altaïr states in hope to extract more knowledge about his husband. Leonardo probably knows his intentions and he will reveal as much as he finds necessary, or nothing.

“That is correct. He is most stubborn. It’s in his origin.”

“What can I do to relieve myself of the tight clutch of his stubbornness?” Altaïr inquires more boldly, having realized that the tailor’s collected all data he needs. One advice before he goes. One, and it’s enough to get him started.

“Perhaps a gentle nudge to remind him of your good motives?”

“You speak in riddles,” Altaïr mourns, in an unobtrusive tone, and perhaps it’s his lack of violence that nudges Leonardo to remind himself that he may be helping Malik by giving Altaïr advice, however vague and formless to the warrior.

“Malik is most bark and ember. Give him breath and tinder until it ignites. You must find an ember of light in him and give it breath, and he will glow for you.”

This advice is not as ill-received as both have envisioned.

Instead of pondering what he could do, Altaïr takes the advice to heart and thinks of when Malik had last ignited into ember. Last night he had been warm and thawing. This morning even more so. And just earlier, by not refusing touch, he’d turned into ember from bark. Altaïr can’t dismiss Leonardo’s advice by sheer fact that it’s proved true already. Altaïr’s duty, now, remains to better understand what breath he’d blown to ignite Malik. Was it his silence? His renouncing Al Mualim’s ways? Could it be his show of weakness that mellows Malik into rare-but-growing embers?

So lost in thought is the warrior that he barely notices the man fumbling through a nearby drawer. When he next looks at the man, he is offered a clay dish filled with salve, larger than the one he’d found on table this morning, with a smell more harsh than Malik’s soft-smelling one.

“He instructed me to give you this. For your hands,” Leonardo explains as he deposits the salve into Altaïr’s hand.

“He left one for me already,” Altaïr says with a flash of confusion.

“His own. But his hands are soft and cared for, as I’d instructed him. This one is more suited for your needs.”

Altaïr offers a nod and takes it with no further protest because Malik had asked Leonardo for a special salve, for him. That alone is enough to sting him into a warm, pleasant silence.

 


 

Altaïr’s climb up home is swift and filled with expectation.

Malik he has to leave behind at the water-well, having noticed that he’s not quite finished with his daily work despite the late hour, but he looks forward to filling his belly with promised food.

Altaïr’s midday meal is eaten at late evening.

He swerves from entrance right into the kitchen to locate mentioned fish, and his hunt is short-lived. In terms of arrangement, it’s much grander than Altaïr had imagined or a warrior would dare to hope. Though not quite steaming hot, Altaïr finds his meal warm and served on a platter so extraordinarily decorated that he wonders whether this dish has been produced from Malik’s secret chest of heirloom. He had promised not to lay a touch upon it. Yet Malik offers him no choice, and he takes his dinner from where he finds it.

On the plate is his sea bass. Two savory fish scaled and gutted, a fresh catch of bass marinated and recently grilled. Beside the brushing of olive oil, the cavities of both fish have been filled in an attractive and patterned manner with lean slices of lemon, lime, and orange, and topped with a moderate seasoning of olive oil, garlic, and parsley, and at the center a grouping of two-three green and black olives. Though garnished lavishly, in seasoning itself the meal has been left poor, with pepper and salt as only spice. Malik had remembered that he is still getting his belly used to sharp and many spices.

Altaïr doubts the meal originally came with the garnish.

Malik may have gotten the grilled fish from others, but the rest had been added on his own effort. In retrospect, Malik’s own meal had in all likelihood been anything but the copy of Altaïr’s current one. Malik’s must have been far poorer in terms of garnish and arrangement, if richer in spices. The effort his husband had made riddles him. The riddle is too large to digest just yet and Altaïr takes this lavish treat with a precarious caution. His thankfulness is a matter undisputed, yet he doesn’t quite understand what he had done to earn such kind treatment, whether it will last long, and how he should act to prolong Malik’s good will.

To balance the dishes out, Altaïr takes a regular cup to fill with wine, poor in ornament and quite a mismatch to his plate and cutlery.

He takes his cup and plate out to settle on table, he stops.

From the spot he’s made halt at, it’s no mystery what the thing atop their table is. It’s even less puzzling what the thing is when the tiny, swinging, limb is taken into consideration, but knowledge alone doesn’t dictate how Altaïr should behave in the presence of a baby inside his home.

He takes a seat. On the other end of the table is the cradle. And the tiny, tiny, angry fist swinging periodically above the wooden walls of the cradle. It’s best not disturbed. It’s best ignored.

Altaïr doesn’t even clear his throat—in fact, he makes as little noise as humanly possible—he doesn’t want to announce his presence to an infant he neither knows nor has interest to care for. Malik should be back soon. He will take care of it before that ex-warrior-now-guard woman crops up to pick up her child. Once she’s done tangling her sheets and making her wife scream. With this unwanted thought and unwanted company, Altaïr starts his meal.

He makes short business of removing the backbone and ribs from the fillet to transfer to the edge of plate, and digs into the firm white flesh. The fish is good and fits the tastes of someone raised in a seafood-loving population. Even if fish is not among his preferred food, the fact that the meal’s been prepared and served in a caring and loving way is enough to make it a feast. He is looking forward to finishing the couple of Nokem’s eyes that escaped his morning appetite—Malik has not touched them and Altaïr is bold enough to read it as no intention of doing so either. The next few minutes Altaïr spends alternating between silence and listening to an infant’s babble, silence and muffled sounds of community downstairs, silence and ignoring the baby’s existence.

A startling, bewildering shriek is what brutally yanks him out of trance.

The shriek collides into another one, until they meld together forging a squalling tangle of continuous wailing, shrill and unpleasant and petrifying. The infant persists in this crying as if to announce the power of its set of lungs, and Altaïr stares at the cradle with a mouthful of fish, unsure what to do, and, if he is honest with himself, unsure whether he wants to do anything.

Malik is not there and Altaïr is confused.

To call Malik, to call someone, to do something, to proceed with meal, to react. Though neither his most-favored nor his wisest decision, he opts for the latter. He reaches out to touch the cradle with his index finger, but remembering the state of his unclean hands, he nudges the cradle into a gentle swing with his cleanest knuckle, it rocks to and fro, it fidgets from side to side, but it does not do much good.

The cradle rocks itself into a standstill, the baby wails, Altaïr stares on.

The screeching is disorderly and shrill and shredding at Altaïr’s insides, he has a cordial dislike for its sound. It stirs memories and it irritates him. It compels him to do something, anything, to bring it to a halt. No one is around.

He shifts along the bench.

There is no soul around, to take over or to tell him what to do. He leans over the cradle to peer inside it, and inside he finds the same bitty fingers soldered into tiny fists, the same pink-nosed infant full of verve and temper. No one is there to help him and his instincts are taking over in an overwhelming flood of memories (earlier, brighter memories) he had thought long-dead.

Altaïr has no useful garment to wipe hands on and he doesn’t intend to use the infant’s bedding for that purpose, so he finds the nearest rag. Once free from the shackles of his doubt, Altaïr leans over the cradle anew, and allowing instincts free reign, he scoops the infant up. They struggle against each other, a baby and a warrior equally alien to each other, but the child ceases its fretting and Altaïr draws it to his chest tighter, he can re-learn how to console, how to soothe through swaddling, through movement and rocking. Soon, the cries and their remnants are naught and there is babyish babble to match the gentle sway of Altaïr’s motion.

The infant grabs about Altaïr’s chest encountering no breast swollen with milk, and it takes up staring back at the warrior with large, inquisitive eyes and a delightful coo. Altaïr blinks and the hold turns briefly into a dull numb feeling, then a sharp pleasant ache that fits itself around him like new clothes, and he wears it well.

The next few moments of this nearly silent staring are so rapt with amusement, so pleasingly colored with hilarity, that the warrior bursts into a long-lived chuckle. There is a collection of babble and coos and toothles smiles and gummy grins that deepens Altaïr’s chuckle until it’s neither chuckle nor outright laughter, but semantics matter little because the warrior allows the scorching pleasantness of this newly-discovered or re-discovered sensation to settle snuggly into his chest and spread from there into every vein, every artery, every bone, until it has deadened all that’s cheerless and bleak in him, at least for this fleeting moment of childish fun.

Altaïr abandons the rest of his meal with no ill feeling, to migrate to the sofa.

There is an abundance of pillows and more than enough space to settle the child down comfortably, but it remains fixed against Altaïr’s chest as he sinks into the pliant cushions of the left wedge of their sofa. It takes him a while to secure the infant in one arm but freeing his other one is his aim, and once he does it’s rather swiftly claimed by the child.

The warrior finds himself safely drifting out the sense of time as he relinquishes command of his fingers, and indeed the entire hand to the infant and its vigorous clasping of each and every of five digits it has at disposal. There is, occasionally, an angry sting from the determined clench on some finger, but no match for the serenity and peace that accosts Altaïr and then stays in his company.

The portion of his finger that’s not trapped in the grip of a tiny fist, the tip of this finger from mid-knuckle upwards, Altaïr slopes into a gentle fall down towards the first little obstacle, and at this gentle boop of his finger against the tip of the perky pink nose the chubby face scrunches up into a brief grimace before the infant launches a decided retaliation by clamping down onto Altaïr’s thumb. The very sight of this hurls him into another laugh-chuckle, one which lasts until there’s an opening of the door.

Altaïr is distantly aware that his features have been pinched into some expression that hasn’t visited his face for years, and his body is strangely full, but he’s been led astray to the extent that he’s forgotten himself so entirely and so thoroughly that even as the door opens and his head responds to the sound by turning sideways, the expression isn’t swept away in the face of Malik’s shock.

He finds his own gaze walking towards Malik’s astonished look with a smile of welcome, but in these few instants that follow he is suddenly too overwhelmed by the perfectly clear consciousness that he might have never greeted him in any such manner under less extraordinary circumstances.

Malik’s stately focus is on Altaïr’s handling of the baby.

He stands tight as bowstring, as if he’s just now stopped himself from leaping at Altaïr to take the infant from him. As if he thinks Altaïr a threat and danger to the child. Until he’s eked out the last scraps of fear for the baby’s safety. Only then do his shoulders slump from their tensed hunch and he shuffles inside, closing the door before laying his pail to a rest on the floor. By tacit consent, he allows Altaïr to continue to look after the baby, not without occasional looks to ensure his husband is well-behaved during this tending to the child.

“What’s its name?” Altaïr asks to sate curiosity.

“Talia,” Malik says dully, still wary, still vigilant.

“A girl,” the warrior smiles at the infant, and he’s not insulted in any way as, suddenly—though not unexpectedly, since Altaïr’s has been tugging at Talia’s tiny crochet cap to pull it into proper place and has thereby exposed his fingers to her grabby greed—she fastens her soft, plump little fingers around one parched, big one of Altaïr’s, and it’s not until she starts pulling his finger towards her yawning mouth that he first denies her a craving. With the pacifier removed from her grasp, Talia bursts into her next array of high-pitched shrieks.

It’s almost a pleasure for Malik to see how Altaïr meets this intrusion.

The man’s face falls slack, astonished rather than offended, as if he’s realized that his own action and denial has caused this outburst. Malik is peaceably ignoring the urge to burst himself, only into a most delightful laughter, but Altaïr’s confused, confounded visage turns to meet him and Malik compliments himself for resisting the itch to laugh before it’s managed to batter his resistance entirely.

“She’s hungry,” Malik explains curtly. He doesn’t trust his voice at present.

The hearth has long been snuffed out and Malik has no fire at the ready except the one readily available downstairs in the boil-room, but a small flame is all he needs. He lights his double-nozzled lamp to put on table, and for a handful of moments Altaïr is raided by confusion, unsure whether Malik will instruct him on how to feed the girl and what with, until he realizes that Malik is not merely bringing light to a dimmed room, but actually warming the milk.

Malik holds the small vessel above the flame, and a small, wooden spoon at the ready.

The cries thunder steadily despite Altaïr’s best efforts to console the child.

“Put her down and prop her up with a pillow, you will spoon-feed her,” Malik instructs as he gives the milk a stir.

Altaïr obeys. His pillow construction is far more ambitious than Malik had required or expected, but it’s better than Malik himself had managed before and he maintains silence. And while the warrior is kneeling on the carpet with front of thighs lined up against the sofa-side and elbows settled snugly on the seat cushion, Talia is burrowed between his forearms in this pillow fort of at least four-five pillows, constructed in such a disciplined form that Malik has no doubts about the origin of the inspiration behind such a pillow construction.

He entrusts the clay vessel and the spoon into his husband’s hold but remains to monitor his spoon-feeding skills to ensure Altaïr won’t later be beheaded by Mary herself. For a man Malik had considered an uncouth brute fresh out of war, Altaïr handles infants well, with a kind of practiced dexterity that takes time to grow roots. It’s as if the man’s rust is flaking off with each moment spent with Talia, and little more than that. It’s as if the mere act of caring for someone is balming the warrior’s many wounds, gilding the spots where rust has chipped off and peeled away. It’s endearing to behold it. 

The first spoon Altaïr has to nudge against Talia’s mouth until the soft curve of the spoon sits gently on the infant’s lower lip, but the following succession of spoonfuls is accepted with eagerness. Altaïr’s had practice with feeding infants and it shows. It rankles Malik and gnaws at him while they kneel there, two men leaning over a baby propped by a pillow and surrounded by a handful more, one tilting spoon after spoon into a toothless-munching-smacking mouth and the other watching this procedure until curiosity expands too large to cram back into mind.

“It didn’t look the other day like you knew how to hold a child,” Malik says lowly as he averts his gaze, referring to the other day in the courtyard when Talia had burst into a cry.

“I grew up in the orphanage.”

His words Altaïr says without latching on the inherent sadness of this statement. A shadow of a smile pulls at his lips, unattached to memory, unattached, perhaps, to Malik’s presence as well. He is scooping up from Talia’s chin a couple of drops that have escaped, and for a moment of time, Altaïr cheats life. The unsightly, revolting side of it. Until Malik prods deeper to remind him.

“You have no family?”

“None.” Not even you.

Altaïr collects another spoonful of milk. He expects nothing and he gets nothing.

Malik lifts himself to return to spreading clothes, offering as a tacit excuse the work habit that’s in his bones, not the escape that it actually is. Altaïr expects no more from him, but he accepts it without the dismal hopelessness that had paralyzed him before. He is already awed by the ease with which they’ve drifted through conversation, but to discuss among themselves with this absolute frankness their own problems of marital maladjustment has not been on his list of expectations.

He throws the issue of his marriage to oblivion for a moment, allows another delighted coo to stomp the issue to ground at present.

What’s for many people an unenviable job is proving to be a great source of fun for the warrior. The long, busy silence that settles in the room is interspersed with wet munching, and smiles, and varying patterns of coos and Talia's little nehs and other baby calls between spoons. Altaïr is forgetting himself again in this caring for a little being that makes him feel large at heart, and large at contributing to community. A man with a refined, worn face, and, curiously enough, quite fashionably dressed in softness. So engrossed is he in his current doting and the feeling of his little finger clasped by bitty fingers that his impromptu lullaby is no business of pre-planning. Malik listens to his voice while it’s yet a whispery infant growing into something stronger, until it begins to quaver out some brutish and bloody warrior’s song, not untunefully.

Malik’s eyes make another dash for Altaïr’s face, his chest is restless.

Spreading the clothes to dry is a routine which requires no attendance of his eyes and he is free to keep a vigil watch of this thrilling and soothing sight. And while his husband is sunken into the seating cushions feeding Talia and cooing nonsense and gibberish when he’s not attempting to catch another tune of an imagined song, Malik is blindly spreading clothes across his drying rack as an alien flood of happiness foams and rises behind the invisible barrier that is to burst open any moment now. He spies on them until he’s entranced by no choosing of his own, and too slow to catch sight of the barren state of the clay vessel and Altaïr returning his gaze.

Before Malik can shake himself free of the soporific effect of the sight or the imprint it’s left on him, Altaïr reads it from his face.

“It lifts heart to see you smile,” Altaïr remarks with a complete lack of clumsiness or censorship. Nothing is untrue about Altaïr’s words and that makes Malik look away. Even by toying with aloofness Malik can’t rectify the lapse he’d made, and it’s doubtful that Altaïr will address his lack of response but he feels obliged to answer with something other than detached blandness. As Altaïr shifts, scooping Talia up to set her against his chest again, Malik parts his mouth to offer something more than his quiet ways of today, but it’s not meant to be uttered.

Mary barges in with a casual ease and for the blink of a moment a panic so all-consuming and singular holds Malik anchored to the spot before he bolts to halt Mary from drawing blade. The impetus carries him across the distance and in such a way that he nearly bumps into her upon reaching her armed side. She sidesteps easily, putting a hand up between them without removing her stare from the sight of Altaïr with her infant in arm and this renders Malik immobile.

He retreats a step, feeling he has bungled it badly by allowing Altaïr care over Talia.

“Mary—“

Shht.”

Malik pictures to himself what he would have said to her had she let him speak. He doesn’t recognize fury on her face, thank gods, he doesn’t.

He remains rooted to the spot as Mary saunters off to seat herself into the sofa, away from Altaïr but well in sight. Altaïr, too, follows this silent journey inspecting his inspector.

For a moment they stare at each other, a man with someone else’s child in arms and a sharp-faced scarlet-lipped guard fresh out of her wife’s sheets, and silence persists, and Malik returns to work at last. Malik’s hands work habitually, sans his guard or intervention, but in his head he is tossing thoughts of possibilities as he is tossing his gaze between the two silent parties in growing worry.

Most of the silence they frankly idle.

Mary dipped into a hollow of pillows with arms crossed as if supervising Altaïr’s quality of work, and Altaïr engrossed into the baby equally recessed into the cushions of the neighboring wedge of the sofa.

He sees Altaïr gazing up at Mary almost furtively but without intention to give her the child. He sits with an arm wound defensively around Talia rocking the swaddled infant in a repetitive waggle against his chest and other hand at the child’s command as a pacifier. There is more strength in her than is common to babies, yet the warrior offers not a scrap of protest as she kneads at his fidgeting fingers as if there is something appallingly fascinating in the glaring dissimilarity between their hands—a chubby soft and a hardened parchness.

Altaïr’s established himself there and he is reluctant to give up hold on Talia, and Talia is reluctant to swap arms that hold her, and Mary makes no effort to wrestle her from Altaïr’s embrace. Her harsh stare melts away until she’s regarding Altaïr not much different from how she would regard a pair of underwear or inspect a pair of trousers. She calmly lolls herself further back into the bulk of cushions and gives herself the bliss of drawing up her ankle onto her knee in a near-crossing of legs.

Malik doesn’t know if she would have approved his decision to allow Altaïr care over Talia, but blades have not been drawn, blood has not been spilled, curses have not been traded, and whatever dissatisfaction Mary might harbor she will forgive.

“I hate to disturb your freshly-minted love,” Mary tells the warrior without specifying the other party and he can’t escape a brief ponder whether she meant Talia or Malik, “but I need to take her back now.”

“It’s nice, having a family,” the warrior says and looks at his own words with a mixture of longing and hatred.

“You’ve abandoned your own.”

Mary—“

Shht.”

“Mary, really—“ Malik cracks another try.

She quells him with one look.

“I’m having words with your husband, you’ve no part in this conversation.” With that, she returns her measuring, calculating, gauging gaze to Altaïr.

Malik is more annoyed than hurt at this exclusion and disregard for his wishes. He frowns to himself and glares at the clothes he’s spreading, but he is chained, with no right to intervene in a conversation he’s not invited to.

“You’ve made a mistake,” he hears Altaïr say, “I couldn’t have abandoned a family if I never had one. I had a community, at the orphanage, not here. I’m not accepted as part of this one. And had you left to fulfill your duty, you wouldn’t be either.”

Malik snaps up to regard her.

In him, there is a confusion of feelings that fight to break the surface, most persistent among them fresh fear. Mary might well attack Altaïr—verbally if not physically—at the implied insult offered to her person. Whatever Altaïr’s source of information is, he is correct in assuming that Mary had once been a warrior like himself. Mary had never considered herself a deserter for shedding her armor in the wake of war preparations. Malik doesn’t know how she will react to being named so.

Mary gives no sign of having received the insult personally. Her face is that of a person who’s only recently sacrificed to Daga, her expression stretched lax and soft in the aftermaths of good sex. When she speaks, whatever reproach she is about to offer is not in the tone of her voice, but in the content of her message.

“My duty was to protect my family. My community. Your duty was to protect that which works to overthrow it.”

Altaïr opens his mouth in urgent attempt to object, but in this race, he is second.

“Now tell me, soldier, what did I abandon? I left my trade, to protect my family. You protected your honored trade, and left your family. And you dare call me a deserter now. What do you have? Where is your family you so vehemently protected?”

Talia is tugging at his thumb vigorously, but his body is still, deadened. He faces a blank, resourceless mind, he thinks a lot but little of it stays in his mind, except for the sense of poverty that invades him and will deepen when she takes the infant from him just as warriors have been taken from him, as his husband had been taken from him as soon as he had met him again.

“Was it worth it, soldier? Was your ideal worth leaving a child behind? To labor for years with no money and no protection?”

Mary doesn’t hope for much in terms of impact. She imagines her words as pebbles—they will graze the surface of the lake when flung, they will upset it for a moment of time, and the water will return to its old ways as if nothing’s happened.

She collects herself from the sofa, then steps in front of the warrior expecting the child to be entrusted into her arms. Altaïr lifts the infant from the warmth of his chest, cheated of many things. He feels compelled to look up at Mary as she imparts her next sting of words, but something is keeping his gaze on the carpet, he consoles himself thinking how brave he has been not to venture a look up.

“I am grateful that you cared for my child, soldier. You be grateful I haven’t opened your stomach for grieving my other child.”

Altaïr feels a pressure of unspilled tears.

Mary shifts the weight of her child into one arm and strolls over to her other child in an unhurried pace. The gentle, persuasive pull on his nape Malik accepts unquestioningly, the smack of a kiss on his forehead he accepts in silence, the overly familiar tug on the soft of his earlobe he accepts with fondness.

The door is closed in her wake, the blanket of quiet spread between them like Malik’s laundry. With no wits left, Malik lifts his pail from the floor to put away for tomorrow, and he expects nothing as Altaïr wistfully clears his throat all of a sudden.

“I know that I’ve made many mistakes, both before and after becoming your husband,” Altaïr says from the sofa unsure how Malik will accept it, or if he will accept it at all, “but I intend to rectify them presently.”

Malik mulls over this overdue apology, reflects on its implications.

He considers flaunting his discontent, but there’s no discontent to be flaunted.

 


 

They prepare for bed out of sync, for Malik uses the business of removing the imprint of Mary’s lip paint from his forehead to avoid disrobing in time with Altaïr.

They pray together, to separate gods.

Altaïr prays without sand and Malik without song. Altaïr’s never heard him offer song in worship of Nokem, although he’s sure nobles will do so on occasion. Altaïr prays longer, to substitute for the lack of sand libation for Hiba, but Malik remains until the last of Altaïr’s prayer expires, less for keeping his husband company than for lacking the cheek to go before worship of Hiba is finished.

“Have you put balm on your hands?” Malik breaks the silence after their rise to feet.

“Yes,” Altaïr remembers the strong smell of the creamy substance and the relief it brought, “Thank you.”

“What for?” Malik mutters at last.

“For caring for me.”

A frown begins stamping across Malik’s confused face, creating in the process an even messier confusion, “I’m not caring for you, you’re caring for yourself.”

Malik’s tone is so sincere in its confusion that Altaïr can’t but think him unskilled at accepting gratitude. It’s as if he has removed himself from this chain of care by the mere fact that the salve had been crafted by Leonardo. He’s selfishly or unselfishly excluded himself from the affair as if it’s slipped his mind that he has noticed the state of Altaïr’s hands, that it’s moved him enough to leave him his own salve as first relief, or that he’d cared enough to ask Leonardo for a better one, or that he’s felt concern enough to inquire about it. What is more, Malik seems to renounce gratitude for something he feels he has no part in out of sheer sense of self-sufficiency and self-care that are so quintessentially Malik that he can’t find strength in him to argue against his flawed logic.

Altaïr had abandoned a child and left it to raise itself. In essence, it had been no different from leaving a child with sword in untrained hand to fend for itself. And yet, after years of absence, the culprit that had dumped the weapon to a defenseless child has come seeking to disarm a strong young man, a warrior who’s imposed himself in the cozy nest of another claiming somebody else’s laurels to decorate his own head. Malik had had every right to call him a brute.

“I admire you,” Altaïr stabs out of blue giving their mutual silence a slight shake.

Across him, on the other side of bed, Malik, too, is preparing to lie down.

“What prompts such confession?”

“You stand as Nokem defeating Ga’ash with your bare hands. Without Gdila.”

Malik considers this confession that seems neither over-embroidered nor untrue. Words are stinging him on the lip.

“I didn’t start from nothing,” Malik admits at last, when the passage from heart to mouth is not as arduous and admits words outside, “You gave me shelter and coin. A debt not soon forgotten.”

“There’s no balance between us. Remaining loyal has paid the balance of your debt to me.”

Malik offers no reply, not even a nod. But the silence is unwinding from something that had felt oppressive into floating between them more amiably. He puts out the lamp and wraps himself into the coziness of his clean bed, and Altaïr crawls under the sheets from his side (the one he had unwittingly stolen from Malik since first night) with breeches on, unlike his other nights where he’d slept without them, perhaps foolishly. Probably foolishly.

Altaïr is expecting something. Some grander resolve or warmer acceptance, yet as he follows Malik’s nestling into the quilt and sheets, nothing indicates that Malik will turn around to face him tonight. Malik knows nothing of the horrors Altaïr had faced last night and witnessed today, and Altaïr seeks to spare him this knowledge. He would not speak of it, yet without the intervention of his husband he might well fall prey to nightmares and ill sleep that had plagued him before. He doesn’t want to beg. Not for fear of appearing weak, but out of concern for Malik’s reaction.

Malik knows nothing of the death the other inhabitant of this bed had faced. Behind his back, the stuttered breath is not the sigh of a warrior but that of a man wounded.

“Are you employed?” Do you still work for him?

Malik’s whisper is a spindly, frail thing, but Altaïr’s ears pick it up with a gusto, and he shuffles along the matters, a breath closer to him.

“No.” I don’t work for Al Mualim any longer. “I’ll seek other employment.”

It doesn’t seem like Malik will attempt another break of silence and Altaïr feels compelled to act on his own now, having been stabbed into action through Malik’s own initiative. Malik is wrapped up to his neck into his portion of the quilt, and so Altaïr slightly lifts the outer edge of the imprisoned sheet beneath and crawls along the matters until there is a pang of conserved warmth, and then swerves upwards to tap gently against Malik’s nape.

Malik rolls back his shoulder to glance over it but to regard Altaïr’s face properly rolling onto his back is inevitable.

“Malik... would it trouble you to hold hands again tonight?”

Even with Altaïr’s husky-voiced plea, Malik is almost tempted to give an excuse and restore himself to his previous position, but he is immured by that single needy look that permeates Altaïr’s features. Malik eyes up and down his fallen face that yearns over the hand, and this expression alone promptly confiscates Malik’s reluctance.

Altaïr has a strange way of talking when he’s vulnerable to decisions of others, yet very lucid and expressive.

There is a horrible hot reek of sympathy, so beastly that at first Malik tries to breathe in small shallow drafts to not fill his whole heart with it, to avoid bathing the man with care he is asking for. But holding hands is now a familiar bargain and he accepts it with more ease than he had yesterday night. The man across him doesn’t work for the murderer of his family but he remains loyal as before. Altaïr’s ignorance is limitless and appalling. But around him is not the unspeakably repellent stench of arrogance but the milder scent of humility, and Malik is not as revolted as before.

This time, when he swaps sides and rolls over, he pulls himself across mattress to shift closer in accord with Altaïr’s tug on his offered hand. It’s only a sliver, it’s not much. Yet he lies now on the center of the bed, on the border that had divided them before. He is lying on his side-binds again—a clear hint that his decision to have Leonardo make him nightclothes with knots on the side he usually doesn’t sleep on had been unwise—he will have to wear his old nightclothes again if Altaïr persists in arresting his hands overnight.

The man is inclined to speak again.

“If I could feel but a pale shadow of the affection you feel for your late family, it would lay my heart to rest and my mind to peace...” Altaïr utters in a more benign tone than ever.

Malik waits until the warm rush of Altaïr’s whisper and its aftermaths are gone from his face, then he entrusts his remaining hand into Altaïr’s hold where it’s taken up with the utmost care and drawn up to Altaïr’s lips.

Of Malik’s answer, there is no trace.

He leaves his hands in Altaïr’s guard and soon succumbs to sleep he had lost last night.

Malik is not yet ready, or willing, to open up to him. In hindsight, it’s a product of a blunder Altaïr had made, a piece of rudeness he had allowed himself, a threat of no consent he had chosen to ignore. But Malik’s hands are given without self-hatred and it underscores the importance of this gesture. He may not open up soon, or ever, and Altaïr’s fanciful reverie of a family may well be an illusion fostered so that he can endure longer.

But there is such a damp dizzy warmth that spreads from his arms up, in spite of this or that uncomfortable self-honesty, that consoles him through knowledge that his imagination might never be quite real, and he is grateful for it.

Malik may not open up, but he will keep him.

Better unhappy with him than happy without him.

 

Chapter Text

Hello, guys.

 

I've abandoned writing altogether, but despite this sad fact I thought I might return to add a little note here saying that I can answer any questions related to the plot of this story, if anyone should have them.

Before, I had in mind laying out the entire plot and either posting it here as one chapter or posting it on my blog, but I think just answering any questions that anyone might have is easier, so if anyone is still reading this and wants to know how something ends or how some relationship goes, or any other questions, I can answer them here in the comments to sate your curiosity.

 

Thanks to all who participated in this unfinished story, to those who read, to those who contributed to it, to those who made their own creations based on the story, and I'm truly sorry the story was such a disappointment.

 

EDIT: Whelp, I'm back to writing.

Certain things happened in my private life which were completely unexpected, and even though I overcame them, my genuine desire for writing returned after that, which was a completely unexpected turn. But I'm glad.

Even though I said it already, I want to repeat that I'm grateful for the support people have offered and I thank you all. Welcome back.

 

EDIT 2: (12 Oct 2018) Since I'm editing the story from start (just minor things), I reached this note again and thought about deleting it but decided to leave it here. Its place is here, to remind me of the hardships I had went through while writing this beast. So much has changed. Too much. But I'm back and this time I'll try to finish it. No great inspirations or lofty goals. Just a tired but steady flame of an old fire.

Hello to new readers and old friends...

Chapter Text

 

“You find a place at my side at last.”

Where this jab at Desmond’s chase after her at Al Mualim’s reception would have been more befitting on their first meeting, it stands out as a wizened attempt at jest now as Desmond stands before her, on the same spot.

Indifference sits perfectly straight on Desmond’s face, on what little of it Lucy can glimpse at through the shadows of his hood. She blames its presence on the chill of the breaking dawn that’s nipping her own skin where she has left it exposed.

“Apologies,” the warrior speaks eventually, “My presence was commanded.”

Desmond is no jokes and silence and no sympathy today.

They are two different worlds. Noble and commoner. Commander and follower. Lucy used to see in him a floating man, the kind that is unfortunate to cooperate with. She hadn’t liked Altaïr all that much, nor had she harbored much hope for tying a man like that into an allegiance—he seems too bullheaded to her where Ezio seems a lost cause. Desmond seems easy to manipulate, that had been what she had thought, before she’s got a glance at his full potential. Tying his allegiance to her now is of utmost importance.

“I came following the stench of death,” he says.

At his words—this time more charged with emotion, however subtle—Lucy huffs a hint of a smirk, yet Desmond finds it severely lacking in humor. There is some sense of atonement in the fact that she doesn’t deny her involvement in the massacre of priests, secondary as it may have been.

“Like Zikaron then,” she says glibly.

Desmond wears armor, except for the helmet. The helmet he has replaced with hood as deep as his silence. She can barely catch his face.

Like Zikaron, indeed. The faceless one. The one whose face no one has ever seen, one who arrived on the island following after the stink of death in the wake of two murders. That of a god, and that of humans. He, the god of death, who hides his face in the depths of his hood and follows after mortal humans ever so fascinated by Nokem’s children. Zikaron, who came summoned by Hiba’s death but stayed for the curious creatures that another god created. For humans die and where mortal beings dwell—death is sure to follow.

“Zikaron did come after the stench of murder, but he remained to guide humans. To give prophecies and make ties to other gods.”

“Death delivered you to my side. Is that not a form of prophecy fulfilled?” she asks.

She continues attempt at humor. Desmond knows there are no prophecies other than those which exist already. The god of death once promised that he will only ever deliver three prophecies. First to Nokem, second to Ga’ash, the last one to humanity. There exist no other prophecies but those that have already been revealed. Accordingly, Desmond does not fall for that trap.

“You think yourself Sheker?” He directs her elsewhere.

“It’s a matter of metaphor. Do they not have a kindred bond? She a storyteller and he a deliverer of stories. Was she not the only one to see his face?” Lucy’s patience is restlessly pacing the space between them, she takes a step forward and there is a genuine flourish in her movement and a brave countenance on her face when she grasps at the base of his hood to pull it back.

Had Desmond’s eyes not seen wagons full of massacre, had the reek of blood not remained in his nostrils even now, he might have accepted this sentimental treacle. His cold reception is a sudden thorn in her side. With grim satisfaction he watches as she retreats, her expectations dimmed. He doesn’t pull his hood up.

“I have nothing of worth for your cause,” he says.

“I seek only words.”

His hood is off but Lucy wishes, with a sense of futility, that he could abandon the void on his face in the same way he’s abandoned the lonely stuffiness of his hood. He doesn’t, he chooses through gross liberty to show that he does not care, even if this decision sticks in his throat a little.

“Before, I’d asked you to keep your eyes and ears open for me. Now I require you to not reveal what you've seen," Lucy tells him.

“You ask me to speak with false tongue.”

“It will be revealed only if your lips part and your tongue starts wagging. I ask that you keep your tongue obedient.”

Desmond dots his face expression with some contempt. She seeks to control him yet she is the one being controlled. She stands before him with a leash for him at the ready, yet she fails to recognize the leash tugging at her own neck.

“Even if I give such promise, my comrades and I don’t speak with the same voice—“

“If they protest then cut out their tongue.”

Desmond is self-possessed enough to laugh his response little above a whisper instead of bursting with laughter.

Lucy quells him with one look, “You think I’m joking?”

She shifts on her spot, not making to move actually, but with just a glance beyond Desmond’s shoulder, as though half suggesting the idea of departure. There is no health in her commands and he doesn’t intend to follow them, but he settles down for the mere fact that she’s intended to say more and should he prompt her to leave now he may be receiving another order to report before long.

He pulls his hood up and pelts her with indifference, but he doesn’t budge from his spot.

“Your armor and weapons,” Lucy says pointing spiritlessly at the sword strapped to his side, “You are to turn it in without delay. Today, if you are able.”

To turn in their armor. To surrender the sword they have carried for years. To abandon their profession as if it’s no different than changing your clothes.

“And the rest of warriors that are unaware of your schemes?”

“They will soon follow the example.”

Rejection and hurt pad slowly onto Desmond’s face and sit there as a ragged, dwarfish couple who ply themselves with subtlety—not subtly enough, though, to conceal it from this woman’s prying eyes. She sees it. He is half-drunk with anger and half-starved for comfort. He hopes she won’t stab him again and though it’s not her intention, she does stab him anyway.

“I’m not ungrateful,” she says winding her arm behind her back to unstrap what is a leather pouch, “I offer reward where well-deserved.”

By well-deserved she no doubt implies Desmond’s giving her leeway to issue an order she previously had no excuse to issue, to order the massacred priests buried instead of thrown to sea. Such a rich harvest of false deductions she had made. Desmond had done what he had to for the sake of his community, not to keep her good conscience intact. Still, he says nothing as she blindly unstraps another pouch to hold it up before him as offering.

The additional pouch she’s produced is large, the first one considerably smaller in comparison. Both rattle with what is unquestionably a bagful of coin.

“I relieve you of my presence, but I wish to reward you for what you’ve done. Take whichever of these you think appropriate. Take both, if you so wish.”

She gives a sharp tug for emphasis’ sake and there is a chink of coins as the rewards dangle before him. Lucy hasn’t had the intention of humiliating him in mind. So in fairness, he ought to have been grateful—still, he is not. She wants to present herself in a kind light, but she has done it in the most offensive manner, hoping to extort Desmond’s gratitude through coin and buy his allegiance.

