A/N: Consider this early update as an apology for my unexpectedly long break in writing, m'kay? :) Happy Easter!
Now that the day's hottest hour was over and the people started to move outside more, Altaïr wanted to make use of the remaining time and, as he put it, investigate. Before that, however, he thought it best to rest a while and eat.
The Rafiq was kind enough to provide us with the leftovers of the last meal, before excusing himself and disappearing into another room which I hadn't even known to exist. The meat I recognized to be lamb and the bread was okay, but...
"What the hell is this?" I asked, my mouth half full of the unidentified oily-tasting goo and pointed at my plate.
Altaïr looked over to me. "Hummus", he replied calmly.
"Hummus doesn't taste like this", I muttered once I had managed to force it down. It left a strange taste in my mouth.
"Fahim has never been much of a cook."
Not wanting to insult anyone, I scooped up another mouthful of the pale paste with my slice of bread, and quickly washed it down with water when Altaïr got up. "Are you done soon?" he asked, lifting up his hood once more. "The more we get done today, the better."
"So you don't mind me slowing you down then?"
In his usual style Altaïr ignored my sarcasm. "Two pairs of eyes and ears are better than one. Right now we need to lay low", he stated matter-of-factly. He went to tighten the straps on his bracers. "Just put on something less... conspicuous."
"Less conspicuous" of course meant smelling like a horse again, but it was a small price for being able to move in Acre without being stared at. After seeing Sibrand's reaction, it was somewhat safe to assume the security measures would be tightened especially near the docks and the city gates. If we had waited a day or two before leaving Jerusalem, even managing to enter the city might have become extremely difficult.
Probably knowing this, once we made it out to the streets, Altaïr told me he wanted to scout to the north of the docks to see if there was an alternative route in. As we walked, he quietly mused that the gates could be used for escape if it came to that. But I knew he'd rather avoid having to fight his way out of the district.
We had just turned a corner and were now on a wide and thickly populated street that bordered the walls behind which the docks were located. Or more like leftover space than a street – the whole stretch of half-cobbled ground was littered by rubble and waste from other, more destroyed parts of the city. A couple of dogs wandered along the sides where they wouldn't be stepped on. "How about the water?" I suggested quietly as we briefly stopped and gave way for three jar-carrying women that navigated through the refuse piled against the walls. They didn't even seem to acknowledge the gesture.
"What about it?"
"Couldn't you enter the docks by swimming? You'd avoid most of the guards."
I was taken aback by the strict denial to a simple question. "Why not?" I asked. "Even with your gear on, it shouldn't be that bad. It's not like you can't swim."
Instead of replying, Altaïr merely cut back into the crowd. I followed.
A realization hit me as I received no answer. "You can't swim?"
"Of course I can swim", he then snapped. "There just has to be an easier way. I would be spotted immediately if I tried to get back ashore."
"All right, I get it", I said and raised my hand to indicate I'd meant no offense – only the other one, as I still avoided using the wounded arm, although it did feel a lot better. I decided to drop the subject and glanced up at the walls that dominated the view on our right. "You don't suppose you could go over these walls?"
"Maybe we can find out", he muttered. His eyes scanned the relatively low walls, before stopping at something at the end of the street. Then his pace slowed down into a crawl and I felt a light touch on my shoulder. Surprised, I followed his gaze and saw what he'd noticed. Six guards in white uniforms were patrolling the small plaza ahead and keeping an eye on the people.
"They're doubling the guards", I heard Altaïr's low voice. "We'd better split up – you take the smaller streets and I'll follow the wall. I can get past the patrols easier by myself."
"Split up?" I started to protest, remembering how lost I'd been last time. "But how will I find you?"
"Meet me under that tower", he said and pointed.
Despite my hood I had to squint my eyes to see it – the sun had come out and was bathing the city in golden afternoon light. "Right", I said and shadowed my eyes with my hand. The tower wasn't too far away. I could make out an outline of a large bird sitting on top of it, lazily flapping its wings and watching the streets below.
"Keep your eyes and ears open for anything useful", I heard the assassin say briefly. When I looked back at him again, his back was already moving further away, blending seamlessly into a group of white-robed scholars trudging along in the flow of people. I was absolutely sure he was going to be fine – it was myself I was worried about more.
