A/N: Wordswithout made me do it. This is my first story for this fandom and it is 3:20 in the morning so please kindly notify me of any canonical, grammatical, or historical inaccuracies. Reviews make my day cheery!
The Thousand Moldering Stars
The stars were out in force tonight. A river of them hung over the bureau like a siege, peering through the latticework and rattling it with the wind. The pale forms of sleeping assassins were scattered about among the pillows. Malik was careful not to brush any of them with his feet, although he couldn't help dislodging the occasional tassel or thin-woven blanket with his boot.
(Kadar should be here now, wrapped in the cloak of the novice, dreaming of master's colors. Or maybe he would be out on a mission somewhere, in some other Dai's house, but Malik should be able to picture him better, should be able to see the outline of where his weight had pressed down the bedding. In this way the loss of a brother was exactly like the loss of a limb; every time you turned around you expected to have everything back the way it should be, the way it was.)
Now, it was Altair curled up against the wall where Kadar should be, even managing to look unhappy when he slept. Malik turned away from the bureau antechamber to look up at the latticework again, at the night beyond.
It had never been easy to climb the carvings up to the rooftop; there had always been the strain in his arms and shoulders. As he'd grown stronger he had felt lighter, and less strained. It had been a long time since he had actually felt pain or fear from a climb. The former had been conditioned away, and the latter…Malik trusted himself.
But now, even thinking about trying to get out that way made him feel a shadow of the imbalance that would cause strain he couldn't fight in his right arm. There would be pain too, but that would be fake—a dig up through his shoulder from his left elbow (which did not exist) . Maybe it was a sign that, as the devout said, Allah saw the body as spiritual, not physical. Because God thought his arm existed just as well without actually existing, its pain did.
Malik was glad that there was no one particularly devout—or particularly awake—now to hear the choice words he had to say about that. If the pain existed, why couldn't the rest of the feeling in his arm? Then he could just be up on that roof in a moment and fly—
Someone turned over in his sleep, and Malik abandoned the antechamber and the crowd of stars for the bureau reception room where he spent most of his days. He kept wanting to brush the fog away from his forehead, but it was simply that he wasn't used to the blinder of the eagle cowl between his eyes.
He had not worn his assassin's whites in a long time. Everything fit, although he had lost weight since Solomon's Temple. The gauntlet felt heavy around his wrist, like a shackle. He had tied the other sleeve well enough, and hacked and frayed it until there were no loose ends for an adversary to grab.
(Not that he was planning on finding any adversaries tonight. He was even going to avoid petty nuisances.
Because the last thing he needed was getting into a fight on the first night, even though it would feel so good.)
He let himself out through the door behind the curtain, and descended the narrow, dark stairway to the back room of the cartographer's shop. The architecture wound around enough that no invader would be able to recognize quickly that the bureau was directly connected to the shop. It even confused some novice assassins. The plot of land immediately below the bureau was a front, a warehouse that was never open.
Malik's false shop, the thousand moldering symbols of the career he might have chosen had death not chosen him, muttered softly around him as the maps shifted in their cases when he opened the hidden door. He liked the thrill of moving, but he liked maps too. They forced a person to look close at things, to see how coastlines looked like knot-work and streets like tailored stitches, decoration on the body of the world. They let an assassin see, as if from the eyes of an eagle, the best way to sneak around a place or to cut in front of a fleeing foe. If a man could carry a map around in his head instead of simply consulting one as a sheet of paper in the shop, the world was that man's to explore.
(And you couldn't see the lost people on maps. You couldn't see the old wounds and the thieving starvelings and the brothers dead on dusty floors. You only saw the rooftops.)
Malik passed through the mapped places of the world and opened the door to the back streets of the Holy City.
He glanced left and right, but no one was there to see him in the white. He stepped out and locked the door behind him.
The stars, arrayed over the rooftops, taunted him like jewels to a thief.
Assassins coming from street level usually used a few crates, covered by blankets from when fruit sellers during the day used them as temporary stands, to boost themselves up to the poles and crenelations that would get them to the roof. Malik surveyed this route in the dark, remembering the shifting feel of scaling the heights, launching back to land with his weight evenly distributed on finger-thick lines running the top of an alley, creeping over the crowd.
Leaning on one hand, once falling to his knees and pushing himself up again on legs that remained strong, Malik clambered to the top of the two boxes. The next thing he was supposed to grab, a spar reaching out from the stone wall, was seven or eight feet up.
He jumped. His palm smacked against the cold metal and grabbed tight as a vice; he swung his knees up and planted his feet on the stone, pebbles scraping off as he fought to gain purchase while not losing any momentum. He willed strength into his shoulder and tension out of the rest of his body as (it happened so fast, so much faster than a clever mapmaker drawing the stone blocks that made up the wall, but not faster than it took to think too fast ) his shoulders cleared the bar but his left foot slipped down the wall. His weight slammed onto his shoulder and broke his grip.