The warrior reconnoiters her face, her sleek blond hair, until he is stuffed to the eyes with her pale and fresh cheeks, her fragile and eager excitement, her lips—red and wet, like cherries.

One coin pouch is smaller than the other, to give him freedom of choice. He revels in the pedantry of this arrangement and he revels in the reward he will take. To Lucy’s astonishment, he seizes her by the hand that holds the heavier pouch, by the wrist, he sweeps it off his path to raid her temporary confusion and bends to sack a kiss.

She doesn’t flinch.

His lips are warm, the rest of him is cold. He pulls back just as he’s starting to settle into the kiss and the look that follows his retreat is singularly unreal, as if she expects more of what she hasn’t expected. Without delving into the essence of what he’s just done (it’s so tricky and obscure, so utterly useless for practical purposes) she asks:

“Of all rewards, you take this?”

On the horizon to Desmond’s left, the sun keeps swelling only to be concealed by a gust of clouds.

“With no due respect, what I took is worth least. For what little I did, I didn’t deserve more than that.”

There’s a moment of silence, then rage half-staggers half-dances up onto her face, and the sense of justice that he has offended her with his words just like she has offended him with her offer gives him satisfaction but fills a hollow inside him with cold where it should have been warmed by the kiss. Anger pinches her face before she pins a sharp slap to his cheek unfailingly, with a superiority in the procedure that is acquired either through fury or through experience. The smack of her slap reaches him far before the clatter of coins that spill from the pouch she’s released from grasp in order to cuff him.

The cheek that stings sharply sobers him up and he turns his face to look at what he’s left in the wake of his insult. Lucy is not a very good actor when she gives way to emotion. Neither is he. He inspects her as blandly as before, he regards her surly face, and he can’t move himself to anger.

For before him is a woman that stands in the shadow of her own whip.

 


 

Malik wakes to the tugging at his hand and finds Altaïr frantically looking for what’s never evaded his touch to begin with.

That Altaïr’s tugged at his hand has not been a conscious action, but rather the result of a sentiment quite like that from yesterday morning when Malik had been awake, one that Malik is doubtful Altaïr has grasped the inner meaning of, one that Malik took especial pride in puzzling out since it gives him the pleasure of getting something for nothing. Malik is not the one who requires a hand to hold, yet Altaïr can’t seem to part from the luxury of this comfort anymore.

Malik finds his focus first, only to have his gaze collide with Altaïr’s naked torso which begins rather impressively with that devastating cut in muscles on his lower abdomen that Malik covertly envies, ladders of ribs overrun by muscle, and chiseled chest, but ends, somewhat disappointingly, with an infantile panic on the comely face of a mature man.

Malik ignores Altaïr’s tight clasp on his hand by dint of amusement in finding his husband with such a frail-looking expression over something as simple as holding hands, but once assured that Malik’s hand has not slipped from his grasp overnight and that the hand won’t be pulled from his grasp, Altaïr draws it up to his mouth with an innocent-eyed look to lay a kiss across his knuckles.

His lips are warm as before, only his face is home to more stubble now.

He hasn’t thrashed about in sleep tonight, or Malik had been too out of it to even notice.

Malik charitably gives him a moment longer to part with his hand and only then does he roll over facing away, to examine the weather through his secret corner. Where he has hoped to find a sun-dazzled window and Hiba’s eye piercing the blue morning mist like yesterday, he finds the arch of the awning above with suspended raindrops running along its curves.

In the distance, the summit of Hiba’s hill is veiled in impenetrable fog.

Mountaintops are cuddling with clouds.

Malik rises from bed puzzled by the wild temperature swings and he blames it on Sheker. Her winds must have been confused by love to give them such warm weather this deep into the cold season before they turned chilly again. Behind, Altaïr is rising from bed as well. Malik orders rather than asks him to make the bed (which Altaïr accepts without a hint of a whine) and returns with supplies to redress the injury on Altaïr’s palm—a drab piece of work conducted in silence and without much pomp.

 


 

“We may be having the festival tonight,” Malik speculates as he dots the fish with butter.

Altaïr looks up from the loaf of bread he’s been slathering with peach jam to find Malik engrossed in his own breakfast. What surprises him is not the words themselves but the manner in which Malik speaks them. It’s as if this ordinary event of eating together has to Malik ceased to be a burden endured and grown into a shared meal under the spell of some cozy familial muteness, peppered with tidbits of even more ordinary conversation. Commotion is no beloved of Altaïr (though he’s been told that he is a beloved of commotion) and the ceasefire between them soaks him in a pleasant silence. He says nothing, and to his utmost surprise, this is not what Malik wants.

“Has the custom slipped your mind or need I remind you?”

Both answers would put Altaïr on a pedestal of ignorance. Altaïr cares for making his husband happy, but he’s unwilling to participate in what is a jest at his own expense.

“I know what Sheker’s festival is. We performed it abroad,” the warrior reveals and the gloom in his voice is quite evident. Malik has to retrieve this stab, unsure whether he’s left a gash or not. Malik’s annoyance with him is irrational but very real, his attitude almost seems to depend on what Nokem whispers into his ear. His resentment still has teeth despite the occasional good moment.

Malik perhaps might wickedly assail him with more little stabs and dash off his own opinions in the coarsest fashion, but instead the noble turns to his own meal and leaves it at that, as if acquainted with the fact that to Altaïr the war is an old wound that lingers still. Years of matrimony and they know nothing of their marriage or each other. Altaïr has been married now for seven years and is much too afraid or too proud to speak of the past, and Malik has been married for four years and feels too incompetent to listen to what he has to say of the war.

Malik doesn’t linger on this exchange and discreetly goes on with his breakfast. This alone does away with any ill-feeling that might have crept into their conversation. It could have ended worse.

Altaïr sees the crown of Malik’s glossy dark head and the downcast face of the young husband sitting opposite him. It appears to him that he never departs from a certain fixed tone when describing his husband in his head (he has never departed from it, even when imagination served as substitute for the real thing), however disappointed or angry or off the course he had wanted to travel. He thinks back to Malik’s questions to avoid thinking of him.

Altaïr is overly familiar with the festival for Sheker and its dragon puppets.

Altaïr had on his way to Al Mualim’s quarters seen the hay carts lined along the cattle-forum on Sheker’s market, assembled as kindling for the great pyre. Sheker’s festival is one of the few public rites they had been allowed to perform abroad and Altaïr had personally participated in the making of all seven dragon puppets. The essence of this ritual endures despite changeable backdrops, since it relies solely on the weather and season shifts.

Once summer swaps place with winter and days begin to turn colder, the priests mark the first auspicious cold day as the day of the festival, though the preparations thereof begin even before the first chill arrives to the city. Other than music and storytelling and dance as unalienable parts of the festival, at dusk a gargantuan pyre is ignited at the cattle-market during this vast social gathering.

The pyre has a singular purpose. It serves as place of destruction-and-rebirth.

It is believed that all storms on land (as opposed to all storms on sea which are the bidding of Daga) are caused by Sheker and therefore puppets crafted in her likeness are burned so that the cold season passes swiftly. People throw dragon puppets into the pyre to destroy them. There are as many puppets as there are communities on the island; every community crafts one dragon puppet for this event and each member of a community participates in the making of it.

As for the shape of the puppet, its dragon likeness stems from Sheker herself, for she used to be a scarlet dragon while her loyalty was yet tied to Ga’ash, while her winds were yet cold and harsh. To disentangle herself from her past poor allegiances, Sheker changed the form of her body turning it from dragon into bird. And through burning the dragon puppets, humans burn her bad side and invoke her good side to give them a clement weather during the cold season.

They have been waiting for the first cold day just as warriors used to wait for the first cold day of the season to craft a puppet per warrior unit and start the pyre, though to them it had felt more like an invocation of home rather than the invocation of good weather.

They wait because the festival tends to take place on a different day every year, for it makes little sense to beseech for a merciful winter without harsh and frozen winds on a warm day—humans accommodate to nature and not the other way around.

Altaïr waits again, but not quite as before. In the war, he used to belong to something. Here, he isn’t even sure if he will be allowed to participate in crafting the Dragon. Malik could contribute for the both of them, but Malik is not even his family. The thought of having a family has made him less patriotic. He had been so pleased to be getting home, after being strapped for affection for years in a foreign land, that returning here had seemed a sort of paradise. Altaïr believes that not his own behavior but his very presence has put him into a new world, one he hadn’t expected to find upon return. And despite the flaws, the boy across him is not what he would change, given chance.

A brief amount of time elapses before Malik is finished with his breakfast. He doesn’t leave the table. Altaïr likes to think that he has stayed to keep him company.

The silence in the room is punctuated rather than broken by the sounds of Altaïr’s eating and the brush of Malik’s little finger while it collects bread-pellets into an orderly knoll beside his plate. Though he’d intended to catalog the list of today’s work according to priority, Malik is already in an advanced stage of analyzing the man across instead.

Altaïr has a healthy appetite. He eats twice as much.

“Will you search for work tomorrow?”

Altaïr parts his gaze from what is his fourth loaf of peach jam to glance up at him, ”I will look for it.”

He doesn’t specify when.

“I can’t feed us both and keep us warm at the same time with my own jobs,” Malik says, warns, crushing the mound of crumbs he has assembled with the side of his thumb.

Altaïr looks up anew but doesn’t look remotely concerned by this, not even as Malik goes on:

“If we eat we’ll be cold. If we’re warm, we’ll starve.”

“No one will starve,” Altaïr declares, anger patches his brows together at this ludicrous notion, “As long as I breathe, you will not starve.”

Altaïr expects a favorable reaction even if he hasn’t safely presumed he will provoke one. Malik’s expression is blank, though there’s nothing to conceal. The boy across had believed him dead for three years and had learned to live without him even prior to that. There is something heart-rending in the solemn expression of his young face and how easily this boy sidesteps him and his protectiveness. Altaïr wishes his husband would give him at least a faint smile in lieu of solemn blankness but even that is too much to hope for, and he wouldn’t even dare to transmit his request.

“I will look for work tomorrow,” Altaïr assures and the next bite he takes is bitter and the peach is tasteless, “Today I’d rather be part of community, if you’ll lend instruction.”

“What do you want to know?” Malik responds with the smugness of person with a torch leading a frightened figure up a rickety unlighted staircase.

“How do I stop them from hating me? How do I make myself more likeable?”

“There’s always work to be done in the community,” Malik tells him without those white and wholesome formalities, “You can start by sweeping the upper and lower ring, and then the courtyard. You don’t have to water the plants—the children do that. If you want to acquaint yourself with everyone individually, you best start with collecting compost. The garden showers need scrubbing as well. Cleaning paraphernalia is in the boil-room. Oh, and you can stoke the fire and chop some wood for the boil-room while you’re at it—“

“Alright. That’s enough for a start,” the warrior quips while piling the chores on top of one another. He nudges his unfinished plate ahead and, seeing this, Malik takes the hint to clear the table.

“If you leave good enough an impression, you might as well be allowed to participate in crafting the Dragon,” Malik tells him in a dimmed voice. He has no pretense of being happy for him or of making Altaïr happy with this outcome, nor has he the slightest misgivings as to what he himself might think of this should the community accept it. It is as simple as naturally accepting the unwritten law of community, and if others accept him as part of community, so will Malik.

 


 

Altaïr is making to leave his home with broom in hand when Malik accosts him barefoot, with a sandal in each hand and his attention scattered everywhere.

“We are having Sheker’s festival today, one of the elderly women at the well told me,” he tells Altaïr, pointing at his warrior boots for emphasis. Then he peeks into the home just enough to leave his sandals inside and drifts off into the courtyard unfazed by the warrior’s inquisitive look.

Altaïr’s dilemma is not in why he should shed his boots, it’s in what he is doing (and whether he’s been doing it consciously or unintentionally) to generate in his husband such disinterest towards himself. Gravely, silently, the warrior consults his own tattered understanding of Malik and lastly ends all ill-starred musings with a sigh before divesting himself of his boots to leave them beside Malik’s discarded sandals.

On the day of Sheker’s festival, it is their duty to shed their footwear and walk barefoot.

When Altaïr had been but a child enjoying the pleasant life at Hiba’s orphanage, he’d believed that the reason everyone walks barefoot until the great pyre is lit is because they put their faith in Sheker to bring warm winds in winter. That walking barefoot, as one would do in the summer, is a symbol of trust, to further entice the goddess into giving them a mild winter. As a growing youth, Altaïr had learned that truth is cancelled and replaced by many truths to replace a conclusive state of mind. As a grown man, Altaïr has found another little truth behind walking barefoot. By shedding the comfort of shoes on the first cold day from daylight to sunset (at which time the pyre is prepared) one sacrifices to Sheker through suffering the cold ground as atonement one obtains by burning the Dragon.

People around are in jolly tumult and Altaïr knows they will all participate in the making of their community’s Dragon (all except one man), and though the adults have a fond heart for crafting the puppet it pales in comparison to that of children. Yet however strong the children’s adoration for puppet making is, Altaïr doubts they fully understand why the adults sneak items into the belly of the Dragon or why they tie scrolls or letters or other private bits and pieces to the puppet’s tail. Altaïr hadn’t know as a child, but he wonders whether Malik had (because Malik had ceased being a child the moment his family had died) that adults attach inside and onto the puppet parts of themselves—those that remind them of something they want to forget, or something they’ve done bad over the course of the past year. And when the puppet is burned in the fire, the bad sides one has tied to it are burned along those of the goddess. Altaïr wonders if Malik had ever destroyed any bad sides of his own past self in the pyre. Altaïr had burned many. It seems, though, he hasn’t burned enough of himself to make Malik admit him into their marriage.

Today, Altaïr is bereft of opportunity to burn a part of himself that is unwanted, but he leaves his boots at home and sacrifices in Sheker’s honor nevertheless.

He is wont of taking part in this custom, he wants to participate, but seeing that the public feeling is against him, the warrior takes a broom into his hands and begins to sweep.

 


 

By the time Altaïr has swept up what little dust there had been on the upper ring, his feet have accustomed to the chilly stone below, and the news about Sheker’s festival has been noised all over the hill.

Sans any bias or favoritism, Altaïr has cleared up the upper ring first not because his own home is situated on this floor, but because sweeping the place from upside-down appears to him the most logical course of action. He has been neither interrupted nor corrected by anyone and he’s taken his approval in whatever form it had come. Both rings consist of two staircases each, bisected by them so that the staircases look parallel at each other, across the courtyard. The differences in their staircases are twofold and they concern their shape and position. Whereas the twin staircases that connect the lower and upper floor are tunnel-staircases, the two leading from the lower ring into the courtyard are regular staircases, flanked by the statues of Nokem and Gdila at the exit where they melt into the cobblestones of the court. Whereas the tunnel-staircases have a south-north placement, the regular ones are placed along the east-west line, thus in a way dividing the space into four quarters.

Altaïr spends long enough raking up his brain in the solitary recess of his own mind to completely fail to notice two girls who have been sweeping the floor below him, and the realization that they had seen him work and continued to do their own share of work on the ring below nonpluses him.

He shoves himself down a tunnel-staircase he is yet to sweep to ask that they let him finish the chore on his own, which they meaningfully accept. With near two quarters swept clean, Altaïr’s work on the lower ring has been cut in half. He is unsure whether the people he encounters on the floors think of him as Malik’s husband or a novice trying to prove himself (or both), but he continues from where the girls had left off, this time paying closer attention to his surroundings. And in doing so, he discovers for the first time since embarking on this task that another newcomer is in their community, that newcomer being Ezio who seems to be more accepted already than Altaïr himself.

Down in the courtyard, there are several goings on.

On the garden plot, on a spot farthest from the tree, Ezio is digging up a pond. Or rather, he is already edging the pond while a couple of youths are filling the crevices with a layer of sand. The pond hole seems deep enough that it won’t freeze solid over the winter, but Altaïr doubts it will have even a smattering of fish. A couple of artfully arranged stones, if at all. It must be destined for other purposes. It’s not the pond that gives Altaïr trouble. It’s not Ezio’s familiarity with more people of his community that festers—Ezio always did possess an unrivaled and inexhaustible charm. That pond down there has taken up a considerable space on the garden plot, and enterprise of such scale requires consent from all other members of community.

Malik must have consented in his stead, which is not so much an established practice as the fact that he has no say in this. His consent is not necessary. No matter how many honors he had received from Al Mualim or how much praise had been bestowed upon him by commanders, on this battlefield—he is a nobody.

The warrior takes a breath which dissolves into an unbecoming sigh. A few more people pass him while he stands there, homes are close-pressed on each ring and it seems less apartments are empty than when he had bought his home, but he meticulously continues his sweeping during the back-and-forth rush between homes and courtyard which lasts short enough to not disturb his work.

He hears soft footfalls and thinks nothing of it, and in the process of turning around he almost collides with the whistling figure behind his back. Altaïr looks jaded, bevvy, and that’s how she finds him as they run into each other. He links eyes with her and finds her looking.

“Greetings,” says Anne, and a tiny, familiar fist breaks out from the swathe in her arms as if to join her salutation. Altaïr nods mutely but offers nothing much more valuable besides that. Anne is a sight for sore eyes—a young woman in pearly tunic with purple facings and generous cleavage and dazzling smiles, all of which blend into a curious motherly bounce with a swaddle-full of Talia as the cherry on top—but Altaïr’s gaze unquestioningly drops to the swaddle. The familiar chubby face seeks him out and Altaïr wonders how a tiny being can be so valuable as to expel a portion of bitterness from the left side of his chest and allow warmth to ease in instead.

He would like to touch her, but the cleanliness of his hands is a thing questionable and he refrains from initiating more than a curious peek into the swaddle, a move upon which Anne closes the gap between them with an impish grin on lips and cheek that Altaïr is serenely unaware of, and a subtle nudge towards him.

“She has taken you for her pet,” Anne says and, just as Altaïr leans in to exploit this opportunity and pet the back of his knuckle against a chubby cheek, Talia grasps him by a finger or two (or finger and a half) as if to use her mother’s words as a kind of springboard for leaping into this awaited chance. Her clutch is strong like yesterday but the gesture in itself is quite innocent and endearing, and trying to erase any trace of his subtle smile before a mother would be an attempt futilely spent. So he smiles and Talia keeps his fingers captive, the ones that she has managed to trap in her steady grip.

“I received word from Mary. You have my thanks for taking care of my child,” Anne tells him, and it doesn’t matter that they’re speaking in whispers, it’s doesn’t matter that he nearly feels the warmth of her breast on the back of his hand while he pets Talia, it doesn’t matter that they’re standing this close on a wide hallway, for Altaïr is too absorbed by the bundle in her arm and the hint of a babyish coo, and hers is the voice of a mother.

“At times I think I’m not fit to be a mother yet, but Mary...” she stops at the onset of what seems to be a topic now worn to a thread, and it’s not his inability to help that paints and repaints Altaïr’s face (she hadn’t come expecting answers to questions she doesn’t know how to ask), it’s the honesty with which he has just been approached by another member of the community that’s fresh and bright and stunning. Altaïr had known Anne’s face before she’d even entered into matrimony with Mary. She’d been one of the first faces he’d seen when he’d purchased his home, and there’s some poetic justice in the fact that she’d been the first person he’d seen in his community seven years after—this time as a young mother breastfeeding a child he’s grown fond of already.

“Listen,” she seizes him by the bicep and they share a look, “You’ve swept both rings already and the courtyard is a hopeless case after rain, especially with so many people milling about. If you truly want them to notice you, I suggest turning to collecting compost. That is how you’ll get to everyone individually.”

Anne is younger than he is, though not by much. He pretends to think and it’s a shamming act. He’s already all set to follow the advice of a younger woman with a remarkable resolve to make him feel more welcome. Perhaps she too knows the role of an outsider, though this is blind presumption at best.

Between them, Talia is still picking at Altaïr’s idle fingers.

“She will shriek and squall even if there’s no real reason,” Anne explains the big mysteries of a small character as she works on unplucking her bitty fingers from Altaïr’s hand, “but she finds comfort in strangest toys. You’re the only other person besides Malik and Claudia that she’s fond of.”

Having removed even the tiniest finger from Altaïr’s, Anne draws the swaddle closer to her chest before arresting his bicep again into a hold and her grip is strong and innocent, compassionate. When she leaves, Altaïr knows their exchange hasn’t been mere trifle. He skirts the courtyard going straight for his home to deposit the broom, then he hurries to the compost barrel down in the courtyard to get the bucket attached to it. It’s empty and clean without a foul smell—no one has collected waste yet and his chance is ripe.

What annoys Altaïr invariably (other than the fetid odor of a combined pulp of leftovers) is that he has to circle the entire ring at least three times in order to cover every home, owning mostly to the fact that people come and go to participate in crafting of the Dragon or generally just to spend time in the courtyard.

As a part of this repetitive arrangement, he receives severance in form of getting to know every member of his community by name and face. That is reward enough. Though the play has been repetitive, the characters that perform it have been as colorful as the scraps they’ve given him for collecting. His inquiry about decaying compost might have been repetitive but his journey during this overall hubbub has brought him no ordinary experiences, most notable among them: recognizing the old neighbor who had sold him goat milk and cornbread for Malik seven years ago (a man who is now the grandfather of two), being invited to tea thrice by a jolly collection of elderly women, being entrusted with an entire saga of Ezio’s and Leonardo’s pond and its future uses (a tale recounted by Salai), and being unsubtly groped by a girl who is beyond any doubt younger than Malik, then by her mother.

On the whole, for a task comprised entirely of collecting bucketfuls of waste to fill a compost barrel, this has turned out to be a moderately smelly adventure of meeting a medley of people in a limited space. Collecting compost itself consists primarily of recycling all organic waste that can’t be spent anywhere else for those who need it, namely the grain fields and orchards situated in the fertile gap between Hiba’s hill and the volcano. Collecting this recycling material consists of field workers picking up all compost barrels from each community to turn what is waste for one into what is fertilizer for the other, then returning the compost barrels to their respective communities.

Between visiting the first apartment and emptying the last compost bucket to seal the barrel again, an unknown expansion of time has gone asprawl. Altaïr hurries to tackle his next chore in the boil-room, to thereafter find an excuse to join the crowd in the courtyard, even if this ‘joining’ amounts to pestering Malik and watching others.

Downstairs on the first ring, there is the boil-room common to all community members, with free firing and a supply of wood, brooms, buckets, even amphoras for olive oil. In the very heart of the room is a great clinker fire which is kept burning day and night the year through. It serves as kindling when the fire in one’s home wears out in winter, and in summer it serves to warm the water for showers in the courtyard, since the aqueduct branch supplying their shower runs directly through the boiling-room.

The work of tending the fire, sweeping the community from second ring downward, and cleaning the showers is done by the members in random rotation.

When he crosses the threshold, Altaïr is half-mind to leave the massive iron door agape but he is momentarily aware that someone had wanted it closed for a purpose. The boil-room is a lower-ceiled cellar, very hot and drowsy with fire fumes, and lighted only by the fire. If one is in need of a quick dry and doesn’t mind the smell of burned wood on fabrics, the boil-room is the perfect place to spread one’s stuff. Altaïr looks about and finds a few pieces of washing hung on a designated string, laid out on varying distances from the fire, depending on how quick the people need their clothes dry.

The warrior is unaware of company until the black velvety shadows the fire casts into corners suddenly shift. On the other side of the room, Mary is sitting in the fierce glare of the fire. There are two other stools, a little further behind her back, and in the corner to her right is a huge pile of firewood.

The guard sits in a harmless silence and the warrior doesn’t ignite conversation either. The stern look on Mary’s face warns him to steer clear of her.

When he passes round the fire he finds her guarding over two pieces of washing that look like nappies and waiting for the clothes to dry. Altaïr lets her dry Talia’s clothing and turns to the firewood. He is unsure how much firewood they usually expect to be there but what is stacked here in an orderly pile seems more than enough and he wonders whether Malik has been unaware of this, whether he has led him astray for a purpose, whether he should take up the ax and start cutting up one of the bulky log pieces pushed against the wall.

“There’s enough,” tells a voice from behind. By the judging, Mary has been the one to chop it up before he even had the chance. With rich intention and poor results, Altaïr gathers up a handful of firewood logs to replenish the fire with, yet as he turns to settle before the fire, he finds it in no need of new wood. The fire is regularly fed by the members and finding it already well-fixed by Mary is small surprise. He adds another log for a show, and to feel less useless.

As Altaïr sits down on the other stool he feels something stir near his feet and, looking down, he sees a glimmering black of a shifting fur; a cat. It appears to be an adult animal engaged in trying to capture the last morsel stuck quite inconveniently in her irregularly–shaped food vessel. Altaïr scoops the wet morsel out and it’s taken up with eagerness, until the last trace of it is licked up from the tip of his finger. He twists his wrist to smooth his hand down the cat’s back but she cunningly evades his touch, and though she remains within his arm’s reach, the animal rejects his simple petting. He sighs noiselessly, wallowing in a morass of this parody of acceptance. The only member of the community that seems to have accepted him entirely is the daughter of the woman frowning at him from the side.

“Anne sends her greetings,” says the guard at last, looking at the warrior squarely. Altaïr nods and gives a shifty smile and Mary looks away.

There’s space enough for Altaïr to cram in the smallest of the logs he’s brought along onto the already compact fuel load, the rest he transfers from his lap onto the floor beside the furnace. He takes up the fire iron to poke around and the glare of the fire envelops him painlessly. The warmth, though removed from human one, takes on a strange beauty and the idea of time, which melts down for a moment, then seems to curl up and fall asleep.

Mary doesn’t move even after a long while and that is what stirs him from the reverie.

He chances a glance and the cat is coiled into a breathing ball between them, and she’s still there, waiting for the nappies to dry. A dutiful woman protecting her city at night and her community at day and her family at all time. He has all she had left behind and she has all Altaïr wants to have.

This thought runs parallel with his thoughts of community, until it branches off and nuzzles up to his own marriage and the thought of Malik fits itself inside his skull plunging him suddenly from cave to cove, and he leaves the boil-room to investigate.

On his way out of the boil-room, he collects what he will need for scrubbing the shower floor and cleaning the shower heads, though it’s clear from the first glance at the shower ring that he will have to wait until it’s vacant.

Altaïr loafs there on the lower ring for a moment of time with a hand on the stone railing and cleaning necessities in the other one. There is some irony in that he has made himself useful at last when they will not even properly notice him. It’s interesting to watch the community and sad to know he isn’t part of it.

Ezio doesn’t pretend to visit Altaïr anymore. He is coming to Leonardo now.

They loiter at the pond-in-making, Leonardo braiding Ezio’s ponytail with a collection of small plaits (a scene which strangely reminds him of Ya’ar braiding Daga's long hair)  and Ezio sitting at the edge of the pond up to his knees in water, and the children torn between filling the pond with bucketfuls of water and decorating the Dragon.

Some children are eating from a plate of warm honey buns, there are knots of people at all the corners. They are singing to the tune of two children playing the cithara.

The air is less feverish with blood and more feverish with life. It’s all so new.

He wonders if Ezio is as happy as he looks. He wonders how he will fit into the noisy life in the hub of a community with laughter-not-steel clattering through the courtyard, where people are better-dressed and the faces comelier and milder and more alike in cheerfulness, without that fierce individuality of suffering and malice of war. There is less blood, less dirt, and less quarreling, and more cheerful tranquility.

A gust of wind sends the clouds wheeling across the sky leaving a few sunny spots behind. They’re rare but dotting the sky without disturbing its overall bleakness.

Altaïr sighs during his climb down the staircase and disappears between two plump columns to descend into the shower ring. There are two other people in the showers, two youths—a boy and a girl with beautifully smooth arms and legs—who seem to be passionate depilators. Nestled on a shared towel on the middle stair between ground level above and shower floor below, they sit gabbing away as they seek out every little hair to pluck out with their tweezers. Altaïr leaves them sans disturbance or rush and deposits his cleaning supplies on the center of the shower ring, a little off the drain in the center. The tiles are cold beneath his feet, scarcely warmed by the few and infrequent sunny spots that peek through the gaps in clouds.

He could start with the shower heads before the youths are ready to leave, but he prefers to do his work in one go so he waits, watching through the gap of circling columns while the Dragon takes shape. The puppet consists of a wooden framework, crafted by adults, and a red airy cloth with beautifully-rendered scarlet scales fitted over it. It’s as big as the massive table it’s propped on. Its belly is unstitched and open for people to put their items inside, those that are of more private nature such as letters and scrolls and drawings, its spine is lined with a cord of fur where people are binding pieces of themselves that they wish to burn, and tying colorful decoration, and in the case of a young woman sitting at the end of its tail—stitching a binding of her own freshly-cut hair into the fur. Altaïr wonders what had made her cut it off—has a man or woman she no longer loves adored her hair? Have they loved to pet the hair she no longer wants? The Dragon comes with as many stories as there are items attached to it.

Altaïr would like to privy into the one Malik is carving into the puppet as he paints twined lines of calligraphy along its sides. Is his husband decorating the puppet with ink or leaving his own story etched into the scales that will be burned tonight, and if the latter is the case—is he involved in it? He watches Malik unwittingly, until his paintbrush exhausts the last drop of ink, until he leaves the patterns to dry and goes to the water-well to wash his hands.

“Malik!” The call marches forth from his throat before he makes the effort to imagine what he will say. Malik has been swilling the water around in the bucket he’s washed his ink-stained hands in, and then he turns his head towards the showers to find Altaïr a slave to confusion, standing between two columns.

“Bring me oil and a sharp blade, I’d see this stubble removed from my face,” Altaïr says at last, forgetting that to perceive Malik through the prism of his own expectation is useless, that Malik won’t ever be obedient when ordered, unless obedience is born of a free will.

“Bring it yourself,” Malik throws back at him with a mouthful of frown, and then he resumes his own task.

Altaïr opens his mouth to retort with mirrored pleasantry or apology when a hand clasps around his shoulder and his gaze swerves to the side to find—Desmond.

Desmond is at his readable stage. He looks as sullen as Altaïr feels. He must have parted on bad terms with whoever he’s seen last. His grip unwinds and his loosely-curled hand passes down Altaïr’s arm until it comes to rest naturally in the crook of his elbow, and it seems to Altaïr that Desmond himself is seeking comfort through this touch. Altaïr bends his elbow further to offer better purchase to Desmond’s hold, he splays his hand atop to extend the offer to either silence or words, whichever Desmond needs first.

“I’ve received an order,” he tells Altaïr in a hushed tone, and the warrior expects bad tidings. Altaïr pulls him further into the gap between the columns to nudge him to speech, and Desmond breaks the news.

“We’ve received order to turn in our weapons and armor. I’ve come to collect yours.”

“We need to part with our armor...?” Altaïr mouths at last and in these few moments he is already in mourning for an intimate part of himself. Desmond nods wordlessly and there is no doubt. Altaïr stares, a foul expression bubbling up onto his face, as though the man’s bowels are being churned up within him. That the warriors are disbanded is a great dark wound still gaping wide, but that their armors are to be taken is shredding the little tissue that has been left intact in crevices hidden from sight.

“I would speak but I’ve an itch in my throat,” he whispers with an imitation of calmness that’s feeble at best. Something in him is decaying.

“That would be the cock they just forced out of your mouth,” Desmond says with a self-depreciating smile that is too incompatible with actual smiles to be compared to one in the first place. Desmond’s language is crude as always but his words ring true. When Altaïr’s silence seems to be on the point of being exploited, Desmond pulls him along, and they start upstairs.

They don’t sit for long in Altaïr’s home, but most of the time they do, they frankly idle.

Desmond sits hunched on the low sofa, nursing a drink and giving Altaïr time to cope with the unexpected hit. On the low table that’s hugged by the three wings of the sofa, his armor is spread out, except for the boots—they are where he had left them earlier. He sits on the carpet, with bent knees and thighs resting on calves, unwilling to leave imprints of his possibly dusty feet on the carpet. Warfare has been their career, now cut short, the armor has been their relic, their mark of belonging to something. A brotherhood, a sisterhood, a creed. It’s been their community when they had none, and the armor its symbol. It’s convenient that Ezio is here as well today, Altaïr can’t imagine Desmond able to travel another distance to relay the same news.

Altaïr touches his armor for the last time. He looks it up and down, and back and forth between armor pieces, he knows them all by heart without looking; the number of feathers on his warrior skirt—five scratched beyond repair during battle, two smudged with uncleanable coal stains—his sash, torn and mended together at a place he’s able to hide and one he’s not, his leather belt, gashed at the side where the rest of the gash runs up his ribs as an old scar, his spaulron and helmet with bumps he’d measured through touch countless times, his tail whose strands he had attempted to count individually and ended each attempt with slumber, his sword, beautiful and bloody. All these parts of himself he is ordered to give up.

Desmond waits. Altaïr browses the details of each item unceasingly, with nostalgic excursions into the past, until it’s time to put each away into the burlap sack. His sash he rolls up into a tight bundle and winds his belt around it. His sword he leaves in the scabbard. The skirt he packs into the sack before the spauldron, and before he adds the helmet and boots to it, he takes the sack up, and Desmond follows.

They stand at the door, the sack loose with weight between them, and helmet in Altaïr’s hands. He stares at its beak and it stares right back at him, its shine seems dim and gloomy. He is unaware of how much time has passed when Desmond finally crouches to spread the sack open as way of soliciting Altaïr into depositing the helmet inside. Altaïr is unable to part with it. Not until someone takes it from his hands. And when Desmond does and their fingers touch as he takes the helmet from the back, Altaïr is still unable to allow him to pull it from his grip.

Desmond handles Altaïr’s expression with the utmost care. He doesn’t speak. Attempting speech would be a haphazard jumble of worthless words. He removes his hands from the helmet and allows Altaïr to draw it further against his chest. Desmond doesn’t object. He must have retained a part of armor as well.

“What did you keep?”

Desmond points at his ordinary leather belt mutely. A familiar scarlet peeks from it.

The sash. What a curious choice.

“The boots?” Desmond asks. Lenient as he is, he can cover the lack of one item, and no more than that. Altaïr has no intention of preserving his boots in like manner, but he refuses to let others have them in their current dusty state.

“They require a scrub. I’ll add them to your load later, tonight at worst,” Altaïr explains, smoothing his hand down his helmet tail. There, at the ivory tip, he picks up the first strand that allows itself into his hold, and he straightens this single thread out, he knows Desmond is watching. He crawls down to the origin of the thread and, delving blindly into the thick root, he plucks the thread out from the tail. Its loss is hardly felt in the thick richness of the tail.

“I can’t show up with one single hair in place of a helmet. You better give me nothing if that’s what you’ve intended,” Desmond jests knowing full well that Altaïr’s intended no such thing, yet left with no explanation he embarks on a private guess and narrows down to the festival they celebrate today.

Altaïr parts his mouth to confirm his inkling, but Malik leaves him no chance.

He enters as surprised as they are at finding him barge in between them, but Malik’s sudden advent doesn’t effectively scuttle Altaïr’s original intention. The warrior allows Desmond and Malik to embrace in silent greeting, he measures his timing, and then he pulls up his hand to bar Malik’s entrance, revealing to his husband the single thread coiled around the join of his three middle fingers.

“Can I tie this to the Dragon?”

Malik is not unfriendly but susceptible to a quick frowning while he regards the coiled strand of hair trying to divulge its origin or meaning. Altaïr has an irritating way of piquing and feeding his inquisitive side at odd times.

“What is that?” he asks glancing over the thread afresh and gradually replacing suspicion with curiosity.

A flicker of grief on Altaïr’s face is either cunningly carved out or genuine (and Malik shouldn’t feel a twinge in his chest regardless of its origin), the drag of thumb across the curled thread is deliberate, and Altaïr’s voice is weaved with a tone Malik knows intimately—the slow pain of a martyred mouth.

“A thread from my helmet tail. You tie what you want to bid farewell to, do you not? I wish to burn my past allegiances.”

Altaïr is saying good bye to his allegiance to Al Mualim. Burning his past self. This is how he wishes to contribute to the puppet-making.

These and other thoughts are serenely browsing a corner of Malik’s mind while he stares at the little big thing coiled round his husband’s fingers. Mindful of the deep symbolism and deeper implications, Malik answers his question with a nod without glancing up at him. He slips past the two warriors, taking care to not even graze Altaïr—he feels he has for an instance mellowed out to the point where his body has made a passing allusion that it might embrace Altaïr, and he doesn’t wish to share space with the man when such a stray sentimentality in mind is forming a cord with his body’s wishes. It’s best to avoid being too bodily familiar with his husband for the time being, for as long as he can help it.

He heads for his bedroom. Behind, Altaïr saunters off in Desmond’s wake with boots in hand and thread on finger.

 


 

Once Malik encroaches the territory of his bedroom, he needs another few moments to remember why he has come in here and it’s nonsense to pretend that his mind isn’t still loyal in thought to the man who’s left home just now. He isn’t insulted in any way by this, for Altaïr has shown improvement enough to elicit such reaction, but he consoles himself by thinking how brave he has been, how determined to avoid freely venturing into physical closeness.

