Malik has always belonged to the desert. It's baked itself into his skin.
There are a series of caves, some few hours ride north of Al Masyaf. Years ago, after a betrayal by an assassin named Binyamin nearly let the Templars conquer the fortress, Al Mualim turned the caves into an off-site storage facility of sorts. Weapons are stored in them, and barrels of food, and drinking water, and horse feed. Most assassins above a certain rank know the caves exist, but not their exact location or purpose.
After the flight from Masyaf all is chaos for a while; loyal assassins, many of them injured, not a few bringing their families along, all confused and angry, search out their Grandmaster. Malik gets the message across as best he can. He splits their followers into small groups, keeping the injured with those still able to fight, and sends them to the caves by different routes. Every time he stops his horse it seems there are another ten men chasing after him, seeking guidance.
Some of them may be spies. Most of them may be spies. But there's no way to weed out the fickle, and no time either. The desert is no place to be caught unaware.
Altair is around, of course, quiet and unresponsive. Once they find Sef, hiding with some other men in a fir thicket, Malik sends Altair and his sons to the caves to prepare, to be there when the other assassins arrive. Order is important. If they have any hope of surviving this schism there must be leadership from the start.
And Altair does as Malik tells him, without complaint. Retreating leeched the starch from his shoulders; when assassins come to him, asking disbelieving questions or pledging their support, he looks through them like they are ghosts. Or like he is.
Darim and Sef are sharing a horse now, and they follow closely behind their father. Darim is angry, Sef baffled, both boys frightened. Just as all their kin. But though the Son of None is there in front of them, it isn't him at all. He doesn't bark orders and insults. He listens to Malik, and he tells those with questions to go talk to Malik, and he rides with one hand clamped around the pouch on his belt. It's hot and he's hurt and they're all of them exhausted, but he never complains.
The assassins are scattered and scared in this stifling desert, and their leader barely seems to notice. When he goes with his sons to the caves, those who stay behind with Malik all breathe sighs of relief.
The Dai stays close to Masyaf for as long as he dares, sending others off until the road clears of men. Rauf waits with him, keeping busy by feeding their horses and readjusting his saddle. There is so much that needs to be done at the caves—there won't be enough room for all of them, and they can't hide there forever—but Malik stays stiff on his mount even as the last bits of sun sink behind the horizon.
"…It'll be a tough ride in the dark," says Rauf nervously, after a time. "I don't think anyone else is coming. Should we go?"
Malik is silent a moment. The hills, he told Raed to take Tazim to the hills…
Rauf says, "Word has gotten round. If anyone left near Masyaf wants to join us they know where to go. And, Malik…you look terrible."
"You're right. Yes." Malik knows it's too dangerous to put off leaving any longer. He will have to hope that Raed will be waiting at the caves when they arrive.
All he hears for at least an hour is their horses trotting down the pitted roads; it doesn't sound like they're being pursued. Abbas must be in the fortress, licking his wounds. The idiot, causing all this trouble over his own prejudices and a weapon he doesn't understand. What kind of Order could he ever possibly run?
But so many men stayed with him…
"So," says Rauf, jolting Malik from his brooding. "What now?"
"We go to the caves. We patch ourselves up. Take stock of who and what we have."
"And then? The fortress—we aren't going to let Abbas keep it?"
"Of course not. We'll come up with a plan and counter-attack. I'm going to send messengers to the bureau of every major city, and the villages too, asking for aid. Abbas will be distracted with what he's done in Masyaf, but not for long. We have to make our first move before he does. We can't let him get his tendrils into our bureaus."
"Right. Um. My god, Malik, these aren't even Templars. Our own Brothers betrayed us! Abbas was our friend."
Malik keeps his eyes on the scenery, on the craggy black hills under the moonlight and the shower of stars overhead. He has traveled through the dark many times, but the first trip is always the one he remembers: Malik and Kadar, two lost little boys looking up at the stars…
"Please don't call me that. Not now or ever again. I hate that title."
"Sorry." Rauf tries to brighten. "At least it wasn't a total rout. At least half of the men came with us. Maybe more! And the ones stationed elsewhere will probably also, because..."
"Because they don't know Altair as well? Because he hasn't been able to piss them off?"
"No, no, that isn't what I meant," Rauf protests.
"The men who fought for Abbas didn't pick him because he's the better leader. He's a waste!"
"…He was trained, same as us. And we do know him very well…"
"Abbas is an idiot. Ali leads him around by the ring in his nose. But Altair is mean," Malik spits, "and he doesn't say please-thank you to the novices, and he actually expects his assassins to do as they should without needing to be told. So, of course, half our Brotherhood decides to follow Master Abbas. Dimwits, all of them."
Rauf doesn't say anything. Angered now, Malik slows his horse, and reaches for Rauf's reins to slow his as well. "Isn't that so?" he demands of the squirming assassin. "Altair is by far the best leader we've ever had, but still they turned against him. Because he isn't nice!"
"It isn't just that," Rauf mumbles. Even in the near-total dark Malik can see his miserable expression, his longing to be anywhere but here just now.
"Then what else is it?"
"Malik, come on, be angry at Altair, not me. You're always angry at him, he's used to it."
"We've got hours yet to ride and I can make them long indeed, Rauf. What else is it? The men don't all like Altair, fine, no one said they had to, but to go this far-!"