What little could be done for a fall from a height like that had been learned from the cats. Malik twisted around as he fell. His left shoulder hit the wooden boxes and splintered through the tops of both of them, cushioning the way for his body and drawing blood from his shoulder blade.
There would be ache taking over his shoulder tomorrow, but most of the skin that had been folded over to seal his amputated arm had been robbed of the chance to feel pain. For once it worked in his favor.
He lay there for a moment, hearing no one continue to walk up the alley and see him.
For the second time that night and probably the millionth time in his life, he was glad no one particularly religious and possessed of the ability to read thoughts was around.
He heaved himself off the creaking mess of the first step into the bureau's eyrie and shuffled along the alleyway, heading toward his second option.
It wasn't even a recognized assassin route, like the runs novices took to improve their balance and to see which ones tended to fall off. He had just noticed on one of his trips out for lunch that there was a bridge support next to a low roof, and it would just take a few hops—not a great amount of work for someone with long legs—to make it to actual roof level after that.
His footsteps sounded loud as he jumped across each gap in turn. His balance was off, but even walking had felt off in the first few days, and he knew how to square his shoulders even though instinct, or something he did not know how to name, told him they felt canted.
By this route he made it to the roof with his fingers touching stone only once, drawing from it a thin dusting of gray. He stood up and stared down the stars for a moment before looking out along the maze of rooftops in front of him.
Many of the lots were flat and stone-floored, places where guards would be posted during the day. Now, it was unlikely anyone would be patrolling the streets. Mansions and mosques, maybe, but not these streets. He lifted up his heels once, twice, almost feeling the wind sliding past him as if he ran already.
He could plan the route out with ease: that wide avenue, that crenelation, that balcony for a launch to the spire of that tower—
No. He would keep to relatively flat terrain this night.
He turned his sigh into a pull of air that readied his sprint, and took off.
The street flashed by below. Malik found his stride and kept with it, a white figure between the gray stone and the black sky, a gradient thrown out of order by the turning of the world. The world could not catch him, now. He knew the wiles of falling and flying, knew what could be taken away at the point of a sword and what could not. (This could not. No matter what they took, he would find a way. He would run.) He knew what was real and what was phantom pain.
His feet landed lightly on each battlement as he ran toward the split in the path. Ahead, he would have to stop and go back. The distance between this building and the next was too great, and where another assassin would have landed on the latticework below, Malik's strategy for navigating its thin top edge required gripping it with two hands. But to the right, the gap was less. The next building had a decorative spiral ramp running up its wooden minaret. He could climb up that and get to the spire.
But there was no point in getting to the spire. Without both hands, all he would be able to do was stand and look at it.
Back to the bureau it was then.
Except his body was telling him to go on. There would be that hitch, there would be that moment when it seemed like he wasn't going to make it, but then it would be as if wings unfurled at his back and he would make it, balance restored, toes clutching like talons on the edge and then forgetting it as, flushed with energy and resolve, he would carry on.
I can do this, he thought. I came out here to challenge myself.
Altair could do this.
As Malik angled to the side, his footsteps rattling over a board set over two reed baskets, he watched the gap approach and felt his final argument against himself slide in like a knife.
He has not taken too much from me.
The leap to the bottom of the spiral would be easy; it would be getting back that would take thought. That was for later.
He jumped. He landed fine (I knew I would) , and took another step to the next turn of the spiral to steady himself and continue his climb upward.
The wooden slat snapped. Malik plunged. He felt his chest smack against the minaret, pain flaring up into his neck. He swung, shook, clamped one hand around the surviving wooden decoration. (See? A part of him thought in an eye-blink. I can still trust my hands.)
He could not look down because his shoulders were in the way, but surely the street there was as empty and stone-paved as any of them had been. No one could catch him. He kicked, but could not lever himself up. His weight pushed the sinews up in his hand and started in on the pain he had almost forgotten.
Quicker than he expected, the pain's twin flared somewhere to his left. It was odd to feel it so disembodied, but it made sense too; the phantom limb couldn't decide whether it should be gripping beside his other hand, or lying limp at his side.
Malik cursed and struggled and closed his eyes as if that would somehow disengage the muscles that weren't working in his shoulders and along his back.
When he opened them again, a shape obscured a human-sized patch of stars. Malik blinked again, sure that what he had heard had been not a guard, but the displacement of air as some bird snapped its wings against the sky on the way to its nest. He gritted his teeth and shook his head, trying again to pull himself up with one arm.
Altair moved across the sloped roof fast enough that his feet, far too close to Malik's face, seemed to blur. He bent down and grabbed a handful of Malik's tunic in his left hand, twisting to get a secure grip; his other hand lifted Malik under the shoulder. Both of them grunted as Altair pulled Malik away from the edge; Malik struggled out of the grips to sit under his own power as soon as he was able, because Altair's arm had braced against his dead flesh and sent a star-river of goosebumps winding up into his shoulder.
