I am very, very sorry with the long delay in updating this. I'm finding myself drifting from the AC fandom. After Revelations... I'm just not really feeling the AC connection anymore. I'm trying, I really am. I'm sorry, dear readers :( Disclaimer, disclaimer.
Malik leaned over his desk, his brow furrowed with concentration as he sketched precise lines for a new map he was making. New buildings had been erected recently that month, and it was his duty to stay up-to-date on the layout of Jerusalem.
That, and he was too meticulous to just not include the new addition that had been added to the marketplace. The builders had to temporarily tear down Jerusalem's walls just to add the extra stalls and homes for the merchants.
His temple twitched when the tip of his quill snapped. He'd been told numerous times by his colleagues that he pressed too hard on the quill and that though his maps were the most accurate and informative they'd ever seen, his lines bled through the parchment. He sighed and reached to the drawer to his left that had an abundant supply of extra quills—courtesy of Mustafa and Damiel.
He froze when he realized just what limb he was trying to move to open the drawer. He stared at his left arm, or what had been his left arm. The stump moved a fraction before freezing in place, unable to do anything else. Anger bubbled in him as he tried again to open the drawer.
He could feel his arm, as if it had never been amputated. The fingers on his left hand wiggled and stretched toward the drawer, but they would never feel the wood.
His nostrils flared as the image of the man responsible for his humiliation came to mind. While Al Mualim gave Malik the title of Rafiq—an honor, considering his age and experience—he had the liberty to haunt the land, felling Templars and the Hashshashin's many enemies.
And what had he done to deserve that honor? Though he was stripped of his rank and forced to redeem himself, he had not been given the ultimate punishment, a fact that made Malik's sword arm tremble in anticipation. If ever given the chance, he'd be obliged to succeed where Al Mualim had failed.
Altair Ibn-La'ahad did not deserve to walk freely after betraying him and Kadar. The loss of his limb was frustrating and humiliating, but not seeing his younger brother's hopeful face ever again was crippling. He slammed his fist on the counter, jostling the inkwell and spilling some of its contents onto his latest project. His body trembling with raw fury, he swept his counter free of items, watching with little satisfaction as the inkwell crashed against the far wall and shattered into hundreds of pieces. The ink dribbled down the wall, staining it with a permanent black.
Malik cradled his forehead in his palm and shook his head. One day, he'd return the favor to Altair. He'd be sure that the man lost everything dear to him in the space of a few minutes.
But for now, he'd put aside those entertaining thoughts. The Bureau needed a keeper whose mind focused solely on their purpose, not a revenge-thirsty fool. Malik closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, focusing on the elements of his little haven to calm his soul.
The smell of parchment and ink, the fading din of the city, the small fountain trickling water in the adjacent room—
The sounds of his two novices clambering into the Bureau and making a racket.
"Alright, Musta, if you just toss it down, I'll catch it and—"
"Hoho, 'you'll catch it' my bum! You'd probably step to the side as soon as I let go of him!"
Damiel huffed and stretched his hands toward Mustafa. His friend had yet to enter the Bureau and stood on the edge of the opening, cradling the unconscious boy in his arms. "Don't be difficult, Mustafa. Just toss him down already."
Malik stood in the entryway to the adjacent room, observing his novices with a bored yet keen gaze. It was usual for them to make this much noise—much to his dismay—but they were loyal and respected the Creed above all else, traits that seemed to be dwindling in these dark times.
"On three, yes? One, two, three!" Mustafa dropped the boy into the Bureau, and Damiel scrambled and managed to catch him. He staggered backward though, tripping on his own feet, and landed in the cushions behind him, sending some of them flying into the air.
Mustafa leapt down into the Bureau and pulled the boy off of Damiel. "You are alright, no?"
Damiel grumbled and heaved himself to his feet. He dusted his clothes off and gave an audible sniff. "Oh, better than ever, better than ever," he grumbled. "Not."
"I thought we'd already discussed my policy on souvenirs?"
Both novices turned to the doorway, having finally acknowledged Malik. They bowed their heads and shuffled their feet.
"This is all your fault," Damiel murmured to his friend. Mustafa waved him quiet and stepped forward.
"Forgive us, Master Malik," he said. "It is not our intention to disobey your orders. We both value your commands and after your previous punishment, we have no desire to stray from your laws."
"Scrubbing undergarments will do that to a person," Damiel added quietly. "Oh, the stains, the stains—ow!" He clutched his arm that Mustafa smacked and sent his friend a glare.
"Apologies are one thing, Mustafa. Reasons are another," Malik said. "And bringing in an outsider is strictly forbidden." His eyes swept toward the body Mustafa held.
