"I've never seen anything like it," Malik said, his voice tinged with awe as he stared at the apparition cast by the Piece of Eden. Though he'd retrieved it for Al Mualim, he'd never seen what the treasure was capable of. "Altair…what is it?"
"It's a curse. A weapon of lies and deception."
"Will you destroy it, then?"
He didn't answer. The biblical passage that Al Mualim had recited as he died still rang in his mind. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. There was much truth in the words, he reflected, though it seemed an odd thing for Al Mualim to have on his lips as he passed on to whatever heaven or hell awaited him.
His first impulse had been to crush the thing with the broad side of his sword, but something stayed his hand, even as he heard Al Mualim taunting him. The thought had struck him that there may something he could learn from the Piece of Eden, if he could find a way to use it for good and unselfish reasons.
A hand on his shoulder jerked him out of his contemplation. He turned toward Malik and his brothers. "What you have seen must never be spoken of. It is sealed beyond the veil," he said, quoting the traditional phrase that invoked the highest level of secrecy in the Brotherhood. Breaking this oath was punishable by death. He looked at each man in turn, who nodded solemnly with their hand over their heart. Satisfied, he retrieved the Piece of Eden and, wrapping it in the folds of his tunic, headed for the library.
"What of the body?" Malik asked.
He paused, looking over his shoulder at the body of his former Master. "He was a traitor. Do as the Law demands." It pained him to say the words, despite everything. The body would be taken through the streets of Masyaf out of the city and left unburied for the carrion to consume. Malik's men moved to retrieve the corpse. .
"And the brothers and the people in the courtyard? They are gathered still," Malik said, following him inside.
"As soon as I secure this I will speak to them." He hoped the spell they were under was broken with the death of Al Mualim. What if it wasn't? How could they be helped?
"Very well. The body can be taken out afterwards, then," Malik replied.
The receptacle for the Piece of Eden was not on Al Mualim's desk and he didn't have time to seek it out at the moment. He decided that his quarters would be the safest spot to store the treasure for now. "I'll return shortly," he told Malik as he exited the library and followed the passage around to the tower stairs. Al Mualim had made him room with the novices during his brief stays at the fortress during the early days of his re-training, but luckily his rooms were kept for him.
He went to his bookshelf and removed several books, placing the Piece of Eden at the very back. Replacing the books, he stepped back and inspected the concealment and decided that it would do for the time being. He would move it to a more secure spot later.
As he rejoined Malik in the library, the cooing of the carrier pigeons reminded him of another necessary and urgent task. "We should send word to the Rafiq at the Bureaus. We must gather to choose the new Master."
"I will see to it. Some will not take the news well, I'm afraid."
"I know. Still, we must try and keep the upheaval as minimal as possible. The Brotherhood is vulnerable now. At times like this, the discipline and protocols of our Creed are shelter in the storm."
Malik smiled softly. "Spoken like a true Master."
"Your words are kind, my friend." Too kind, he thought, part of him feeling like a hypocrite for invoking discipline and protocol. He'd learned a great deal about himself over the course of his re-training, and he was grateful to Al Mualim for the lesson in humility even if it was a ruse. It was Malik, though, that ultimately had truly humbled him by offering his forgiveness. He steeled himself and went to face his brothers and the people of Masyaf.
"What have you done?"
"Where is the Master?"
"Please tell us what's going on!"
The questions came at him at the same time from every direction. He held his hand up to call for quiet. At least they were coherent and not speaking in that eerie, almost monotone voice. It seemed they were of their own minds again.
"Al Mualim betrayed the Brotherhood," he began. There were murmurs of surprise and a couple of disbelief. "He broke the tenants of the Creed and deceived all of us in a mad quest for power over those he claimed to serve. His treachery knew no bounds, and had to be stopped. He chose death over repentance." He paused, scanning the faces and hands of those around him as they reacted to his words. Most seemed to accept what he said, having realized that they were manipulated, but a few looked as if they doubted him.
"You lie!" a voice called out. His eyes found the source right as a rock was hurled at him. His hand shot up, catching it just before it hit him in the head. Two guards grabbed the assailant, who struggled to free himself.
"Release him," he told the guards. The young man was a novice in the Brotherhood. His face wore more confusion than outright ill intent, despite the public outburst. It could be the lingering effects of the thrall. He took a step toward him. "I speak the truth. Do you not feel different, as though you'd been released from some dark sorcery?"
The novice cast his eyes downward. "Yes, I cannot deny that, but the Master wouldn't betray us." He paused a moment, suddenly unsure. "Would he?" he added, looking around for some indication from the other brothers.
"I wish it were otherwise," he answered truthfully. It would take some time for the truth to sink in, for all of them. "You all know the Law regarding the corpses of traitors." He turned and motioned for Malik's men to bring the body forward and begin the descent to the city gates and beyond. They had removed all items signifying rank or association with the Brotherhood. He averted his eyes, an action born both from tradition and discomfort. He deserves it, he reminded himself before instructing a guard detail to accompany them.
The people glanced curiously at the body of the once revered man. The brothers looked long enough to confirm that he was truly dead then turned their backs, refusing to grant any further acknowledgement or honor to the spirit of the betrayer.
When the procession had reached the gates of the fortress, he addressed the people once more. "If you have business inside the fortress, see that it's taken care of as soon as possible. Access will be restricted during the Conclave." With that, he turned and went back inside, the brothers following.
