The eight masters, clothed in their ceremonial cloaks, gathered with heads bowed. With no words, they passed around the aged pages and began to read.
Never in my life have I regretted, or will I regret, anything as much as bringing home that infant girl 20 years ago.
It was an error, a terrible, terrible error that I will regret for the rest of my life.
Because that babe, who I grew to call daughter, and she call me father, is now dead by my hand.
I must admit that the grief is still so fresh in my soul. It eats at me, tears at me, threatens to strip all of the flesh from my bones. It is difficult to move, difficult to breathe.
There is a part of me that wants to cut off my right hand, my sword hand, because I cannot look at it without seeing her precious blood dripping from my fingers.
I fear this grief may kill me.
But before it does, I owe Aless, no, my daughter, the writing of this story. And so I take the quill in my shaking hands, and I force myself to recount her life, which both began and ended in tragedy.
I was young. The brotherhood had taught me since puberty to not count the years since my birth, but I doubt I had seen more than eighteen winters, close to the age of my daughter when she died. I had recently passed the final test and earned the hood of the assassin. I was brimming with pride, eager to take my first kill as a ranked member.
When I learned I was to bring silent death upon an entire family, I didn't hesitate.
I scaled the tower wall at night, my white hood pulled low over my face. I was invisible, and more silent than the leaves that float in the night winds.
I slid in through a narrow window and found the lord, his wife and babe all on the bed, pillows piled around them, probably carefully placed by some attendant.
I didn't hesitate. A few quick steps and I was at the sleeping father's throat. My hidden blade pierced his flesh. He opened his eyes for one moment, and I watched a faint smile pass over his lips as his body relax. This was common -- for the victims to not be surprised at my blade. For many, death was a relief. They no longer had to wonder when Death would visit them, taking final retribution for their crimes and sins.
And that is what I was. Death.
The mother stirred, but did not wake. The infant was lodged on her nipple, nursing gently. It couldn't have been more than a few months old, so tiny a life.
I again reared back my arm, ready to let her die the same way. But she awoke with a start, her eyes wild.
What had awoken her? Some unseen nightmare? Or was I the nightmare, realized before her? I'll never know.
Her roaming gaze fell on her husband, bathed in blood, which had formed a puddle on the bed, dripped down the soft blankets and stained her own richly-dyed night garments.
I should have ended it at that moment, as she stared at her dead lover, but I didn't. I was so young. The thought of killing her as she struggled to make sense of it all didn't seem fair.
She didn't scream. She didn't even make an effort to run.
Her roaming eyes then settled on my face, which was hidden in the shadows of the hood. Realization struck her.
"You, you're going to kill me," she whispered.
"And my baby?"
I nodded again.
The mother's face contorted until she no longer resembled a human. It was a feral face, a face of prey as it stared into the open maw of the wolf.
"Please," she whimpered, keeping her voice quiet, her body still. Her behavior suddenly made sense to me. She didn't want to disturb the child. She wouldn't even make an effort to save her own life, or react to the horror unfolding before her eyes, if it meant disturbing her content infant, which still nursed obliviously.
"Please," she began again. "Please, not my baby. Please. Just no, not my baby."
Even at that young of an age, I knew fatherhood. I had found a lover when I was barely a man, and she had given birth to a son, my son. His name was Jaim, and he hadn't even learned to walk before he died. I had lost them both, my lover and my son, to plague no more than a year before my encounter with this stoic mother.
My family had died alone, hundreds of nights' travel away from me: I was training with the brotherhood, eagerly pursuing the hood which I now wore. My superiors had hidden my lover and child in a small village far from the guild for their own safety. So they died after I had only had the chance to hold Jaim once.
Of course, plague commonly takes away young souls like Jaim's. But I was young, and I blamed myself for not being there, for not saving them both.
As I looked at this mother and her infant, my own paternal instinct swelled within me. I couldn't kill this infant. Not tonight. Perhaps later, on the road. Let this mother die in peace, at least, and then I'll end this tiny life on my journey homeward. That was my logic.
I retracted my hidden blade for a moment, leaned over, and lifted the baby away from its mother. It began to squall. From a pocket I lifted a tiny vial, which I brought to its nose. The infant promptly slumped in my arms.
The mother watched this, and she didn't react. She must have sensed that I meant no harm, at least not then.
"Thank you," she whispered, and she relaxed in the bed.
And then I killed her.
It should come as no surprise that I arrived back at the gates of Masyaf with the infant tucked in my cloak.
During my journey, I had taken milk from cows' utters for the baby girl to drink and had stolen fresh blankets and cloaks from unsuspecting merchants to wrap her in.
Every time I rocked her, every time I fed her, every time I soothed her and touched her and whispered to her, I told myself, "Yes, tonight I will have to kill you. But not yet."
I learned on the journey that she was a girl. I had killed the mother without asking for her name, so I gave her the name of the mother of my son. Aless.
"Aless," I cooed. "Aless, Aless, Aless, Aless."
She was too young to smile, but she watched my lips move with wide eyes and an open mouth.
As I approached less than a half-day's ride from the guild, I knew that I had to make a decision. But this, too, was a lie. A lie that I had been telling myself since I had taken her from her mother's arms. I had no intention of killing her, not since the minute I first held her. I was in love with her, and there was no turning back.
As I was led by the amused guards to my master, I swallowed heavily. Aless was tucked into the crook of my arm, hidden from the harsh light of the midday sun. I followed the guards into the guild headquarters' inner chambers, to the feet of my master.
Ahraib stared at me as I knelt before him. I was not in my normal position, which required one fist to be planted to the floor and the head to be craned down, with the top of the assassin's hood touching the stones. That posture would have required a sharp bend at my waist and would disturb the content baby, so I simply knelt before him, my eyes cast downward.
