A/N: Altair will show up later. I promise.
I was seven years old when Al Mualim found me. By most accounts I was an unremarkable child—small and thin and uncomfortably direct, with dark eyes too large for my narrow face, and knees and elbows that stuck out every which way. Still, Al Mualim must have seen something in the way I shyly offered him a flower plucked from my mother's garden, because he smiled and took my hand and asked to see my parents.
I was the second of five children, and the eldest of the three girls; my two younger sisters were playing in the vegetable garden as I led Al Mualim past them and up the muddy track to our house, and they pestered me afterward when he went inside to speak with my father—who is that man? they asked. He has such a very big beard. Do things get lost in it when he eats?
But I couldn't be bothered by my sisters. I was watching the men Al Mualim had come with—two men in white robes, with crimson sashes like streaks of blood and glittering daggers, mounted on fine sleek horses that stamped and flicked their streaming tails into the wind—ah, that was more interesting! I went to give them flowers, too. It would be rude, after all, not to offer; so I went toward them, with two sprigs of blooddrops torn hastily from the garden and my sisters trailing behind me uncertainly, and I still remember they way they bowed to me from their horses, so gravely, and took the blossoms from my hand.
We were poor. I didn't realize it then, but we were, and on that day when I was seven years old, Al Mualim paid my parents twenty gold dinars and took me away.
By most accounts I was an unremarkable child, but Al Mualim thought otherwise. Twenty gold dinars was more than half the amount my father would make in a year; still, Al Mualim told me, it was a paltry amount for Masyaf, especially to acquire one such as I.
I was quick-witted and bold, he told me. I was clever. I was brave. In my too-wide eyes and awkward limbs, he saw the promise of great beauty; in the graceless way I clambered up behind him onto his horse, he saw agility and determination. I don't think he ever saw me—not then, at least. When Al Mualim cast his gaze upon the girl I was, he was always envisioning the weapon he would make of me.
The Hashshashin, I would learn, do not kill with blades alone.
Al Mualim took me to the stronghold of the Assassins. It was two day's journey from my parents' house. I was dusty and sore at the end of it, never having ridden a horse before, and I was frightened, too—the two men who rode with us were beginning to unnerve me with their silence and their gleaming blades.
But I saw the fortress as we approached—soaring against the horizon, the gray stones backlit by the setting sun, and streams of banners red as blood and edged in silver—
It glowed, grand and lovely, like the vision of an avenging angel leaping toward heaven. Al Mualim chuckled at my startled gasp. "Beautiful, isn't it?" he asked genially, nudging his horse down the road toward Masyaf. "Do not be so awed. It will be your home now."
That was my first lesson in beauty: do not be so awed.
It would not be my last.
The women's quarters at the assassin's stronghold is built into the mountains—a series of three crescent-shaped levels, one on top of the other cascading down the mountainside in a tumble of rough-hewn stone and greenery, and at the bottom where it touches the main fortress, there is a garden.
The Garden of a Thousand Lanterns, it is called, though of course that is an exaggeration. But it is a marvel to behold at night—lanterns upon lanterns, scattered everywhere like stars, and the air is filled with the scent of night-blooming jasmine. Expensive to keep, certainly; but Al Mualim is generous when it comes to his assassins, for he well understood the importance of morale. And so the garden was made into a tranquil place of life and beauty; necessary, I suppose, for men whose lives revolved around death. There are silver fountains there, and stands of flowers; there are cushioned benches to recline upon; there are women to attend to the men's every need.
Yes, even those. Or should I say: yes, particularly those? There is a reason why the seven Sacred Blossoms have their quarters on the first level of the women's compound—they serve as concubines for the men of the keep.
I was too young then to understand what the duties of a concubine entailed. All I understood, when Al Mualim brought me into the garden, was that the women were beautiful—so finely dressed, and glittering with adornments that shone in the lamplight, that I thought them all queens and princesses. Again I was awestruck.
Al Mualim laughed when I gathered up the courage to ask if he had brought me there to join them.
"No, my child," he told me. "There is a greater destiny in store for you."
And he was right, though I didn't understand that, either.
"We are going to see a woman," Al Mualim said, as he led me across the garden. "You are to treat her with the utmost respect, do you understand?"
I nodded. At that moment, I couldn't imagine treating anyone in this strange place with anything but respect and awe—the men with their gleaming daggers, and the women with their beauty, and Al Mualim who had bought my life for twenty gold dinars. "Who is she?" I ventured.
Al Mualim smiled.
He took me to one of the covered pavilions. A girl was inside, playing with a doll; she scrambled up as we approached. "Sarai," Al Mualim said. "Go tell Shadha I need to see her."
The girl—Sarai—bowed and ran off, casting me a glance from beneath her long lashes as she went. Her eyes were very dark and very soft, I noticed, and they made me think of doves.
"Who is she?" I wanted to know.
