Malik thinks that civilization has made a lot of progress since the dark times. Parchment slips through his fingers as he slides the map down into its case. Paper does not degrade easily any more, or go soft like skin—these maps will last.
(There are apprentice assassins roaming the streets right now. He sent them a meaningless task like collecting slaughter feathers in a certain time limit, just to give them something to do. A brain alone stagnates. It's impossible for a young man to feel bored with his yearmates bickering and joking and competing around him, and impossible to feel alone when he has an open-air task ahead of him. Maybe Malik will use the feathers to stuff a pillow.)
With the map put away, Malik looks around the shop. The dust has been swept to the sides, and the fresh ink has been capped. Scrolls and piles of maps stacked on the floor show that the shop is rich and prosperous.
(No one will try to steal anything here. Malik is not loud about being an assassin, but word spreads about where weapons and certain herbs are sold, and the dangerous criminals know that the cartography shop with Malik's family sigil flowing on its sign is affiliated with people they do not want to cross.)
He shakes the dust off his fingers and turns to survey his work.
(Somewhere out there, one of the apprentices is probably wondering whether he'll ever have to kill another. Assassins have gone traitor before—have turned under pressure or pain or money or yours is an outdated order!)
Some of them will lose lives and some of them will lose fingers. You don't get out without a loss when you're in the business of death. Maybe his is a grim view of the world, but Malik remembers when he glanced aside at the boys running beside him, white tail-cloaks flapping as they jumped from spar to spar, wondering whether he could defeat any of them, or all of them together.
(He could have taken Altair in a fight once, but then Altair took the two things Malik did not expect to lose. Kadar, and Malik's own respect for Altair. Two of his family, dead.)
His two favourite maps hang on the back wall. The Tabula Rogeriana is only thirty years old—some blanks at its edges could be filled in now, but there is nothing like it for accurate routes to the most holy of places, or to distant exoticas like Africa. He lets his eyes trace the knotwork of its trade routes until the deep desert becomes the wall of his shop.
(He raises his head a fraction of an inch—was that a footstep he heard outside?)
The map beside the Al-Idrisi Tabula is centuries old. Malik is ashamed to have to admit to collectors that this is a reproduction, although it is almost one hundred years old itself and retains all original marks and names. Around the edges of this map are blocky designs made to look pleasing to the eye, so that the viewer does not at first realize how much is not explained. However, the inner portion is the most detailed, and the most darkly inked. This map is from an era when it was assumed the world held many hidden things.
(It was a footfall. Malik knows exactly how boots stir hay. He moves toward the door, keeping his expression hidden,exasperated about how his apprentices try to sneak up on him. They are nowhere near ready to succeed. He can see one shadow move on the far wall, meaning that someone is sunward of his current vantage point…)
The second map is based around Babylon. The city is detailed; all its markets and slums and crucifixion courtyards. The city's outer lands, with fields and avenues, are marked out in detail. Around them, wavery water lines flow into the decorated border. A sure way to look like a scholar is to start debating with one about the exact translation of the name of this area. Malik believes, based on the etymology and the variants of script used in the period, that this expanse surrounding Babylon is called the Bitter River.
(He moves back slightly and sees the three apprentices' backs where they're sprawled out on the roof. They hadn't planned on him coming out and were probably going to jump right over to the roof and come into the shop through the bureau, the hidden way. That would have given him a scare.)
They don't know what to do now, though. It's a stalemate, and Malik thinks about the first time he saw the Tabula Rogeriana while the apprentices decide what to do-
Then there's a rustle above him and he realizes it wasn't the apprentices making the noise at all.
Altair just fooled all of them.
He's perched on the spar directly above Malik, and he wasn't there before, how could he have been, there was no shadow except the slight movement where a bird wheeled in front of the sun. Altair smirks, just a tip of the lips that manages to encompass I know you see me and I know you're impressed and you didn't see me before. Then he stands up, fluid as water, and is suddenly human again as one boot hits the stone bureau floor loud and heavy. He walks across like any it's other day.
The apprentices see Malik looking up and slip across the gap themselves, out of his line of sight (because he's still looking for that bird that must have led him to assume there was nothing to see in the shadows). They jump admirably quietly.
Malik almost grits his teeth. He was ready to hate Altair in the quiet of his shop, but not here, in the reception room of the bureau. He is watching how much he could learn from Altair (although he never admits it—you never admit that in the male hierarchy of the assassins). From far away, Altair is a dark concept—brother-killer out of ignorance; arrogant, noble murderer. From close up, though, he is one of the highest-ranking assassins in the Guild, a likely successor to Al Mualim (may Allah protect him).
Malik moves back into the shadow of his shop, feeling how the grayness has gathered cool breezes and kept them to settle against his skin. He thinks about the Bitter River.
("Bitter" did not mean pain-bite in the literal world in which the map was written. Water from that region may have been infected by the sea—it may have had the salt tang of minerals and dead things.)
Altair is not an exception to the rule of loss, but a...mark on a map. A thing out of history books, written in a script with variants. Malik knows what it is to look at something from a distance, and know exactly what it looks like close up.
("Bitter" meant sun-washed empty sands and the sun plunging below the horizon and scratching off part of itself against the water. Mapmakers know vistas; while Malik has never seen water stretching to the horizon, he can picture it. A man could get lost in a place like that. Only the smell—the lack of tang—would get him back.)
There are footsteps in the foyer and he is the keeper of the bureau, the mapmaker of the city who puts streets in the hands of the killers—and he is needed on the upper storey. The sounds of Altair—of any assassin, but it is him this time—rattling the trellis and making sure they're heard bounces between familiar walls. Malik closes the shop door and opens the hidden one. His charges await.