Malik’s gaze skids unconsciously to Nokem (his face is benevolent today, a suggestion of a cryptic smirk on his mouth) and subsequently drops to the base Nokem rests upon, and on the pedestal is where he finds what he’d come for in the first place. There is an assortment of items across the pedestal, among these the bowl for pouring libation for his patron, a colorful compendium of feathers Malik has collected over years, a glass figurine.

Malik had come for the figurine.

A year has passed and it doesn’t belong to him anymore; he has to return it to the fire it’d come from.

Tonight, after all Dragon puppets are burned in the pyre, glassmiths of the city will take out their tools and heat glass all night long in the pyre. All night they will melt and blow glass on flames, crafting bird figurines for all citizens who wish to take one home. The owl figurine in Malik’s hands has been born in the pyre of last year. It has a yellowish tint and a pair of big azure eyes, its base is massive. Malik wonders if there’s any fairness in the fact that he had received such a massive figurine when he never even breaks his. He had never broken his festival figurine in the past. Which is almost the point.

The glass figurines are believed to help a person let go of that side of themselves that they want to get rid of. Everyone who participates in the festival is eligible to receive their glass figurine from a glassmith. Though the glass artists will make one for any person who asks, Malik had heard rumors that they will look at your face first and craft you a bird you remind them of. He wonders if there is some truth in this widespread rumor, he wonders what on his face had reminded the glassmith of owls while he admires the figurine that has kept him company for a year, one that will tonight be destroyed in the pyre because it hasn’t been broken.

Breaking the figurine deliberately is sacrilege Malik wouldn’t dream of. There is a tinge of sadness on his face but no surprise in his heart—he always does place his figurine on the most inconspicuous places, though he’s also known people with children who put their figurines on busy tables and their figurines never get accidentally broken either. It will break if gods decide it will. Malik had asked for a figurine in the past four years, he had received this-or-that version of an owl each time even when he’d asked a different glass artist every year, and he has up to now never broken his figurine by accident. One may place their figurine where they wish—on floor if they are so inclined—when they return home after the pyre, and Malik had perpetually fixed his own upon Nokem’s pedestal.

Should it happen that a person never accidentally breaks their figurine over the course of the year after receiving it, by the time the next festival comes with the new cold season, they return this figurine to the place it’d come from, to the pyre where it will be destroyed, rebirthed, melted into new ones. If the gods happen to favor a person though, if their figurine falls to shards on accident, the signs are good—the breaking of old is a step forward to letting go of the past they want to leave behind.

The gods have not favored Malik. His figurine is intact, unchipped, unscratched, as are the flaws he had wanted to destroy in himself. Perhaps his new figurine will break, next year, before the next pyre is due.

This one he has to bring out, like everyone else whose glass figurine hasn’t fallen to crumble, to gather them all and collect them in a single basket to carry to Sheker’s market. In the kitchen he assembles the rest of fresh loaves from breakfast to share with community—they’ve made arrangements for new bread to be made for the communal dinner, and the bread will be plentiful. To leave his breakfast loaves uneaten here is to let them go waste.

With a platter in hand, loaves and glass figurine on it, he scrambles back into the courtyard.

He walks as far as he can manage, and then something arrests his attention.

Before he is even to reach the table, he passes the water-well (though he never gets to pass it entirely), and on the well a few girls he usually shares the washing space with are staring at the showers across in rapt attention. To call it staring would do their expressions no justice, to name it swooning would enhance their reactions untruthfully. It’s the sort of excitement endured by someone who’s laid eyes on someone or something they covet, the way Malik had seen others pine, a look often spotted and never endured.

Malik follows the path the girls find as enticing as to divert them from washing and at its end he finds none other than his own husband. In the showers. A lone figure shaving his chest.

Malik turns laughingly rigid in his stance. A frozen puppet unaware of the course it had originally intended to travel. There is a timely reminder in his head which tells him that, unlike the girls who are at least partly hidden by the well, he is exposed, quite exposed, and yet this warning doesn’t move his limbs—not even a stir.

Altaïr stands nude in the showers, oblivious to spectators.

That Altaïr shaves his chest is of little importance (it has always been a widespread preference among male warriors), it’s the manner in which he plies his blade that draws attention to his body. The way in which the blade glides across skin and meets resistance on the fullness of his pecs. It’s in how he moves, how his muscles catch the sun and the blade catches on the ridges of his muscle with every deliberate drag. In the way the patina of oil on his abdomen gleams when he puffs his chest up. It’s all this, and more, that makes Malik’s gaze rove over the warrior’s body until his eyes are religiously following each of Altaïr’s practiced movements.

He stands cemented in mid-courtyard by himself, guiltily wolfing the sight of Altaïr’s impeccable form.

Malik isn’t supposed to hand over his will at the merest glance of this man’s body—he’d looked at him before, so what difference does it make now, why is there such discrepancy between now and the other instances when he’d seen him naked? What had caused revolt and disgust on the first night with Altaïr now provides him with unbridled curiosity—a sentiment that is difficult to accept, with an equal amount of thrill and self-depreciation in it, a vile blend. Malik had seen bodies before, of peers and of warriors who prance around half-naked in armor, but none had made him yearn a testing touch in like manner.

It’s not that he hadn’t noticed before; rather, it’s that he is invited to watch now when Altaïr is unaware which pokes Malik’s awareness and memory of this body, and his imagination helps itself freely to it. And though Malik isn’t inordinately fond of the context of that particular memory, he remembers that he’d never had quarrel with his husband’s physique per se, only with the man himself. And he had not dedicated much attention to Altaïr’s looks before because he’d been so adamant about hating him. The instant Altaïr’s renounced loyalty to Al Mualim, the moment he’s announced that his contribution to the Dragon will be burning his past allegiance, Malik’s restricted loathing and found himself with more time to notice other things about his husband he had formerly neglected.

That is the lone explanation he can offer himself, it’s as far as his logic can go, and his logic is warped and deformed, and for a bizarre moment of time this enamored admiration of Altaïr’s body conjoins with that of the girls on the water-well and they stare in unison. One moment easily turns into more.

It’s not a conscientious decision to dedicate that much time watching another man’s body, but it is a conscientiously thorough admiration. He stands like Gdila ready for war, like a man sharing blood with gods themselves. There’s no flatness of belly as on Malik’s own body, but the undulating swell of muscles on such brazen display of his entire torso, unlike that of before, while he’d been in armor.

No man is equal to his physical beauty.

His flesh is hard like marble, carved by the gods, forged by Gdila himself.

Malik stands limp with tray in hand and not a word he can utter, but his belly answers for him with a disgraceful, warm flip which stirs his insides at the sight of Altaïr’s body. Mentally, he isn’t even present at the scene. Perhaps the girls at his back are watching along still, he wants to look away, but his body won’t hear of it. His gut yearns at the thought of getting, perhaps, something, and yet he can’t bring himself to risk the thought of what it is that he actually wants.

Altaïr wipes the blade clean on his forearm to migrate towards his lower belly, down the dusting of hair trailing from his bellybutton downward into the raised valley between the tapering cut in his abdominal muscles (how curious that he prefers to remove hairs below the belt-line as well), and Malik funnels down both sides of these oblique, clear-cut, ridged muscles pointing into Altaïr’s groin, he tumbles from the hollowed-out lines right down to his husband’s cock.

And, then, it seems as if the gates fall open with a bang and thoughts begin to file in one at a time into Malik’s mind. What it feels like to touch, to give hands a free run down Altaïr’s chest, to sample the texture of his scars, how much fatter than that does his cock swell, is it as thick as it had felt between his thighs, what does it look like to have a warrior’s rough hands caress smooth skin as his own—these and a barrage of other equally outlandish questions harass his body and Malik knows neither the places they are coming from nor going to, and though he hasn’t intended to keep a check on the movements of his thoughts he asks himself whether he’s lost his mind and every voice in head unanimously says yes.

Malik prefers to smuggle some blankness into his expression to keep his face unwillingly clean while his body is beaten by the sight of this man, this sight which sets fire to a warmth that’s working its way up from his groin searching every limb and joint, and there’s a great wave of something sweet, something pleasantly ticklish, which he knows in a much muted form from rare lonely occasions in his bedroom, with no place to hide it and no chance of escaping the pleasant rush.

Clothes feel like a dreadful burden but they conceal far worse things; to see his body reaction for what it really is, unmitigated and honest, one has to see Malik naked, and he would rather keep the burden than reveal that his cock has grown stiff from merely watching his husband.

Malik is tragically aware of this and for an instance he falls into a panic about public exposure, since he is oblivious to exactly how noticeable the tenting at the front of his breeches actually is and terrified of lifting his tray to glance down to examine and still entranced with Altaïr’s form in equal measure. He stands same as before, his heart is tramping away with a dreadful arrhythmic thump, like an army going over a bridge; yet his body continues to misbehave in the most outrageous way and in the moment of his great weakness he yields to the satisfaction of a special craving he hadn’t been victim to before.

He goes on with his dismal watching until the front half of his packed tray tilts itself lower in his unconscious attempt to mask what he imagines is evident on his crotch, and just as he is about to cover it up completely he unwittingly tips out the contents of his tray.

Loaves tumble to ground, glass breaks.

Malik retreats in a flinch, aiming to avoid the debris, and in his haste he steps on a broken shard of glass that’s hurled itself behind him after impact. He retracts his foot in a painful instant (there is blood, much more than he’s comfortable with) and, avoiding new shards at his front, he restores his step to its former place leaning his weight onto the cut foot without mistrust. If the break of glass hasn’t been clue enough already, his yelp of pain as he steps onto his injured foot glues most attention to him. He’s forced the glass shards deeper into his flesh through carelessness, there’s blood painting the cobblestones beneath his feet, the bread that’s strewn round, the shards scattered around him as he watches new blood leave him and endures the sting in flesh.

“Hold still,” says Altaïr, gripping him by the elbow. He’d come to him in the blink of an eye. Malik is still plagued by discomfort of his own awkward haste and he’s in a sort of confused, pained delirium that, when he sees Altaïr hunched, in boots, trying to tuck him up into his arms, the intentions of his husband confuse whatever rational pattern has managed to shine through his blinded mind.

Before Malik knows it, Altaïr has picked him up.

He almost bursts in response to this coddle, his mind and thoughts turn lucid and help him persevere in his struggle. Altaïr is less unsettled by Malik’s useless pushing against his chest and more concerned by the splatter of blood Malik’s injury has left on the ground, and he pulls Malik up, further against his wet chest, and doesn’t dignify the youth’s protest as he carries him up home.

Someone will take care of the mess in the courtyard and he has to take care of Malik.

Malik ceases his struggle and tries to inject some dignity into his position. Altaïr has been right to help him up, he couldn’t have hopped his way up to the second ring on one foot anyway, so Malik keeps his embarrassment well-hidden and doesn’t allow it to leave its lair. At least his other rising problem has ceased to be a problem, under influence of pain. His journey upstairs in Altaïr’s arms is altogether too startling to dwell on and little of it stays in his mind, except for a flash of the past which invades his memory—a big, daunting warrior and a fresh orphan of ten in his arms, and a giant tree in a courtyard that used to be empty in the wake of the Massacre.

At the door, his struggle renews, more violently this time, until he is physically grasping at the wall to prevent Altaïr from introducing them to the innards of their home.

“No blood inside the house,” Malik growls with fury that lasts only a few heartbeats, and this, at least, Altaïr understands.

“Hold onto my neck,” the warrior instructs shifting his weight. The arm wound round Malik’s back drops and returns in a few moments time, and the alarm bells in Malik’s mind are in the midst of their chimes when he recognizes the cloth that Altaïr is looping around his foot in an impromptu wrapping as Altaïr’s loincloth and thus the only piece of cloth that has been covering the man until now.

Altaïr’s arm is back around his back in an instant, he makes it seem effortless. It’s odd that Malik has the weight of a healthy young man yet Altaïr carries him with same lightness as seven years ago. His strength hasn’t waned but flourished overtime.

Altaïr shepherds him into the home and then left towards the sofa where he deposits him with greatest care despite Malik’s persistent fuming, and orders him onto his belly. As soon as Altaïr slips from the room Malik stations himself further up, bolts for the huddle of pillows in the corner to avoid being pulled back into Altaïr’s lap, but he stays lolled on the sofa, less from gratitude than lacking the reason to leave. Especially now when he feels the shards embedded deeply into his foot and when he can’t roll over without imagining what must be a stream of blood trickling down his sole, when he can’t hop off the sofa without soiling his carpet and when he can’t even process the damage of the cut.

Noting Altaïr’s prolonged absence, a din of oaths and a suspicious cluttering of pans, Malik remembers to yelp out to Altaïr about the whereabouts of the supplies, and he feels his flesh pulse with pain—he wants the shards out.

Altaïr returns with a pair of tweezers, bandages, water, the amphora of antiseptic he’d watched Malik use, a loincloth to cover himself. Malik faces that particular detail with a blank mind because any form of acknowledgement would force him to think of the man whom he had adored from afar before drifting into insanity.

Altaïr seats himself, pulling him lower across sofa to fix him more securely into his lap and Malik flaunts some resistance but his show of anger resolves into demure reality the moment Altaïr chains his ankle to his upper thigh. Altaïr’s gesture is well-meaning but pain shoots through Malik’s foot climbing upwards in a slow, agonizing crawl. He is promptly reminded that the shards are inside, and he wants them out. He should ask Leonardo for help later, but Altaïr’s intervention will do for now. He must have seen worse injuries on battlefield, this one he can be trusted with.

“No blood—“ Malik starts and stops when he recognizes the sensation on his injured foot as a steady trickle of water, but Altaïr shushes him. He is taking his duty with utmost gravity and seriousness. Between his thighs is a bowl encouraging the soiled water inside. Even with the spare cloth spread below bowl and across Altaïr’s legs to soak up stray water and blood that might escape, Malik feels the shift of Altaïr’s thigh muscles on his ankle and the softness with which he plies his rough fingers while cleaning around his wound.

Altaïr moves to washing with antiseptic quick. There is injury on one foot only, but the sole is marked with curious swirls of dust, like a marble table-top, no doubt from walking barefoot as part of the festival. Altaïr fears what dirt can do if it gets into the wound, and he makes quick work of cleaning him with water and antiseptic alike, generously, sparing no amounts of the sharp-smelling disinfectant. Malik’s muscles are pulled tight, his calf tense and toes curled, he tenses whenever the liquid is poured. He plays brave but it must hurt. Pulling the bigger shard out is bound to tear a sound, unless Malik’s pride is too large for such base reactions in front of Altaïr.

He keeps his arms clasped tight-and-rigid around his favorite neck pillow, his forehead squashed atop it, his fingers plucking and pulling blindly at the tassels whenever he seeks distraction.

“Are the tweezers sterilized?” Altaïr asks calmly, and Malik is relieved that at least one of them is calm.

“Boiled in water. But wash them first, with antiseptic,” he croaks, and whatever composure he had intended to instill into his voice is lost before he can pretend. Altaïr doesn’t comment. He must be seeing him as some weakling, the scarred warrior that he is, and the thought stings almost as bad as the injury.

Before he knows what has occurred, Altaïr pulls a shard out keeping the ankle shackled to his thigh and Malik remembers to tense up when it’s no longer needed. He hopes it is the bigger one, and it is.

“It will need stitching,” Altaïr says in the midst of extracting the smaller piece of glass, Malik hears it as it plops into the bowl of water-dirt-disinfectant solution. The antiseptic hurts more this time but Altaïr doesn’t relent, he’s painstakingly thorough in his cleaning.

Malik acquaints himself with the notion of needing stitching, he chews over how it will reflect on his future duties and work rather than dedicating thought on how much it will hurt (he had needed stitches before and he’s not thinking back to the sensation with a fond heart), it’s a sort of pain that doesn’t soften with years. He will be forced to be idle, to rest, and idleness for a man with the work habit in his bones is a tedious setback. While Altaïr prepares the thread and needle Malik tugs at the pillow tassels nervously—another pull and they will tear off—he claws at the fabric, he expands his nostrils to dim his breathing but the expansion of his lungs and the rise of his chest is a telling traitor. It’s not that he won’t accept pain, it’s the waiting for pain that unnerves him.

“I have felt your eyes linger. On my body…” The warrior trails off in a misty voice, perfectly content with his choice of words.

A different kind of cold sweat starts beading across Malik’s forehead.

It seems as if all windows have been shut tight, although it’s most certainly not so, and the air is almost suffocating. And though it seems stuffy, it is none too warm. If he breaks into cold sweat now, Altaïr will see.

“You flatter yourself.”

“I call it observation.”

“I call it hubris,” Malik hisses, stopping short. But it’s no use—the more he protests the more suspicious Altaïr will become. His tone is indignant but it has made no impression. What an unenviable job, convincing a sharp-eyed man that the tenting shape at the front of his breeches hasn’t been the result of his blatant staring.

“I am not blind. I saw the way your eyes pored over my body.” The way your imagination touched it.

“You are prideful and arrogant, and all such men fall beneath the heel of hubris,” says Malik, relents a little towards the end, as he’s starting to feel that Altaïr is safely drifting out of whatever this conversation has been about.

“Apologies,” the noble adds for some inane reason, peeking over his shoulder.

Malik is helpless. He’s told more startling lies than this. His frantic denial has eked out the smallest thread of dignity—he doesn’t need more than that at present. He will cheat humiliation a moment more, or two, and no longer than that.

Altaïr lets him change the subject and it’s a small mercy.

Malik fleetingly, innocently, peeks down his own legs and finds—to his utter amazement—that his cut is near sewn up. Before he’d even noticed properly, Altaïr has stitched his cut. Perhaps this has been a sort of strategy. To have him distracted during the pain and have his attention distributed evenly. Quite impressive, how his attentions have shifted drastically enough to mute the pain of stitching.

“Go on,” he instructs Altaïr, and having said that, he turns his face back into the huddle of pillows to flick the tussles, and he keeps his face there throughout the remainder of the ordeal, lest there be any doubt about who is accusing and who is being accused.

The next (and last) pierce-and-pull of needle he feels unambiguously, the sensation sends the hairs on his arms into a stand and his teeth into a vicious clench. Altaïr is listening to every little sound and he won’t give him the pleasure of hearing a whimper of his voice, despite the good deed. Inwardly, he is screeching (about that he’s never stared at anybody, rather than about that it hurts), but not a word of it is audible.

He doesn’t offer a hint of rudeness to his husband thereafter, he just ignores him. As though the man treating his injury doesn’t exist. Altaïr doesn’t feel insulted in any way, feels merely disregarded. It’s curious how Altaïr ignores offered insult as soon as Malik’s anger falls below a certain level (even as his thankfulness doesn’t rise accordingly).

Altaïr cuts off the rest of the needle thread, he dabs off the blood, he cleans what has been soiled, he wraps Malik’s foot up the proper, soldierly way, he gathers his tools up.

“Try not to step on your foot too much. Rest and the wound won't have a chance to reopen. We’ll keep bandage until the wound scabs,” Altaïr advises while putting the bowl on the table, though he suspects Malik is already aware of what is to be done and his words are empty and serve only to fill the silence. Malik doesn’t respond in any way at first, he swaps sides turning from belly to back, with the bandaged foot still stationed in Altaïr’s lap. He straightens himself refusing Altaïr’s offered hand, a little shaky and much concerned about their prior exchange.

There is a considerable amount of blood on the wiping cloth in Altaïr’s hand. The sight of blood doesn’t make him queasy, but the sight of glass shards, once he catches sight of them, stuns him and he loses himself in a meaningless tangle of surprise and awe. He beats curiosity and doesn’t pick them up from the bowl to measure their size, and in his awkward haste to evade thoughts of what’s been wedged into his flesh he ends up staring at the man who has removed the shards from his body.

Altaïr appears detached, as if waiting for Malik to decide whether he’ll rise from the sofa or not. He keeps his hand around Malik’s ankle as before, only his hold is less a chain and more a support. Malik’s sleek dark head is inclined, his scowling a dark gaze shining up at Altaïr from under velvet eyebrows, as if Altaïr’s openness and not Malik’s open staring at his body is the behavior that has passed all bounds.

That scowl is the last gasp of anger on Malik’s visage. It expires, and there’s silence on his face.

Altaïr has no talent for reading Malik. He has to borrow from his sense of guessing to decipher what the noble thinks. Perhaps he’s aiming to further guard himself against Altaïr’s (justified) accusations, though the insecurity with which he defends himself makes his words obsolete. Altaïr juggles with the possibility of addressing the flaws of his defense or leaving it be, he is not too keen to argue over a fact and he keeps his mute mirth to himself. To know that Malik finds him attractive enough to step on glass makes him feel less like a dead thing among living beings.

Unbeknownst to him, Malik is fighting different devils.

He should be thankful to this man for nursing his injury, and he is. Thankfulness crawls under his skin until it wants out of his body. Malik knows it immediately, that what he is about to do will make his pride uncomfortable and that he is advised by vanity to modify his path—a thing which Malik is flatly refusing to do, telling himself finally that he will return to his older self after this short digression (which, eventually, he will).

Malik shifts, he pushes himself off sofa, then lower towards Altaïr, and at the same time when his balance is at stake and his mind is indecisive, he falls heavily across Altaïr’s legs, and Altaïr pulls him upright into his lap. Malik fidgets around for fidgeting’s sake before he establishes himself not far from the sitting spot where Altaïr has pulled him up to, one hand on Altaïr’s chest for leverage, the other on his jaw. He turns Altaïr’s head directing it streetwards, then he leans in crossing the gap between his lips and Altaïr’s cheek to leave a strategically well-placed kiss on the warrior’s clean-shaven skin.

Malik retreats. For an instance he expects Altaïr to follow after him while he is leaning away. He regards Altaïr and looks sharp about it, as if to dare him to poke fun at the banality of the peck or to pinch his idea and kiss him back.

Altaïr sits still with Malik in lap, rewarding himself with his husband’s proximity. He sits in silence, quite fashionably dressed in a smile, he counts his takings and considers himself rich.

Malik feels Altaïr touch his hand, he sees him drawing it up to his lips, watches him placing a kiss his hands have grown used to already. He hasn’t interfered with Altaïr’s silence and he interferes even less with his gesture, yet his cheeks are steaming, and his own former gesture stinks horribly of sentimentality, but his effort is appreciated and his husband’s lips are warm on the back of his hand and he can forget that he has been embarrassed about it.

He sits in Altaïr’s lap until the papery flatness inside his chest dilates till his heart almost bursts in response to the expansion. Then he lets his hand fall from Altaïr’s hold and stands up on wobbly legs to make himself scarce.

He pretends to not be in pain as he walks.

With a foot like this, he is unfit for the festival. But his glass figurine has fallen to crumble.

The signs are good.

 

Chapter Text

 

“You are a fool, Altaïr.”

“Then in good company, by the judging,” Altaïr quips, drowning soon thereafter what is his third cup of wine that Desmond had ordered. An elbow on table is keeping him from collapsing. He can take far more than three cups and his belly is full, but thoughts of his husband make him the only hunching figure round this table.

Desmond orders Altaïr’s fourth and their third round of drinks and Altaïr trusts him—Desmond is credited with good taste in alcohol and according to him this is arguably the best drinking place in the city.

“You must conceive of Malik as a young horse,” Ezio insists again, stirring the topic stubbornly, “If you’re to achieve anything you must calm him first before getting into the saddle. The right tone can settle an entire argument. And try to smile occasionally.”

Altaïr had tried smiles on Malik and they’d blurred none of his scowls.

In the loose fist resting in his lap, Altaïr is twirling a smallish eagle. A glass figurine given to him by a glassmith per request after the pyre had consumed all Dragons of the city. Ezio has received a hawk, Desmond asked for none. He wonders what it is on his face that had made the glassmith craft an eagle. He continues to regard the figurine with pride long after its confused warmth has faded and it’s started to cool off in his hand. It’s almost too pretty to destroy. This notion bends his mind to other well-trodden paths and he thinks of Malik again.

Without Malik at his side, the festival has been nothing but ceremony for others, sweetened only by the many desserts on the market and the glow of pyre on a chilly night.

He had followed after his community inconspicuously, like some assassin blending with surrounding crowd, had helped unload their Dragon into the fire, had waited until the crowd had thinned to ask for a glass figurine, all the while trying to put a cork on his mind which keeps drifting back to Malik who had remained among the very few left behind.

With Desmond exchanging hateful glances across pyre with that noblewoman he’d met on Al Mualim’s reception and Ezio drifting to and fro between them and Leonardo, Altaïr had left the invocation of Sheker’s warm winds to others who are prone to dance and drowned himself instead in all the sweet that the festival had to offer. Stuck with swinging back and forth between sweets and circling the makeshift stalls round the pyre like a vulture, Altaïr had sampled whatever lavish desserts had been offered, more than he’d seen in the past seven years: fruit platters, candies, puddings, pastries made with honey, mint biscuits, rolls with fig paste, roasted chestnuts, stuffed dates filled with nuts, pine kernels and pepper, biscuits sweetened with wine, peach cakes brushed with honey and topped with poppy seeds, ring-shaped bread-pastry with custard, Hiba’s and Nokem’s eyes with various fillings, thin biscuits made from sesame seeds and dipped in honey—all of which he had tasted while Ezio and Desmond watched him with unreserved horror.

Yet, once all sweets have been sampled, he couldn’t deliberately neglect other festival rites and he’d stood by the pyre flanked by his comrades, bothered by the indismissible fact that he could not decide whether he belongs to a system of inclusion or circumscription, until Desmond had put out the proposal to migrate to a drinking place not far from Barzel’s market up north, which is where they’ve spent the rest of their evening sitting undisturbed and wallowing in drink.

Desmond entrusts the new swill into his hand and this cup is honeyed wine. He knocks half the cup down his throat in a single swallow and puts it aground on weathered, wine-sodden wood with a tight hold on the cup, for balance. He sighs through a half swoon, he sees Ezio’s approaching eyes and narrows his own.

A race is run between Ezio’s next advice and Altaïr’s pulse to unburden his worries (an easy winner).

“I don’t know what he wants from me,” Altaïr mumbles with a wine-swollen tongue and his verbal flow teeming with sluggishness but he translates laboriously the thoughts from head to tongue, “All that I do, all that I say, he turns against me. If I try to consolidate his interests to mine, I’m cruel. If do the opposite, I’m the oppressor. Nothing I say or do serves to bind him closer to me…”

There is a moment of silence in between the three in a place crowded by noise, and the two across the table wait obligingly while Altaïr drowns the remaining half of his cup.

“Have you tried telling him all this? Plainly?” Desmond suggests, comfortably resuming the conversation.

“What do you think?”

“So, no.”

Untenderly, Altaïr fists his hand around the cup, a pudgy frown crawls onto his face, it cracks between his brows heavily and shrinks not long thereafter. Confusion trudges up onto his face instead.

“I gave him everything,” Altaïr says staring into the barren state of his cup, or his marriage, “I saved him from certain death. I gave him shelter and food, I gave him all money that I had, every license to do as he desires with spoils that I earned and he refused. I don’t beat him or force myself on him—what else does he require me to do? What by all nine gods does he want me to give him?”

“Altaïr, what is it you require of him?” Ezio asks, surprised, “You have what you wanted—he has remained loyal to you like an obedient dog. Was loyalty not what you wanted from him?”

“Yes. But I require more.”

“Sex?” “Love?” The two warriors suggest separately but in unison.

They read Altaïr’s face (and emphatically deny its expression) which has faithfully rendered not only his confusion at their questions but also confusion directed at the complex simplicity of his own desire.

“I want a husband.”

“So sex?” Ezio pointedly repeats.

“And love?” Desmond tacks on.

Altaïr is drunk. They all are.

Altaïr on Malik, Ezio on life, Desmond on disappointment, and none of them on wine.

Altaïr heaves both elbows up on the table. The wood pessimistically squeaks under his weight while he settles leaving his glass figurine upon lap, it protests as he sinks his forehead into the laced join of his fingers—this place is ancient, but so is its alcohol. Altaïr has no new drink to drown and he holds silence while Ezio and Desmond unanimously fill in the time by emptying their own cups. He doesn’t intend to answer posed questions, but the answers he tells himself prompt him to thought of his aspirations—how they used to look and how grotesquely they’d changed their shape—and this evolution of sense of himself is, in a sense, the evolution of nonsense. Of how nonsensical his expectations had been and still are.

“I try with all my strength not to look his way and see what I can’t have and never will. I try, but I’m weak… I fear my heart’s grown too large for him and my attention’s turned towards securing his affections.”

A task bound for repeated failure.

“Why do you hold him close if it troubles mind?” Desmond asks the old question, seeing how Altaïr cushions his forehead on the lace of his fingers and stares into his empty cup stubbornly. His intent is far from being meddlesome or urging to any particular course of action that could lead to divorce, but he watches Altaïr and he sees him riding on self-pity, and that’s a breed he knows intimately.

“He’s never evaded my sight, in my mind’s eye,” Altaïr utters, low enough that they have to read it from his lips.

Desmond understands. He hopes Ezio understands, too. Altaïr has long been feeding off the thought of someone waiting for him back home, it’s how he had hauled himself through the war. By feeding on faith in a husband he can return to he’d fasted on the present, until his heart had grown large just through this single expectation. Altaïr has for too long been enamored with the concept of having a faithful husband that the very notion of losing this one person he had kept imagining is too abstract to comprehend.

Desmond spends a healthy amount of time trying to conjure up a proper and polished advice so this chunk of silence gives Altaïr license to carry on without expecting words, and then he says:

“He kissed me, earlier.” It is a silly thing to say, bound to lead to questions, and Ezio (predictably) perks up at this.

“How was it?”

“On the cheek.”

Ezio’s face falls quick as a wink, “That’s not a real kiss.”

“It is a real kiss!” Altaïr pops his head up before he bangs fists on table, the barren cups clink and clatter against wood. It’s the same face Desmond had seen directed at himself when they had returned from war, when he had poked at his husband’s faithfulness.

Altaïr is not a person who swoons or leaps absent provocation, unless the topic is Malik.

“Alright, alright,” Ezio surrenders as a peace offering and Altaïr retreats, cutting back on childish anger immediately.

Though it seems this brief exchange has gained one winner they both depart the battlefield as losers as Altaïr comes out looking like a wet mop. There’s silence between them, again, until the din of noises coiling around sneaks inside, between them, until Desmond deems it’s time to either split up or order another round, but Ezio wrestles the proverbial reigns from his hands swerving wide off-track.

“Altaïr, you’re a fool.”

“You’ve said that already,” Altaïr grumbles.

“No. I mean a different kind of fool. You’re not only right, you actually managed to hit the nail right on the head and completely miss it.”

Desmond remains entirely still, frozen like a field rabbit, hoping that Ezio will decide not to tell him whatever it is he intends, but Ezio leans in across the table to ensnare the man into this ruse, poor Altaïr hesitates.

“That kiss is like a little key,” Ezio tells Altaïr confidentially, as he offers him some of his own remaining drink, “Lovers are like a chest and when they give you the key they want you to open them. He’s pressed a key right into your palm and you made no use of it. He wants you to unlock him, trust me, I know his sort. You can take him if you want him—just use your cue and he will open up to you like a budding flower,” the noble rattles off in excellent imitation of someone lecturing a person who has failed to manage their affairs in a sound, pushing manner.

Desmond cringes at the trinket Ezio is dangling before Altaïr’s nose.

He had intended to follow Ezio’s course of conversation stage by stage without overtaking him but he feels he should have been the one to steer this conversation even if it had been bound from outset to miscarry. He doesn’t say a word from sheer sympathy for Ezio’s failure, for the sake of his friend who has applied himself to the task of convincing Altaïr into clutching firmly onto something Ezio himself considers unreal. It’s all a deep error and Altaïr will see it as such, because how could he not—Altaïr has only recently been truly inaugurated into his marriage and he wouldn’t make such assumptions worthy of a true novice.

Yet, when Desmond turns to look at Altaïr, he finds the false honeyed words already taking root inside the man, he finds that Altaïr has heard every, every sound Ezio’s has just uttered.

“Altaïr…?” Desmond tries, itching to seize him by the shoulders to shake the idea off.

Altaïr’s control has gone dead. He stares slack-jawed at Ezio, he bats a series of bright-and-wide blinks as if slapped, his attention doesn’t even squiggle. No reception. Nothing. Desmond’s words are not getting through, they are stones dropped into a bottomless hole, the hollow known as Altaïr. They fall and fall until they are too far away to be heard.

Desmond is one part anxious—the rest is anger. He had thought that Ezio’s usual babble about sexual conquest could be little more to Altaïr than a sad toy, a bauble to be heard and unheard right thereafter, but Ezio’s words to Altaïr now seem to be like a polished ring of copper, optimistically knocking at the front door of his comrade’s inner house. What Desmond doesn’t know is that Altaïr feels cheated. And the cheat is he himself for being as inept as to interpret Malik’s open invitation falsely. Altaïr finds it necessary to chastise himself for his incompetence, he doesn’t wonder how Ezio has recognized it immediately (the merest suggestion that his husband wants him destroys all curiosity), he is made uncomfortable through the fact that he had lacked the ability to figure out these subtleties himself, but all his rightful disappointment is soon razed to ground by one single sentiment—desire.

Altaïr’s nostrils flare for the briefest moment in that telltale pulse of lust Ezio’s had told Desmond about and Desmond had never seen, and Desmond sees him in an excited frankness he’d never set eyes on (and he has known Altaïr since the orphanage), sees that this flicker of nostrils alludes discreetly at what his entire visage is screaming—that he wants to leave this place urgently, or he will explode and all will spill out, into excitement that no cloth can sponge up from the floor.

“Go thrust the key home and don’t give voice to doubt, my friend.”

Ezio’s words work like a slap to the side of the man’s face and he jumps from the table and off into the crowd, as if unchained.

“Wait—!” Desmond starts, a meddler by necessity, but by the time he finds his voice Altaïr has already marched off to reap this fascinating new discovery, he has already sped towards the exit and disappeared off into the night.

“Just thrust your cock into his mouth and make sure to pull out before his jaw snaps shut,” Ezio says after him, to no one; he smirks, and folded into that sneer is a clipping of shameless malice, naively (or deliberately) exposed to Desmond.

“That’s kind of a dick move, don’t you think?” Before Ezio can even seize the crude but unintended pun, Desmond slaps his hand round Ezio’s own, arresting the lifting cup from mid-air to slam it down onto wood where it spills over, “Ezio, he is presented crumbs and yet you offer him a fucking meal. You’re feeding him nothing—”

“Have you ever wanted to avenge and hurt in revenge for wrongs done?” the noble cuts in, and his smirk is naught, his face frayed, pained.

“Yes. When I was ten.”

Ezio drops his head and glares into the contents of his cup without making to wipe his soiled hand. Desmond feels Ezio’s pain but he can’t forgive such shoddy treatment of a comrade for the sake of revenge on another (and Malik had been a child, the blame is not his, the blame is no one’s and everyone’s, and taking revenge on a child that had lost its family won’t bring his own dead family back from Zikaron’s hold).

“It’s dishonorable killing a friend while in your cups, so I’ll spare you.”

Ezio offers no answer.

Desmond doesn’t run after his friend to stop him because he knows that Altaïr has a visceral hate for the act of rape and that Malik’s protest, if offered, won’t fall on deaf ears.

 


 

Altaïr’s sprint back home is a blur of time.

He sights the spread of stars far up ahead only after he starts up the hill, he is aware of walking under their canopy only after he commences the long climb up the narrow, sloping street, and he loses sight of everything except his legs marching ahead, even the clutch of hand around the glass figurine, even the dark glare as he passes the street niche to the right where Nokem is scowling at him.

By the time he bursts through the entrance tunnel, he has already neatly planned his next move, the courtyard is quiet, with few people passing around. In his haste he sees no one. He has a long and rewarding night ahead of him and the sooner he runs up the stairs then tunnel-stairs, the sooner he can start it. To kiss hands and hold lips, to make him scream then whisper, to fill their bedroom with moans and his chest with affection, to pet him, to give him all he’d asked for with that kiss, that key.

All of this he wants, and more if he can have it, and he barges inside, clapping the door open—a hollow quiet greets him.

Inside—on the crossroads between the first room, the bedroom, and the kitchen—there is a tub laid out, and he hardly needs any introduction to understand that Malik is bathing. Or, rather, he is in the closing stages of a bath.

It’s a cozy home bath, as opposed to the courtyard shower or city baths—the weather is too chilly for showering in the open, the baths too far away for injury. He shouldn’t have bathed at all, keeping his injury in mind. But he stands there inside a wooden tub tugged out into the spacious first room, with a cleverly-set stool inside the tub to rest his foot on.