With the Crusaders' main strength concentrated on guarding the city entrances and Sibrand's honorable ass, odds were that I would be left mostly in peace as long as I stuck to the side streets. Repeating this in my mind like a mantra I turned as well and parted from the busy crowd, choosing a straight route to the direction of our rendezvous tower.
I'm getting better at this, I thought, strangely proud of myself as I dodged a few over-excited merchants trying to round up some customers and a gathering of chatting women in the middle of the street. As I passed them, I overheard the topics concerning mostly their husbands, the war and the anticipation of its end that hopefully came soon. The usual, if you could call it that.
I must've got too comfortable with my task of listening to the conversations going on around me, because suddenly I felt a pull at the hem of my robes. Alarmed, I looked and saw a ragged little woman staring up at me, her other hand leaving a gray stain on my clothes and the other cupped and held pleadingly out at me. Tears had left streaks on her face smeared with soot.
"Please, kind sir", she croaked. "I'm poor and I'm hungry... my children are sick, sir, please..."
It took me a second to find my voice again to find my voice again. "I'm sorry", I said, lowering my voice, "but I have nothing on me." I tugged at my robe to get her to let go. "Sorry", I repeated, and even though I felt horrible for doing it, turned away from the woman and continued walking.
"You don't understand!" she begged and latched onto my robes again, her voice rising alarmingly. "I have nothing!"
The beggar earned a couple of disapproving glares from the citizens passing by. I was starting to feel uncomfortably self-conscious. I quickly glanced around me, relieved that I found no guards in sight. "Me neither", I almost snapped at her, my patience wearing thin. I tore the cloth from her hands again, making her start and jump back like a frightened cat. As much as I hated seeing misery like this, there was nothing I could do. Right now the woman's pleading was attracting far too much attention to myself. Silently praying she wouldn't come after me again, I turned and went on.
Well, she didn't – instead I heard the poor woman choosing another victim from the crowd, and her trembling, high-pitched voice faded gradually as I left the scene. But then, as soon as I almost sighed of relief, I got the most disturbing sensation that I was being watched.
Normally I would've probably ignored it as common paranoia, but if I had learned anything while I'd been here, it was that you could never be too careful. I kept walking, but slowly turned my head to scan the people behind me. Still I found no sign of guards, nor anything out of the usual – no one even spared me a look. But still I couldn't shake the odd feeling that made the hair in the back of my neck to stand up on end. Reflexively I picked up my pace. My left hand twiched. It was itching again.
Some assassin you are. Can't even walk down a street...
I'm not an assassin.
I almost heard the mocking cackle of my Voice of Reason.
Then someone laid a hand on my right arm. "Master Altaïr", a voice whispered frantically.
I almost broke the nose of the person who had decided to sneak up on me, when my head snapped to the direction of the whispered name. After a split second, during which my heart had briefly tried to escape through my throat, I realized I was staring at the top half of a face that sported a pair of pale grey eyes. The rest was clad in a white shroud.
"Thank the heavens I found you", this strange person said, not noticing or not paying attention to my alarmed stare. Judging by the voice it was a he. His head spun wildly as he looked around us before starting to pull me towards a small alley.
"I'm sorry to bother you like this, Master Altaïr", the man began before we were even properly out of the street. He pulled at the scarf in front of his nose and mouth and revealed the face of a young man who appeared to be barely in his twenties.
Jesus. He's just a kid.
The blond scraggly hairs on his chin twitched nervously as he spoke. "I've been tracking down Templar messengers, just like Al Mualim ordered – but – I think I have been careless, so forgive me..." He drew some breath, giving me time to process the situation. This kid was apparently an informant, and had his assassins mixed up. Can't blame him, though. Before I could get a word in, he went on: "I followed them from the King's camp at Caesarea to Jerusalem, and then here, but – I'm sorry, but they knew to expect me this time, I tried to-"
The torrent of words stopped immediately when I raised a hand to calm down the young man. "I'm not Altaïr", I said, deciding to get straight to the point. Just to give a less threatening impression of myself, I also lowered my hood. "And I don't know who you are, so why don't you start from the beginning and tell me your name."
The young informant looked like I had just slapped him in the face. "You're – you're not?" he stammered. I thought his eyes couldn't get much wider. "But... you're..."
"Yeah, don't worry about that. We're... uh... related", I replied tersely, keeping to the simplest explanation for the moment. "If you have business with Altaïr, couldn't you just go to the Bureau and wait there?"