"If you will allow us to explain, Master Malik." Mustafa motioned for Damiel. "Show him the coins." Damiel nodded and hurried to detach the pouch of coins at his belt and showed its contents to his Rafiq.
Malik's eyes widened then narrowed at the coins, for they were marked with the Templar insignia.
"We found him in the Kingdom, Rafiq Malik," Damiel said, "and he had these with him. He was unconscious, just as he is now, and Mustafa had to investigate—"
"For good purpose," Malik said. He took the pouch from Damiel and walked further into the room. "Lay the boy here." He gestured to a corner not padded with cushions or carpets.
"And what will we do with him? He might just be a courier—"
"What he is does not override who he is affiliated with. A simple courier or a lieutenant for the Templars—it matters not. If he is a Templar, he is as much an enemy as Robert de Sable, Mustafa." Malik stood over the body. "We will restore him to proper health. No answers will be given from a corpse."
Damiel nodded. "He had a horse and dog, Rafiq Malik. The horse is in the stable being tended to, but the dog is outside the Bureau. Should we bring it in?"
"The Bureau is not a hospital for outsiders, Damiel Karkafian. Do not treat it as such."
They tended to the boy over the next few days, making sure to give him water and humus. A few times his eyes opened, but they would not focus on either of the novices, and would close after a few moments.
Damiel sat with Mustafa as they helped themselves to breads and cheeses. Suppers were usually this simple, and Damiel could not wait until he'd visit Mustafa's sister with him again. She was a kind woman, if not round in every term of the word, and would feed them hot, home-cooked meals until they felt their insides would burst.
"Do you think he'll wake up?" Mustafa asked as he pointed a finger in the still body's direction.
Damiel shrugged and bit into a slice of bread. "Who knows? All I know is that they're no friend to us if they carry Templar coin. By the looks of him, he's probably a courier."
"But he had no letters on him," Mustafa reasoned. "Surely a courier would have letters?"
Damiel sneered and shook his head. "Could have been on his way to pick up a letter. Or, you know what I think?" He looked over at the body and took another bite of bread. "I think he's hiding something in those layers of clothes. Most unusual, si?"
"He was out in the heat, ahbal." Mustafa rolled his eyes. "He was trying to stay cool."
"But he is inside now, no? Jerusalem nights aren't exactly chilled. He's probably roasting."
Mustafa eyed his friend curiously. "Since when did you care about his wellbeing? And you heard what Master Malik said: this is not a hospital. Our job is to ensure he lives, not that he's comfortable." Mustafa looked down at his feet. "I don't want to disappoint Master Malik again. Not after what happened to Kadar."
Damiel sighed and stared at the stone floor. Kadar was a good friend to the both of them. Kadar adored his older brother, and in some ways, Damiel and Mustafa felt a part of their small family.
"Si, I know, I know. But I'm not doing any harm. If Rafiq Malik questions it, we can say we were suspicious of any hidden objects or belongings." Damiel saw to wrestling the headpiece off of the body while Mustafa disappeared into the other room. He came back with a basin of water and a cloth.
Damiel raised an eyebrow at him. "What is this?"
"I just thought, maybe there was a distinguishable feature on his face that would prove useful to us, should he ever escape our grasps." Mustafa smiled over at Damiel and chuckled. "I'm sure Master Malik will understand."
Damiel snorted and clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Sly."
"It's my job."
Mustafa helped Damiel remove the headdress, and once the stubborn garment was off, they tossed it to the side. Mustafa dabbed the boy's face with the wet cloth, making sure not to miss a spot as he cleaned the dirt and sweat off of his face.
"He's not even a man yet," he said to Damiel. "Look at him: still a youthful child in his face. Would Templars stoop so low as to use children?"
Damiel clicked his tongue. "Of course they would! They're Templars, remember!"
They tackled the robe next, only to find another robe beneath it. Shrugging, the novices removed this one as well, not surprised to see what was under it.
"How many robes is he wearing?" Damiel grumbled. "You can dress the whole of the Brotherhood with what he's wearing." He poked the boy in the side and was rewarded with a small groan from him.
Mustafa cradled his head, keeping it propped on his shoulder as he continued to dab the cloth against his face. "I think he has a fever," he said.
"I think I have a headache from these robes," Damiel sighed.
"His forehead's warm. Yes, he has a fever," Mustafa confirmed. A sudden intake of breath from Damiel had Mustafa swivel his head toward his friend.
Damiel's face was bright red as he opened the final robe. Mustafa looked down to see what caused this reaction, and in a split second his face was as red as a beet.