His skin is wet from neck down, his body basking in the unearthly lilac light of his candle (it’s not the candles that burn lilac, Altaïr realizes belatedly, it’s the tinted glass of candle holders), wearing nothing but his dazzling youth, and a scowl. Altaïr’s gaze drops and soars, snapping up an eyeful of his husband, and gluttons on every piece of naked flesh offered to it, leaving no place unattended.

Everything roars in Altaïr except lust.

There is a small, snug fire running in the hearth.

The room smells lilac, and dark, like fresh soaps and ancient gods. Altaïr sees Nokem until the thought is very hard to get rid of. Every part of Malik evokes his image. He thinks he can feel every piece that had ever made the god who seems to stand before him. His stance—proud and severe. His ominous mien. The darkness of his muted light, his dark purple. The blackness of his eyes (Gdila’s eyes, not Nokem’s original own). Everything he used to fear as a child. He feels the outline of all these so precisely that they become solid images, in his eyes and breath, beneath his feet. He fears he might be squishing their shapes with his boots, or stepping on the edge of the fearsome god’s robe.

Altaïr blinks, and Nokem is no longer there. Malik stands in his place.

A faint ripple that remains the only relic of Altaïr’s momentary, irrational awe keeps scratching the inside of his chest while Malik holds his fascinated attention. It lasts only a few heartbeats and Altaïr blinks again—he is looking at Malik’s territory now, the land he has encroached on, he peers into his blue-walled, gold-flounced room and the slow scintillation of candlelight sieved through a silent-looking lilac glass, the ornamental utility of his bathing, which is not so much routine bathing as a sort of cleansing ritual that’s so distinctly Malik.

Malik, an unpampered noble, a budding youth with the face of a god, with hardly a flaw to his full-blown, animated, not particularly well-groomed beauty of a scowl. And then—eyebrows up, eyes roaming—Malik examines the warrior as if he knows how much he had drank or, worse, why he has rushed here. A hundred ruffians cannot disarm Altaïr, but one scowl of an unarmed boy can control him, can turn him into the most docile, broken-spirited creature imaginable. None of this had been his intention, or choice; he had prepared to leash his husband and now he stands in chains.

Lust continues rattling at the back of his mind yet it’s nothing but a distant jingle, too small to hold notice while he stands awed.

The silence files in around Altaïr and Malik like insulation. The two watch each other (a stare and a glare) for a long while; all that the warrior can hear is the informal sound of a steady breathing as he basks in the smell of soft soap and scented oils and melted candle. Nothing happens. Perhaps a moment passes or maybe a long while before Altaïr recognizes what he is staring at: an empty black hole. A husband who doesn’t want him as Ezio had described and suggested. Perhaps Ezio had been mislead—Altaïr can’t imagine there being some more or less villainous motive behind a comrade’s advice. Perhaps he’d fooled himself. It’s no one’s fault.

Altaïr would like to find someone to blame.

He blindly reaches behind his back and slowly shuts the door to stop the current of air which has taken advantage to trickle inside. His boots he unlaces without taking eyes off Malik, and by the time he shepherds himself leftwards, towards the sofa, Malik has already recommenced bathing in a manner quite cozy, quite casual, and Altaïr continues to breathe, slowly, so that the hum of his own breath doesn’t drown out the sounds behind his back.

The path towards the sofa is so long that he feels as though he’ll never even reach the corner of it. One might think that lust and admiration would be equally balanced in a man who has rushed here to take his husband’s virginity, but it is not so. Altaïr imagines that this conscience-ridden race between how badly he could have bungled it all and how sinful his assumptions have been is swelling inside him instead of lust. Perhaps that is why he’s dragging himself like a beaten dog and why his footsteps seem not to be carrying him forwards.

He doesn’t stop even as he reaches the sofa, he seats himself in a swing, mourning the loss of everything he had missed—the beginning of this ritual and every moment he has failed to catch during his journey to the sofa. Altaïr sits but he is not there, his attention centered at this singular act of watching Malik while he himself dwells in the musty but familiar hole of unknown.

He is stuck in place, he isn’t moving anywhere, he’s touching no one tonight. Ezio’s balming words have missed their target like a misapplied salve but his wound is not cracking further—though watching alone will never suffice (and anything beyond that might be reached only by begging), tonight it will suffice, it’s breaking the law, and the sight of Malik is rotting his lust and swelling his awe.

Altaïr doesn’t consider himself a lecherous parasite (he’s been celibate for seven years), nor does he think of himself as the ideal character (though he had, once, in the past). He considers himself only an ordinary human being, and if he has (almost) done worse today than he had yesterday through violent lust, it is the result of other people and not his own choice, as it had been the case on his first night with Malik when he’d been the maker of his own downfall. He has lived through a short burst of lust too cheap to mention and has now given himself up to awe entirely, with the greatest relief.

“What’s the matter with you?” Malik asks. He has lowered his voice, he is calm.

“I was lost in a moment. Caught in a dream.”

“Then wake from it.”

Altaïr holds silent for the sake of unimportant important things Malik thinks nothing of. For the sake of little things which will wander away and perish if they refuse to let Altaïr have them, watch them, in peace.

“May I watch you?” He tries at last, after Malik doesn’t budge for a while.

“To what end?”

“Is the pleasure of watching not an end to itself?”

Malik is neither repulsed nor best pleased. There is a decent annoyance on his face before his wild black hair is brushed back with an angry sweep, then there is a disjunctive motion—hands traveling apart and a half-shrug to signify helpless passivity, passive consent. Of protest, there is no trace. He resumes as if it’s no different than showering in the courtyard, and there’s (almost) nothing atypical in the essence of watching (except that it’s Altaïr and not the community) because his nudity in current context is irrelevant.

Altaïr settles on the edge of the sofa, and that’s the last of his movement. The rest he leaves to his eyes, his mind, his breath.

Around him, it smells of Malik’s proximity, of the mingle of a fresh clean scent of limes and velvety suppleness of peaches, of sputtering candles and melting wax. Of home. Of husband. He breathes this smell until it has replaced wine, until his lungs know no other scent. He sits intoxicated with it and enraptured by the sight, feels himself drifting off—he loses sight of all except the way his husband’s skin glistens with soap and his eyes with darkness, and suspicion. Malik plays pretense while he watches him from the corner of his eye as if Altaïr is going to tiptoe up behind him.

Altaïr feels he would fall flat if he tried to budge, let alone stand up. His eyes obey him, and beyond that—nothing. Malik does cease with the furtive looks at some point and Altaïr can watch him unchecked. He never ventures beyond admiration and exhaustive study of Malik’s habits, he never ventures into lust. Malik’s skin is as dark as Altaïr’s, a shade darker, and beautiful. There are no scars. It’s smooth and supple skin, pliant where Altaïr’s is thinned-and-stretched taut over muscle, soft where Altaïr’s is hard, the curves of his body gentle where Altaïr’s are sharp. He is all Altaïr deems beautiful, and more than he had expected.

His skin is dark until he scoops up a palmful of something from the bowl atop the bathtub’s tray on the side and works it into a lather. Malik starts out with his chest—Altaïr with his neck down. Malik seems to have a different pattern of soaping himself, and though Altaïr is fairly sure he had never quite dedicated thought to his own washing which is mechanical and thoughtless, Malik’s own motions appear deliberate—a well-trodden path he always follows. He is a creature of habit.

The first scoop he works up into a milky soapy lather, scrub into his skin one patch at a time until the bronze of his skin is muted by the thick froth and the pale, watery trickles running a race down his limbs—a sight not tarnished by the warrior’s words, but appreciated in silence. The thick smell of limes bursts forth before Malik can rinse it off, it stifles the scent of peaches. Malik lathers himself up with hands, sans a washcloth or a bath sponge, and before Altaïr’s gorged himself full he moves to swill his body and rinse off to finish the bath (Altaïr should have been there to watch him soak, he regrets his absence). A bucketful of water, a pitcher, two deliberate pours—that’s all Malik needs to wash the lather off. 

Time slows to a speed where Altaïr can notice every single thing. He notices Malik’s lean muscles—the sheen of candlelight patting them down like a towel—and his breath coming out of his flared nostrils, swelling his chest, stretching his belly taut, and the odd rhythm of drops as they ripple across water surface. Altaïr’s gaze is glued to the body that’s slowly revealed, shifting in a slow, monotonous climb up and down it—he knows Malik’s body ought to be a darker in the wake of retreating soap (it’s only natural, Malik’s skin is darker than lather) but it seems as if his skin is turning a few shades dimmer until it’s dark as onyx and glossy as polished stone, until Nokem is standing somewhere nearby, Altaïr thinks, as a shadowy presence whose exhales become Malik’s inhales.

Altaïr appreciates the race of suds on this dark backdrop, watches a slow current of milky foam, thick like felt, as it raps across knuckles where Malik is wiping his hand down his chest, sees the struggle of a stream of soapsuds as it slows to a halt on the curve of his husband’s ass, warming itself in the flame of candle, and this moment of warmth, this beautiful pause in a moment of time is why, Altaïr feels certain, a jealous trickle of water washes from above, down the arch of Malik’s back, to wash it all off. The warrior starts to swear, at the back of his mind, but slowly—everything is happening so slowly-and-quickly—and at first it seems time will come to a halt and the world outside this home will be all right. It seems as if it might even be possible to ignore that jealous trickle, but the foam is doomed to oblivion by the last invasive wave that swallows Malik’s back faster than a greedy thought. The foam is thinned, it struggles on, there can’t be that much distance before it hits the pool of water. But there is. It’s not touching the surface. It trickles down the back of Malik’s thigh, down his calf by the time he pours his last pitcher of clear water across a shoulder, Altaïr hears it echo as it falls against the surface, in the same way he can hear the echo of Malik’s voice when he starts to softly hum, in the same way he can feel the echo of his own daydream drowning among the soapsuds. He will wake up soon.

He rides the rest of the way in silence that’s punctuated by the clicking of droplets, and the handsome deep voice of a youth, and the rush of Altaïr’s warm pulse speaking over the hum of the melody. The melody whispers directly into Altaïr’s ear as if reading to him the myth of marriage he used to conjure up in war, a dream that feels real for the first time, or unreal. It whispers a message that is not dedicated to him and he can’t quite hear, though it fills him with longing just the same.

He has long invented images like these, when they had been herded into barracks and tents where no one even hopes to sleep well. There is no law or tradition to say that the beds in a barrack must be comfortable. The time spent where it’s all stuffy and noisy and the beds uniformly dirty and uncomfortable had been redeemed through expectations he used to construct at all hours of the day and night. There, in squalid dens and vagrant camps, Altaïr had imagined himself returning to cheaply-furnished rooms and finding himself rich with husband. He had imagined taking him, then taking him again, until Malik’s body is pleasantly exhausted and Altaïr’s sweetened by the pleasures of sex, and sitting by a fire on embroidered cushions, watching his husband bathe in candle light and suds and water.

His reveries have been made flesh at last, in part.

Malik is as far out of his reach as the moon. That his husband doesn’t actually desire him in that way despite Ezio’s suggestions is a knowledge acutely unpleasant (no other humiliation can do more damage to his self-respect), but he has got so accustomed to it that he is not surprised.

He is absolutely without hope of getting the husband from his daydreams, and whether it’s Malik’s fault or Altaïr’s being unfit for marriage is no longer relevant. It’s his own fault for attaching himself to the wrong choice and being condemned to perpetual celibacy. A man like Altaïr, a man who had abstained for seven years will do another seven, or more, as long as he has a husband to watch and a hand to hold. Loyalty and this little comfort are enough to put him off starving. As long as Malik is within his sight’s reach, he will settle for what he has, or doesn’t have.

Malik climbs out of the bathtub, stepping onto his bandaged foot first—an unfortunate necessity he handles well—and awaiting him on the carpet are two square cloths of unequal size. A youth of his age should be permitted to forget something, but Malik seems painstakingly precise in his preparations. He fleetingly pats himself down with a prepared towel, he rubs himself into a fine sheen of lotion ignited by the gleam of candlelight, and though he struggles to reach the center of his back (perhaps Altaïr could one day apply an oil to his body, perhaps) he finishes his task with an immutable dignity which is accentuated, not undermined, by nudity. The bathrobe he then dons has been neatly laid out on the table as well, part of his preplanned bathing ritual, a robe that is unmistakably Leonardo’s craft—dark, black, sleeveless, faced with gold that expands into a swirling pattern towards the center of the back. A black robe which does little to no job of covering his chest, deep-purple breeches and mauve socks next. Malik migrates to the smaller, unsoaked rectangular towel when he commences the task of slipping on and tying up his breeches—an airy piece of garment puffed up at knee and puckered below it—and pulling up his knee-high socks (Altaïr fondly remembers wearing a couple pairs too as a child in orphanage) governed the vertical recurrence of the same golden pattern.

When Malik has finished drawing his curious socks up to meet the breeches until the littlest strip of skin is covered, his bathing ritual is not done. And it clearly is a ritual.

The one bowl on the tub tray is replaced by two new ones, a collection of bundles still lies unused on the table. Malik bends over the tub and bows his head to pour a fresh pitcher of water—he is washing his hair separately. Altaïr wishes he could further document the details of Malik’s hair washing, but the angle is different, and poor, and he is comparing the movement of Malik’s body to what he knows of hair care (and he knows very little). He wants to shift, he doesn’t want to move. He does not bother to puzzle out why exactly he feels the urgent need to dive into the particulars of his husband’s everyday life, but a flood of excitement foams up inside his chest when he sees Malik rise, it’s as if he’s returned from a journey Altaïr hasn’t been able to follow.

Malik’s next bundles of cloth are even more curious. They consist of a layer of soaked linen (swiftly discarded), a thicker layer of absorbent cotton wound round his head, and another layer of tight, combed cotton coiled into a turban. The turban is as deep a purple as his breeches. At first it’s a long piece of dark cloth folded out across their dinner table. Malik treats it with greatest caution and reverence as he takes it up and begins tying it around his head. The coiling is slow and deliberate, mesmerizing. With no mirror at hand, Malik works the cloth up into a creaseless, neatly-folded turban of many layers, until nothing is left but to tuck in the top and lift his head. From the table he picks up the remaining bundle, he unfolds it and a burst of deepest black unfurls and flares up—it’s a hooded robe, the one Malik had worn on his way to his brother’s grave. Malik shrugs the second robe on—a pinch of distance and it would touch the ground—he shirrs it neatly onto his shoulders and pulls the hood up without disturbing the turban. Though he requires a moment more to attend to his injured foot, he eases himself into his last garment—a pair of slippers, flat, soft, curly-toed, and of color Altaïr can identify as neither black nor purple yet both at the same time.

Altaïr had never seen home garments of such beauty, nor a person more worthier of donning them.

Malik stands a living and breathing statue of his divine father.

“Has Nokem himself ever appeared in such rare form?”

Altaïr voices his question before he is aware of his mouth forming words, or his throat crafting sound to utter them. Malik glances his way (at last, after such an extensive amount of time), he frowns through the confusion-patched expression on face and Altaïr isn’t sure he’d heard him at all.

Nokem stands eclipsed by your beauty.”

Malik blinks, the frown flattens leaving a disordered blankness behind.

“You flatter.”

“I appreciate.”

Altaïr wonders if he’s crossed boundaries and damaged barriers he is still learning not to touch. A moment passes, two, and Malik doesn’t appear as if he will lash out, no anger is filing out onto his face. He doesn’t acknowledge the compliment in any other way, as if it had never been uttered, as if it’s never passed between them. He distances himself as if Altaïr’s just voiced a sacrilege he wants no part in, and turns to collecting the residue of his ritual (bowls for sealing, soaked cloth for spreading to dry). The noble is not mad with anger, but this detail alone won’t soothe the unease inside Altaïr’s rib cage.

“I,” he starts, stuck, but then a flash of regret starts and Altaïr decides not to bother with the sublime clarification he’d been about to make. Instead he starts to laugh. His stomach feels alone and nervous. And then, in a moment of delirium, he takes the plunge:

“I would wash my hair like that, too.”

There is water left. He has seen Malik leaving his second of two buckets untouched. He wants to emulate what Malik has done, soaps, scents, and all.

The noble regards him with tireless scrutiny, quiet. Wet towels hang suspended on his arm thrust forth from the folds of his hooded robe, a bowl held in the hand that peeks on the neighboring side, and a dimmed glimmer of Malik’s skin where his belly is hidden in depths of the robe. With such concoction of images, it almost seems pointless to remind himself that he’s sharing a room with another human, not a god. 

“I can do that in your stead,” Malik says cordially, without a ripple of scorn, and perhaps a little patronizingly.

Altaïr has felt the words before he’s properly heard them. They feel like an avalanche stopping in its tracks a wisp of a distance above the cowering village. What Malik tacitly suggests is doing what a loving husband would do, and whether Malik is aware of it or not, Altaïr is easily overruled by his offer.

“Kneel,” he points at the spot beside the tub.

Altaïr leaps with disciplined efficiency, the rest of the way is not as easy, but equally headless. It’s a swooning motion—the result of feverish physical excitement—which he conceals with a blank face. Although he feels there must be something awry, that it’s dangerous to remain in touch with his imagination, he is comforted by presumption that all this is only a passing kindness he is allowed to enjoy. An endearing gesture, but another returning of favors, like the kiss on cheek had been. One good deserves another. A returning of favors, it must be that. But Altaïr is not picky tonight, for this gesture alone is enough to sate his craving for domesticity. A token of care to put off desire for sex for months ahead. It’s not a sign of trust, Altaïr can’t imagine it as such, but it may be an initiation (or continuation ) of bonding.

He kneels on the carpet bending his head and neck over the bathtub—a tub completely different from the one he had left to a child—a tub whose ends slope up like an inverted arch, creating a much more comfortable leaning position for the warrior. He grasps at the rim, awaiting, keeping himself steady—he doesn’t trust his mind and his body even less—a man so entranced that he forgets about ever having rushed back here with sexual pretext.

Nothing is sexual and everything is divine. The touch on shoulder when Malik maneuvers him into a more fitting position, the tug on collar as he wordlessly asks for Altaïr to remove his tunic, the fragrance of peach-lime-peach that seems to waft off Malik the closer he moves.

He feels hot and buoyant, despite the cold touch as Malik’s hand hugs his forehead pulling him up. In the distance Malik is telling him he shouldn’t strain his neck before he goes about gathering fresh supplies, that it will suffice to wait on knees, and Altaïr nods, he doesn’t hear beyond the barest rudiments of simple orders. Malik may have been using the opportunity to check if Altaïr is feverish (he is not). The coldness of his hands feels good on Altaïr’s warm forehead. He waits on his knees staring off into the tub and the sudsy water left in Malik’s wake, and from the adjacent room to the left (a sort of pantry he hasn’t ventured into it often, not beyond scanning its contents and taking a broom) he hears a loud anarchistic knocking—cupboards being opened and shut one after the other, ceramics clicking together.

Altaïr shakes himself from a distant haze when Malik emerges from behind the heavy drapery (the only border between the rooms Altaïr collectively calls pantry and their first room), with new items grouped together onto a tray, from towels to bowls Altaïr decides to commence examining only as they become relevant. There is too many things to keep tabs on at once, they demand separate understanding. Malik allows him glimpse into none as he puts the tray up on the table, keeping only the sputtering candle on the tub tray.

Altaïr can bend his own head again, but he waits for Malik to do it.

He allows himself to be shepherded, steered, directed like a puppet, he is putty in Malik’s hands—the noble could stab a knife in his neck and he would keep his head down. The pitcher is submerged into the bucket, filled, picked up, the water is lukewarm—just right. Water flows down his head and his chest is full to overflowing. He is unsure what to do with his hands, where to place them, he makes a stunned pause and then coils his hands round the bath rim. Though he would best like to lay his arms out along the rim and lace hands below chin, he is keenly interested in the contents of Malik’s cosmetic treasures, and such position would hinder his sight.

Malik doesn’t simply hang over this task on a distance, he works his left hand thoroughly through Altaïr’s hair, short as it is, his movements aren’t chaste nor shy—in fact, Malik has never before touched him more on his own volition. They don’t talk; there is a great famine of words. It doesn’t impair the experience, to the contrary. Altaïr knows there is conversation even where people are silent. Malik has no ulterior motives, he has nothing to gain from him, and this is Altaïr’s greatest obstacle to puzzling out the reason behind such kindness, but he knows, at least, that this is not as silent as it looks.

Malik visits his tray only after Altaïr’s head is thoroughly soaked. He does set his first bowl onto the tub tray little to Altaïr’s right (it’s one of the two Malik himself had used) and he is pleased. He doesn’t expect Malik to acquaint him with the contents of each bowl, nor does Malik fulfill the expectations he doesn’t have. A glimpse into the vessel flashes him a summary of its contents. What he can’t decipher through mere sight, he leaves to his nose. It’s a combination of soap, perfumes, and essential oils, a concoction that holds his attention until Malik’s cold hand confronts his neck turning his head away, and then down. The contents of this bowl are what gives off such a strong scent of peaches and lime. This, and whatever Malik had washed his body with.

Altaïr expects him to finish soaping his hair as efficiently as he had oiled his body, but the time he spends on this task violates all boundaries of Altaïr’s expectations. Malik collects a dollop of this concoction at a time, he doesn’t scoop it into his palm in great quantities. The lathering itself and working his way into his hair lasts more than Altaïr is able to count (he makes an honest attempt to count, but each drag of fingers across his scalp sweeps what little sense of time he has), and at the outset Malik is a bit rougher, his hands a little brisker, until the soap begins sudsing up, until he can hear the rush-and-crinkle of foam. Calling it soap wouldn’t do it justice—it’s far from the stuff Altaïr had been used to in time longer than just the past seven years, far from the soap that had been difficult to wash out and had left behind a dull film after washing. Ezio managed, occasionally, to pilfer soaps of better quality for his hair, but Altaïr had never asked (he saw no need), and Desmond kept his own even shorter. While Altaïr does groom himself (to the best of his ability) to maintain cleanliness, Malik’s ritual is not the pinnacle of cleanliness, but pampering so typically civilian, or noble.

Once the warrior assumes that his hair is fully lathered and Malik is ready to rinse, Malik turns his attentions elsewhere; he swaps vessels bringing with him this time more liquid contents in another bowl. Scented oils. Almond and olives, cedar. Perhaps it’s this that makes his husband’s hair glossy and smooth, like silk, as opposed to Altaïr’s hair that’s thick, and coarse.

Malik disappears off into his pantry. It seems he hasn’t come as well-prepared as Altaïr had thought him to be. He lays no blame on him. It must be excitement or spontaneity, inventiveness or the novelty of this sudden situation that has muddled his usual precision. He returns with another towel, another cloth (white, not dark like Malik’s own), and though Malik emerges through the hanging drapery with ease, its folds flutter in Altaïr’s vision long after it sways to a halt and Malik bends his disobedient head lower again.

“Do you think we need a door there?”

At his side, Malik is scooping a spoonful of the oils mixture from the bowl and slotting the spoon above the candle flame for a warming.

“No,” Malik says, his tone far from decisive—the tone of someone prepared to compromise should it come to that, ”I thought about doors once. But they are too costly. I like it the way it is.”

“And between here and the bedroom?”

They sit in silence for a while, Altaïr resting on his haunches bent over the rim of the tub, Malik swapping the spoon’s contents with colder ones to heat above flame.

“No,” Malik decides after the extensive pause, “Without doors it’s as if the entire home is connected into one unity.”

Malik turns silent anew and Altaïr helps him carry that silence, he’s content with watching him warm the oils, with listening to the foam suds in his wet hair wither slowly until Malik decides it’s time to free them from their suffering. It’s when Malik stirs the bowl for the last time and picks the pitcher up again that Altaïr decides to whisper what he hasn’t known he’s holding in chest.

“I’ve a suspicion we will need a door for the bedroom.”

Altaïr hopes his inkling hasn’t met a suspicions ear, as his thoughts have moved closer towards matter of cold and winter, nothing untoward, and Malik (to Altaïr’s relief) doesn’t catch the wrong message. With pitcher in hand, he makes a relinquishing gesture, a half-shrug before he envelops Altaïr’s nape to bend him lower.

“If you want doors you can have them put up. Though I would advise against such costly spending, this is your house.”

Through the amalgam of water washing down his head and Malik’s rubbing down his scalp to rinse him off, Altaïr nearly fails to catch his last sentence. When he’s sure he’s heard it right, just as he is maneuvered up through pressure on forehead again (once a towel has been swathed around the back of his head), he bursts into an impromptu and completely disorganized laugh. Short as it is, it makes Malik frown and Altaïr regret his own reaction. He wants to say something, to leave a remarkably well impression with words he’s intending to say, but he waits for Malik to towel his hair off properly.

“The walls are mine. The home is yours.”

Above, a human god is peering down at him, with wet towel in hand and silent turmoil on face.

“No doors then,” Malik issues the final verdict, and then there’s quiet.

He migrates to whatever step he’s planned next, quickly—Altaïr feels it’s to obscure the real question of what’s just passed between them, of how close to domestics they have just ventured. Malik keeps him on his haunches, he comes up behind his back with bowl in hand, and before long Altaïr feels a faint dripping of warm oils across the crown of his head, then Malik’s fingers combing through and working the mixture into his scalp. It lasts quicker than Altaïr has raised hopes for, too quick—it’s a blink of time, a morsel for a man starved for domestic care—and Malik is bending him over the rim once more and repeating the rinsing while Altaïr mourns the loss of his touch.

A new towel is wound around his head as a poor imitation of Malik’s turban, he isn’t sure what follows next (if anything at all), but Malik taps at his shoulder and orders him up. He obeys.

“Sit,” he says pointing at their cushioned bench. While he’s taking a seat Malik tugs his tray over, takes a third bowl. This one Altaïr hadn’t seen yet. The contents aren’t in accordance with the size of the bowl which appears almost too large for a palmful of substance that looks like some creamy ointment, whitish in color, smelling of something Altaïr can’t quite band with any scent from the catalog he’s familiar with—he wonders if it has any other purpose than smelling good.

Malik puts this vessel before him, and two before Altaïr.

One of them Altaïr recognizes instantly as Malik’s double-nozzled oil lamp, the other is a censer. The lamp he had seen already and the censer holds his undivided attention. It’s silver cast, spherical with a round rimming in the center where it’s split in half—the lower half fretted, the upper elaborately engraved, both enameled. The upper half, which makes the lid, grows into a ribbed cone on top, cast in gold. Another heirloom. Altaïr wonders how many family treasures of his home this child has saved from fire and theft.

Malik takes the candle to light each of the two peeking lamp wicks, then puts out the candle. From the kitchen hearth he returns with a glowing ember in tongs, he breaks it into halves inside the censer, and then he collects a few kernels of incense from a lidded box he’s slotted onto his tray and peppers this pinch of dried incense resins atop the embers. A volute of smoke fans out almost immediately, the scent of incense spreads around them mingling with silence. It’s incense that can lull one to sleep, calming.

Altaïr struggles with himself, he would ask questions but he needs volume in his voice, and both are missing equally. He would ask about Malik’s childhood, about the days after his departure for war, he would ask about all the items and oils he’s seen and will see tonight, but the silence between them is stout and heavy, and he devotes himself to watching and stalks Malik’s hand as it picks up the tiny golden rod connected by chain to a fastener like a large articulated ring atop the censer lid, he watches him muffle the smoke while fitting the lid into place.

When he had been but a child little above a toddler, Altaïr had asked a priestess why the incense doesn’t burn on its own. She had said, he remembers her words well, that it’s the duty of priests to burn incense, to remind them that just as the censer cannot be lighted without one’s hand, so too cannot one’s heart—it, too, is one’s inner censer, which can’t be ignited without a light, as many virtues as it may contain. Because one’s virtues are like fuel, and the light the spark that ignites them.

This old lesson had never echoed as loudly as it does now. Altaïr understands it as good as he used to, which is to say not very well, but he has rediscovered it and it’s at least one step closer to unraveling its full value. Give him breath and tinder until it ignites. Find an ember of light in him and give it breath, and he will glow for you. Leonardo’s words sound like that of a priest. Malik is the censer that can’t be lighted without Malik’s own hand, but it rests on Altaïr to provide the spark to light his virtues.

Altaïr had spent his own childhood torn between the cheer of Hiba’s orphanage and the silence of Gdila’s temple across the street. The scent of incense evokes memories of hours he had spent in the presence of priests, and calmness he had found near Gdila’s statue, in the shadows of his wings. He hasn’t prayed to Gdila since his return. How conceited, to forget his patronage the moment the dangers of war have ceased. He vows to visit the temple tomorrow. Perhaps he won’t find any priests that he remembers, perhaps he won’t find any. This thought, or fear, fills his head and holds its place in his chest for a while, before his attention is summoned by Malik.

It’s not an action of Malik’s own choosing. It’s what Malik is doing that’s pulling Altaïr’s head from graver thoughts. And Malik is currently piling in front of him a handful of what looks suspiciously like seeds of some tree, or herb. He takes up seed by seed digging his nail into a part where the skin is the thinnest and more susceptible to breaking, he splits the pit removing the brownish husk with white flesh inside, and in the very heart of the pit—a green seed. He splits and removes each husk leaving only the green seeds on the table, he tugs his bowl of ointment over, and then starts cracking the green seeds in two (the seed is small, the work is delicate) and pinching each half into the bowl, until the moist sap inside is squeezed out in the form of a droplet. This procedure, delicate and deliberate as it is, suggests to Altaïr a practiced use cosmetic routine (in same ways Malik is protecting his hands from harsh soaps, in same way Altaïr is starting to heal his own hands), yet Malik never once show signs of wanting to explain the procedures to Altaïr, nor to explain the contents of his mixtures, not to speak of their origin. Perhaps it’s herbs for nourishment of hair, perhaps it’s nothing but an unconventional perfume.

Malik offers nothing and Altaïr asks for nothing.

He breathes incense and waits for Malik to stir his newest concoction; some words want to leave his mouth, and he gulps them down, everything’s swimming a little in the smoke of incense and the radiance of Altaïr’s happiness as he realizes that Malik has risen and taken place behind his back to work this mixture into his hair. Perhaps this is also what provides Malik’s hair with such luster, which makes it soft to touch. He doesn’t think of speaking when Malik removes the towel from his head, even less as he begins to dab drop after drop across his scalp before putting the emptied bowl aside.

Having freed his hands, Malik combs them through Altaïr’s hair from nape up, and, having arrived at the crown of his head, he starts kneading his palms into his skin and clawing up and down—more soft pads than claws—and raking his fingers through Altaïr’s drying hair. The mixture is subtly warm on Malik’s finger when he tilts back his head a sliver and runs it along his hairline, precisely, without smearing a drop on his forehead, then his hand retreats joining with the other one and rubbing until Altaïr realizes that this is not finished with mere application of his mixture, but followed by a scalp massage.

While at first his hands work with a quaint blend of vigorous strokes and lighter pressure, his touch turns invariably mellow after a time (Altaïr once more loses touch with the notion of time—it could have been a few moments or a few hours) until, at last, he is rubbing with his fingertips, gently.

It’s gentleness in hands that’s hard to reconcile with the harshness of Malik’s character, the severity of his scowls.

He had felt friendly touches of much briefer duration, but he hasn’t been touched this intimately, nor has he ever allowed others to map out his body with such precision, to chart and travel the unevenness of his scalp and feel the scars littered across it— the old gash at the back of his head, or the other, thicker but shorter one above his left ear where Malik glides his little finger ever so often as he combs the sides of his head.

Altaïr feels tension forsake him; the rest of him is breathing, slack muscles, and dormant confusion.

He is used to his nomadic state of confusion, but he wants to know why Malik is doing all this. To prove that he does his jobs and tasks thoroughly? Had there been some merit to Ezio’s words after all? Has Malik simply discovered pleasure in taking care of someone as he takes care of himself? Is it out of a personal sense of accomplishment, either from doing his tasks skillfully, or bringing a poor warrior to the climax of confusion? Or another swap of favors for his bandaged injury? Repayment of obligations doesn’t feel like this. It shouldn’t. It’s a fraud if it is repayment.

Altaïr will forget this suspicion now, but will remember it afterwards.

Now, the smoldering ember is glowing brighter and the flame is burning harsher, the smoke is fanning out quicker, and his home smells of warm oils, and spices, and peaches, and Malik. The pressure on his scalp is firm and fingers gentle, skating in shapes Altaïr can’t decipher, and he’s trying to look for genuineness in what Malik is offering but he’s swallowed by such a fierce delirium much too quickly—he is going, going, he will be gone in a few more breaths.

He follows for a moment more as Malik flicks his earlobe by accident and starts a brisk rub with the balls of his palms climbing towards the midline of his head, he can’t follow further than that, he’s gone.

The next time he opens his eyes, the mist of smoke is haloing above the censer in thin swirl, two gentle thumbs are curving down his temples, the back of his head is tilted backwards. He is unaware that he’s leaning back until he feels that Malik is keeping the weight of his head on his bare chest. Malik is not pushing him up but he has opened his eyes and honor demands that he raise himself upright. This movement alone unleashes a series of complaints in his body and shrill protests in his mind, but Malik’s fingers are still on his temples and things could have been worse.

Once his head is propped by his own neck again, Malik launches into a slow retreat, across his hairline and backwards towards the midline of his head (he feels no creamy textures, his hair is dry) and, starting from the crown of his head, he climbs down the back of his scalp in small, circular motions that mutate slightly with each new rub down, whether it’s a pressing of his whole hand against his scalp or moving his skin with the heel of his palm, without friction. He retreats then, gliding a touch down Altaïr’s nape, down the sides of his neck fanning out onto his naked shoulders, and before Altaïr can register properly, Malik has taken up a seat at his side, facing Altaïr rather than the table, with one leg propped up onto the bench and the sole of his toe-curled slipper wedged against his own inner thigh.

Altaïr is alert and his mind rapt when Malik lifts himself upright to reach the back of his head with towel in hands and dabs him off to remove the extra moisture (though there’s none). Keeping his eyes closed is what seems to encourage Malik to maintain proximity, and Altaïr is therefore encouraged to keep them closed. The towel is replaced by a hand, to slick his ruffled hair down, and it’s when Malik does whatever he’s intended next that Altaïr feels his closeness through sense of hearing as the robe shirrs down Malik’s shoulders or sense of touch as the warmth of his skin ghosts over Altaïr’s own, and finally through sense of smell, when he leans in (not towards Altaïr, at least not deliberately, but across the table to reach for something behind Altaïr’s back) and he can breathe the scent of peaches and warmth off Malik’s chest.

This innocent proximity to his husband’s chest nudges to life what’s been caged and dormant, it whets his appetite but he puts himself to fasting and waits until Malik has wound a garment around his shoulders to open eyes. It’s a bathrobe, white as flour, plain in comparison to Malik’s attire, but soft to touch, and thick. Altaïr shifts on the bench to face him, until Malik’s bent knee is touching his inner thigh, and with a jerk of his broad shoulders, Altaïr loops his arms through both armholes at once; another pull and the robe is on. Malik leans in again (he is invasive in ways he criticizes Altaïr for, but Altaïr won’t tell him that, not now), reaches behind his neck to tug up the hood that has escaped the warrior’s notice, and then pulls it down Altaïr’s head.

They sit in a whirl of incense, two husbands in hoods facing each other on a table bench.

It seems to Altaïr that the more fervently he tries to conquer Malik, the more he is conquered by him.

“Thank you.”

“It was nothing,” Malik evades.

“It was everything I wanted. More than I thought I’d get.”

Malik’s hands remain clawed in folds of his (now Altaïr’s) white hood for a moment longer, as if he’s caught himself unsure why he’d placed them there or why he hasn’t removed them by now, then he releases his hold pulling his hands down.

Altaïr catches this imperfect fall of hands in midair, seizing him by the wrists, he draws them up to his lips and resolves the pardonable tension with an overly familiar kiss. He kisses knuckles, he nuzzles lower. He has other, more ambitious plans, but for time being he keeps Malik’s hands in between his and cushions them on his lap. A smile that has furtively settled on his mouth is reluctant to part from its hard-earned territory and Altaïr doesn’t chase it off, he isn’t even sure he’s capable of doing so, it remains there for reasons that are known or less known to him.

He would love to lean in and dive into the shadows of Malik’s dark hood to capture his lips, for the briefest kiss if more is not allowed, just to remind himself of the taste of his lips, but he ditches all desires. He had made himself a votive promise to never cross boundaries again. Even if all this has been a form of odd invitation on Malik’s part, he won’t read it as such. Seeing nothing in all this might be absurd, but no precaution he takes is too absurd if he wants to pave the way to a better bond with his husband.