They sat there and looked at one another. Altair was also wearing his white cowl, and his lips always seemed to be smirking slightly with that scar. Malik gave him the same expression back.
Altair said, "You abandoned your place."
The wind cooled Malik's face, and gave him a moment to compose his words into something sword-sharp. "So did you."
Altair stood up. "A Dai does not appoint his successor or his second-in-command. He should be always vigilant."
Malik needed to get a knee under him to stand, but his good arm was facing the upward slope and so he could lean that way comfortably and not show too much shake. "Both of us know the price of failing at vigilance." He looked at the white blankness over Altair's eyes as he spoke. When he bantered with other, younger assassins who saw him as an authority and needed some relief, he aimed his barbs away from them, letting his indifference add to the jibe. Altair, though, needed a good look at his enemy so that he knew where exactly the strike was coming from. Even though Malik was standing on the edge, he looked back at his unexpected companion.
The city was quiet and starstruck under Altair's gaze. He closed his eyes for a moment. "Do you need help returning to the bureau, brother?"
Malik looked at the gap, felt a wavering and a pull in the bones of his legs at the thought of the drop. (The path is more important than the fall, one of his mentors had said. Whatever you think is most important, that is what you will move toward.)
"I think I can find my way myself."
Altair nodded and moved to the edge of the wooden ledge.
"Oh, and brother? Watch where you put your feet."
Malik jumped. From a standstill it was messy, but he made it, and walked a few steps along the opposite roof before looking back at the other man. Altair spread his arms out and flew forward a body length, almost a full qasab, and braced with the tips of his toes on a flagstaff for a moment before barreling into a haystack below.
"Idiot," Malik muttered, as in the distance Altair emerged from the haystack with his cowl nearly falling down, shaking hay out of his hair. The Dai shook his head and continued his walk. (He was all out of the need to run.)
Why in the world had Altair been awake? How long had he been watching—
But he was too tired to care now. Suddenly the bureau seemed so much more comfortable than the streets, even if Malik did have to go through the easy (the weak) way to get there. He kept walking, kicking aside the hay that had blown onto the rooftop and accumulated in its corners.
Oh, and brother? Watch where you put your feet.
(He could taste the words in his mouth but almost heard them in Kadar's voice.)
The trudge across the rooftop seemed shorter than the run had been. When he reached the end, he looked down on the relatively gentle descent and prepared to drop.
He did not have to think so much about his balance any more, and although pain was starting to work its way up from the inside of both his shoulders, the arm he was missing was missing pain, or any other sensation, as well.
The maze of maps was waiting for him when he returned to the storefront, and after the flight of stairs and the hidden door Altair was waiting too. He leaned against the doorpost, not letting Malik see the latticework behind him, where he must have come in. (Quietly, too; either the other assassins were asleep or they were pretending to be. Pretending to be asleep was a valuable skill when you were in the business of information.)
Malik looked up at him, mind scrambling to say something clever whilst also trying to stay awake. "How long have you been waiting?"
"I am not here to mock you. Come, brother, if I did that every time we spoke it would be far too predictable."
"Then why are you here?"
"I sleep here. Unless you would prefer to confine to the street the man who just saved your life…"
"I should not be the one apologizing to you."
"No. Perhaps you should not."
"I…." Malik patted his hand against his leg in irritation. "I expect no less than criticism from you, brother. I suppose it keeps me on my toes."
Altair made a sound that passed for a laugh for him, and Malik felt slightly relieved. This was no longer a confrontation.
Malik said, "Now, go to sleep. I need my own rest, not to continue to hear your opinion of the tailoring of my cloak or whatever it is you wish to speak about today." He turned away.
Altair slunk back a little (enough that a glimpse of stars could be seen above his hood), but his voice, pitched low as it was, still carried. "I was not planning on speaking of the clothing you have adopted again. To be honest, I had barely noticed. Seeing you in the black of the bureau is always the surprise."
'That's only because no one's used to seeing black under the amount of beard most rafiks have' settled on the tip of his tongue, but Malik didn't think laughter , even the hushed kind, would fit the palette of the moment. Black shadows, black sky, and white stars. White sleeves over tanned hands and the wrapped remnants of an upper arm. Dark words.
Star-gleam as Altair turned to walk away. Malik said, "You see now that I haven't forgotten."
"I do," Altair said. "I do see."
He faded into the shadows and Malik faded back to his own corner, watching the gray highlights on his intact sleeve. He sat down and found that, even more than before, his urge to roam was gone. This was his place. He knew where everything was here, and who were his most loyal men. He was not sure whether he could consider Altair a one of "his loyal men" but at least he had learned tonight that...
He had learned something. But he was not a religious man, and so did not feel the need to splice his life up into proverbs.