And, of course, the fact that one of my arms was hidden in my cloak looked more than a little obvious, of that I am now sure.
My master had been browsing through the dusty tomes that were stacked for rows and rows high in his chambers, but as I entered, he turned all of his attention on me and my odd posture.
"Kaim," Ahraib said, his grey eyebrows creasing together. "Come before me."
I rose and took two steps toward him.
"Kaim, what is in your cloak."
I shook my head. "Nothing, master." I was such an idiot.
"Open your cloak, Kaim."
I just shook my head again.
His eyes softened. "Kaim, please. Don't make me have to go through the ceremony of calling in others. I have already heard of the treasure you brought back with you."
With a sigh, I opened my cloak, and out came Aless. She was tied neatly in a rich, red silk shoulder wrap, and I had placed a stolen gold choker necklace around her neck, which drooped down to her rounded stomach.
Master Ahraib looked at the infant for a moment and then took a step toward me and the child.
"No," I said. I put my free hand on her head and pulled her in close to me. She felt warm through my shirt. "No, please. Please."
My master reached his hand out. I could feel my muscles clenching as I thought of all the places I had hidden weapons. If he went to take her, I was convinced at that moment that I could kill my own master, who had been like a father to me, and fight my way out, killing all of the assassins in the entire guild if I had to.
But that flash of controlled panic flared out as I realized my master's hand was resting on my shoulder.
"Do not worry, my son," he said, and he moved his hand from my shoulder to on top of my hand, which was still covering Aless' newly formed skull. "I shall protect you from the wrath of my peers. Since you have brought her here, she will be taught in our way, used for our objectives. But until then, raise her, let her fill the hole left by your son and lover.
"I must strip you of your hood so that you may devote your life to this child. You have always had a gift in training others, so that will consume your days now."
My master sighed as his eyes fell on the babe.
"It was a mistake to send you on a mission while you still grieve. But perhaps this is destined. We are not meant to see the hand of God at work in our lives, Kaim."
I nodded, Fslightly dumbfounded.
"Go back to your chambers and be with your new child. I will send someone to you shortly to help you acquire what you will need."
All I could do was bow and hurry out.
All happened as my master said. Ahraib was a member of a circle of eight who knew all and could command all. I heard rumors that some of them wanted not only the life of the babe, but my life, as well, for compromising the secrecy of the assassins. But we remained safe.
I sometimes think my behavior during those first few years is what ultimately saved us: the way I fussed over her, the way I refused to let anyone else take care of her, the way I would stop whatever I was doing to attend to her slightest sniffle or moan. All of the love I couldn't show my own lover and child I could now pour into this girl, and I did so with abandon.
There were a handful of other children who called the guild home. Although most of our ranks were men, a few women earned the hood and were allowed into our gates. Naturally, this created problems. Although strictly forbidden, love always managed to sneak by somehow, even more elusive than we assassins. Soon, the women would end up with swollen breasts and stomachs.
When this happened, the two assassins were brought before the masters, and they would then decide which of the two was the more skilled in the art. That lover was commanded to continue taking on objectives. If that person happened to be the woman, she, of course, gave birth and was given time to rebuild her body before exiting the gates once again.
The other, less skilled lover, just like me, was stripped of his or her hood and was given other tasks, from making weapons to baking bread, so he or she could raise the child in peace.
Peace in an assassin's guild is a relative term, of course. We lost brothers and sisters almost monthly, and nothing grieved me more than when a mother or father died.
A child's wail is almost unearthly.
My own lover, herself a former assassin, gave birth to Jaim this way. I was much further along and more gifted in my training, so she was left with the task to raise him. However, her identity had been compromised on her last task, and the masters thought it best to put her in hiding for a few years before she was allowed back into the gates. She was pregnant when she left us. I managed to sneak out once after Jaim was born to visit them both, but I had to return in haste.
And then they died.
I never even had the chance to marry her. The guild kept one cleric within our gates for two purposes: marrying these elusive lovers and honoring the dead. You can guess which of those two tasks the cleric was called to more, especially in my own life.
The guild and death first. Love and family second. That was, and is, the reality.
But not to me, at least not in those early years. Taking the word from my master, I called Aless my little treasure, and I watched her grow.
She did not look like the rest of us. She had dark brown hair and striking clear-blue eyes, unlike the darker skin and jet black hair of the race that primarily resided in our region. Needless to say, father and daughter looked nothing alike. If anyone resented us for it, they never showed it.
Perhaps they feared reprisal from me. As the years went on, I trained so many youth. Unlike others in my position, more than half of the young recruits left in my care were granted the hood. I was hailed for this feat, and I slowly rose through the ranks. I was known as slow to anger and even-tempered, but I was also known as a slightly obsessed father. And thinking back, everyone was probably too afraid to comment about Aless' hair, skin and eyes, less they feel my whip on their backs.
Aless was always with me. She sat at my feet as I scolded at the youth who swatted at each other in the training arena. She was perched in front of me on horseback as I led those in my care over fences and around sharp twists and turns. She held onto my back as I led groups up cliff faces, my hands clutching small outcroppings in the rock and the tips of my toes balancing on footholds invisible to the naked eye.
She grew up around battle and bloodshed. She watched me transform innocent young men into embodiments of stealth and shadow.
And yet, fatherhood had blinded me. I thought she would always be my treasure, would always be at my side. It never crossed my mind that she, too, was learning the art of death along with my apprentices, or that I would not always be the only man in her life.
Both of these misconceptions were shattered when the grandson of Altaïr appeared before me.