He feels the bulk of Malik’s silence on his shoulders, he feels it ooze down into the crook of his arms, he can’t lift his hands.

If Malik’s words are weapons, his silence is murder.

Malik is unfit to look him in eye outright at such proximity (he’s ashamed to consider this a weakness) and his gaze soon drops, to Altaïr’s lips, where he’s in even worse danger of being misunderstood, so he veers off to the side. This doesn’t last even for two breaths, since it’s a gesture too unsubtle and vain, so he restores his gaze to the former sight. He is obvious and Altaïr is singularly bad at pretending he hasn’t noticed, and Malik finds it difficult to care about that when he sees bright eyes, the healthy bronze glow of cheeks, full-but-papery lips. His husband’s eyes are actually of a light transparent amber with contrasting black lashes, his eyes are a bit glassy as Malik starts to slant forward before he’s aware that he’s leaning in—a baffling motion freezing a seasoned warrior in place.

Malik arrests himself in time, he stops dead, he is so hopelessly incapable of handling the absurd predicament he’s found himself in. Too thoughtless in start, too nervous to continue.

There is a fatal split between what he’s started and how he wants it to end, and where a blush is clutching at his temples his turban swallows it up, but it can do nothing about the glow that has suffused his cheeks. His lips part, he’s too timid to wet them, he keeps them parted, he breathes stiffly; Altaïr suspects Malik won’t even start to consider a kiss until he’s gotten rid of certain prejudices, and the time Altaïr needs for breaking them can’t fit into the gap that currently hovers between them. Malik stares at him perplexed as if he expects him to do something or undo what he himself has started, and Altaïr (through no conscious decision of his own) stares at the little upward lift in the middle of Malik’s upper lip, it’s diverting Altaïr’s attention, it’s enchanting him.

Though Malik isn’t able to clinch the business, Altaïr brings himself to a satisfactory closeness. Though he isn’t sure if that’s what Malik has intended, he would be remiss to leave this attempt without a closure. Though he might be perceiving this in the shimmer of his usual imaginary nature, it seems to Altaïr that Malik has acted unconsciously but deliberately enough to give him a hint.

Altaïr isn’t fond of hints; he had taken very blinkered attitudes before, assuming that Malik wants him, so rather than assuming that Malik’s dropping of hints is an invitation between his legs, he assumes it’s an invitation to innocent bonding.

Malik is frozen in mid-path, he’s not budging anywhere, and though the sight of him bathing had earlier completely dispelled lust from his body, or made it unnoticeably dormant, the sight of Malik’s dark eyes and warm wet breath stirs his desire until the jingle of lust that has been dimmed before now rattles louder. He will travel down the path Malik has started. It’s only a rough idea, and there are some obvious objections to it. Nevertheless, the fact that it’s been Malik who made the first gesture suggests a way of improving relations between them without piling up new burdens on Altaïr alone.

His palm guards over Malik’s clasped hands, he smiles, and when his smile is not sufficiently clear he leans in into the vacancy between them to pinch the leftover gap. Little by little he follows the slow path of suspense, but suddenly Malik tilts his heads downwards before Altaïr’s lips can catch him, and Altaïr comes to a startled halt, but having found himself this close he gaps the bridge and pecks his forehead as a sweetener. He retreats leaving Malik to stare at their twined hands.

“I won’t kiss you,” Malik insists while peering up to catch a glimpse of Altaïr’s face, and maybe he’s telling that to himself.

“Alright.”

“You’re a strange man,” the noble says flatly, refusing to look him in the eye ever since sighting the smirk on Altaïr’s lip while the warrior is squeezing their hands tighter.

“Probably.”

Malik doesn’t look; he demands no release either.

 


 

Altaïr is already in bed before Malik has finished his prayers.

It looks as if Nokem is praying to himself.

It’s colder than all previous nights together and Malik has dug out a cotton blanket from his wooden chest, a velvet duvet cover, and a thicker down quilt—this one is not split in half. While Altaïr rejoices in the newfound unity of their bed, he had theoretically hoped (childishly) that Malik would seek to secure his body warmth in Altaïr’s proximity, through a of transfer warmth from Altaïr’s body. Altaïr’s body heat is a generous borrower. 

When Malik climbs into the bed he climbs standing upright, to select a book from his wedge-shaped shelf towering above the headboard. He takes a long time to nestle into the bed—to lay his robe out across sheets, to plump his pillow up and recline backwards and put his booklet up—and longer to amass on enough warmth to allow his arms escape the protection of covers while perusing his book and flipping its worn pages.

Altaïr would offer warmth (he’s abundantly supplied with it), but he has sworn to never again cross Malik’s side of bed, nor does Malik invite him over.

The warrior lies on his side facing the other half of the bed and its inhabitant, and he sighs a defeat to accompany the crepitus of paper as Malik leafs through the pages. Malik doesn’t acknowledge his tortured sigh, nor anything else beside his little booklet. Sleep is beginning to claw at the insides of Altaïr’s head and he finds his voice, through fear of losing a luxury he has taught himself to expect.

“Malik…?”

Malik doesn’t wait for the question.

Without taking his eyes off the book, he drops his arm asprawl towards Altaïr’s side of bed and his hand unfolds, blooming from a fist into a spread palm awaiting Altaïr’s hold. He draws his knees up to erect a support for his booklet and ease the task of turning the pages over with a single hand.

Altaïr honors his sacrifice.

He takes the offered hand up with deepest reverence. Malik’s hand is motionless, his fingers don’t give the barest twitch, as if he has given up control and left it in Altaïr’s undivided care. Altaïr shifts closer, to avoid pulling Malik’s arm taut across the mattress as he seeks to put lips to his hand. He draws across the creases on his palm absentmindedly, conjuring up memories of his husband’s bath, he thinks of fingers in his hair and pecks each knuckle blindly, with admiration. He can’t forgo the comfort of this hand, and he would give up all to never part with this luxury.

He holds onto it despite the clench of sleep, his mouth knit into the mound of Malik’s palm, he thumbs across soft, satiny skin. His fingers whisper, his lips stroke.

He drifts off breathing the scent of lime and peaches off Malik’s hand.

 

Chapter Text

 

“I had told you before they wouldn’t aid in the killing. Had you heeded my warning none of this would have happened—“

“They’ve seen war, I had thought—“

“They’ve seen war—abroad. This is their community. It’s what they’ve been brought up to protect.”

In a parlor choked with ornamental plants, Al Mualim stands cupping the rounded end of his beard in a time-worn hand and stroking the grey tangle while the report dangles from his other hand. He ponders. He doesn’t inspect the parchment in hand and trusts Lucy’s word alone.

“They’ve already broken your rules once. That they would break them again shouldn’t astonish you,” Lucy worms herself into his silence, and finding him receptive to her tales takes off a lot of the workload she had expected to perform in order to convince him.

“Was there nothing to prevent their intervention?”

He is receptive, but still displeased. While the massacre of priests remains undiscovered and their reputation spotless (were it not for the trio who had directed the burial from sea to land), Al Mualim is dissatisfied with the presence of evidence, however deeply interred, on soil of the island they intend to conquer under their rule.

“They are too strong for me to confront with violence,” she admits and this, at least, is not a lie, “The mercenaries that were present are but a weak force compared to experience of seasoned warriors. There was nothing I could do without paying in blood. Blood would have breached their silence, and their silence none of your rules can govern.”

Within certain limits, it is actually true that the less excuses Lucy has, the less she worries. When she has a dozen excuses to choose from she is liable to the most craven anxieties. When she has only one she is quite indifferent. Yet she’s covertly relieved that Al Mualim has accepted her only excuse for altering his orders in his absence.

“We must change rules then. Children might be a good way to start. Reeducating citizens into new laws—“

“Your laws are not yet law, Rashid,” she all but snarls, and without a pause she shoots a warning across, ”I’m telling lies in your name. But my lies are expensive.”

She is in the position to pawn her one lie to Al Mualim for many more she will tell in his name. She might have snuffed one fire but opened the way for a pyre, yet for as long as she has a breath of power within herself, she will direct the pyre elsewhere and prevent other massacres—of teachers, of warriors, of civilians. Lucy knows someone else who had lied to get their way.

And it’s not merely the method of Sheker’s ways that inspires awe in Lucy, but the craft of her deception equaling that of Masekha.

It had not been Ga’ash to deceive Gdila into alliance. Ga’ash gives orders, Sheker sees them fulfilled. And in seeking to help Ga’ash defeat Nokem, Sheker had set out to form alliances with other gods who would help subdue this new god of vengeance, this Nokem, though it had not been a god who was seduced into an alliance first, but a human.

One that the goddess saw descending down to earth of their island in the form of an eagle. A human from elsewhere, unrelated to Nokem’s human offspring, crafted by another god from far away. And Sheker knows her targets well; she knew, right away, that a god would make their human children shape-shifters only to better suit them to their environment and nothing more. She knew that the landscape this human came from must be wrinkled with steep mountains and deep canyons, and it had behooved his creator to shape his children into both bird and man, to traverse his hilly ground with more ease.

It was Sheker who knew that the creator of this winged human must be a god of stone and mountains—like Ga’ash. It was her, not Ga’ash, to convince winged Gdila that Ga’ash is the creator of his shape-shifting folk (even though Ga'ash never possessed the power to do so).

It was Sheker, not Ga’ash who deceived Gdila with honeyed words and promise of reward, with evil tales about Nokem—of his endless fury that strikes whoever dares encroach his island, of Nokem as an arrogant and ungrateful spirit intimidated by Ga’ash’s power, of Nokem who made himself a ruthless tyrant that flourishes on meals of bone and blood.

It was Sheker who saw Gdila for what he was—a fearsome warrior but prideful human who needed to measure his skill against a worthy challenger—and made him attack Nokem in their name.

And it’s not only the method of Sheker’s ways that inspires awe in Lucy, or the craft of her deception, or the sharpness of her eyes, but also the lasting marks that her sweet words leave on those who are seduced by them. Marks the like of which Gdila was cursed to bear on his body for the rest of his life for buying into her lies—the long, winding body of a scarlet dragon in the form of Sheker’s own body, permanently inked into Gdila’s skin like an imprint of her influence, as if it slithered down his throat expanding in a spiraling descend across his torso, until, at last, and leaving only the tail wound round his neck, its head came to rest near his groin, alongside his hipbone.

 


 

Altaïr lies in bed tracing down the valley between his hipbone and lower belly. Beneath the chafed tips of his fingers runs the puckered ridge of a long scar, a present relic of a past wound. His right arm rests asprawl, aside, as if away and disconnected from his body, far in the territory of Malik’s side of the bed. The warrior has long woken but the noble sleeps on his side with Altaïr’s hand under his own unconscious siege.

It’s a surprising but pleasant turn of events Malik is not even aware of. Altaïr had contemplated pulling the hand to himself to spare Malik the humiliation, but this far he has managed to only recline on back loaning his hand to the boy and absentmindedly trace the most prominent of scars that litter his torso. If he pretends to be asleep upon Malik’s waking, perhaps then the humiliation could be avoided and their relations undamaged by Malik’s pride.

Before this thought can take proper halt in Altaïr’s mind he turns his head sideways in response to Malik’s stirring, to catch the first glimpse of him awake.

His face looks normal. His silence does not. And silence it is what Malik offers him as sample of his thoughts. Altaïr wishes he could judge his mood through the hue of his speech but Malik is not inclined to talk today. The edge of Malik’s mouth curves up into a frown and his brows curve down into a scowl and his eyes are displeased with what he sees, and he sees his own hands holding Altaïr’s (not the other way around as it's supposed to be) and this clasp of hands drawn close to his own body (not Altaïr’s).

Malik isn’t giving him the rough side of his tongue this morning, but the manner in which he unwinds his hold and pushes Altaïr’s hand away make him wonder whether words would have been less harsh. He removes his hand from Malik’s vicinity (he hasn’t even had chance to part with a kiss), he admits to himself once more that he has no control over this marriage. The greater their closeness is, the hazier its edges grow, as if its outlines are melting, and in moments like these dissolves altogether. And the fault is Malik’s alone.

He gives quickly and regrets quicker.

“I need fresh clothes,” Altaïr asks as he’s sitting up and watching Malik move about the bedroom. He doesn’t expect much, he isn’t sure what he expects, but it’s not Malik producing a clean pair of breeches and a tunic, even less having the tunic put on by him. He allows Malik to dress him in silence lest he disrupts this show of domesticity.

“Why are you so obedient today?“

“Because I don’t want to hear your voice.“

Malik finishes dressing him in a way thoughtfully distant, and Altaïr chooses to speak, after a stunned pause, because he can’t trust himself to remain silent while another hole is being drilled into his hopes.

“What have I done to earn such contempt for my voice?”

“It’s less a matter of what you’ve done and more a matter of who you are.”

“I thought we moved past this.”

“Old wounds still linger.”

Altaïr wishes to find common grounds, far from the sight of all disagreements, but agreement requires two willing parties and presently he seems to be the only willing one. His thoughts zigzag for a few moments and Malik removes himself from his sight before he can find the right course—he shouldn’t speak, probably, to avoid rousing Malik’s temper, but there is more he wants to say. His determination clambers up on spindly, primitive legs, and these legs are made from poor bricks of necessity. He will be out of home today, for a time, and Malik must know why.

“I intend to visit the temple, for worship. After dinner if I am able.”

He turns to see if Malik has registered his words, and finds him sitting in front of Nokem. He hasn’t started prayer yet. Altaïr is sure that Malik’s heard him and not so sure about receiving a response, so he picks himself up to make his way out of bedroom when Malik’s voice reaches him, and it’s not intended for him (it often isn’t, since it’s intended for a man Malik believes him to be and he isn’t).

“Forgive me, father,” he murmurs to the statue of Nokem, then picks up from the statue’s pedestal a palette of feathers, colorful, and of various origins. It seems a private collection, a small treasure shared between Malik and his divine patron. And it’s not the feathers that make Altaïr keenly interested (he’d seen them before while first exploring the bedroom) it’s Malik fanning the feathers out and thrusting them before Altaïr in silent offering.

In retrospect, Altaïr has never received a more honorable gift. Gdila is a lover of feathers and presenting gaudy feathers to the god as libation is a common custom among worshipers of Gdila—a beloved but curious practice, since most of his pretty feathers Gdila gifts to his lover Nokem as ornament for his turban. And yet no human offers feathers to Nokem since they seem to be better-received coming from Gdila’s hand.

In presenting his collection, Malik is offering a feather of Altaïr’s choice to present to Gdila as libation. His choice is lavish—a menagerie of colors and diversity in size—but he’s not wont to disrupt this pretty collection by taking feathers that might carry greater meaning to Malik.

“You collect feathers?” he asks the apparent to ease the harshness of silence between them.

“Yes.”

Malik is giving from his own collection to enhance his prayer and Altaïr would like to deny him this sacrifice, but it is something Malik has offered on his own volition. And Altaïr aims to show that he will accept whatever Malik gives through free will, that whatever affection or gift is offered on his own will be appreciated without return. The gesture patches him up again, sews the rift that had cracked his chest only moments before; Malik is generous in giving as he is in taking away.

Altaïr’s choice is modest, a whitish feather of moderate size, flecked by stripes of dirt-brown around the middle.

He takes the feather and kisses the hand that gives them to him.

 


 

By the time Malik at last leaves home he has a tale to tell. Of how he’d squandered the entire morning, noon, and a chunk of afternoon juggling between several jobs. He is doing two men’s work, but Leonardo is doing the work of at least four men which humbles him by far, so he noiselessly makes his way through the din of community with the bulk of a fresh delivery of clothes suspended in the crook of his arm.

There’s three peers at the water-well, all women, who have left his usual spot unoccupied, as is common custom among those who wash frequently and remember each other’s everyday washing basins by heart.

His mind is on his habitual washing routine (to avoid being elsewhere) when an ominous giggle passes over the group on the water-well, and Malik is surer than ever that they are in the midst of what Malik’s just barged in, also eloquently known as ‘sex gossip’. A talk which includes blatant boasting about the lengths of their husbands’ cocks (which seem to grow in size with every new reunion on the water-well), bragging about their husbands’ sexual prowess, and occasionally lauding the bed skills of those they would taste, if given chance—a part which had regrettably included Ezio Auditore the last time Malik had been unfortunate enough to wash clothes during sex gossips.

Malik is wont to think that the subject of husbands, while not unfitting for his female company, had been unfitting for him, which accounts for the fatal split between him and his peers when it comes to knowledge of and interest in sex. He had excluded himself willingly from something he hadn’t expected as a widower. Talk doesn’t perplex him, he had been aloof enough to not allow people to tickle his interest because loyalty had demanded his constant attention, and Malik’s loyalty does seem to cement itself firmly after the passing of those to whom it had been pledged. Without a husband, talk of sex had been useless prattle. Though with Altaïr, the prattle still hasn’t changed to talk.

“There’s hardly anything better than enjoying a husband’s cock,“ says the temperamental girl to his right.

Addressing this proposition would be an insult to Malik’s acumen, and though he remembers once roaring with laughter at prattle like this, now he’s silent. Whatever’s changed in the meantime is less relevant than how his silence will be accepted—and it’s not.

“We share opinions, don’t we?“

Malik had registered her approaching proximity as she started to lean in, had anticipated the knock of her shoulder against his own, has recognized that her conspiratorial smile is meant for him. He doesn’t challenge her persuasiveness, he has no arguments for or against, he feels cheated of involvement in this conversation.

He is quiet.

And somewhere between dousing a few pieces of soaked clothes in soap and lunging for other clothes from his pail, it occurs to Malik that his company are implying the inapplicable, which is that he, Malik—a widower until recently and almost-murderer soon thereafter—is sleeping with his husband and would therefore find himself stocked with arguments for this proposition. And it’s not the implication that makes him halt and freeze (a serious implication expects at least a serious allusion, and Malik has given hint to no such thing), it’s the realization that these girls, perhaps others in the community, probably others, believe that he has (willingly) lost his virginity to the warrior.

And if this hasn’t already stalled all his movements, then Altaïr does.

He enters the courtyard from the boil-room, with a fat tree log in arm and a splitting maul in the other, naked to the waist and cruelly abusing Malik’s self-discipline which is generally under-trained in this matter.

Malik instinctively knows it’s a sight that will feed his imagination for weeks on end.

That Altaïr prances around half-naked is not an image reserved only for himself since everyone is exposed to it, but it seems to Malik that only he responds so violently to it. There’s enough firewood, Mary had seen to it yesterday. He fails to understand why Altaïr has chosen now to make himself useful. And yet the man stands there with his back to the water-well, next to the chopping block set between the garden plot and the tunnel-entrance where the hanging drapes are confused between ballooning and retreating along the cobblestones like a trailing scarlet skirt after every wayward gust of wind.

The first bark of the maul yelps across the courtyard, promptly reminding Malik to look away, aside, down, anywhere, but even with averted gaze he knows that across them Altaïr is half-naked and sweaty with exertion and Malik’s thoughts inevitably, regrettably, take the familiar path to Altaïr’s body.

He could look away, it’s only a question of perseverance.

Contrary to the community’s belief, Malik is going nowhere near his husband’s cock, and he flatly refuses in spite of all inner admonishments and even pleadings to acknowledge that his husband’s cock is impressive, even without Malik’s proper sampling. It’s acknowledgement he must keep from himself more so than from others, because acknowledging Altaïr’s body would equal allowing himself to enjoy it, and though Malik’s gaze is wide, his conscience is not. His morals are not as generous as to admit defeat in the face of a body; yet his body is more liberal in its views, and as he furtively glances up from his washing basin he sees a thickset man sculpted to perfection, he sees how his muscles are swelling with effort and dampened with sweat, glistening, and this one furtive gaze to Altaïr’s body strays him to quick lust.

Is it because he’d never really had a husband before?

Malik had never confused solitude for craving. Now he’s not sure if he’s confusing craving Altaïr (his body and not the man, never the man) with some general, unspecific craving befitting his age. Against the odds, he hopes for the latter and awaits the former, since his body had never been so set aflame and stubbornly disobedient at the sight of someone’s body.

He steals another furtive glance while his gloved hands work from memory, sans any visual supervision, and then he feels himself begin to stare. The leery face of lust grins down at him, openly jeering. His body persists in explaining why he should give in, his mind persists in arguing, bullying, coaxing, going down on its knees and imploring his body to not give in, until he’s at war with himself and half-frantic between greed and fear. Something so ordinary as a man’s body shouldn’t drive his mind to groans of agony, nor prayers for strength.

He had thought that he’d once paid his debt to this marriage through loyalty but he’s paying over and over by suffering the need to touch a man he doesn’t want to incorporate into his life.

He could have him.

He could.

It’s within his capacity to take what he wants from Altaïr. He’s small and bullied into a tiny corner by the possibility that Altaïr wants to be touched; worse, that he wants to be touched, and worst—that the only barrier is he himself. Malik can’t help but feel that something is wrong, that awareness is steadily cutting itself through his lust-hazed skull, he can't help but notice that it appears his cock has stiffened (again) and that the swelling bulge is calling his attention because its place is not anymore in the confines of his clothes.

His gaze doesn’t drop into his lap to have a look, he sits nestled inside the curvature of his washing basin and he can shade his lap with arms, but he can almost see it rise slowly, like bread. There’s not a dram of coordination in the movement of his hands as they wade through soaped water, but he begins to move slower until he’s not moving at all, until he’s gorged himself on Altaïr’s (magnificent, sweaty, powerful) body to the bursting point again, until his erection is straining against breeches.

He doesn’t move until he’s drained his stock of self-discipline, and then at last, more from exhaustion than anything else, he gives in quite suddenly. He hands over his washing to the water, leaving it to soak in his absence, he conceals to the best of his ability the front of his groin where his tunic is visibly tenting.

He makes off.

Up the stairs and right into Leonardo’s shop, almost colliding with Salai at the entrance.

A mishmash of more than a few feelings lead him rushing to Leonardo, most prominent among them panic.

“Leonardo!” he hollers, more a yelp than a cry for attention, before he finds the man cutting through a piece of leather, and he may or may not be working on Altaïr’s clothes when Malik barges in to establish himself on a small stool in front of him, and without framing his words he carefully proclaims:

“I’ve an erection.”

Leonardo’s visage, which up to this point has been a paragon of worry, renovates itself until it’s completely and entirely—blank.

“I’m at a loss of words.”

“No, no, you don’t understand,” Malik slants forward, soldering fingers into fists atop Leonardo’s knees to sharpen his words, he looks as if he’s just woken up from a fever, he’s shivering, “It’s the result of watching my husband.”

Leonardo bobs a quick nod, then a slower one, until it melts into a mildly confused, “Alright?”

“It’s far from alright,” Malik starts frantically, “I shouldn’t have allowed it. I shouldn’t have allowed myself to look at him, or to be swayed by his looks or body—!“

“Malik,” Leonardo cuts in, knocking the pair of cramping fists on his lap together into his hold to silence him in word and movement both, “If you could see how absurd you look, you would stop with it.”

Malik’s shoulders slump making them sag inwards even more but, partly enveloped by this muffler, he listens. Leonardo has, by virtue of experience and his own knack for pacifism, long grown cunning in dealing with Malik’s temper. He knows that in Malik’s case, two fires don’t blend into one bigger fire. Instead, one well-lit fire can extinguish and replace Malik’s own. Leonardo exploits this knowledge whenever Malik bursts into a blaze, and the fire he’s currently fighting is mediocre and reluctant and easy to subdue. He allows time for the words to find Malik and resonate with him, watches him until it seems like he has returned to sobriety.

“So you find him attractive?” Leonardo asks when the fists in his lap turn loose.

“I don’t like that I do.”

“Better that you do than that you don’t.” There’s justice in his argument, and Malik needs a moment to steel himself to accept it, ”He loves you, you know.”

“He doesn’t. He loves nobody and nobody loves him.”

“I don’t think he is fully aware, but he does love you,” Leonardo explains while spinning the tips of his thumbs around the knobs of Malik’s gloved knuckles. The touch reminds Malik of Altaïr. It’s starkly different from his husband’s. Where Leonardo’s is paternal affection, Altaïr’s is unreserved reverence.

“How can he love me when he’s known me for such a short time?”

“Ezio told me that in all this time he’s never taken a lover.”

Altaïr had implied as much before he’d fucked his thighs raw on their first night together, but Malik refrains from mentioning this minor detail. Malik does not want to refer back to this confirmation of fidelity, it pains him to know how well he had reacted to this unexpected knowledge, it unnerves him that it matters to him whether Altaïr had lent his body to others during their marriage.

“I hate him.” There is a deep furrow between his eyebrows, and another down between his nose and tightly shut lips.

“Why? Because you’re looking for reasons to hate him? Because you’ve fallen into the habit of it?”

The furrows flatten; the fire simmers down to dampened coals. It’s no use fighting Leonardo with poorly-founded arguments, it’s no use fighting him at all. Altaïr has demonstrated tremendous growth in a stunningly short amount of time. He begrudgingly admits it (he will always stumble to admit whatever makes Altaïr more human) but Altaïr has learned to respect boundaries, to appreciate his cooking, to value his past and present efforts, to worm himself inside his chest. It’s uncanny, how he’s calmer about accepting these facts in the presence of Leonardo. Uncannier still how he feels ready to break a completely different, completely untouched subject.

“I don’t see what he sees in me. Not because I’m not worthy, but because I see nothing a man like him would see worth of noting in me. I excel at sword, but I’m not as strong as he is. My body is not forged to challenge his.” There is a ripple on his cheeks as he tightens his own jaw with a gnashing of teeth in response to his own confession. It would take him years, more, to shape his body into a powerful machine that is Altaïr. He has nothing, or hardly anything, to match it.

Leonardo laughs and there’s genuine amusement in his voice, and fun, and a hint of disapprobation, but Malik knows it’s well-intended even as he tilts his gaze up from Leonardo’s lap to peer at him intently with a creased brow.

“Oh, foolish boy…” Leonardo says, parting one hand from their join of hands to tug at the soft of Malik’s ear in manner he’d picked up from Mary, “These men, these warriors, do not lust for copies of themselves. They have spent years by each other’s side, their tastes move towards things more delicate. A stability and peace, a soft partner to cherish, someone to nurse away the visions of their past.”

“So he wants me for being different…?” Malik trails off, bizarrely captivated by this unexplored possibility. He receives his confirmation through Leonardo’s expression, through a smile half unwrapped to allow Malik to reach conclusions through self-effort.

“I hate him,” Malik murmurs stubbornly to alleviate the gravity of his ensuing confession, “but his body is most pleasing to the eye, as if forged by marble and granite... and I don’t come close to that in terms of body.”

Your beauty is made of different metal. One, I believe, Altaïr admires more than marble. Yours is shaped by a different sort of work, by slender muscle molded into more elegant forms, smaller and slimmer perhaps, but charming in comparison to the bulk of their bodies—ones that have been forged for war,” Leonardo elaborately explains and follows the swirl of emotions on Malik’s face. His scowl has a chip in it before it crumbles entirely and his expression turns sharply—it’s alive with interest and rediscovered self-worth. He surprises Malik’s ear with another soft tug to draw attention, “He wants to find you soft and pleasing. Not hard and challenging.”

Malik averts his face in a way that has nothing to do with Leonardo’s touch on his ear. His expressions run a full circle before they’re at the scowl he had started with.

“He gave me grievance, I won’t reward him with swift apology and servitude,” Malik mutters tartly and Leonardo has the impression that at least a part of his bitterness might have been directed at himself for proposing forgiveness to Malik.

“I’m not implying that you should. I was merely pointing out that desires shouldn’t shame you. You are a young virile man with a handsome husband. Enjoying offered view and indulging in self-pleasure is only natural,” Leonardo winds it up with a concluding tone, though he feels he should append another observation, “You could have him, though. Not that I urge you to some particular course of action.”

“Nor will I take the course that you do not urge...”

Leonardo rewards Malik’s sarcastic quip with another tug on ear, which is more pull than tug this time, but he allows Malik’s word to be the last. Small though it is, his suggestion will leave lasting impact on the noble. It is difficult arguing with Malik while the boy balances on a scale of indecision. It is difficult arguing with him at all times.

Malik believes a great part of his own lies.

 


 

Long after Altaïr had split all log pieces into firewood and wandered away to the very center of the city for prayer, Malik lies on bed, yet to accept Altaïr as firewood for his own fantasies.

He lies, half-sprawled across Altaïr’s side of bed with a hand half-way up his nightclothes, and his mind is a chaotic blank.

White, like the ceiling he is staring up at. White like the feather Altaïr had chosen from his collection. White like the very center in the gleam that his lamplight reflects on the mosquito hook above—a dot of white inside a pang of yellow immured by the silver of the steel embracing it.

White like the sheets he lies on and not nearly as pristine. White, like Altaïr’s semen on his inner thigh on this very side of bed, now days ago.

Blank.

He had wanted to go to a secluded corner and there make a quiet mental meal of it all, but self-confessions would come and go in his mind, they could even wander around his body and limbs, but they aren’t intimately and securely connected with Malik’s heart and he’s reluctant to let them beyond this final bastille—beyond it are no defenses. He racks his brain again and inside are thoughts of a body he stares at brainlessly but never feels comfortable enough to imagine in the silence of his head. There’s a stream of fantasies which he longs so to start, but they’re enshrouded in white mist; like the ceiling he’s perusing. Could he leave Altaïr altogether and indulge in self-pleasure all the same? But it would be a usual routine with a blind spot. An unfinished picture—uncolored with thoughts of husband. Dull.

He wants to know more. He wants to know all. Otherwise he will remain as incomplete as his comfort of accepting Altaïr as fantasy. Leonardo has assured him in the righteousness of this. The only thing he needs to learn is how far he is comfortable to go. How to start upon his quest.

He pulls the nightclothes up to his crotch, barely above his half-hard cock. He applies some pressure and tightens his fist around it—it’s still plenty oiled up—he winds round the image of Altaïr to introduce his body to something milder as the prologue, something he’s grown familiar with. His body had responded to sexual impulse before, pale and rudimentary as it had been, and in the scarcity of material to indulge in (for he had been a young, loyal widower for a time), Malik had and still does turn to a fantasy well-known: he imagines himself to be Nokem making love to Gdila.

He suffers a couple of false starts. His mind keeps wandering off, thrilled by the possibility of introducing Altaïr to what is an old fantasy worn thin from overuse. His former urges pale in comparison with his current ones and familiar images that used to be satisfactory in quenching his thirst before now seem bleak, even as he imagines Gdila tearing Nokem’s turban off and fisting his hair, keeping his head up and the curve of his back in a tight bend and stuffing him full of cock while his wings arch around them, spread and tipped downwards as if to envelop the bed. Malik feeds this familiar image with leftovers of motivation, until it’s dying and the pressure on his length grows weaker, reluctant. The leaden sluggishness of this daydream ceases to be an introduction to more, it’s endeavor. Hopeless gropings among dissolving things.

He stops, and he’s hungry for something else.

Faces swap place and where Gdila’s has been Altaïr’s hovers above him, wings swap place with ropes, and what remains in Malik’s head is Altaïr with arms tied up, helpless while Malik takes from him. It’s odd, how he’s content with being taken when in form of Nokem and taking from Altaïr in different context. Odd, because the ensuing sting of  pleasure is so violent, so rebellious that the assault captures his entire body and has nowhere to hide. Through throes of arousal Malik returns to his cock with a firm clutch and firmer stroking. It’s perplexing. How readily his body has jumped to wanton indulgence as soon as Altaïr’s form has replaced a god, how tightly his chest constricts with the image of himself riding a restrained Altaïr on all fours, how abruptly it has thrust him to the very brink of precipice. To know with what swiftness the thought of Altaïr on his knees with arms tied behind his back and having his cock served could make him climax is humiliating.

It’s in this bewildered state of mind and body that Malik is compelled to put brakes on himself, drawing hands up across confused folds of tunic to deprive his cock of touch, stealing time before he allows himself to end what hasn’t even properly started.

His arousal has reacted more violently to Altaïr than he had anticipated.

Importing him into fantasy feels a mistake, one he can’t even finish for fear of wanting him there at all times from now on, his failure is absurd, horrible, excruciating. Excruciating, because—once introduced to the effects of one man on his fantasy—his body wants more, it’s voracious with new appetites, it’s vulgar with want and seizing the rest of him while his mind is weak.

It’s as frightful as it is exciting.

And as his hand inevitably restores itself to the former grip, he has just enough means to swap Altaïr’s name for Gdila’s, for he can’t allow a moan of Altaïr’s name to pass his lips. That’s all he can control, the rest of him is lust’s slave. The want for repeated image of his husband is slowly ripping his mind to shreds and dismantling the bastille around his heart brick by brick until it lets Altaïr in again. Resisting it amounts to agony.

Malik had taken the precaution to measure how much time Altaïr should be absent on his visit to the temple (he requires peace to indulge in self-pleasure), but he’d done nothing to anticipate this reaction. And his body is hungry, and ravenous in ways he doesn’t understand it, starving, and in the end—it consumes his mind while resistance seeps away.

 


 

It’s not Gdila’s name that gives rise to suspicion when Altaïr returns home, it’s the moan that has distorted the word which makes Altaïr realize with a pang that inside he might find Malik hurt. Either hurt or in an even more delicate situation as the moans seem to be walking the hazy line between pain or pleasure.

He spans the gap between the door and the bedroom passage in an instance, noiselessly, hoping to find him uninjured and not daring to hope to find him as he does.

Malik doesn’t lift his head to meet the passage between bedroom and first room, busy as he is, he doesn’t check for nosy intruders (if he has been checking to begin with), he must be certain sure that Altaïr is still at the temple. It’s by a chance conjuncture of circumstances that Altaïr has found him thus.

He avoids the unnecessary venture of exposing himself but even this peeking from behind a wall leads him to obtain an unexpected glimpse into his husband’s privacy. Their quilt is spun into a roll, leaving him on bare sheets. The low-and-quivering lamplight is setting the film of sweat on Malik’s body aflame. The stiff body and slackened jaw and moist lips quickly drying with soft wisps of air passing over them. The disheveled blackness of his hair is knitting itself to the white of bed-linen, head thrown back and sunk into Altaïr’s pillow and his stroking untamed, the touch of his other hand a disorganized effort jumping from chest to thighs, then to sheets below.

This collection of a few minor details makes an unforgettable image, a ravishing sight—one Altaïr has chance to witness owing solely to the spontaneous decision to find the first street niche that houses Gdila’s statue instead of walking all the way to the temple at such late hour. Malik hasn’t anticipated his early arrival. He is too racked by whatever is giving him such pleasure to sense the intruder, he doesn’t touch anything beyond his cock and yet he’s at the precipice, he’s slanting over it and about to fall.

It’s a sin interrupting someone so obscenely aroused.

Altaïr possesses a military discipline that is the same in all warriors, discipline that is always there, except in Malik’s presence. It would be unfair to claim that Altaïr makes no effort to control the impulse. He doesn’t make none, he makes some effort, and he struggles. He had spoken out of turn before, frequently in Malik’s presence, but what he’s about to do is a piece of rudeness he allows himself, or a treat he’s chosen to reward himself with.

“Gdila won’t give you what you seek,” he says with sham casualness.

When Malik starts up to lift his panicked gaze, Altaïr is standing unconcealed, as is the state of his cock—fattened and bulging at the front of his breeches. Perhaps he ought to have taken another path, sliding in, ingratiating himself, and postponing such a sudden barging in until a more favorable moment; but somehow he’d hoped that the matter might be settled on the spot. Except he now has the uneasy feeling that he has committed a terrible blunder instead.

Malik has entirely iced over. Frozen like one of those confounded people whose body locks up and resists movement when humiliated. He tries, he does. He makes effort to yank his nightclothes down while hoisting himself up and it’s a move completely vain since it misses its mark as the tunic shirrs down between his erection and belly leaving him exposed—he squares his shoulders up and slips again in his attempt, he throws up one hand in an abrupt convulsion, regains his balance only slightly, enough to stoop to pick up the hem of his nightclothes again and cover himself, and it seems madly absurd for someone who had only moments before lounged relaxed on bed with parted lips and wet breath and messy, compulsive stroking to be startled into fear in the very next instance.

His hands are fisted in folds of his tunic pressing them to his thighs (as if Altaïr will leap at him to wrestle it away) to ease the tremble, and he’s moving his lips in soundless comments, perplexed, then lifting his eyebrows and forgetting them there, left high upon his dampened forehead where they remain long after all trace of initial shock has gone. Doubt remains, and shame; fear sits ugly on his face, knitted into the deep-and-warm flush that’s suffusing Malik’s cheeks and jaw and neck.

A little recovered after the shock of such a bitter reception, Altaïr puts his hands up in a gesture of surrender. His hunch though is that Malik is not afraid of him, but afraid of having his intimacy compromised, of having to give up to Altaïr more than he’d been comfortable with, and now that his bubble has burst he must suffer the consequence of adaptation.