Once inside, he spoke to them. They knew about the Templars, but not the extent of their dealings and plotting. Nor did they know that the one they all looked to for wisdom and leadership – Al Mualim - had been so closely associated with them. When his recount of his missions was as complete as he could make it, he waited for it – the challenge that would surely come.
"If there any among you who have questions, speak them, now or in the future. Doubt and gossip will only serve to poison the Brotherhood and weaken us."
There were murmurs and nodding. Finally, Raoul stepped forward. "Is it true that you fought a woman?" he asked with a slight mocking tone.
He hadn't expected such a lighthearted response and tried not to let his relief show too much. "And was nearly bested," he replied with a tired smile. There was a pause, then laughter erupted.
"Why would the leader of the Templars send a woman in his stead?"
He was curious about that himself. Maria was something of an enigma. She fought valiantly and well, but surely there were others Robert de Sable could have sent. "That I do not know. I only hope that she doesn't decide to take up the mantle of leadership that de Sable's death has left vacant."
He climbed the stairs and sat – for the first time in what seemed like days - on the top step, turning the events of the past day over in his mind as he turned a throwing knife over in his fingers. His brothers milled around the library, discussing the death of Al Mualim and the upcoming Conclave and answering as many of the questions the novices had as was permitted. There hadn't been a Conclave in many, many years, and few of the younger brothers, including himself, had ever attended one.
He looked around, thinking about the future of the Brotherhood and wondering if any of those before him were prepared to lead them to it. He would do what he could to guide them, but, if he was honest with himself, he didn't want to be the Master of the Brotherhood. Not only did he not meet the traditional age requirement, he held no love for politics and even less for being tied to Masyaf by the duties of the job. Al Mualim had rarely left the fortress. Everyone came to him. No, he enjoyed the freedom his newly regained position provided him. If called, however, he may have to put selfishness aside. He looked up to see Abbas coming up the stairs toward him.
"You must be tired, Altair," Abbas said. "The ride from Arsuf, then confronting your own brothers as they attacked you - not to mention killing the Master. It makes for a long day, no?"
"Several very long days, actually. I'm afraid it's left me with little patience."
"Ah, I see. I suppose I shouldn't play with fire, then, especially when there are whispers that you may be the new Master. I can't help but wonder who will take on the role of boot polisher should you vacate the position."
"Your insults are old and tired, Abbas," he said, remembering how the man had goaded him when he'd been demoted. "Why you seem determined to persist even now is a mystery to me."
"Some habits die hard, I guess," Abbas said with a wry smile. "Look, I cannot deny that you have served the Brotherhood well. For that, I thank you. Safety and peace upon you."
The rare display of kindness caught him off guard. It was a few seconds before he responded. "Upon you as well." Abbas nodded, turned and went back downstairs.
"Wonders never cease," Malik said from behind him.
"Truly," he agreed, standing. "I'll be in my quarters if anyone needs me. It has been a long day and there's much to think about."
He closed and bolted his door, then leaned back against it, breathing in the solitude with relief. With nothing more to accomplish today, the fatigue that he'd been pushing away set in fast. He reached up and removed his hood, running his fingers through his hair. A warm bath would be nice, but the baths would be busy and he had no desire to interact with anyone else.
He sighed and began to remove the tools of his trade; sword, short blade, throwing knives, hidden blade. These things defined him. When he'd been demoted and was without them, he'd felt incomplete, though he would never have admitted it. Al Mualim had suggested that who he was and what he did was inexorably intertwined. For the most part, he agreed. He finished undressing and pulled on a pair of sleeping pants. There were parts of him that no one knew, though, not even his Master. He rubbed his eyes. Well, there was one, but that was... Habit allowed him to kill the thought before it fully formed. He walked over to the basin, leaning over and pouring water from the jug over his head.
Al Mualim is dead. He stared into the basin as the water dripped off of his head. By my hand. He was like a father to me. His breath caught in his throat. How could he betray us so completely? How did I not see it? His fingers registered pain as he gripped the sides of the wooden stand tighter and tighter. Al Mualim had been a traitor, but the man had shaped, counseled and led them well. Even now his advice rang true, making the betrayal all the more bitter.
He still wasn't sure of how he'd resisted his Master's attempts to place him in thrall with the Piece of Eden, but neither was Al Mualim. It was plain that he'd intended just that, however. He would have been just like his brothers. The brothers who attacked him and kept attacking despite his efforts to dissuade them. The brothers I had to kill. In a swift flurry of motion, he lifted and threw the table and basin against the wall, the ceramic basin shattering.
"Master?" called a hesitant voice, obviously a novice, at his door. "Is everything alright?"
He bit back the harsh reply he almost loosed and managed to answer calmly. "Yes, everything is fine."
"Apologies for the interruption, then."
He closed his eyes and listened as the soft footsteps retreated from his door, tears sliding down his face. He rarely cried, but now in his solitude he let the emotion come. He'd pushed himself to his limits over the past few weeks and there was still much that he needed to resolve for himself in regards to what had happened.
Deciding he needed some air, he walked out onto the small balcony, leaned on the railing and stared up at the heavens, emptying his thoughts of all but the here and now. Inhaling deeply, he found the familiar scent of jasmine from the garden as it wafted on the breeze. The sights, scents and sounds of the night slowly worked to unravel and soothe his troubled mind and at last he felt like trying to sleep was not such an impossible goal. He left the shutters open when he went back inside.
When he laid his head down, he was grateful to find he felt drowsy immediately, his body's tiredness greater than his mind's machinations. Things would surely become clearer with time and contemplation. He closed his eyes and surrendered to sleep.