"A student of Shadha's," he said, seating himself upon one of the low benches that ringed the pavilion. Somewhere nearby, there was the sound of falling water and a woman's laughter, drifting through the twilight air like a dream. "She is your age, I believe. Perhaps you two might become friends? Have a seat, child."
I sat, obediently. "Where is she from?" I asked, kicking my legs against the bench. "Did you buy her from her parents, like me? Does she have sisters? Will she like me?"
Al Mualim was smiling again. "I see that answering your questions only encourages more," he said genially. "Patience. You may ask her yourself, later."
And I did—though I am afraid to say that I so startled poor Sarai with my boldness that she hid from me for days. She was a sweet girl, Sarai, but dreadfully shy around strangers.
Shadha, when she appeared, was a rather unremarkable woman of about forty—unremarkable, that is, compared to the other glittering creatures in the garden—but Al Mualim rose for her, a rare honor from the Master of the assassins, and so I too scrambled to my feet and tried not to stare as they bowed toward each other.
"Shadha," Al Mualim said. "I have brought you a new pupil."
She turned her gaze on me. "Another one?" she asked dryly. "Master, I run an apprenticeship, not a school. Already Rasha is becoming quite a handful."
"This one is special," Al Mualim said.
I stood a little straighter and did my best to look extraordinary, though really I had no idea what either of them were talking about.
Shadha considered me. "I suppose." And, "What is your name, child?"
"Isra," I said.
"Isra," she repeated. She glanced at Al Mualim and raised her eyebrows. "And what will you name her, Master?"
He did not even need a moment to consider. "Blooddrop," he said. "And have a care in answering her questions, Shadha, for once you answer one, she will not stop until they are all satisfied."
"I shall consider myself warned," Shadha said, and took my hand. "You must be tired," she told me, kindly. "Come. We will arrange matters in the morning."
I followed her unquestioningly. Shadha was that sort of woman.
She took me to her rooms on the third level of the women's quarters and installed me with her other apprentices. There was Sarai, who I had already seen, and then there was Rasha, who was three years older than me and already showing signs of great beauty; they stared at me curiously as Shadha introduced me, and then came forward to ask me questions when she had left.
Or at least, Rasha did; Sarai, as I have mentioned, was too shy to speak.
"Where are you from?" Rasha wanted to know, bouncing slightly on the mat that served as her bed.
I had no idea. "A farm," I said, rather lamely. Then: "Where are you from?"
"Damascus," Rasha said proudly. "Shadha found me when I was really little. I've been here for ages and ages, so I know everything. Sarai's from Masyaf," she added as an afterthought, nodding toward the other girl. Sarai ducked her head as I glanced at her. "Her mother's the wine merchant's daughter."
"What about her father?" I asked curiously.
"Oh, he's an assassin," Rasha said. "He's never around. They go on missions, you know. It's all very secret." She grinned at me, and bounced again. "But I know about them. Shadha tells me, because I'm the oldest."
"What else does Shadha say?"
"All sorts of things," Rasha confided. "Come on, Sarai, tell her what Shadha said about you."
Sarai peered at me. She was curled up on her mat, knees to chest, and the wavering light from the lantern reflected from her eyes and made them luminous. "She says I'm good with numbers," Sarai said, so softly I had to strain to hear her. Rasha beamed and bounced again.
"See?" she said brightly. "And Shadha says I'm going to be a rich man's wife and have lots of jewelry. But she also says I'm a she-devil who'll be the death of her, sometimes, so maybe she was joking. Anyway, what did she say about you?"
Shadha hadn't said anything to me. I shrugged.
"That's all right," Rasha told me. "She'll have plenty to say later, I'm sure. She's good at finding things we're good at."
"What do you do?" I asked, fascinated.
Rasha made a face. "Shadha makes us learn things," she said. "Like numbers, and she makes us read all these books. And then Al Mualim told her to teach us Frankish, so now we have to learn that, and riding, and plants, and everything, and I don't see why if I'm going to be a rich man's wife, but she says it's important."
I glanced at Sarai. She was peering down at her feet, though I could tell she was listening intently. "Are you going to be a rich man's wife, too?" I asked her.
Sarai shook her head, still silent. Rasha sighed.
"It's all right," she told me. "She wouldn't talk to me for a week until I got here. She's just really shy."
"Oh." I had never been shy in my life, so I wasn't quite certain what this meant. Rasha grinned at me.
"We should go to sleep," she said. "Shadha will want to talk to you in the morning, and she'll be angry if you keep yawning. You can share my pallet tonight," she added generously. "Tomorrow you'll get your own. Sarai, blow out the lamp, will you?"
Sarai leaned forward obligingly. I clambered onto the mat next to Rasha, and she moved aside to make room for me; in the darkness, I lay down on the narrow pallet and listened to the sound of the wind sighing through the mountains.
"Goodnight," Rasha announced.
"Goodnight," I echoed, and there was an answering murmur from Sarai's corner. I closed my eyes.
This is how I entered into the service of the Assassins.