Altaïr has the feeling that he’s lost, that he has nowhere to go except forward.

He proceeds very carefully.

With one hand still held up for Malik’s vigil and inspection, he plucks up the nearest stool to station himself on, near the passageway, away from Malik—to bribe him with safety.

“I won’t touch you,” he assures, assuming a tone Ezio had proposed to him, seeing how Malik is pulling at the hem of his tunic to envelop the knee once he’s curled one leg under him, “Go on, please… I only want to watch you. You look—“

Breathtaking visits his mind first. Handsome next, and then you’re making my cock rise—all of which are pitiable and inadequate in bringing his sentiment across, and so he says nothing and watches confusion addle Malik’s poor head. Malik moves his lips and lower jaw mutely once or twice, wants to say something, does not, and goes on with his mute distress. But it’s not rejection; thus far, most of the luck is with Altaïr.

Altaïr’s entire enterprise does start to nibble on Malik’s patience, but he seems plenty patient to Altaïr. Perhaps fear is molding him into something more patient though Altaïr would trade fear for impatience anytime. Fear is not what he’s seeking to evoke in Malik. This fear lives for a certain stretch of time and his shoulders lose their tension then, but his erection is wilting along. It must be self-consciousness. He is uncomfortable enough for having been caught doing what Altaïr has longed for since a very long, long time, and his difficulty to return to his previous state of arousal is little surprise.

To ease Malik he must put himself at the same level without threatening his autonomy.

He shifts on his seat, more for lack of movement than out of nervousness, and, wearing a smile, he quickly doffs his tunic leaving himself bare-chested before Malik. He unties his breeches. He pulls out his cock and his sack next. It must make quite a sight, jutting upright as it is. It’s plausible, seeing how Malik can hardly manage to part gaze from where the weight of his balls has flattened down the flaps of his breeches, or how his eyes proceeded to follow with incredible swiftness and very beautifully the path of Altaïr’s self-exploring hands. In short, Altaïr begins feeling himself up facing Malik. He watches Malik, and Malik watches his body with rapt attention, distracted from his distraction.

The warrior doesn’t mind; a few touches, a curious look, and a little deft questioning might all at once settle the noble down and rinse the fear from his head.

He makes an unnecessary visit to his abdomen which seems to have captured Malik’s attention on more than one occasion, to drag his spread palm down the center of his chest, lower, skimming superficially over the narrow ravines between the muscles of his abdomen with the tip of his thumb and then finally slinking down the cut of muscle on hipbone which tapers into his groin. He’s never done the business of self-pleasure this way but it matters little—he doesn’t aspire to his own comfort but to lead Malik’s attention astray. With a sweep of his thumb he smooths down the leathery skin of his sack before resting the weight in his palm.

“Do you like having them touched?” he asks, so as to set the ball rolling.

Malik catches a glimpse of his face at last—a shy, rushed peek before dropping his gaze to where Altaïr is rolling his balls in the cup of his hand—and then twitches a cursory shrug. That shrug, quick as it is, reminds Altaïr of who exactly is sitting on the bed before him. The youth folded up and half-straddling the mattress contains not a jot of his feisty, outrageously rebellious former self. It appears that somewhere between effort to accept him as a human and endeavor to accept him as a husband, Malik has found himself at a stage of perpetual confusion. All Altaïr sees now is a young mind tripping over its own inexperience, tripping up steps so unfamiliar to him. If he’s never been touched, as he claims he hasn’t, then he won’t know how having his body touched feels.

“Have you ever tried to touch yourself like this?“ Altaïr corrects himself.

He seals his fingers round the upper half of his shaft, keeping his thumb just below ridge of the meaty head. Malik probably can’t close his fist around Altaïr’s cock without applying pressure liberally, but Altaïr can, barely—it’s that thick and full. Though his strokes are languid, lazy in comparison to what his cock is used to, the rest of his curled fist is holding his shaft almost passively while the side of his thumb applies all the real pressure with learned accuracy. He fears Malik can’t at this angle quite see what he’s trying to demonstrate so he bends his cock somewhat tipping it forward to show how he’s pumping his fist up near the tip.

Malik shakes his head barely shaking it at all—it’s his only response to Altaïr’s question—and what had once been an impregnable fortress of disinterest disintegrates into keen curiosity for what Altaïr is doing, and he inspects offered display with a loose-lipped, unkempt stare.

“Try it,” Altaïr instructs while granting himself a couple more pumps, for demonstration’s sake. There’s friction but not enough to get him going, and nowhere powerful enough as the image of Malik touching himself.

“Why?” Malik voices his first real word since Altaïr’s return. It’s breathy, it’s trying (and failing) to hide whetted interest.

“Never mind that,” Altaïr says to say something, “The question is how, not why.”

“Every how has its why.”

“To make you feel good. To finish what you’ve started,” Altaïr retorts despite the quip.

Across, on the bed, Malik wrestles with himself for some time, disentangling the three or four precautionary thoughts that have happened to remain in his head for some time, and then, with non-deliberate slowness, he gathers the hem of his tunic to lift it off his sex. As Altaïr had suspected, he’s wilted from his former fullness but he’s aroused enough to sample what Altaïr is suggesting. On some level, Altaïr had feared that he’s, perhaps, forcing premature bloom, but he can already make out the hum of eager breathing mere moments after Malik has begun to emulate what Altaïr is doing. He’s there; he might not be an apple ready for the plucking, but he’s a bud ready to bloom, hopefully under his guidance and supervision.

“And this?” he asks, noting how Malik has reluctantly slowed down, “Have you tried this?”

Altaïr lifts a hand, bringing it to his lips to lube a gap between two of his fingers with his wet tongue. He releases the hold on his fully-stiffened shaft and it cocks back towards his belly and pulls the lubed loop of his fingers snugly down the crown of his cock, only to stop right before the grip can leave the spit-wetted glans completely, to pull the grip up, only with more pressure. It’s an exhibition considerably racier than his prior one, since the friction on this sensitive part of cock could be too liberal for Malik’s sensitivities, but as long as Malik doesn’t apply a vicelike pressure, and Altaïr is positive that he won’t, it can’t go (completely) wrong.

“Hold onto the head like so,“ he demonstrates again on his own cock to cajole Malik into a try, to ease and flatten his tension and get his mind back on track, and Malik is quickly persuaded but also quick to fail.

Altaïr isn’t satisfied with the execution and it must show on his face because Malik stops short before a repeat, his hand hovering above the head of his cock. Then he sets his hand to mattress and his gaze drops to shun Altaïr’s own—Altaïr is afraid he’ll wilt again, his disinterest will bloom instead. And he doesn't want Malik’s inexperience to drive a wedge between them now. Altaïr’s thought that tonight he will merely guide Malik, but seeing how a few convincing suggestions suffice to shatter his resistance, different kinds of guidance start to worm itself into his head. He has thought that his visit to Malik’s privacy would be very short, very innocent, but now that he’s tasted success his appetite is growing exponentially. He’s ready to fully neglect himself all night (a thought which would have been inconceivable before), so passionate is his longing to touch his husband. Just to see and to watch the shadows of pleasure flit across his face again. But he can’t blackmail himself into Malik’s proximity. That is out of the question. So he tries something different, even as he’s sure that this, too, is a shade too enterprising.

“I could show you…”

He has one chance in a thousand of winning tonight. And yet this braces him; he wants his choice restricted to how far he can go and what he’s forbidden to cross. If necessary, he’s ready to shamble out of bedroom in the case of Malik’s refusal.

Malik wavers for far less than Altaïr expects him to.

He nods, and the moment is so quick and fleeting that Altaïr has a nostalgic urge to re-enter it and see the consenting nod again.

It surprises that Malik let the suggestion pass without a qualm or usual quip. Altaïr doesn’t dwell on what exactly in his tone or staging or act has foxed the noble into it, but fate has amply rewarded him for his decision and he rejoices in the success he’s purchased through risk. He lifts himself from the stool leaving his tunic behind, and though he does feel outlandish with his freed cock sticking out like it’s slicing air, he leaves his breeches not only unfastened—he sheds them entirely by the time he’s reached the bedside.

He feels an odd little shiver of elation of a cheerful adventurer when Malik doesn’t tell him to put his clothes back on, and a shiver of arousal when Malik fixes himself upright to make space for Altaïr. There’s a new, curious little vessel deposited on the bed-table and it catches his eye because it’s not lamp oil, and Altaïr’s next best guess is that Malik’s left some body oil handy. He dips two-three fingers inside (he can’t fit in more) and rubs his palms prior to easing himself behind Malik. He then sits back on his haunches, knees astride, and pulls Malik into the gap between his thighs for a tighter fit. He attempts to pick the noble’s sleep tunic off to divest him of clothes and there Malik deceives him into the first alarm as he slaps the warrior’s wrists down to keep his only cover in place.

“It’s easier without it,” he whispers, for fear of letting his voice be known fully lest Malik is reminded who he is, like his identity is a disadvantage.

The pressure on his wrists is first halved and then fully released and he proceeds to doff the tunic with this reason and excuse as his permissions—the reason being that attuning himself to Malik’s experience will help him focus on Malik’s pleasure, and the excuse being that the sheer heat he’s known to radiate off himself will be enough to replace the tunic, and he’d gladly allow Malik to pilfer heat from him. And once he’s left in the nude, Malik looks over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of Altaïr’s face when he suspects the warrior busy with folding his tunic and instead catches a glimpse of Altaïr’s radiant, black-lashed amber eyes. He looks this only time at him, and never again; he snaps his gaze ahead to never attempt the same, committed to avoiding Altaïr’s eyes altogether, as if he can’t bear to look at the face of the one who will give him pleasure.

Altaïr had hoped to solicit a kiss or two, but he doubts Malik will be looking over his shoulder anytime soon. Despite this, he is still a winner. At last, his perseverance is rewarded and Malik shuffles deeper into his lap when Altaïr seizes him by the waist to pull him in. Though he longs to tilt and angle Malik’s neck and head to his personal liking, he’s learned to stay his hand from the boy’s neck, having fully absorbed this lesson from their first night of reunion. Instead, he nudges his jaw aside and frees Malik’s neck for himself, for his mouth. A bluish vein on Malik’ neck seems to throb and Altaïr nuzzles into his neck feeling the pulse of Malik’s racing heart beneath the press of his lips, beneath the mesh of mouth to salty skin as he runs a firm kiss along a plummeting line down his neck until he’s not sure if it’s one kiss or many knitted together.

Malik will ruin him.

He wants his scent all over himself. He wants a handful of his seed and moans of his own name upon Malik’s lip.

Malik rolls down his shoulder, exposing himself further, and Altaïr scales a smacking path backwards, from the shoulder up to his jaw, breathing in the curious mix of musk, sweat, peaches, and sex, feeling Malik’s warmth on himself. His hands, oiled and splayed and hungry, start a slow descend down Malik’s sides and loop round his waist to meet just above his groin—Malik is soon arching into the pressure of his hands. It’s a reaction removed from conscience and owed solely to the will of Malik’s body; he has poor control over his libido. His curiosity is so impeccably pure. His innocence is neither over-embroidered nor untrue.

He’s innocent to the extent that he hasn’t been touched, and not innocent in aching to have his body touched.

To Malik, it’s not fantasy anymore. It’s not Gdila with Altaïr’s name and Altaïr with Gdila’s name, it’s not a god fanning his velvety wings but a man whose heat he feels on his back and waist, whose strength he feels on his own body. He had managed to keep his brain intact and alert, only until Altaïr’s laid hand on him. Then he succumbs, starving for touch as he is.

Altaïr finds the noble’s cock unattended but lubed when he leans his chin upon Malik’s shoulder to glance down at it—all in order to demonstrate the reason of his coming here. From this viewpoint he can maneuver with ease. Malik’s cock is well-oiled and there’s little to no reason for doing what he is about to do, but he does it anyway.

He heads for the base first, steadying his shaft with a pinch of one hand; with the other, with the very pad of a finger, he taps against a dewy bead of pre-cum suspended atop the crown, dabs the moisture across the swollen smoothness of his glans—he makes his circles perfectly round and perfectly closed—until dabbing strokes melt into a gentle rub around the sensitive ridge but more oozes out before he can distribute it evenly and it gathers on the summit of his head, glistening.

Malik is still steadfast in his denial. Altaïr follows the twitch-and-jump of muscles in his belly but all he hears are gusts of breath that are soft lapses into almost-moans. Malik refuses, though, to part a genuine moan from his throat. Is mutual petting a term that in Malik’s book means having a silent contest and playing denial on which egos are broken? Or is the only rival to his acceptance of this intimacy the very fear of acceptance? He wonders. 

Despite the censorship of sounds, the body is honest. And while Altaïr’s insight into Malik’s inner troubles is completely obscured, his knowledge of the male body isn’t. He slinks from the top of his crown a little lower, down below the ridge where he envelops his crown between the tight loop of oiled fingers as he’d demonstrated on himself—a little slower than that. The body bound in his arms tenses and Malik turns rigid in both body and voice. He’s on the threshold of giving in. Suddenly, with a hidden design leering behind the motion, Altaïr swings his other hand upwards dragging the pressure across Malik’s belly and chest until he’s locked his upper body completely beneath his arm and simultaneously covers the entire length of his cock with a few measured-long-twisting strokes.

What he earns instantaneously for this abrupt pleasurable assault is a thick, guttural moan. An honest sound.

Altaïr is aware that Malik has borne this assault without a murmur until now, and now that he’s heard Malik’s moan, Altaïr feels like his happiness is almost complete. It leaves him with a feeling of pleasant weightlessness, of hovering several inches clear of ground, as if towering over the youth in his arms instead of having him confined against his chest. There is a pain-pleasure in the way Altaïr’s heart seems to soar up to thud in the base of his throat. He’s thrilled by the stiff clutch of Malik’s hands on his knees which are bracketing Malik’s (one hand now even higher up on Altaïr’s thigh and not so very far from his groin), and by the compliance of Malik’s body as it’s enfolded into his arms, and by the sound of his stiff breathing (as if he’s trying to rectify the moan that had escaped him with renewed silence). This noble boy has a knack for turning a warrior’s brain into mushy slop with a single moan. A way of bringing him to a point of unfamiliar bliss, hot and sharp, just below the ribs.

Altaïr has a penchant for his moans and he wants many more to follow. It’s beyond him to beg for something that’s not given freely, but it’s not beyond him to resort to trickery to obtain it. Or, in this case—handcraft. His hand, splayed against the center of Malik’s chest, slinks down the same path it has scaled, down to his groin. Pre-cum is leaving his cock in a copious dribble even before Altaïr wraps a hand around the base. Malik’s body is expecting more.

“I felt your gaze linger as of late,” he whispers into Malik’s ear in a throaty, husky voice, rousing him from the pleasured stupor.

Altaïr sweeps his other hand back up Malik’s belly while he’s still coming to, to distract him from what pleasure he’s preparing for his cock. Malik’s mouth parts just as, instead of wrapping all his fingers evenly around the shaft of his cock, Altaïr pulls that ring of pressure up, the grip of which melts into a prolonged-but-passing squeeze along the swollen crown of his cock. His timing is on point.

“Lies—” Malik breaks off, accentuating this untimely interruption with the most artless high-pitched moan. Malik’s body, propelled by the sudden stab of pleasure, launches him into a thrust forward, right into Altaïr’s awaiting arm that quickly draws him back into his chest, and having pulled him more securely against his body, Altaïr presses a deep-set kiss into the join of his shoulder and neck with a rumbling, drawn-out drone, even though he strives to make his own moans scarce to not put Malik off.

“Then it seems I’ve jumped to false conclusions but landed on proper footings,” he whispers into moistened skin.

Maybe Malik can feel the stretch of his smile in the imprint of his lips on his shoulder. Altaïr had thought it wiser to bury his own lust, for Malik is renowned as a tyrant in their marriage and might refuse physical contact if he shows any hint of advance out of personal gain.

Altaïr rules his own body. He can put his body on a standstill, but putting a cork on his mouth is a lot harder.

“If you deny interest so hotly, I’m afraid my hand will fall unsure,” he breathes the words right into Malik’s ear, feigning inexperience. His touch comes to an abrupt halt, true to his words.

Malik’s heart is thudding beneath the press of Altaïr’s hand, sweat glistening along his jaw. Altaïr’s index finger wavers just above the wet-and-swollen crown of his cock, unmoving, and Malik’s hips are stiff in trying to freeze a buck upwards that threatens to meet this tiny, simple touch of finger. Lust is devouring him from the inside; the more he tries to control it the more apparent it becomes how hard he’s trying to deny himself this touch. It’s only moments, few of them, before his reserve starts to disintegrate, and then:

“Excuses are tools of incompetence,” Malik pokes at his mock-inexperience but the scorn is somewhat spoiled by a sultry puff of breath that follows after.

It’s a green light, wrought with sarcasm as it is. Altaïr permits himself an inward sigh of relief.

“Bold words, coming from someone so inexperienced,” he teases in equal measure.

Putting the droll aside, Malik bucks vainly forward to let him know where he wants to be touched again. It would be nice to think that he knows how to touch himself in ways that Altaïr knows, but the fact is that he doesn’t. He has learned to indulge efficiently, inelegantly, in furtive ways, and there are depths that are unexplored. His own touch is dwarfed by Altaïr’s seasoned hand and experience. He’s shaken up. By the huge strength of the man’s arms, the unpredictable swerves and drifts of his hands, the rough touch where his fingers are calloused, the kindness of his fingers, the shallow breathing on his neck.

He is putty in Altaïr’s hands and there’s nothing else left for Altaïr than to reap the rewards Malik is leaving in the wake of his advance, his touch.

He bucks again, he is beyond hope but beyond begging also, but hopes that Altaïr will turn to where he aches most for touch, and he does. And it’s heartbreakingly brief. It’s a gentle tap along his shaft, a teasing climb upwards and a tickle-like caress with the pads of his fingers across the tip, interrupted by a gush of precum and a breathy, nasal chuckle on Altaïr’s part to greet this new addition to the sticky mess. If a gentle tap and merest tickle can reap such rewards Altaïr is keen on seeing what results a firmer grip will yield. He acknowledges Malik’s cock as the epicenter of his attention but he wants to do what he’s wanted from the start, which is to widen his playground. To wheel across the expanse of skin available to him making all his appointed stops, to gauge what works, how similar to him Malik is in his tastes for pleasure, to uncover what gives him pleasure as well as what spots on his body are unusually sensitive.

He’s on treasure hunt.

He wastes nothing; in his creative fire Altaïr floods him with a deluge of touches completely unknown to an experience-starved Malik, the next more spectacular than the last. Every touch aimed to make him feel as good as to later return to Altaïr craving touch.

Malik keeps his hands fisted in sheets, or on Altaïr’s knees, and that’s the extent of his courage to return touch, yet this lends a sunny something to Malik’s shyness and the way he readily gives himself to Altaïr’s exploration despite the one-sidedness of it, and this nervous modesty is the very protraction of his overall lure which attracts Altaïr. The day will come when Malik will return in kind and allow himself noise. He’s stingy with moans. He doesn’t reward vainly either, but he is ever comfortable to the will of Altaïr’s hands. His skin is impressionable; every touch, every drag of fingers—hard or light—leaves trace on him. Altaïr doesn’t rest until he has mapped out the entirety of Malik’s upper body, until the youth has arched into every little pressure of his palms. Until he’s drunk on the feeling of his husband pliant under his touch. His body is lean and soft in all the right places, his skin supple, yielding, scarless, dark, smooth. Different.

Altaïr knows himself to be responsive to a hint of pain and to being restrained, and while the latter is yet far out of his reach (chiefly because Altaïr enjoys binding others less than having ropes on himself) the former at least he can test on Malik’s body. He works twofold. When Malik arches his back, shoving his chest into an awaiting hand in response to Altaïr’s pawing at his pert nipple, the warrior solders his hand ruthlessly rolling it between calloused fingers at the same time when his other hand finds a soft, auspicious spot on Malik’s waist, and he pinches both spots hard enough to pass over the threshold of pain.

As response he receives a flinch devoid of pleasure and a yelp of pain estranged from moans.

What are you doing?” Malik rasps back at him hotly. He is beyond doubt not into pain.

Altaïr lodges an open-mouthed, wet kiss deep into the skin of his shoulder along with a gentle stroke of thumbs across the spots he’s abused, as tacit apology for his trial.

“Apologies,” he repentantly whispers into his ear, hoping he hasn’t passed limits and chased Malik off, but Malik remains firmly seated between his thighs and awaiting to have his cock looked after, as he had been promised.

Altaïr had planned to devote attention to both nipples but seeing the lukewarm reception, combined with Malik’s previous lack of interest in having them touched (he had appreciated the pressure of Altaïr’s hands on his waist more than the attendance to his nipples), he moves on to things more dear to Malik’s heart (and body) after mentally dotting these findings down. He brings one of his hands to a rest on Malik’s upper thigh with fingers curled around the fleshy softness of his inner thigh. His other hand slips lower, snaking down to the base of his oiled shaft and below to squeeze his sack and roll it in the cup of his hand. With his thumb he smooths down the skin with long, sweeping strokes savoring the way it tightens with tensed pleasure and Malik’s grip clamps down on his knees in the daze of bliss. Altaïr renews efforts to stimulate the trade of touches between them. The trade remains one-sided despite his endeavor, but nothing escapes his attention. Neither the way Malik’s heart has sped up when Altaïr had moaned in response to the clamp on his knees, nor the way he is avoiding touching his own cock as if waiting only for Altaïr to do it, or the way he is restraining himself to limit the contact of his hands with Altaïr’s body.

And especially not the way his cock had jumped when Altaïr had unwittingly trailed a thumb down the innocent strip of skin at the join of his groin and thigh. He slinks from his thigh completely then to knead and rub along this sensitive crease of Malik’s body thinking little of it, but he soon finds it an untapped source of stimulation—his first real jewel on this treasure hunt. He leaves it for later exploitation, satisfied. Sack in his right, cock in the left, Altaïr closes the fist firmly around his shaft at last and is pleased to find his length at its absolute fullest. He descends on him almost brutally, paying attention to his pressure, the speed of the stroke as he pumps his fist in long, flowing, swift, connected strokes. Keeping a good pace, he releases his sack to coil his arm around Malik’s middle, holding him square across his chest. The wholesome stroking is doing the intended trick and he repeats this focused up-and-down in a somewhat faster pace until Malik’s breathing, shallow and quick, erupts into a moan.

A consuming heat in Malik’s groin and a warm tickle of pleasure so sweet that it seems to ooze thick like honey into the rest of his body are replacing the ice and wood of his conscience and thawing what had previously been a silent, martyred mouth, and this mouth finally, finally unwinds and the tender moan that leaves it melts down Altaïr’s chest and right into his groin and neglected cock as a simple-and-pleasant drug.

Malik’s constant pushing him away is just a fashionable mask. Unmasked, he gives himself up, as if the thick haze of lust that’s descended on him has stripped him of all but the bare essentials of want.

There’s a lovely, subtle undulation of his hips, and before long Malik is thrusting into Altaïr’s firm grip with jaw unhinged and hints of moans upon lip. And though Altaïr’s amber eyes and keen ears follow every change in expression in his newly-developed appetite for Malik’s sighs and though they hunger for his cries of pleasure, he can’t see the damp dizzy warmth that spreads through Malik’s belly like wildfire. And in spite of Malik’s best attempts to snuff this fire he is quite, quite lost to the world and rutting into Altaïr’s fist without restraint.

The warrior takes a certain amount of pride in his craft, since he’s managed to enhance Malik’s sexual experience by dint of skill only, and the thought alone engulfs him in equal pleasure.

The persistent bead of sweat trickling down Malik’s temple brushes against Altaïr’s own when he angles his head to find Malik’s face twisting up, eyes squeezed shut and mouth open as his bucking hastens, gaining an edge of urgency. Seeing that Malik has worked himself right up to the edge of an orgasm, Altaïr keeps on edging him towards the doorstep of the precipice, and then he claps the door shut.

The rhythm is off briefly before he stops in the middle of his fast and expert stroking and he closes his grip like a vice around the base, holding as he unsheathes his canines. His teeth then sink into the junction of Malik’s neck and shoulder. Later, Altaïr will tell himself that this had been done in the heat of the moment to distract Malik from near-orgasmic euphoria, but it’s to mark him, as territory no one else should trespass.

It’s better this way. He wants to keep Malik in arms as long as it’s in his power to keep him there. The standard hard stroke he’s set him under can quickly lead to numbness from friction, or over-stimulation, and Altaïr wants him to succumb to neither just yet.

Malik evens his breath out, slowly, saying nothing. He’s still unmasked. He accepts the orgasm delay and the bite that’s too late to retract now. Altaïr sucks in the mouthful of bruised skin, keeping his teeth out of the way, and releases the seal with a smack when he feels Malik getting restless, then nurses it with his tongue, lapping up the bite mark that’s reddened and will turn purple. Far from the sole lasting effect, it leaves Altaïr wanting for something else after the barrage of soft, buttery kisses along the bruised spot.

He wants Malik’s mouth. A kiss. Touching his lips to Malik’s in place of just zeroing in on his cock. He wants to glide oiled hands down his chest and have his mouth and full, wet lips on his own, but he’s afraid to ask. And Malik won’t rectify this fear. To let Altaïr know that he is still in charge and will allow only as much as he feels comfortable with.

This is painfully apparent as Altaïr, deceived into transitory hope, seeing Malik’s parted mouth at such proximity, frames a clasp around his chin to draw his head to the side. He had hoped to ensnare him into a kiss while his body is still settling down, but this racy move, along with this sudden closeness of Altaïr’s lips near his, sets Malik off into a sudden physical response.

He unchains himself from Altaïr’s grip, and, instead of shooting forward, Malik thuds the weight of his entire torso back against Altaïr’s tipping him over, and not merely that; having found purchase on the mattress and using the strength in his thighs, he keeps on driving Altaïr’s body backwards after that initial ram into him, until Altaïr has nowhere else to maneuver off but allow himself to fall back onto the sheets, landing head-right against the pillow with Malik sprawled atop his body.

It’s clear, after a moment of inaction, that this hadn’t been only Malik’s instinct but intention.

Whether it’s Altaïr’s lack of access to his mouth in this position, the numb tingling in his thighs which have started to fall asleep after prolonged disuse, or simply Malik’s position preference, they settle into it with Altaïr reclining on back and Malik splayed on top of him.

There’s some shifting and a lot of tacit compromise before they can settle on whose limb will go where, and the poking matter of Altaïr’s erection squished beneath Malik’s ass, but (thankfully) he lifts his hips off enough that Altaïr can pull his cock into free air. The affair of pulling it out from beneath Malik’s press of body leaves him with an even trickier dilemma—where with it after the liberation.

Altaïr keeps an arm wound round Malik’s waist (Malik seems to have developed a fondness for having it there) but his other hangs extended beyond Malik’s groin absurdly keeping his cock straight up and bent away from Malik’s crotch. And in short, he hasn’t the foggiest idea where to position it as to not disturb Malik with its proximity.

Altaïr is not hiding his own arousal but he is paying it no heed either. He would cheerfully dismiss any personal troubles which ignoring his own arousal might entail as long as he keeps Malik satisfied and moaning.

With no warning, Malik’s slots his arm beside Altaïr’s tensed one as if he’s finally got this whole matter sussed, and extracts Altaïr’s hand off his erection quite suddenly, letting his meaty cock slap down against the skin Altaïr had previously found to be incredibly sensitive, at the join of Malik’s thigh and groin. Altaïr offers a brief prayer to Gdila to keep him from humping his husband like this, but Malik seems to not have such concerns. He rolls himself more comfortably against Altaïr’s torso nestling the back of his head partly against Altaïr’s shoulder, partly against the shared pillow—whatever of it he can reach while propped up by Altaïr’s body like this.

He’s dodged the proximity of Altaïr’s lips to his thusly and he feels comfortable, and once Altaïr recovers from the sting of being denied a kiss, he sets his mind on the next venture, next task, next victory.

The position has’t lost its charm, as not only is Malik’s weight negligible, but Altaïr is also exposed to every noise of Malik’s restless mouth since it somehow seems closer to Altaïr’s ear than before.

He pries his grip from Malik’s waist, trailing his fever-hot palms smooth down his sides all the way to his inner thighs, first bribing him into the comfort of thinking he’ll focus on his cock next, again, to finally finish what he’s started, but then instead slipping into the bend of his knees to fold his legs up and apart. He is rewarded with a jolt of protest for this sudden rearrangement of limbs; he knows he can easily pick Malik up or pin him down and Malik can’t do a thing to counter it without tricks, but despite his strength, Altaïr is not the master of decisions in the bond between them. He is opening another possibility for him, offering to spread him open in order to expand the potency of his touch, hoping that Malik won’t retract the offer.

Malik does remove the warrior’s grip from the bend of his knees, but instead of joining his thighs together in the gap between Altaïr’s, he hooks them behind Altaïr’s spread ones and splays himself open completely, just as the warrior had wanted. Altaïr is unsure what lust is swelling inside Malik to make him—a fierce and locked creature—unlock and offer himself like this, but he seizes the chance, with Malik’s thighs tucked behind his, to attend to places he hadn’t properly taken care of.

Warming him up to it is the key. He reintroduces himself to Malik’s cock by running a few fingers up-and-down the underside of his shaft before gripping the base and tapping the head against the oiled stretch of his awaiting palm in a few fat smacks, the way he’d smack it against his own tongue if he were sucking Malik off instead. To mix in tricks unfamiliar to Malik to keep breaking the tedium, he wraps a tight grip round the base sliding it up to the rim of his crown, and down, adding a new twist to his stroking, and while the chance is ripe he returns to Malik’s sack again, to slowly tug it down, away from the body.

Above, Malik is reduced to writhing and broken, disjointed breaths, and groping sheets. A thick trickle of pre-cum is running down the back of Altaïr’s thumb and down Malik’s shaft when he makes a short stop just below his glans. Altaïr is testing grounds. He’s migrated from his sack to the strip of skin right below it, kneading with the pads of his fingers, and he wants Malik to feel it without distraction. To take precautionary measures and staunch off rejection before it happens. He’s keenly interested in milking Malik’s prostate but he doesn’t know where the line is, he’s walking slowly, feeling his ground. Malik gasps a moan and Altaïr is unsure if it’s a tacit demand for renewed stroking on his cock, or response to added pressure in his kneading, or the fact that he’s trailing lower.

To solicit a simple feedback, he tilts his chin to the side towards Malik’s ear.

“You like?” he asks, in a low husk, in the spirit of earnest bribery.

A quick-then-slow rub across the puckered skin of his hole earns him throaty moan that makes Altaïr’s gut churn with arousal.

“You want more?” he quizzes in a coaxing overly-polite voice.

He awaits response, verbal or physical, in trepidation, oblivious to the fact that a feeling grows in Malik that he deserves something else, something bolder, something grander, something more thrilling than just Altaïr’s hand on his cock, something bristling or fiery or fierce, something that might give him insight into the man that is Altaïr. Altaïr is oblivious to it but he knows, the very moment Malik starts to bodily urge him on to continue, that he’s not yet ready to verbally voice it but having fingers inside him is something whose demands on Malik’s conscience are so small in comparison with the pleasure it offers.

“As long as you’re sure,” he whispers in an oddly thick voice, nuzzling into the sweat-glossed skin of Malik’s neck.

It’s a treat. Altaïr hopes that Malik won’t find the stimulation irritating. He’s ready to build gradually as long as it’s not painful, as long as Malik is of the type who enjoy being filled. And with that in mind, he turns to ministering to another kind of pleasure he thoroughly understands.

The oil is right to his left within his reach (owning to Malik’s deliberate pre-planning), and he thanks the gods it is, for he isn’t sure if Malik would have roused from the stupor of arousal during a chase for oil but he doesn’t want to find out now either. He dips his fingers in to soak them, he’s generous with it. It’s delightfully easy to ease his fingers down his cleft, to still against puckered skin and place the pad of a single finger against him and work him open in tight, gentle circles as a warm-up. It’s easier still to hear that he’s slightly breathless by the time Altaïr bears down a blunt pressure as he presses slick fingers against his hole.

“Breathe,” he whispers into Malik’s ear, pulling the tight grip around his base up to the crown of his cock, “Keep breathing.”

It’s even easier to see that Malik is not a lazy pupil, he opens up to the lesson to pay attention to his breath and before long Altaïr is ever so slowly sliding in with the gentlest of pressures, until his push smooths out and he’s inside. Malik responds well to feelings of fullness and pressure; better still when Altaïr angles his plunge shrewdly to link two fingers and the joined stretch fills him up so well. He isn’t aiming for his prostate just yet. It’s not difficult with the abundant oil to push against him and dip in and back without removing his whole fingers—he doesn’t intend to add more than two and he pushes all the way in and rests them inside me for a while, until the soft firmness fits snugly around his fingers.

The first real penetration—a thrust of fingers—jolts Malik into bucking up, and before Altaïr has properly worked his fingers in, Malik is pushing against him already in search for a faster pace. It’s a race of two bodies and clash of two minds until Altaïr winds his free arm round Malik’s hips to pin him down. There is a groan, some angry fisting of sheets, and heated gnashing of teeth as uprising against this confinement of Malik’s movement, all of which Altaïr aims to counter with an assault of pleasure, and pushing his fingers into him deep, deeper, to the very knuckles of his wrist, Altaïr curls them into an appropriate bend pressing the searching pads of his fingers towards the front of Malik’s body in hunt for the right spot. And with a dram of patience, and an ounce of right pressure, he finds the swell of his prostate—it’s swollen, he’s aroused.

A simple, innocent brush directly against the spot and the sensation shoots through Malik like a lightning bolt. He arches off with a silent cry frozen on his lips, the small of his back snaps off Altaïr’s stomach with a sweaty smack. Keeping him shackled like this is difficult. He’s pushing for more instead of lying flat across Altaïr’s pelvis, he’s stretching his thighs further apart in naïve hope to enhance his pleasure thus, and Altaïr has to press down on him to pacify his pitching hips. Until he’s cemented Malik to his own body once more he doesn’t remove his arm, and then, having reduced the impatient thrusting up, Altaïr decides to do something about Malik’s restless thighs—they are splayed stiff-and-tense because of Malik’s insistent spreading them apart to an uncomfortable degree and he won’t be able to relax and loosen into his finish like this. So Altaïr tugs the limbs up again with a grip below knees, spreading his own thighs more to take their former place, and maneuvers Malik into leaning his limbs against Altaïr’s inner thighs while allowing him to keep them spread all the same (as he seems wont to do) without the added burden of an unnecessary stretch.

With mind set on ushering him into a climax, Altaïr returns to Malik’s groin, raking the supple skin of his inner thighs with clawed hands on his way, and while it’s not enough to leave bruises it’s sufficient to raise passing welts and pretty scratch marks.

And grasping Malik’s cock in the hand that’s not filling him up knuckles-deep, Altaïr finally leans his head back against the pillow to close his eyes and let Malik’s breaths, his body shifts and moaning be his guide. Malik’s body is inviting. Tight, so hot, and slick. There’s no harsh pace when he eases fingers inside Malik, just a gentle-then-hard pressure, a constant circling rub with the pads of his fingers there and brushing against the swell here, till Malik is coming short of breath. His cock is excited, held by the warrior’s grip at an angle where precum hasn’t been allowed to trickle down the underside like before; instead, it’s dripping off and pooling across his lower belly until it’s stippled with droplets and shapeless drips of thick precum. Altaïr is stretching him full, driving him into overload with the hard strokes just fast and tight enough to give his cock all the friction he craves, and he all but lapses into velvety oblivion, lost. Helpless. He’s tossing off again. He’s thrusting into Altaïr’s hands fitfully, keening atop him, and nothing can be done at this point to ease his bucking.

Altaïr’s breaths have grown shaky and uneven, but nothing near Malik’s strained, erratic breathing.

He feels the confusion of Malik’s body physically—it’s unsure whether to grind back into his fingers or thrust up into the pumping grip of his fist—he feels him progressively turn into a shameless, rutting, gaspy, sweaty, moany mess. He wishes Malik could see his face, yet he’s happy that he can’t. His face is not presentable. He’s hungry for sex and touch as well, but ready to starve in exchange for a moment longer of his husband’s complete abandon within his arms.

The untamed-but-constant thrust-up of Malik’s groin has started a side effect Altaïr hadn’t expected, and every motion of this drags the upper side of Altaïr’s own cock along that sensitive join of Malik’s thigh and groin, and Altaïr has never until now been so sorely tempted to replace his fingers with cock. He knows the error of his desire, and it’s not only that his cock is considerably thicker than Malik could take now, but also that Malik is not yet ready to receive him, despite the wild fantasies Altaïr used to harbor prior to his return home. The heat, the slickness around his fingers and the inviting loosening of Malik’s body makes him rut up into air vainly in response to the unintentional friction as he restricts himself to the fantasy of easing his cock into the body asprawl atop his.