"Sweet Dios y Maria," Damiel stuttered. Though they were not nearly as pronounced as Mustafa's sister's, they were still there. And Damiel was fairly sure that males did not have those. He'd consult a book in Malik's library to be sure if he had to.
"I think..." Mustafa swallowed and tried to avert his eyes. A small breeze slipped through the cracks of the Bureau's lattice opening, making what the boys were looking at harden into peaks.
"Hiding something, oh yes!" Damiel gulped.
Mustafa and Damiel glanced at the body's face, then back at its exposed flesh. Pieces clicked together in their minds as they comprehended that No, this was not a boy, nor was it a boy in his early teen years.
It was a woman.
They shared a glance at each other before scrambling to their feet, pushing past and at each other as they barreled their way toward Malik's bed chamber, all the while whimpering in confusion.
Something rough and tight bound my wrists in place, as well as my ankles. Whatever it was dug into my skin whenever I made the smallest of movements and threatened to draw blood. Groaning, I slowly opened my eyes, blinking to clear the fog from my vision.
Blurs of yellow and brown swam across my vision, but soon I could make out sunlight streaming in from an open lattice roof. It shone right on my face, and I whimpered and closed my eyes from the sudden onslaught of light. I tried to turn on my side so that I wasn't staring at the light, but found that my body was too weak to move.
Daring to open them, I looked around the room I was in. Cushions littered one side of the room, and I noted that none had been given to me, as I was on the hard stone floor—
I glanced down, terror filling my eyes when I saw myself clad in only a large tunic, probably made for a man instead of a woman. It fell mid-thigh, but I had never been so exposed and indecent in my life, not even when I wore my chopped sirwals. I realized that the robes I wore for the Merchant King's celebration were made into strips, as they were binding my wrists and ankles. I curled into a ball, hiding my bare legs from sight, not that there was anyone to see me.
Murmurs coming from an adjacent room could be heard behind a closed door. Panic filled my breast when there was no sign of Shama or Basil—just what had happened?
I wracked my brain for an answer. There were moments I could remember: the Kingdom, Shama looking up at me, but mostly the heat I suffered. I remembered vague pieces, but there was no logical reason why I wold ride from Damascus to here—wherever here was, exactly.
The room was unfamiliar to me. I wondered if Ghalib had found me and had taken me as hostage. I could have been in Damascus for all I knew.
Tears filled my eyes. My friends could be dead, for all I knew.
Oh, Shama, Basil... I'm so sorry. Sabir, forgive me.
The doorway opened, revealing two young men that didn't even spare me a glance. They walked with their heads hung low, and as if it was second nature to them, climbed up and out of the lattice opening.
I eyed the opening, the cogs in my mind turning with ideas. I knew it was foolish—dangerous, even. Even though my muscles protested when I stood up, even though my legs trembled from the effort of standing, I could not abandon my two most trusted companions, for they had seen me through the worst.
I could not stay in this strange place.
"You two are the most pathetic novices I'd ever known," Malik said. He folded his arm behind his back and stared his two pupils down. "First, you venture into the Kingdom without authorization from me. Then, you bring back a foreigner to our Creed—a Templar, no less. Thirdly, you do not even recognize the Templar to be a woman." Malik sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "How do you suppose I write to the Master? For I have to inform him of this, but you two have made it nearly impossible for me to do so without seeming like a complete fool."
He could just see the look on Al Mualim's face if he ever read such a report. Surely Altair would be there, ever the loyal dog, and mock him further. He could live without such ridicule.
His sword arm agreed with that.
"But Rafiq Malik, we didn't know—"
"Can you not tell the difference between a man and a woman, Damiel? Or do I have to send you back to the elementary training sessions?"
Damiel's eyes opened in fear and he shook his head 'no.'
Malik sighed and held his hand up when Mustafa tried to defend their case. "Nothing either of you say will change the situation. We will have to adapt to this little discovery, and I will see to informing Al Mualim. I want you two to continue scouring the city for information, and while you're at it, keep your tails between your legs and reflect on your roguish behavior."
The novices nodded and saluted their Rafiq before sulking out of the room to complete their tasks. Once the door closed behind them, Malik took his place behind the counter to pen his letter to Al Mualim. Damiel's and Mustafa's reasoning might have been well and healthy, and if this Templar had information to confess, they could actually have done something beneficial for the Creed.
Malik wasn't sure how Al Mualim would respond to the news, given that an outsider infiltrated the Bureau—
A small grin stretched on his lips, and he took the moment to quietly chuckle. 'Couldn't tell the difference between a man and a woman.'
He dipped his quill in the inkwell, and before the tip of it could touch the parchment, a thump from the lounge room captured his attention and caused his head to snap up toward the door.
Dios y Maria: God and Mary