"No", he said, almost desperately. "I can't, you don't understand, I was-" His sentence was cut short as his gaze wandered to the turn in the alley behind my back, and then I saw that his eyes could indeed get wider. "Oh – oh dear."
An extremely uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, I turned and looked.
The Templar that stared back at me wore an expression that I could only describe as dawning recognition as his gaze shifted from the informant to my unhooded face. His unprotected head and light gear underneath the cross-emblazoned surcoat suggested he was another messenger, and very likely the same this babbling young man had talked about. It just seemed he had left out a detail or two.
The moment I saw the knight's hand tightening around the hilt of his sword, I knew we would both be in deep shit if he drew it. That's why, being regrettably unarmed, I did the first thing that came to my mind.
I rammed him.
Even though I used my right shoulder, the impact sent a painful jolt into my other shoulder as well. Fortunately, it also appeared to be the last thing the Templar expected. The sword clattered onto the ground while he let out a surprised yell as he stumbled backwards and crashed into a shoddy table that gave out under his weight.
So much for laying low.
As the Templar landed heavily in the middle of wooden splinters, I hurried to kick the sword out of his reach, towards the petrified informant behind me. I heard him rush forward to pick it up. I clenched my jaw against the ache in the wound that had returned in a flash.
Snarling, the knight was getting back up. Fucking genius. Now what? I was almost ready to turn and run, when I saw the attack that I was expecting did not come. Instead the knight halted, his frantic stare darting between me and someone behind me. I saw the confusion in his eyes.
"Get down", the someone suddenly said. Without stopping to think, I obeyed.
Right about then a tiny object shot through the air where my head had been a second ago and embedded itself in the Templar's thigh accompanied with an ugly sound. With a pained cry the knight staggered, collapsed against the wall and grabbed the throwing knife sticking out of his leg. My mind still struggling to comprehend how close I had just been to receiving a knife into my skull, I quickly stood up and turned. It didn't particularly surprise me to find Altaïr standing over the young man who had also dropped to his knees and was watching the assassin with a shocked expression.
"I leave you for five minutes", Altaïr commented pointedly, a second knife materializing between his fingers. "At this rate we won't get anything done."
"I can't help it", I replied breathlessly. "Must be my charms or something."
"He's getting away!" the informant abruptly piped up, finally getting his voice to work.
Another throwing knife whistled past my ear as I spun around to see the hem of a white cloak disappear behind the corner. The knife ricocheted off the stone wall and uselessly onto the ground. The next moment I was roughly shoved out of the way as Altaïr went to pursue him. Loud crashing noises told that the fleeing knight was throwing everything he could get his hands on to slow down the assassin on his tail.
To make sure I checked both ends of the alley to see if the commotion had caught anyone's attention. If it had, they obviously had decided to not get involved. Also the informant was shakily getting back on his feet. He looked pale, as if the realization that he had just been very close to a violent death had just set in. "That – that-"
"That's just how he does things", I said dryly. Frowning, I scanned his figure from head to toes. "You okay? You look like you're gonna faint at any second."
He shook his head. "I'm fine, thanks to Master Altaïr and you", he replied. "This was my first field mission – to keep a close eye on Templar communications and find out what I could, and then pass the information on to the Rafiqs." He looked down to his hands. "I – I thought I was being careful, but I was discovered near the Crusader garrison in Caesarea. I decided to come here, because the Rafiq of Jerusalem told me Master Altaïr was on his way to Acre." He paused, suddenly uncertain. "I'm sorry for causing such trouble, sir."
"Hey, Altaïr's been through worse", I assured him. "And I'm no 'sir'. Just call me Desmond."
Once the young informant recovered from his shock and some color returned to his face, his tongue started to work as well. It might have just been the adrenaline doing its job, but I've never heard so many words in so little time. From the jumble of syllables and half-finished sentences I learned his name was Naim, and he had been stationed in Jaffa for almost a year, watching any Crusader activity in the Saracen-controlled city. When King Richard had started to gather his army south of Acre, he had been ordered to keep an eye where the Templars' main camp got their information from.
"Their Grand Master never leaves the camp", Naim finally said defeatedly. "The letters are the closest we can get to him. I tried, but, well... that didn't work out quite as planned."