Altaïr swallows back any excess of saliva in his mouth to not choke on it, and then unwinds his tongue and thoughts:

”I’ll find out how you sound when someone’s fucking you, and I’ll be inside you when it happens,” his voice is thick, but Malik’s responding moan is thicker, louder, ”I’ll fill you up in ways you can’t imagine.”

Whispers of filthy promises flow between them like Altaïr’s precum down Malik’s thigh and his breathing is shallow on Malik’s neck; he descends down it with light pecks morphing into harsh, insistent kisses towards his shoulder where he finds a mouthful of skin to suck on—he’s thrusting Malik towards the brink and he feels it.

Malik doesn’t want to meet the precipice he’s nearing. He’s pushing himself up into Altaïr’s pumping fist and filling himself with Altaïr’s fingers, he’s in toe-curling bliss he’s unacquainted with. He’s on the edge of his blackened mind where reason has been pushed out into the outskirts, and on that very border of sanity he finds insanity where his mind is exposed only to the thought of having his husband’s cock inside him, the illusory feeling of getting fucked and begging and being owned and not being allowed to come at all. He’s teetering on the brink when Altaïr’s fist tightens around the head of his cock like a vice, milking him for release, he’s free-falling when the pressure inside his groin begins to contract into a tight ball. And by gods, he’s never known this feeling.

I don’t want to come dangles from his mouth but he can’t even finish what he’s not started, he doesn’t even have a chance to gasp for breath let alone inform Altaïr that he wants his climax delayed before he comes undone.

The first spasm of Malik’s body Altaïr has been too sluggish to capture and savor; they come earlier than he’d expected and the cock in hand sends the first gush of Malik’s load across his belly to join the sticky mess he’d already left, but the rest he follows devotedly, with hand closed around the head of Malik’s cock to let his semen pool into his palm, but it overflows, dripping.

For what seems an eternity to Malik and a moment of time for Altaïr, Malik keeps riding out the aftershocks of his orgasm, thrusting vainly into air in chase after the last tides of residual pleasure. He slumps his full weight across Altaïr’s torso like a discarded ragdoll, with head thrown far over Altaïr’s shoulder—sweaty, sticky, warm. Spent. Glowing in the aftermaths of a body-shattering orgasm.

He rests boneless atop Altaïr for many moments, recuperating until his breath evens out entirely and nothing but his lungs seems to work.

Teaching his limbs to move seems easier in comparison with getting his muscles to work, but he hoists himself up and topples to the side. They assemble themselves in a chorus of movements sitting up straight on the mattress—Altaïr on his hunches again and striking a bizarre image with hands soldered into loose fists on his knees and cock standing up, and Malik pulling a knee up as if to hide what Altaïr has already seen.

Arousal has taken its toll on Malik. He looks half-deranged; there’s tufts of his black hair sticking up all over the place making his hair unruly, a sweat-stained face, two dark, dazed eyes basking in the lunacy of something that Altaïr suspects is denial. If Malik had been red before, he positively glows crimson now beneath the sheen of sweat and his eyes appear stoned out of this world for a moment before he hugs his bent leg, clawing at knee and shin until the skin beneath his nails turns white from the strain.

Maybe he’ll raise a fuss.

He’s keeping his gaze fixed at the sheets they have crumpled and soiled together, he avoids his gaze.

Altaïr thinks that Malik needs a moment for piling up on bravado, for motivating himself to return the favor as a requital for his good work. He knows that this has been an appetizer rather than a meal, but he hadn’t assumed that Malik will return with the same appetizer—perhaps a simple, inexperienced stroking of hand on his cock and nothing more—though he would gladly take more, if only Malik offers it. He waits without anxiety, expecting him to not care for equal treatment at worst, but this is worse.

Altaïr has expected an earnest token of gratitude on Malik’s face. Instead, there is denial and embarrassment, as if he’s asking himself how he could have allowed Altaïr to touch him the way he had.

Altaïr hasn’t expected to receive unstinting praise (having felt Malik’s body in his arms would have been reward enough), but he has hoped that, maybe, he could hold Malik tonight like a true husband.

He sits motionless on his haunches with a palmful of Malik’s semen when the youth scrambles towards the foot of the bed to unroll the quilt, when he falls to his side firmly facing away, when he gathers up the entire bulk of their quilt to wrap himself into a tight, distant, impenetrable cocoon.

Altaïr hasn’t expected to find his husband fully responsive, but he has wanted to smooth fears over with a mellow, coaxing voice.

Altaïr hasn’t expected any, any of this.

When Altaïr later returns to bed the oil lamp has gone out and there is not a scrap of the quilt left free of Malik’s annexation to cover himself with, only the edge of a soiled, damned sheet on his side of the bed. The cocoon around Malik is so massive that he can’t see him breathe beneath it.

Malik is turning his back now, but he will return to him for more. Oh he will. And Altaïr vows to be there to give it to him again, better, until he has no place left to hide his indignant dignity.

He falls asleep cold, with a barren hand devoid of Malik’s touch.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

The sun has risen and it’s hard to tell that it has.

Clouds have gorged themselves on darkness and descended upon the city in a fury, much like two pale eyebrows descend upon Lucy’s eyes when she spots the warrior shielding the doors to her private wing intrusively.

The reason of his coming is absent. Until she catches sight of a sack, that is, deposited against the side of a wall. It must be the armors she had ordered returned. Three complete, well-used armors, each missing an item. A nostalgic luxury she had allowed him in the throes of a good mood.

“I came to return the arms,” Desmond explains, as if on cue. His warrior sword is strapped at his side and a smirk strapped to the very corner of his mouth. He’s taunting. He knows keeping the swords is out of question.

Utter silence answers him.

She says nothing, reveals nothing, gives him no backchat, not even a word. He stands in her way but it’s not an obstacle she can’t evade, and so she proceeds, marches on, refusing to meet his eye. Desmond shimmies sideways, momentarily blocking her path. Lucy fixes him with a fiery stare. It’s a wicked thing, Desmond’s audacity. Attractive, much like the gleam of mischief in his eyes while he stands in her way, taunting her into a response.

She sidesteps again, wordlessly. He follows, sidles in to cut into her path before she can think of reaching the locked double-doors.

Her eyes flash at him, hotly. She sees that she can’t avoid the farce of a chase this time, so she grows roots, fixing herself to the spot.

The wait seems to go on forever.

He tilts his head, with purpose. His gaze slithers down, looking at her intently—not into her eyes, but the lower half of her face. From here, the road towards her mouth slopes gently forward, guiding him slow enough that she can react before they touch lips.

This time he’s not surprised by the slap across his cheek.

At last, the door of her anger has unhinged. In retrospect, it’s not an anger linked to Desmond’s attempt to kiss her, it’s an anger that remembers his insult from last time—words that her pride couldn’t digest to the point of forgiveness. Even this anger is exaggerated, bloated to hide the horror of horrors: that she appreciates his attentions, the way he approaches her.

Gradually, he turns his head to restore the gaze, impervious to the smack of her ice-cold palm.

If he thinks she is opposed to this, he’s strangely naive; he doesn’t, and he’s not. Still, he doesn’t want to be the first one to budge. He stands before her and applies himself to complete silence with the same, untouched determination in his eyes. She is disappointed that he’s given up, though he hasn’t. He is only taunting again, and waiting for her to open a new chapter.

“You don’t seem to know much about women, do you?” she taunts in kind.

“I’m only interested in one,” he answers the poke honestly, stroking her cracked pride.

Lucy looks at him from under her lashes and there’s nothing bashful about it. She listens in on what her gut is whispering, hears that knowable flare-up that spreads through her when her body wants a cock in it. She breaks his expectations—perhaps hers as well—when her eyes flit downwards to regard not his crotch but the weapon he carries but shouldn’t.

“What are you keeping for yourself?” she questions, her voice soused in slyness as she continues to evade, trying to profit from the fact that he’s stubborn to the bone, that he might try to kiss her again.

He taps noiselessly against his hip to divert her attention towards the easily-overlooked scarlet sash. An incurable scowl crumples her brow for a moment. What an odd choice. A warrior sash. Its absence from the sack will hardly be noticed.

“I thought you’d beg me for this,” she says, briefly touching the hilt of his sword. Though she had allowed Desmond and his two friends to keep one item each, she had expected the weapons returned from the start. She rubs shoulders with Al Mualim in terms of power, but even she can’t cover up any missing swords.

“You can keep it.” Desmond unstraps the belt, dragging the sword off himself in tandem. It’s entrusted unto her and the moment it passes into her hand the side of his mouth pulls into a smirk, “But you touched a warrior sword. You know what to expect now.”

Lucy knows, of course. The consequence of touching a warrior’s sword, that beloved old tradition.

“Which will it be? Death or kiss?” He has the right. She’d touched it while it had still been in his possession. In contrast with explaining the absence of three armor items, this problem is comparatively easy to solve.

“You ask for much.“

“I give more,“ he premonitions. 

Cornering her against a wall proves easier with her hands employed with holding the sheathed sword. They’re haggling for space for an instant, Desmond chaining her to the wall by the waist and Lucy tossing the sword sideways to shackle a halting hand to his throat when he leans in to steal the overdue kiss. He’s blocked in the launch, considering retreat as a last resort when Lucy shoots up to clutch at the crown of his head, forcing him to his knees with ease.

“Let’s see what you can give then,“ she says drily and smooths her splayed hands on either side of his handsome face.

This sample of her thoughts immediately puts his hands to working.

He lifts her gown. The gauzy cotton pools along his wrist as he inches it up, past her knees, up over her creamy pale thighs, its lacy hem pinched in his grip. His amber eyes meet her blues squarely; then he pulls the gown over his head, vanishing from sight. Lucy’s shoulders find purchase on the wall as she leans against it, smiling slowly and predatory when she reaches down to cradle the back of his head, clutching at his hair through the cover of her dress as she guides his mouth between her thighs in tacit instructions which he follows obediently.

Oh. You pretty fucker,“ she breathes out, appends her slur with a wanton moan. Her syllables are thickened by arousal, she’s pulling tighter on his nape to still his mouth and hold his head in a place she prefers, “That’s where you belong, soldier. On your knees, with your filthy mouth between my thighs.”

Below, Desmond moans in appreciation of her obscenity. It’s nice to imagine that she will shatter into pieces under his attention. It’s nice, but Lucy likes to keep the reigns in her hands and Desmond will allow her this illusion. A muscle in the back of her thigh jumps as his curious hands slithers around it, cupping her ass and squeezing in earnest—a selfish grope he hazards while spreading her thighs to make more room for himself. She lifts her leg instead, daintily toeing off one of her velour flats which drops to ground, to cushion her bare heel against the bulk of muscles rippling across his back.

His mouth is on her the moment she settles, lapping up her sex until she’s slicker than before he’d attended to her. There’s nothing gentle, languid, soft in this. He works industriously, with a purpose, devoid of shame, until saliva is running down his chin and moans slipping from his mouth. He works with the particularly ambitious task of bringing her to the precipice embarrassingly fast.

Lucy is not shy about where she wants his attention. She bears down on his nape, digging nails into skin even through the dress, rolls her hips along to the motion, and he obliges.

He hasn’t self-aggrandized when he’d advertised his skill earlier. He has a knack for pleasing women and it can only be the result of a man who is a natural or one who’s had opportunity to practice around, and whatever the case is, Lucy decides to put his gifted-or-trained mouth to good use, perhaps make him stray less from now on if he satisfies. She guides him further down, to the source of her torment. It’s her last coherent action before Desmond allows two fingers into his mouth, coating them with saliva. He glides up his careful, fast, well-meaning fingers into her and she rocks into him, moaning a yes.

However she groans and bucks against his pace to further her pleasure, he knows without knowing where she likes it, where to push, where her breath morphs into a hitch, how much pressure to rub into her clit. Soon his fingers are fucking frantically against the rocking of her hips until she’s chewing on her lip, the dirtiest moan he had ever heard tumbling past them. Her teeth ease off then, her mouth falls open, a gasp halts in its roots as she silences herself quickly; he welcomes her climax with his fingers fixed to the last knuckle inside her and the pad of his thumb rubbing languidly across her clit to help her ride the aftershocks out until she’s spent.

That’s been fast; Desmond smiles to himself, triumphantly, and wipes the trail of excess saliva off his chin, to present himself flawlessly as he rolls his shoulder down to shrug off her leg and straighten up.

“Want some head?” she asks breathlessly, tugging at the drawstring of his breeches for emphasis.

Despite the itch of interest that passes through his hardened length with a pleasant jolt, he pulls her dress up by the front again to guide the other hand down and slide two slickened fingers back inside her.

“I’d rather have some of this,” he says throatily, curling his fingers, pressing against her overworked clit in tandem with this movement.

She bucks into him prettily. Chuckles. Curves the side of her mouth into an impish grin as she toes her other velour flatshoe off without Desmond noticing, “Well then. Catch me, soldier.”

She removes his hand with a sudden slap to his wrist.

As light as the wind, she clasps a hold of his shoulders, pulling herself up in time with clamping her thighs around his middle. Her small, supple breasts flatten snugly to his hard chest after she settles against him. Desmond is accustomed to battle-hardened bodies of women he used to sleep with, not the soft tenderness of female flesh untouched by battle. He can’t help but notice just how much less Lucy weighs than a wounded comrade. It’s easy to lift her, cradle her up in his arms with a quick pull-up—not because she’s thin, but because his arms are used to heavier burdens.

Lucy’s smile has a hint of smugness to it, and a tad of afterglow. Her arm loops more securely behind his neck before she shifts, snaking a hand down, to pull the drawstring of his breeches open. Soon, they’re undone, and she’s freeing his cock from the confines with a good, solid jerk. She tugs at the drawstring again, tightening it below his sack, to keep the breeches from slipping off.  She lets him lift her then and pulls him by the cock to slide the thick head along her sex, trying to guide him in, but Desmond hoists her up a little higher just when she expects, wants, him to lower her.

“Just so you know: I’m not a soldier,” he says, using the suspension to tease, though quite unsure who of the two he’s teasing.

“Let me down. Warrior.” she tags the word on, after a brief delay.

His smirk finds audience in her, but she sanctions it without reprimand. He lowers her enough to allow her to align him again, and then she lets this god of a man ease her right down and fills herself full of his cock. He forces her down to the base, earning a moan of unveiled appreciation. His smirk flattens. She’s warm and slick, her tightness gripping his cock, and whatever humor had filled him at her quick climax disperses when he feels the pinpricks of an orgasm tickle his belly after only several thrusts. He can’t even draw it out, though he wishes he could.

“Don’t delay, I’ve work to do.” She’s reading him like an uncoiled scroll. She will enjoy him, but without the intention to finish a second time, he quickly realizes.

“If you finish inside I’ll have you unmanned.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

He doesn’t leave anything to gravity. He bobs her up-and-down against his thrusts and she rocks back against him so insistently that he forgoes any prelude of gentleness to fuck her rough and hard, harder, until he’s thrusting into her with a vengeance. Until the slickness of their join becomes louder than their breaths and Desmond’s thrusts morph into smacks of skin, what for the sweat, what for the sloppiness of his lifts which soon comes from an overuse of muscles.

His arms are starting to go numb and he slows to a halt, only slightly winded at that point.

He needs some leverage.

The moment he transfers them away from the high, shielding wall towards the strip of the semi-wall of the right half of the corridor that lends a view into the inner courtyard of the citadel, he summons the last shreds of his strength, propping a foot onto a notch cutting the semi-wall in half to regain balance, and begins to slam up into her in earnest.

One wrong lift or a miscalculation in movement, and they would both tumble down the precipice beyond the semi-wall; one wrong sound or a stray moan and the mercenaries circling the courtyard below would look up. Yet Lucy can’t bring herself to care past the conventional hope that she won’t fall down the abyss, because Desmond’s arms are tight around her and his cock is hot inside her and it’s been a while since she’s been this close to anyone.

Her breath rolls across his skin, a hot patch cooling in the brisk morning air, then warming up with each little puff of her rugged panting. Desmond looks her in the eyes seeing her cheeks rosy with exertion and he feels his mind fog over. He grunts as he lifts her higher, allowing his cock to slip out, obliging her request. He has them transferred back against the high wall by the time he comes across its cool stone and she watches his face split, his brows crease in the throes of a climax. She lets him settle down, without relinquishing her position, and jots down a reminder to have a servant clean the mess he’s left across the wall.

She unhooks both legs from his waist then, landing on bare feet.

“Can you give me some date or do I keep popping up unannounced, hoping to find you walking past here?” he probes as he tucks himself in sluggishly, to spend a moment or two longer in her presence.

“I’ll send for you,“ she says succinctly between slipping her dainty flats back on her feet.

Her body is tender, appreciative of the satisfying contentment that courses thick through her veins. She’s so distracted by this unfortunate pleasure that she remembers, far too late, to follow Desmond’s exit.

By the time she rushes to bend across the serrated semi-wall where he had fucked her soundly moments ago, he’s gone.

He’s gone, and Lucy is still in the dark as to how he manages to find his way inside the citadel without being detected.

 


 

 

Altaïr wakes with nothing in his hand. And nothing in his bed.

He hears a wayward pop of an otherwise peaceful fire. Its warm, woodsy smell suddenly blends with a gentle waft of freshly baked bread that floods his mouth with saliva and for a brief moment envelops him into a homey sense of belonging.

He stretches noiselessly, luxuriating in all the space he has to himself.

Malik is in the kitchen, if his hearing is to be trusted. He finds his guess correct after he heaves himself up and plops head-first onto the foot of the bed—a tactical viewpoint from which one could peek through the double-ended fireplace without leaving the bed. The fire is bustling, if small, and beyond it Malik’s calves are basking in its glare and the flame is licking at his heels. He is fixed to the spot and Altaïr is unsure what chore is keeping him there, but he’s oddly glad that he has not woken up to an empty home.

He ponders morosely over what had happened last night, then sighs a mournful little sigh, and pulls himself out of bed. On his way to the adjacent kitchen—a path he conquers without a hint of noise—he offers a quick prayer to Hiba with the hope that tonight his hand won’t be empty. He peeks past the corner of the strip of wall dividing the bedroom and the kitchen (anything but a peek will draw Malik’s attention to his presence) and he looks his husband over with a solitary smile.

Malik’s hair is swept up into a tangle and he stands there with the kitchen counter impressed into his hip and looks every bit the surly-looking youth with unkempt hair and moody pout that he is. On the counter there are several smallish buns and a bigger loaf of bread that’s positively steaming, and Altaïr has joined in just in time to watch him wrap the loaf into clean cloth before he attends to the buns to fix himself an impromptu breakfast.

Altaïr’s eyes embark on a quick raid for signs of last night. He assesses Malik’s body finding the marks of a love-bite on his shoulder, the purple bloom of a hickey on the column of his neck—one of the most prominent ornaments among a collection of smaller ones to accentuate it.

He admires it, this state of Malik’s body in the wake of his attentions, unaware that he’s seeing only part of it. What’s hidden from plain sight are the strained muscle in Malik’s neck and the soreness of muscles he’d overused while stretched taut atop Altaïr, the scratch marks along his inner thighs, the pleasant numbness in his body converged mostly around his crotch, the tenderness of his raspy throat overexerted by moans and harsh breaths, the parts of him where precum and semen have been allowed to dry overnight and blend with the residue of oil, the rawness of joints and knuckles that he’d strained pawing sheets and Altaïr’s body—a sensation that reminds Malik of the first days of intense washing on the water-well—and least but hardly the last, the tender state of his healing foot that now basks in a haze of dusty firelight that licks across his heels like orange tongues.

All combined, they add up to a colorful variety ranging from vaguely pleasant to highly disagreeable impressions of a night that Malik is trying to forget.

Altaïr stares until thoughts of last night dissolve and he begins to consume here-and-now, and he leans more heavily against the wall, faithfully following Malik’s antics.

The smoothness of his slices as he halves the buns; the way he’s added a handful of grains and oats and seeds to upset the austere purity of an otherwise homogeneous dough; the way the smooth line of his mouth lifts itself at corners at the crunch of the freshly-baked crust; the way he struggles with spreading a copious spoonful of jam until it has thinned out and the chunks of peach have blended (though not flawlessly) with the clotted cream of the jam, until Altaïr can almost taste their tartness on the warmth of the steaming flesh of the bread; the curious way in which he imprints a whole half of a walnut into the center until it glues itself to the bun.

There is a lot to take in and absorb into Altaïr’s overall study of his husband but Altaïr sweeps it aside to watch him consume the fruits of his morning labor. With gaze roaming the parts of courtyard visible through their kitchen window, he eats tirelessly until he reaches the walnut, making sure to swallow in an orderly manner Altaïr remembers from Malik’s childhood, and then, suddenly, he begins to eat furtively, thrusting morsel by morsel into his mouth and stuffing them into the hollows of his cheek before he even gets to chew on them.

It’s almost as if he’s afraid of Altaïr waking to find him before he has a chance to elope and leave home.

Altaïr feels entertained by this alone and feels that he could watch his husband all day and find something to amuse him. He thinks of this and makes the novice mistake of issuing a laugh in the form of a brief, nasal exhale, because it’s more likely than not to reveal his presence with this sound.

And it happens. Malik suddenly grows aware of his company and his being watched, turns his head to look at the warrior. Altaïr’s presence roots him more firmly to the spot. He ceases eating and then slowly swallows down the surplus he’d stashed away into his cheek.

Altaïr is met with a sober mind and a staid, unwelcoming face as he unfurls himself from the wall to properly greet the noble.

“Hello.”

“Goodbye,” Malik mutters, marking the utter lack of interest in holding a conversation with him.

Malik’s hip and shoulder bang against him when he moves past to pass him by; he’s through the door before Altaïr can turn around to utter a question.

Malik is silence and bad temper this morning and Altaïr feels as though he himself is to blame for suddenly landing himself into an atmosphere of judgment, petty spite, and evasion. Discomfort is at the bottom of it. Persuading Malik into intimacy for one night is, in the long run, flawed. Because it’s not a clever stratagem to gorge himself to the bursting point with Malik’s body at night and remain underfed for the rest of next day.

He swears vilely, unsure whether to shoot ahead to chase after and attempt smoothing things out or leave it be until Malik’s body craves his touch again (as it’s inevitably bound to happen). He’s on the verge of going for the former by the time he heads outside and at the door he nearly collides with Desmond who urges him out of home with a clap on the back and wine in hand, and Altaïr allows himself to be whisked off into the city instead.

As though by some chance coincidence, at the foot of the hill they stumble upon Ezio carrying an oddly-shaped wrapping, but despite the stubbornness of their imploring encouragements to join them, Ezio resumes the path uphill that they’ve just left behind, insisting that other matters have drawn his attention.

They go on as two.

 


 

 

“You did what?!”

This outcry is a fusion of two, and the fact that he’s even being questioned on this subject impacts Malik less than the realization that the outcry is issued by Leonardo and Salai in unison, that their astonishment is mirrored, and this makes Malik question himself. Questioning himself is by far worse than being questioned and so he says nothing and thinks nothing, hoping to avoid the horror that is self-blame.

“If I understood this correctly,” Leonardo starts when it becomes apparent that Malik won’t break words first, “you used him for your own pleasure and subsequently discarded him?”

“You said I could rule him—”

Malik.”

Malik’s mouth cuts itself off and snaps shut before he utters anything, his chin drops atop his knee, his gaze plummets shamefully towards the floor. Still, he remains sitting comfortably on the round stool across the table where Leonardo and Salai are doing some quilting, with one leg raised and propped on the edge of the stool, his other leg dangling off the seat and bare foot grazing the floor.

He knows he should have at least put sandals on before storming out, or cleaned himself first, or dressed properly, but he awoke with a great appetite and a hungry belly to feed. And after this, doing what he always does in some grand predicament has taken precedence, and that is running off to Leonardo for advice. Salai’s happened to be here as well. Malik is mildly surprised that Salai is stitching along, since she does it so rarely (owing to laziness rather than absence of skill). Salai’s sole job, besides ordering the supplies and keeping Leonardo company, is to stand around in the studio and look pretty, and she performs this to perfection.

Though Malik had come for the purpose of seeking advice, he finds himself shunning it now.

“Malik?”

Malik takes mercy upon a stray, fallen thread beneath his foot and stops squashing it beneath his heel and glances up, wary. Whatever is coming is nothing he’d come here to hear.

“You do not treat people like that, not even your husband.”

“What was I supposed to do?” He’s irritable in his helplessness and bold enough to reveal it.

“Thank him for the attentions he bestowed upon your body? Show a dram of gratitude, if you were disinterested in returning touch in kind? Let him hold you?” Leonardo staves off further examples after seeing that Malik is barely stifling a scoff. He’s reluctant to waddle into this particular topic.

“Anything but what you did,” Leonardo wraps up in time to slap the back of Salai’s furtive hand that has dared to sneak up towards the bowl of dried figs while Leonardo’s been busy eyeing Malik.

The air of chastisement aimed at Malik is ironically broken by this chastisement of Salai’s sneaky antics, and Malik is glad that the thread of the conversation is broken.

The act has been done purposefully. It’s hard to imagine otherwise. Salai, along with Malik, knows that Leonardo loathes receiving customer complaints about sticky garments and preventing Salai from eating during work is the safest way to avoid this unpleasantry. The smack has been more loud than hurtful and Salai rubs the back of her assaulted hand for theatrics before she resumes quilting. When Malik looks at her, the arched corner of Salai’s painted lip smacks of mischief that has less to do with appetite and more with compassionate camaraderie.

Malik’s mouth pulls up into a matching smile and his knee does nothing to hide it.

“Just what do I do with you…?” Leonardo grumbles affectionately, dropping the subject. It’s unsure whether he’s referring to Salai or Malik, or both, whether he means Malik’s stubbornness or Salai’s aiding Malik through deliberate interruption.

Though Leonardo’s intentions are noble and pragmatic, Salai can sense better where the line is that Malik isn’t yet comfortable crossing. For a moment the warm glow in Malik’s chest burns brighter than the flame in the fireplace behind his back and he is reminded of his childhood—the rare fragments of it he can recollect with a fond memory.

The days when he and Salai—two orphans taken in by a tenderhearted eccentric—used to huddle up by this very fireplace with their backs to the flame, their bare toes deep in the woolly fuzz of the sheepskin spread out beneath them, the flicker of fire reflecting itself on the tea things laid humbly upon the mossy fleece as they followed the bob of Leonardo’s needle, the pull of his thread. The scents of a cheerfully burning hearth and cups of strong herbal tea on a background of lavender and leather, the smiles that used to split their faces as they flicked between themselves a stray, fallen wooden bead with a hole through the center, the childish secrets hidden in a haystack of idle prattle that always came to a hush when Leonardo gave them a completed shirt or tunic to fold into a neat square, the babyish squabble over the side of bed away from the window when they shared Leonardo’s bed on stormy nights.

Nothing had made him happier than being a child beneath the veil of forced maturity that he’d been compelled to adopt for survival. What amounts to the sum of his childhood are these fragments, Mary’s motherly touch, a handful of blurred years while he’d still had a mother and a brother to sit on the other side of his harp that had burned down to nothing but char, just like his innocence.

Altaïr is not his family. Altaïr is not even part of his childhood. Malik wonders whether he wants him as part of his future at all. He wonders if Altaïr would ever let him go. He wonders if Altaïr will ever be anything other than a source of income or the source of torment. He broods over these questions, not expecting to find an answer. Not here. Not now.

He lowers his healing foot to floor and feels the stickiness along his belly.

“I need a good, long bath…” he announces over the silky swish of needles threading through quilt.

“Salai will help you with the water,” Leonardo says, gesturing at Malik’s healing foot and Malik doesn’t decline, because he will allow Leonardo the much-beloved vice of caring for others, “I swear I will finish that damned water pump one day and everything will be different…” he trails off speaking to no one in particular. Malik concludes that he’s referring to one of his many partial inventions and decides to abstain from meddling in that matter.

Salai is long past the door by the time Malik pulls himself up from the stool. He is half-way through the door when he’s interrupted and it’s unfair—Leonardo is using Salai’s absence to his advantage.

“Will you at least apologize to him?”

A look of dismay creeps over Malik’s face and when he finds his voice it’s laced with indignation and phrases now learned by heart, ”He offered me insult, I won’t reward it with swift apology.”

Leonardo shakes his head—a gesture distinctly softened by the smile on his face—and doesn’t confront him about it.

Malik is so taken with pouting at Leonardo that he almost runs into Ezio and they nearly collide in the doorway. As they stand there eyeballing each other with mutual undiluted dislike, Malik’s first impulse is to stand in Ezio’s way and bar his entrance to Leonardo’s studio, but Ezio sidles up to the door-frame and they resume their separate courses without interfering with each other’s path. He leaves Ezio behind and strolls out early enough to see Salai dart out from the boiling-room with the first bucket of hot water and watch her dress caress the first stairs as she scales the tunnel-staircase. He hopes Altaïr is not home.

He leans on the balustrade of the lower ring, raking his eyes over the roused community, deciding to wait for Salai and gather more intelligence about his husband’s whereabouts, when all of a sudden an unfamiliar figure rushes in, hurriedly taking off the hood of their wet cloak that must have rebelliously made its way through the dawn’s torrential rain.

Malik recognizes him as a messenger rather than a visitor.

And not the usual messenger either. Not the corpulent, mature man they are used to, the one who brings them tidings of market prices, market advertisements, social gatherings, local news that are collected by the elderly long before he reaches their courtyard.

It’s a new herald, a young man unacquainted with their community.

The monotony of his garb speaks of no rank and Malik assumes him to be a hired herald. Malik vaguely wonders who is possessed of so much coin as to hire a messenger for such an extended period of time. The one time when Malik had rented a herald to advertise his skills to a handful of communities, it had cost him an arm and a leg.

The figure draws their attentions with a lifting of one arm and suddenly everything falls to neglect as heads turn to him.

“Citizens!” his voice booms in a crescendo unexpected of such a meek little man, “Our leader and protector, Al Mualim, calls for a general assembly! To be attended by every able citizen! To be held before the temple! Two sunrises henceforth! On the hour of The Forest! I repeat—!”

He shouts on, chasing the corners of the courtyard and winding tunnels of their community until his voice has reached the very flanks of the upper ring and mingled with the variegated chorus of whispers that it has woken.

Why an assembly? Why now? What is he up to? We have no leader. We never had. Nor will we. Not until The Prophecy comes to life.

Malik thinks of this and wishes he wouldn’t, wishes his jaw wouldn’t scrunch into a clench of teeth at the very mention of Al Mualim’s name, wishes his belly wouldn’t tighten with a sudden thirst for revenge.

He’s here. You may still kill him. He might not be protected at the assembly stabs itself into his very heart and the sour reek of this possibility smells almost-good to him.

A hand latches onto his shoulder.

“Greetings.”

His head swerves toward the source of the voice, finding Claudia; jaunty Claudia with her lank hair tied, plaited, and arranged into a handsome crown-braid.

They exchange looks of tender recognition, and when this is not enough Malik extends his arm for her to grasp at the elbow, and she envelops him into the darkness of her robe that looks so much like his own. Malik is comfortable with the hold and they remain thus, even as he restores his earlier stare, watching the herald echo his announcement for the last time, then making a dash for the tunnel, exiting their community’s courtyard to run up to the next.

“You hate him,” Claudia says, as if it’s nothing new she’s discovered, “I see it in your eye. The tensing of your jaw. But you won’t reach past hatred, even now, when he’s back.”

Malik looks at her as she looks away into the distance and he thinks he might have seen something on her face, a sadness, or grief, or hollowness—a retreat of expressions that look so distinct-yet-alike that he can’t tell them apart.

“I hate him too,” she throws in casually, almost as an afterthought.

“Al Mualim?” Malik asks in whispers and Claudia is grateful for his discretion as she responds with the smallest of nods. With the warm protection of her cloak to compare to, Malik’s other arm suddenly feels chilly.

“I hate what he’s made my brother into.”

“Into what?”

“A slave to lies. One that despises his own creator.”

Nokem?” Malik asks dumbly and remembers that they are both, that all three of them, are children of the same father. She doesn’t need to nod this time.

“What should we do to unveil the lies?”

Claudia issues a breathy laugh to convey her humorless amusement and Malik suddenly feels like a child.

“The questions is: should we do it?”

“Why not? If only we found enough allies—“

“Are you tired of life?” Claudia cuts him off before his hopes can soar, and his face falls. Her grip on the soft lining of skin along his inner elbow tightens to remind him that they’re conjuring fantasies.

“I’m tired of a life in lies.” Malik hasn’t expected it, but his words smite her. And as though their simple profoundness has cuffed her across face, she fastens a half-curled hand across her mouth and it does nothing at all to hide the pained crease of her brows. She can’t even look him in the eye. Claudia, too, has been living in lies overmuch, for far too long. Malik feels guilt for finding fuel in her misfortune, but the desire for revenge that bubbles up the pit of his belly is born of the knowledge that, for all his misery, he is not alone.

“Give your suspicions voice and he will listen to it. There’s no one else he will listen to better than you,” Malik’s gaze trails off to the familiar door where he had last seen the warrior, “He might listen to Leonardo, in time. You are not alone.”

“It’s easier to deceive someone than convince someone they’re being deceived,” she imparts unto him this impromptu adage and she’s back to her old cheery self and a smile is lurching to her uncovered face and Malik is unsure whether they have any kind of agreement. But it matters less now, because he’s one more friend less lonely. She flattens the pad of her thumb into the vein on his inner elbow and for a moment their pulse seems to overlap and run parallel. Her lip tugs itself up at the side, crinkling her left eye and the look of mischief quickens his pulse and distorts the match.

“Try to be gentler with your husband.”

And just like that, Malik’s mirrored grip falls lax at this unexpected switch of topics.

“He may not be an ideal husband, but he’s not evil. His soul is not rotten.”

“You say that but... he works for Al Mualim,” Malik protests, aware that his excuse is feeble at best because it’s no longer true.

“Not anymore,” she corrects in a singsong pitch. Malik almost feels embarrassment at being caught in a lie.

“How do you know that?”

“I know many things.”

Malik has no doubts that she does. Claudia is a vagrant with her finger on the pulse of the city and all that traverses within it. She regards him with her unwavering smile and imprints her finger into his skin to leave an echo of her presence after departure, as a reminder of her advice. She releases him and disappears in Mary’s general direction.

Into the cacophony of whispers.

 


 

 

“So what exactly are we after?”

“Weapons,” Desmond explains laconically while they plow through the wayward stream of people pouring through the tunnel of Barzel’s market. They’re headed inside. He leads the way and Altaïr follows without probing for specifics.

“Here,” Desmond announces proudly as they come to a stand before the marble block with the carved market map. Altaïr takes his cue, dropping gaze to where Desmond’s knuckle is knocking against the very tip of a corridor situated to their left. “The best bladesmith you’ll ever find. But on the off chance—slim, I grant you—that there’s a better man, it’s not within this city.“

“How heavy does he expect my purse to be for a decent sword?” Altaïr questions but finds himself increasingly less and less interested in poring over the map as a meaty scent of food wanders into his nostrils, reminding his belly that it’s ravenously hungry. He glances sideways, furtively, finding its source in the hand of a hungry man to his right who is obscenely chomping what appears to be a sausage wrapped in a shawl of dough.

Though he would have rather had the same breakfast as Malik, he doesn’t want to return to an empty home, and it doesn’t take him much to persuade Desmond to make a brief detour and grab a bite. The voracious man is helpful enough to inform them about the origin of his food, pointing to a circling vendor who orbits the colossal statue of Barzel at recurrent intervals, selling ready-to-eat food.

Together the two warriors mange to hunt down the girl who is touting her roasted sausages after stalking her half a circle round the statue.

It’s a very charming and thoughtless girl with hazel eyes and plaited hair who won’t touch Altaïr’s money with her hand. She unbolts, instead, the willow basket that’s strapped to her nape, partitioned into two chambers, and she points to the chamber holding her cargo of earned coins to encourage him to deposit his metal inside. The other pocket is lined with and papered over by clean cloth insulating the sausages—the few that are left. In their brief exchange she happens to mention that she’s the only one selling food in an otherwise foodless market and that her old man runs a cook-shop in one of the remotest corners of a corridor, that they sell porridge, stew, flatbreads of near-infinite varieties—filled with cheese, fish, vegetables, mushroom, rabbit, and more—that their loyal customers are the shopkeepers and artisans of the market, that she needn’t do this but it gives her some bizarre joy to orbit the statue throughout the day to bait floating customers.

Altaïr catches himself coveting her innocent openness for his own husband by the time she finally hands him the purchase. He doesn’t want to lay the blame on Malik alone, but he feels that more openness on Malik’s part would save their marriage the rocky path they’re currently trudging.

They walk on and Altaïr peeks into the folds of the flatbread finding the sausage previously disguised by a coating of some sort of angry-red hot sauce and he almost contemplates returning to ask for a bare sausage innocent of any condiments; yet, after a quick reevaluation of this impulse, he concludes it to be more reasonable to rehabilitate his tongue to spice and seasoning that had evaded his palate for so long. For the sake of his marriage, it now seems more reasonable to Altaïr to assimilate rather than expect Malik to adjust his cooking to the bland palate of a seasoned warrior.

He wolfs his breakfast down while he and Desmond spontaneously attend an ongoing combat between a gap-toothed blacksmith’s apprentice and a stonemason’s son, both younglings barely below Malik’s age, both in good fettle.

They spectate, leaned on the bordering fence of the sparring ring, Altaïr silent and engaged by food and Desmond sporadically commenting on the combatants’ skills, until a winner is declared, by which time Altaïr has long finished his meal and they’re ready to resume their original route.

It’s at the end of the corridor, Desmond reminds him when they enter the correct corridor and Altaïr recalls the map. Inside, they are forsaken by the daylight streaming through the oculus crowning Barzel’s colossal statue and embraced instead by the pools of misty, yellow light cast by the floating narrowly-spaced lanterns guarding each shopfront. Among the row of shops to his right, Altaïr catches a glimpse of one selling a menagerie of ornaments and bauble, and among those an assortment of big, small, bright, dark, downy, bristly—feathers. He remembers Malik’s feather collection and considers picking up a feather for him, maybe two, or three, or bringing him so many that he finds himself surfeited with feathers.

Altaïr almost makes an off-the-cuff foray into the shop when something else draws his full attention.

A horde of submen—at least two faces familiar to him—suddenly marches past them almost knocking down people on their way out of the corridor, looking as though only orders are keeping them from looting wares, burning shops, killing innocents. Al Mualim’s men. Mercenaries. Foreigners. Murderers.

Freely advertising their presence to the city.

Altaïr and Desmond exchange a wordless, meaningful look before Desmond takes him by the arm and carts him off to the last shop in row. Rauf’s Forge, it reads.

The inside is hotter than the corridor, there is an inferno flashing inside the smoldering furnace. Altaïr can’t help but notice it first. It’s something quite beautiful and terrifying and unlike any fire forge he’d seen before.

The forge is clearly an evocation of Barzel, the goddess of fire whom this swordsmith has chosen for his patron, it’s an overscaled mold cast in the form of her gaping mouth that opens wide around the fire and lends the rest of the shop the diminutive impression of being tiny in comparison to this gargantuan piece of art honoring the goddess. Her eyes are large and fiery, her mouth looks as if it’s about to swallow the massive anvil resting a step ahead of it, the inside of her behemoth mouth flashes like enormous snakes of fire, the beauty of her curly plaits twisting outwards like clambering vines looks almost incongruous with her overall frightening appearance.

A lantern glows at the back of the room among the many smith tools and other sundry gadgets but compared to the flare of the furnace, it’s nothing but a dark puddle too weak to compete.

The air is sweltering and stuffy, a draft of cold air is a luxury.

As soon as they enter they are glared at by the customer before them.

The swordsmith is nowhere in sight.

“What a pleasant surprise meeting you here,” Abbas drawls drolly. He wears the same pricey robes that had been bestowed upon him by Al Mualim, or some other benefactor.

“Charmed,” Desmond quips, with a caustic tone that is the habitual consort to Abbas’ presence. A tone invented, perhaps, specifically for Abbas.

“Is that uncouth band of animals we just met of your ilk? Seeing how you were never of our ilk to begin with,” Desmond taunts.

“Are you sure they are the animals and not your precious warriors? Can’t see much difference these days.”

“Certain sure,” Desmond says, but it pains him to do so. He’s seen what’s becoming of people he’s until recently called brothers- and sisters-in-arms, how they stalk the city aimlessly, unaware that they no longer exist, “If you keep hanging around with the no-good folks, you’ll get in a heap of trouble, for certain sure.”

Abbas suddenly turns to face them head-on and they await trouble.

“When did you ever greet me short of mockery, hm?” Abbas asks in disturbing honesty, and it’s nothing they’ve expected. They fall silent. Both know that Abbas speaks of the bulk of warriors that used to be stationed with him years ago, before the war, even before the Massacre.

Altaïr’s mouth, which up until now has been sporting a smirk as garnish for Desmond’s taunts, flattens into something blank and stunned. At his right, Desmond’s brows are folding in a flurry of confusion, then anger.

“You received what you deserved, you fucking clod.”

“Why?” Abbas spits and, despite the trade of unwavering and mutual dislike, this is the most honest they have been in many years. Whatever temporary madness has seized Abbas hops onto Desmond and Altaïr like a lump of gloating coal, suddenly igniting them.

“Well if your cowardice and dishonor aren’t enough: you’d steal a wooden leg off a cripple if it benefited you,” Desmond jibes.

“At least I was one of you. Unlike the ‘uncouth band of animals’.”

“You were a child-murdering coward—“ Altaïr starts.

Everyone was killing children that night!” Abbas hisses and the revolting truth of this puts a cold blanket of silence over them. The truth, so unsightly and repulsive, lies there among the three of them naked, and no one wants to touch it at first.

Then, as though nothing has happened, Abbas gives them a one-eyed withering glance, fixes his bearing into one of professional composure with hands clasped behind his back, and he is all that they’ve always despised. There’s absence of regret, other than that of being falsely identified as the only one who had killed children. Altaïr hadn’t. He knows Desmond hadn’t either. Ezio never even participated in the Massacre, he’d mourned the death of his own family. But Altaïr can’t speak for everyone.

“We hate each other,” Abbas concludes succinctly, “but I preferred not to disobey my leader.”

He grins wickedly as if he’s grown very drunk on his own words and his hoggish eye glitters with enthusiasm. It is, somehow, profoundly disgusting to behold. Altaïr wants to say that they don’t have a leader, but he knows they used to. He thinks of Malik, a tear-stricken child shrieking over the fresh mound of his brother’s grave, and the sausage he had eaten wants to leave him.

“Abbas,” he starts, just to keep the rising bile in his throat disciplined, before the memory of Malik hurls him into another, and he remembers the threat he once left Abbas with, “My payment approaches. Where’s the coin you owe me?”

Before long Abbas’ smirk drops and his face adopts the expression of a strong-minded donkey. Altaïr can see in his eye that he’s uneasy about the subject of money.

“I’m having my new sword fashioned. Shall be another couple days. If I could carry the debt till then…?”

“We’ll settle the debt as it stands. Perhaps you could delay the manufacture of your own sword and pay for my own instead, for starters?”

Abbas grinds his jaw, encouraging the muscle below his scarred eye to jitter in the blotchy light of the small lamp sitting atop the counter that divides the three of them from the rest of the forge. He looks as though he’s exhausted his reserve of excuses.

“Any other favor I could offer in lieu?” he asks and for all his ostentatious new clothing, he appears to be short on coin, “You could employ your young husband at a more elevated position? Or find appropriate work for yourself? I’ve connections, speak to see it done.“

“I have no words towards such end. I’ll see the agreement honored here and now—“

”I’ve given you and your sorry band my answer already!” comes an abrupt, booming voice, from a small room at the back of the shop, presumably from the man reputed to be the best swordsmith in the city.

“You’ll regret this!” Abbas shouts back hysterically and flecks of spittle discharge from his frothy mouth corrupting the parched, fashionably-cracked wood of the counter with his saliva. He pivots on heel and leaves them, using this bizarre exchange as an excuse to divert himself from Altaïr’s presence and demands.

Altaïr watches the last of him, launching into a colorful disarray of vile oaths insulting Abbas’ honor and raving about his cowardice as soon as the man swerves round the corner. He turns back to Desmond expecting to find at least an echo of his annoyance mirrored on Desmond’s face, but finds him staring at the ground, at nothing in particular, with a particular expression Altaïr has never seen on his face.

Desmond refuses to look at him and insists on keeping his mouth shut, until he’s piled up a small fortune of anger and has no more space to keep it in.

“Are you so different from him, Altaïr?”

Desmond‘s eyes dart up and his eyes are flashing and it has nothing to do with the lamp. Then, with a thump of such suddenness that for a moment Altaïr might have mistaken it for a knife, a pain stabs itself into the center of his chest bursting towards his throat.

He is at a loss of words until his throat unknots itself.

“Speak plainly.”

“You and Ezio. Weren’t you the same the other day? Standing aside like cowardly mice when they brought the corpses in?”

“Desmond—“

“I don’t want to hear it, Altaïr,” he butts in, his tone colored with affront, “I was the only one who did something. It wasn’t me who stood idle while our priests were about to be dumped into the ocean. We were their children, Altaïr. We, the orphans.”

Desmond’s voice has begun to soften around the edges before he’s finished and it works as an equalizer, their pain is split between them and shared. Altaïr realizes, belatedly, that Desmond is no longer furious with him, but disappointed at the impassive resignation with which they’d reacted on the scene. Altaïr isn’t sure that he can shoulder the burden of Desmond’s disappointment with a greater ease than his earlier anger. They’re equally heavy.

Whatever he means to say in response dies on his tongue when they’re suddenly joined by someone else.

“They have been nagging me for days. For years I forge them weapons and it’s never enough…” that orotund voice booms through like a thunderclap as the swordsmith announces himself anew and Altaïr realizes how hushed his exchange with Desmond has been despite the volume of Desmond’s accusations.

The hooded figure heaves itself into their view, emerging from a room at the back of the shop.

The bottom half of his face is concealed behind a mask, and Altaïr finds it somehow hard to believe that its sole purpose is protection from fire. He appears well-groomed and fit, a square-shouldered man whose tunic looks too slack for his impressive torso.

As he approaches them at the counter he is drawing up the sleeves of his tunic across his bronzed, hairy arms. Altaïr’s gaze momentarily drops to the frazed hems of sleeves scorched by fire, then up, over the teeth-white tunic open at the throat, dappled with stains and a very black rake-through of coal residue streaking down the front, and up to where the slack lace of his collar is undone and barely keeping his neckline belted, as though he’s just slipped his tunic back on. He keeps a thin cord around his neck like a necklace, with a small drawstring bag dangling at its end. The drawstring is loosened and Altaïr catches a glimpse of grainy sand caught in an endless tumble and hissing inside.

He has, doubtlessly, just finished praying to Hiba.

It’s curious for such a toughened man to worship such a meek god. Altaïr has only recently rediscovered this household deity as a patron, but this man must be an avid worshiper in comparison to him.

“Hiba’s blessings upon you, friend,“ he salutes Desmond with a smile that manages to remain shiny even while hidden from view.

“And you, Rauf.”

They greet one other with a fond clasp of fists and a trade of smiles. They seem very thick with each other. This appears to be the reason why Rauf hooks a finger into the gap between the bridge of his nose and his cheek to pull down the mask, shirring the fabric below his chin to reveal his finely-shaped dark face and the beard framing a full, smiling mouth. Rauf is a sharp-featured man, with that slight shading on the cheeks that marks those unfortunate men who have to shave their jaw twice a day, though without a trace of that dull unhealthy tinge it so often has on men with paler skin. His eyebrows are dense and there is something topiary about them, his eyes steely-gray—a cold color.

“They’re still bothering you?”

“They’re growing bolder. I’ve been,” Rauf starts off, flashing his splayed, callus-ridden palm, “arguing, ignoring, fighting, cursing them.” He looks at the thumb which has been left uncounted. “I even asked to be relieved of duty due to advanced age. But then I remembered I’m not old enough for that.”

With that last amusing addition, the jocose man solders his fingers into a fist and drops it in sync with the soar of his mouth into a roguish smile.

Altaïr understands why Al Mualim would want the services of a self-made man who had risen to a high and secure position in this trade.

“Me and my friend here are already relieved of office,” says Desmond with a flick of his head towards Altaïr.

“I’ve heard.”

They don’t ask how he knows of the disbandment.

“Speaking of which,” Desmond surprises Altaïr’s shoulder with a doting clap and it feels as though no quarrel had transpired between them earlier, “This is your new customer. We’re in dire need of swords.”

“Rauf,” the blacksmith introduces himself stretching out his strong friendly hand. To Altaïr’s astonishment, Rauf seizes him warmly and his hand is searing hot, as if he’s just pulled it from a fire, and Altaïr is sure that the man hasn’t even approached the furnace. Altaïr shakes it and names himself too.

Rauf’s eyebrows unexpectedly gather into a puckered frown.

“Altaïr? The husband of Malik?”

“Yes. I do call him husband.”

Rauf screws down the ends of his lips in grave regard. For a moment, his steely eyes turn hard as whetstones as he surveys Altaïr and something cold and slimy twists itself into Altaïr’s gut.

“Tell your husband I’m saddened that his skillful hand hasn’t touched my sword in a long time,“ Rauf says after a ruminant pause. He winks; his mustache bristles.

Altaïr’s belly flips inward on itself.

There’s pain in the way his heart seems to rise to thud at the base of his throat. He should respond; instead he just feels faintly sick. He stares, dumbly, while a queasy dread keeps fermenting in his chest, while the wheels shift slowly through the mist of his mind, and his eyes widen in sudden realization. A wisdom on whose summit is not enlightenment, but abyss. It’s a realization that intrudes so roughly upon his most intimate dream—a young man’s chronic longing for loyalty—a dream forced into a state of siege before it’s finally shattered by dozens of small trifles Altaïr has been trying to ignore that suddenly grow to a bewildering size—so bewildering that it’s hard to ignore the mounting sense of terror that Malik is, or has been, unfaithful to him.

That this man is his lover.

Altaïr stares at him completely addled and somehow can’t believe and accept that his own absolute fidelity to Malik has not been reciprocated.

There’s a gap in conversation now.

Rauf is smirking, with a sly cast to his face. It hasn’t taken him two moments to rub it into Altaïr that Malik, in fact, has a lover.

Altaïr’s mind vacates him for a moment, replaced with a dull feeling, a surge of savagery in heart, a chill that passes over him as he thinks about the dark eyes of his husband clouded by lust for someone else. His breath is heaving before he feels it, he stares at the place Rauf occupies. His fists unclench at his sides, though he hasn’t been aware he’d clenched them. His lips curve in a loathsome snarl—he reaches for his hip blindly, impulsively, for the sword he no longer possesses, and, met with the void, he solders his hand into a knuckle-white fist ready for use.

He says nothing. He looks as if he wants to punch Rauf.

Desmond’s hand clamps down on his wrist to smother his fury.

“Altaïr—“ he starts and doesn’t reach past his name. Altaïr’s free hand rockets up slamming the center of Desmond’s chest with a dull thud and he stumbles backwards, confounded.

“Fuck you!” he barks at him in the most wounded howl, swerving to Rauf while Desmond is still staggering into balance, the thin veneer of his composure dissolved entirely as his arm shoots across the counter suddenly seizing the blacksmith by the string of his sand bag.

”And fuck you!“ he yanks, jerking him forward as his punch-arm recoils tautly like a plucked bow and he catapults it quite mercilessly at Rauf’s face without letting a drop of his fury go waste.

The crunch of Rauf’s mangled nose doesn’t satisfy him as much as he would have wanted, the ensuing grunt of shock-and-pain when the blacksmith staggers sideways from the vengeful might of his punch does little to mend the open sore in his chest.

Fuck your mother,” Altaïr hollers with a grief-twisted mouth and a film of tears dimming his wild, unblinking eyes, “Fuck the weapons, and fuck your sword!”

Altaïr spins around, launches through the exit, sprints down the corridor, bound for home.

 


 

 

He doesn’t pause for a breath and where an ordinary man would have utterly worn himself out Altaïr forges ahead fueled by righteous fury.

His skillful hand hasn’t touched my sword in a long time.

Each word of this insinuation drops like heavy stone on his skull. Even though he gallops ahead scaling the hill like an unridden stallion, he feels like lead is poured into his gut with each step he puffs uphill. He is half-way through the hell by the time he makes it through the door of his home. Malik is bathing when Altaïr barges inside.

He looks up, startled by the jittery clap of wood as Altaïr thunders through, propelling the door against the wall.

A pitcher dangles off Malik’s hand limply, an influx of warm water streaming over its wide notch as he gapes at the warrior.

Altaïr lumbers through, stomping across the clean carpet as if it were no costlier than ashes, darkly flushed, wild-eyed, and Malik is shocked to see that his face is a mess of unwiped tears. He stands there exhibiting himself to Malik’s stare for a split second, he is panting through clenched teeth like a distraught beast, powerful chest expanding with heaving breaths, anguish etched into every corner of his face.

Malik would like to admit that in this very moment he doesn’t know fear, but it would leave a smear on his self-honesty. Altaïr looks every bit the monster Malik had thought him to be when he’d arrived.

Malik’s bathing equipment is neatly laid out across the table; Altaïr sees himself surrounded by an assortment of different vials and bowls, pitchers and amphorae. He slams his fists on the table irreverent of where they’ll land, the pottery rattles like scattered jewelry. The first few vials that fall victim to his undiscriminating choice he sends flying towards the wall ahead, smashing them into pieces. The rest he sweeps off the table with a wild swing of an arm, hurling items to floor—carpet and stone alike. He swears vilely, spitting profanities and ire but not a word of it sounds audible to Malik, drowned as it is by the din of oaths, shatter of dyed glass, clatter of metal trays, thudding of uncapped ceramics across floorall tangled in a net of noise.

“What seized your brains, man!?“ Malik yells out, it’s not the tone he’s been striving for but the savagery of Altaïr’s antics has rooted him to the spot, in the midst of the tub where he feels caged.

Altaïr whirs around, he is shivering fury.

I thought you were without touch of men!”

Malik stares back in stunned disbelief with the same mystified, awe-struck expression, his mouth moving stupidly and soundlessly.

Altaïr’s antics are born of a clear mind and a wounded heart, an infantile hurt of pride.

“Did you not hear what I said?!” he snaps when Malik says nothing, “Find your tongue!”

“You’re not making any sense… What slight has prompted this costly eruption, dimwit!?”

“You weren’t faithful to me!” Altaïr roars, teary-eyed, bringing the shouting match to a temporary stalemate.

The shock of this accusation leaves Malik baffled enough to render speech impossible. Words need space and breath is lodged in his throat. Altaïr seizes this pause.

“You have once sworn to me!“

“An oath that hasn’t wavered—“

Altaïr cuts him off with another growl, ramming the heels of his palms against the side of the tabletop. The table topples over; the jarring clap of heavy wood against stone joins the commotion and the warrior roars, whipping up rage into his every movement.

You have a lover!” he shouts, his voice thick with emotion. There’s too much emotion in him. Malik feels that Altaïr might open his throat with bare teeth.

“Who!?”

Rauf!” Altaïr spits the name out like poison, an acid bubble of bile rising from his stomach into his throat.

Malik’s face falls. Altaïr takes a step closer.

“Do you deny it?“ Altaïr’s lips wrap themselves around the question until it distorts his mouth into something anguished and betrayed.

“Only you could be as stupid as to destroy your own property over that—!“

“Do you deny it?“

“I deny it.“

“Liar.“

“I’m not lying,“ Malik hisses passionately but he recovers swiftly, arranging his features into a mask of perfect poise, “You think you know everything, don’t you? So you come here to balm your wounded pride by beating me, is that it?” he mocks in a stroke of sarcasm.

He’s baiting the monster out of him. Altaïr is advancing towards the bathtub, they’re face to face now, and something will happen.

Malik juts his chin out, eyes narrowed in more than mere bravado. Altaïr doesn’t know it but it’s the face of someone assured in their victory.

“Rauf is my sword instructor,” he speaks when a whisper is enough to bridge a gap between them, frosty and deliberate.

Altaïr’s anger flattens and everything falls eerily calm. He blinks through stale tears and stands rooted to the spot before Malik’s tub, his heart suddenly seized in a tight cocooned pupa of relief, his face the aftermath of a nonsensical war that had taken place there. His judgment has clearly been way too harsh. Malik shakes his head at his barren, dumbfounded face, mourning the demolition of his property.

“Sometimes I feel like you’ve replaced your brains with muscles,” Malik mutters while assessing the damage Altaïr has left in the wake of his irrational anger, the vials and bowls he has collected over the years lying in shambles across the room, the cosmetics and oils he’s been storing meticulously soaking into the prized carpet that his months of hard work had financed.

Altaïr keeps on staring completely oblivious to the insult, his chest bursting with the unreleased sigh of relief. Then, suddenly, while Malik is reaching for his towel to see himself out of the tepid bath, Altaïr speaks up.

Sword instructor?” he wonders incredulously, “You know how to hold a sword…?”

Malik drops the towel in mid-grab and recoils as though singed by Altaïr’s words. His jaw unhinges and his mouth falls open in the most offended expression, he bristles at this suggestion of incompetence. Neither of them sees it coming, but Malik’s palm connects with Altaïr’s cheek almost reflexively, driven by the goading of pride he had criticized Altaïr for only moments before.

Altaïr’s face veers sideways from the impact, barely masking the slap with the broken sound of astonishment.

The smack that will insist on buzzing in Altaïr’s ear for hours later is wet, blistering, brain-rattling, painful.

Altaïr has never been slapped as violently as this before. The smack has been by far the loudest of all the sounds that have ricocheted round this room since Altaïr’s return.

Malik’s hand stings hotly. A wave of indignation ripples across his face and anger flares in his chest, mixed with the desire to grab a hold of Altaïr’s head and slam the unhinged door into his handsome face until he’s nothing but blood on wooden planks.

Little by little, Altaïr turns to look at him and Malik welcomes his face with the proximity of his own, their noses nearly grazing each other.

“After I’m done with you, you’ll have a question to answer, warrior,” Malik sneers through clenched teeth and Altaïr can smell the fiery resentment on his breath.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Tell me how my ass tastes.”

 


 

 

Ezio lays the bowl out across the first (and only) vacant surface that he stumbles upon in Leonardo’s studio.

Leonardo cocks his head, surveying Ezio’s gift. The vessel doesn’t look appealing in its shapeless wrapping. He disrobes it and it reveals its handsome shape.

”How exciting,“ he fingers along the rutted silver facing that winds round the rim of the bowl, until he closes the full circle and dips the pad of his finger inside to fondle the shimmering interior and feel the glossy tiles of the shell mosaic. The silver is decorated with foliaceous reliefs—leaves, vines, flowers twining volubly along the rim. Leonardo recognizes the craft. It’s without a doubt made by the same artist who had created the mother-of-pearl bowls Leonardo had admired at the market not so long ago. The fact that Ezio had tracked down the merchant’s daughter, the artist itself, is less ludicrous than the fact that he’d paid a high price for it only to give it away as a gift.

“It’s an honor. Even greater honor receiving such a gift from a noble.”

“The title alone shouldn’t lend me any advantage. It’s unfair. We’re no different.”

To this grumbling Leonardo responds.

He laughs and it’s not a laugh of humor unblemished by reprimand, but Ezio can’t bring himself to care about its motives when it sounds so pleasant to his ears.

“Your ancestry fought for justice. Ours was only the product of love.”

“’Only’ doesn’t do it justice,” Ezio argues, dispassionately, and he’s ready to relinquish the subject. It’s neither the time nor place for it, it’s not what he’s come for, and he’s not wont of delving into details of why he admires the commoners more than his own kind. Besides, there has always been a touch of self-depreciation among the commoners that Ezio had never appreciated and he doesn’t like its smell on this man.

He’d rather tuck himself into the herby scent that seems to religiously follow Leonardo everywhere, which he does as he watches the man storing his gift.

This inevitably leads him to a quick look-over of the room and he finds it a different yet same kind of chaos as last time.

Leonardo’s studio. A work and living place. A large room hastily furnished with odds and ends from many places—some of which function in ways Ezio barely understands—all of which form the common chaos that marks those unique kinds of rooms where everything fits so perfectly into a special anarchy of things. A high shelf, groping the recess of a wall and struggling to store all the herbs that fight for space inside. A collection of books Leonardo has amassed, quietly funneled into a remote stack. A white-robed chaise suffocating under patted cushions, stealing space from a table. Three tables, all overspilling with content—the unfinished quilt folded over a table, four pairs of some man’s new breeches splayed across another, a disarray of sewing tools sharing space with a half-raided bowl of dried figs and a small muslin bag of sweets.

The room is curiously personal, it has a pulse.

“So you like it?” he asks, so as to set the ball rolling.

“’Like’ doesn’t do it justice,” Leonardo mimics, “I’ve been needing a new bowl for poultices and salves, too.”

Ezio’s face creases into a contemplative frown. What an odd way to utilize a vessel of such ornamental beauty. A bowl for the ointments of an unregistered healer. It somehow is distinctly Leonardo, and Ezio admires it. Most of the things that Leonardo does or the pastimes he pursues are done out of genuine passion, not desire to grow rich.

When Leonardo comes to stand in front of him, they’re a step apart, Leonardo’s arms are crossed, and his mouth is carefully, deliberately, shamelessly drawn into a suggestive smile.

“Why do you continue so brazenly to press for my favor?”

Ezio shrugs a shrug completely barren of innocence.

“I’m a warrior freshly out of war. I need company…” he trails off and shortens the tremendous stretch of distance between them by edging forward, until the gap is halved and he can almost touch the jut of Leonardo’s crossed arms.

“You think you can buy yourself into someone’s bed?” His voice is low, the amusement on his face loud.

“I seize means available to me. Since my words seem to repeatedly fall on deaf ears.” Emboldened by Leonardo’s lightheartedness, Ezio reaches up. Long wisps of blond hair trail along the back of his hand as he traces up the column of Leonardo’s neck in a caress, as he retreats—just enough to allow his fingertips to catch along the back of his ear, gently, as if to use this convenient barrier to remain there and outline the earlobe with the pad of his thumb.

Ezio delays the retreat and lingers there, not lasciviously. Small though it is, it almost feels as if this caress isn’t a plain advance on him, but an attempt to tell him most interesting, most exciting things through this simple touch.

Leonardo’s face remains impassive, discouragingly solemn. Unmoved by whatever Ezio’s touch is whispering into his ear. Ezio loiters for another moment, hopeful, but then, stumped by the feeble reception of his flirt, he withdraws letting his arm tumble pendulously to his side.

“You may continue what you’ve started,” Leonardo tells him, in a way that barely helps Ezio recognize where they stand with each other.

“For a moment there I thought you despised my attentions.”

“Need I scream to let you know I enjoy it?” Leonardo cracks a mischievous smile and it lifts the warrior’s spirits instantaneously.

“No, you need not. But you’re hard to read, at times.”

Leonardo uncrosses his arms and Ezio expects something. His expectations plummet when the man walks past him, then soar when Leonardo shirrs the quilt-in-making aside across the table and hops onto it, seating himself across the edge.

His legs spread, invitingly but not inappropriately, and he pats against his inner thigh as a tacit prompt for Ezio to draw nearer.

“How’s that for hard?”

The soft curve of his smiling cheek and the upward dart of his fair eyebrow propel Ezio ahead, between Leonardo’s legs, where he feels like he belongs. There’s a gleam in Leonardo’s expressive blue eyes and a gleam on his lips. They welcome Ezio as he settles in, plucking Leonardo by the waist to press the man snug to his belly. Ezio had been close to many lovers, but never quite this tight, never this welded to another’s body while clothed, while seeking only their lips. He’s never been this untactful and impatient either, or eager in the way he glues himself to Leonardo’s body. (Maybe it’s the war that has made him hungrier.) He saves his graces not through any action of his own, but by dint of Leonardo being poor in patience as well today.

When he leans in, Leonardo opens up to him at once.

It’s unwise. Deeply unwise. Leonardo knows what Ezio wants just as much as Ezio knows what he wants and Leonardo hopes he won’t regret giving it to Ezio.

Leonardo had kissed many times, but it’s the first time to be kissed in a way that is setting him slightly off-balance. The first time they meet there’s something sweet, something soft, something lazy in their thorough kiss. They part and he flattens the pad of his thumb to Ezio’s firm, soft lips and wants to gorge himself on their ensuing kiss. It’s all greed for more, thinly separated from abandon and oddly combined with restraint, before it turns into something rougher, something mindless, all teeth, tongue, shallow breaths.

He feels the heat shifting from Ezio’s body to his, he feels the press of Ezio’s hard chest with every labored breath, he feels Ezio’s fingers tugging at the folds of his tunic while he paws at Ezio’s exposed back where the warrior’s tunic has slipped from belt and allowed Leonardo a way up.

“No,” he breathes against Ezio’s wet mouth, swats the warrior’s hands off his own lower back.

“That’s unfair.” Ezio grins into their next kiss and proceeds to wander across Leonardo’s clothed back instead, barely upset by this injustice.

“Bear with it,” Leonardo teases, even as he tugs the front of Ezio’s belt down and works himself up the warrior’s tunic, pressing palms-splayed across his bare back. It’s all warm skin pulled taut over firm muscle rippling beneath his flattening press. Ezio is willing to allow him this head start until Leonardo acquaints himself with his body. A time beyond which he will find ways to cozy up and worm himself up the tunic he currently strokes in blind, futile search for skin contact.

He gives this plan ample bloom, and then, suddenly, when he realizes that Leonardo is pressing into his back with a sort of clinical interest, he terminates their join of lips to stare questioningly into the man’s face.

“You’ve wonderful muscle proportions.”

“What...?” Ezio blurts unintelligently.

“Do you mind if I make a sketch? I’m somewhat fascinated by the human anatomy, shapes of muscles and such…” Leonardo trails off, feeling cheerful and talkative all of a sudden as he hops off the table to fetch paper and charcoal from yet another overstuffed shelf.

Ezio stands dumbfounded, torn between disappointment at the loss of Leonardo’s attention and appreciation of Leonardo’s endearing behavior, volatile and innocently eager as it is.

“I don’t mind, but now’s not the time for such things,” he finds his voice, his resolve along with it.

He strides over in hasty steps, embraces Leonardo from behind before the man manages to produce the materials, “It can wait.”

“Oh? But this can wait as well, can it not?” Leonardo feigns innocence, cocking his head aside, allowing Ezio’s chin to settle into offered space.

“No. No, this can’t wait,” he counters firmly. A moment, and then noses against the neckline of Leonardo’s tunic to replace his chin with his mouth and press into the skin that he’s liberated.

Leonardo replies with a lopsided grin. Soundless and bright, amused by Ezio’s persistence.

He gives in long before he asks the question.

“What is it you wish for?”

“The whisper of my name on your lips. Its taste on your lips,” Ezio says bluntly and pleads covertly, but not covertly enough to hide it; he’s open for reading.

Leonardo is aware that he’s come with more than mere flirt in mind.

On some level, Leonardo feels he’s selling himself for a pretty shell-bowl, but on another he feels he’s been deliberately delaying what both of them have wanted from the start. It’s not an issue of modesty either. Leonardo isn’t one to deny himself pleasure when presented with opportunity. It’s fear, of winding up wanting more than just sex from Ezio. A warrior unlike Malik’s Altaïr. Unhinged in ways Altaïr isn’t, unburdened by ties of a deeper bond, bereft of desire to tangle himself into more than a few bouts of pleasure. In short, Ezio is a libertine, and Leonardo, at this point, is a seeker. And with this man, to seek more is to lose more.

This is the worry that nags at him even as he pivots within Ezio’s hold, even as Ezio groans against his lips, even as he claims the warrior’s mouth in a possessive, greedy, selfish way.

“I will give you this. And whatever else you persuade me to give you,” he says quietly, his whisper rasping with thoughtless arousal.

For once he’s thoughtless before Ezio. He’ll allow himself this luxury.

Ezio may learn to care for him, as a friend, and more than that. But he will resist being tied down. Even Altaïr had told him as much.

So he cleans himself of expectations before he sells himself; he seizes Ezio by the arm and hauls him off towards the chaise, pushes him among the pillows. Leonardo chases him for the space. It’s not what Ezio expects, but Leonardo slots himself between his legs, kneeling, hovering over the warrior when he arrests him by the hair, pulling at the root of Ezio’s ponytail until the ribbon surrenders to him and falls off in time with his tipping Ezio’s head backwards until he’s completely on offer for Leonardo’s mouth.

He pins Ezio’s head to a pillow below, smothers him with the kiss and Ezio allows this, craves this, until the action is taken in turns by his brain, the flesh, the lungs. Until he’s drowning with want and rutting up into nothing, begging for touch that Leonardo gives freely.

There’s a wet hiss, an oath, a groan when he frees Ezio’s engorged cock without a qualm, welcomes the handsome length into a steady hold without a blink of hesitation.

Leonardo will give him only this today, though he pines for more of this man. It’s not a triumph, but it’s a win by omission of complete weakness. The tunic he delivers completely from the belt’s grasp and lifts up for his own viewing pleasure, sweetened by the sight of nipples—dusky, perked up long before he has revealed Ezio’s chest. The noble surrenders himself to the firm stroke of his hand and Leonardo surrenders himself to hunger for a sample of this man; he bends, his grip on the warrior’s cock unremitting, flicks his tongue across a pectoral, and Ezio positively arches into his mouth with a moan-torn breath and it’s baffling, it’s delightful.

He smells of salt and sand, of sea, his breathy pants crush against Leonardo’s ears like waves lashing at the shore, it’s odd. He’s the sea itself, and Leonardo is drowning, and it feels sublime.

His chest, bronzed and powerful, rises with breaths like the tide and Leonardo rides on its waves kissing along his chest, across a pebbled nipple, catching it between tongue and lips in a determined sort of pressure—an appreciated attention affixed by Ezio’s clawing at his nape with a clumsy fistful of blond hair while Leonardo feverishly picks up the pace of strokes.

“Leonardo—“ he stammers out, caught in the midst of a warning.

“Please let me, Ezio.”

Leonardo has stripped himself of patience he’s so known for. He doesn’t want to drag it out. There’s a seasoned warrior, putty in his arms and panting through kiss-bitten lips, and he wants him to yield and show just how little Leonardo needs to make him come.

Ezio tips his head back, groaning. Perspiration is rising along his throat, beading along his temples. He’s stiffly clutching the handful of blond hair he’s captured and thrusting into Leonardo’s working fist when the man coaxes the first spurts of seed out of him. Revealing his chest proves a convenient eschewal of a mess Ezio would have to deal with later.

He is sufficiently pacified after the first climax and he’s mellowed and receptive to caress devoid of lust.

It's what Leonardo will take for himself today; a brush of a thumb along his sweat-slicked collarbone, a whisper of a touch trailed up his side, a combing brush through his loose hair, a nestling press of nose against his neck. It’s what Leonardo hasn’t had in a long time. It’s what he might not have with this man in the future.

And when Ezio gears up again and his sex stirs with restored arousal, Leonardo has taken just enough to sate himself.

Ezio has also understood his role in this and he’s contented enough—he’s used to being more active and involved in sex—but here-and-now is for Leonardo alone to orchestrate because the man won’t have it any other way. Ezio’s is to ask and to take what’s given, and he asks for attention with another thrust of his hips, and he longs for lips on his own, and Leonardo gives him all of this, and more.

When the studio door opens neither of them cares to notice.

When the intruder finally notices them—her guardian and teacher pampering a very naked warrior on their beloved chaise—she’s far too deep into the territory of the studio to escape by the same route unseen.

Salai gapes for another moment, eyebrows up, eyes roaming, momentarily at a terrible loss as to why she’s come in here in the first place. When she remembers, the task proves too risky—the couple coins she’s come to snag from Leonardo’s purse isn’t worth the jingle of metal that will distract the pair—so she slips away into the backroom to crawl out of the window, thankful that their abode is on the lower ring-floor.

Down she goes, landing expertly just below the window, bent on running around to lock the studio from outside and fend off customers for time being. It’s been a while since Leonardo’s had a decent man in his bed and she’ll be damned if she allows clients to disturb whatever arrangement Leonardo is having at the moment.

She promptly rejoins the main, sloped road, turns left, then left again, right through the tunnel where someone almost crashes into her back.

“Whoa!“ Desmond puffs and sidesteps deftly to avoid colliding into her inside the tunnel.

He’s wheezing from the chase after Altaïr who had ran ahead like possessed, and as they exit the passage together he has barely soothed his breath.

“You’re just in time to watch the spar,“ Salai tells him, only vaguely explaining the sight that greets Desmond inside.

In the courtyard, Altaïr and Malik are priming themselves for a sword spar.

Desmond is at a severe loss as to how this development has ensued. The weather itself seems to be in cahoots with this turnabout. Overhead, the sky is a brilliant, cloud-less blue, not a trace of bloated grey clouds from ear