"True", Altaïr's voice cut in. He was returning from behind the alley bend where he had chased the knight. Wordlessly he went to retrieve his knife from the ground and inspected its blade before slipping it back into his belt. When he turned to us, I saw his stony expression practically radiating displeasure. "He escaped."
Naim groaned quietly. I cocked an eyebrow at the news. "Escaped? From you?"
That earned me a stern look from the assassin. "I can't go after a Templar messenger in broad daylight and alert the whole city before I even get to my intended target", he stated humorlessly. Next to me Naim was listening intently, and I got the impression he was slowly shrinking. "For now we just have to hope we don't have to swim in Templars by tomorrow", Altaïr continued. As he approached us, he turned his attention to Naim. I noticed how quiet the informant was suddenly being.
"Safety and peace, brother", the assassin said flatly to Naim, who at the moment reminded me of a deer in a car's headlights. "We need to have a talk."
"Sir, a messenger from Acre."
In his temporary office inside King Richard's barracks, Robert de Sablé let out a deep sigh but didn't look up from the map he had been examining. "What does that madman want now?" he growled, irritated by the distraction. It was late.
The night shift guard standing uncertainly at the doorway opened and closed his mouth, looking helpless. "Uh, sir?"
"Fine." The Grand Master waved a hand. "Send him in."
The antsy guard left hurriedly. Soon the sound of dragging footsteps approached, and someone knocked on the door, carefully, as if it could shatter at any moment. "Yes?" Robert called out. The Master of Knights Teutonic had lately become even more paranoid than usual and practically bombarded him with letters ever since the Regent Lord of Acre had fallen to the Assassin's blade.
"News from Acre, Grand Master", the messenger said with a strained voice as soon as he stumbled inside. Clumsily he attempted a slight bow, but gave it up as a small hiss of pain escaped him. When Robert finally looked at the man, he saw why. Despite the dim lighting, he saw that his whole right thigh, light chainmail and fabric, were stained dark from blood. Suddenly Robert got a creeping suspicion that this time it was going to be more than just another request for reinforcements. He stood up.
"I found the assassin scout who we caught tracking down our men in Caesarea. He attempted to intercept this message." Limping heavily, the knight stepped forward and dropped a sealed letter on the desk separating the two men.
There was a brief pause, until Robert motioned for him to continue. "And?"
"Master Sibrand is not satisfied with the Templar effort to secure Acre and requests more knights to-"
"Not that", Robert interrupted. "Sibrand's ramblings can wait. But surely one little scout didn't do this?" He gestured at the bloody limb.
"No", the messenger said hesitatingly, appearing visibly uncomfortable under the Grand Master's scrutiny. "He was there. The Masyaf Assassin."
A silence. "Ah", Robert eventually breathed. "I see." So Sibrand's paranoia might after all have some truth to it. He might indeed be the next target. If the Assassin was in Acre...
"But... there were two of him."
"Two Masyaf Assassins?"
"Yes, sir", the messenger replied quickly, sounding breathless. "Two of him, with the same faces. Together."
Another heavy silence ensued. Robert found himself at loss of words as he frowned at his messenger, who wore an almost apologetic expression on his dirt-streaked face. "I know what I saw", the knight eventually said, when the Grand Master remained silent. He dug something out of his belt pouch. "The first one attacked me. The second one threw this." The item that he then set on the desk on top the numerous maps of the Holy Land was a small silvery throwing knife.
Robert looked down at it. Some dry blood still clung to its deadly sharp blade. Candlelight danced on its metal surface, showing a web of intricate carvings, including the infamous triangular symbol. Just the sight of it made his jaw tighten. Shuffling of cloth was heard as the messenger nervously shifted weight off from the wounded leg.
"Two Masyaf Assassins", Robert said quietly to himself after a long pause.
The messenger nodded. "Like each other's reflections."
"Then who is the other one?"
"I don't know, sir."
"I see", Robert muttered again. Slowly he sat back down behind his desk, his eyes wandering absent-mindedly back to the small knife. The currently very innocent-looking object threw a long shadow over his maps.
He dismissed the messenger with a tiny wave of his hand. "You may go", he said curtly, before glancing up one more time. A slightly disgusted tone creeped into his voice as he pointed out: "And get that leg looked at. You're bleeding on my floor."
A/N: There was something wrong with the file, so forgive me if some words seem to be missing. There's a good chance I couldn't find them all.