Rauf brings his hands to his head, the picture of a man suffering. "It's not just that they don't like Altair," he says uneasily. "They don't trust him."
Malik looks at him a bit. Then drops his horse's reins and sinks back into his saddle.
"This can't be a surprise, not really, after everything."
"Everyone tells me I should hate Altair Ibn La'Ahad," Malik announces. "Everyone feels oh so betrayed over what he's done. Funny how the only one he actually betrayed has no wish to carry the grudge!"
"It's not just that. The way he speaks to us…yes," Rauf says quickly, before the other man can interrupt, "I know that's just how he is. It doesn't bother me. But some of the newer men, the novices, they were bothered. And all this talk of Mongols, of some new Templar army…not all of the men know him the way we do. They don't remember how it was, when the Templars were everywhere causing us grief. They don't remember Al Mualim. They just see their leader talking about invisible Mongols to weird orbs. Meanwhile their homes are still being attacked."
"We've done everything we could for those villages. We offered them protection."
"And they were attacked once they turned him down," Rauf mutters.
Malik stares, dumbstruck. "You don't believe Altair is the one who attacked those villages? What, is he also Robert de Sablé wearing a wig? Allah's sake, Rauf! Abbas is our friend and we're so surprised by Abbas but Altair—he grew up with us too! Why don't you worry about him? Why don't you—"
"Malik!" Rauf waves his hands, a touch frantic. "Peace, peace! No one blames you for any of this. We all know what you've been through, you work harder than anyone should."
"But you think Altair is a traitor," Malik smirks. "Spare me your judgment of character, it's a touch suspect."
"Khara," Rauf moans. "Malik, please, calm down. I don't think Altair's a traitor."
"I don't! But you…you aren't…"
"I'm not what?"
"You aren't going to strangle me if I finish my sentence?!"
That breaks the tension a bit: Malik is so beaten up from the fighting he could hardly pull a weed, and Rauf sounds so panicked. He laughs, wearily, and shakes his head.
"Well, Malik, you're not around. You can't be, you're the Order's second, you're frighteningly busy, plus you have your son. It's understandable. But I am around, at the training rings night and day, and I hear what the others say when they know you aren't there."
"They fear me, do they?"
"They know your loyalty is to Altair," Rauf says soberly. "But their loyalty is to the Order first. Can you blame them? Is that wrong?"
No, it isn't wrong, Malik thinks. But instead he just motions for Rauf to continue.
"They're worried about the Mongols. They're worried about their villages. They're worried about the Grandmaster they never see! The Grandmaster who brings in a Templar wife—I know Maria is trustworthy, Malik, but they don't, and they have to know if you want them on your side. Then Abbas and Ali show up, and damn me if Ali isn't a golden-tongued snake in the grass!
"I tried to tell you, when Altair would insult Abbas. The others, the new ones, they don't all agree with you. Their image of Abbas isn't of a pouty fool knocking himself out with the Piece of Eden, it's of Abbas the old-timer, daring to stand up to the Master. Abbas the teacher of Ali, who is so friendly and speaks so well, who points out that their families still aren't safe and why isn't Altair doing anything about it?"
Rauf says, urgently, "The Order's been betrayed by its Master before. Why couldn't it happen again? When everyone knows Altair is so caught up with the Piece of Eden that not even you can stop him. God, that thing, Malik. What is it? I saw what it did in the village. It brought Kadar back! How…?"
"I don't know," Malik breathes, "I don't know, I don't…"
"If you don't then the rest of us certainly won't have a chance in hell. And that's a problem, don't you see? Even for those of us who have always been there, those of us who would die for Altair…who is it we are fighting for?"
"You fight for the same man you've always known, Rauf. He isn't Al Mualim. Don't you think I'd have stepped in long ago if he were?"
"All I think," says Rauf, "is that I've been chased out of my own training ring by the students I lectured last week! We fought in our home today, the only place most of us have. I know Masyaf isn't the same for you since Kadar died, but it's still ours. We lost our home fighting our friends in his name." Suddenly, flinching as if struck, Rauf cries out, "Abbas was my friend and I betrayed him for you! And you still call me a traitor!"
The land takes his grief. It is ancient, greater than any army, and it has swallowed countless tears, but there is always room in Syria's desert for more.
Malik and Rauf aren't riding anymore. They sit on their horses and stare at each other.
"Afwan," Rauf says to his lap. "I'm sorry, Brother."
"No. I am." Perhaps the darkness makes it easier to say. "…I lied when I said I don't carry a grudge. I think Abbas winning converts is worse for me because I do understand how he does."
Rauf risks a laugh. "Altair doesn't make life easy." He dithers, glancing sideways at Malik. If it weren't night the Dai might swear he was blushing. "Um, but, how can you still blame him for what he did and fight with him at the same time? Not fight with him, I mean—well, you know what I mean, I mean…"
Definitely a blush. And some fresh squirming. "Just…you know, like I said, I hear the men talking, and they seem to think…I mean, I don't know, what do I know, I go to the brothel and I'm happy. Dima's fine, by the way, I made sure she was somewhere safe from Abbas, not that I really think he would have done anything but who can say about that serpent Ali…"
Malik smiles. "I'm still waiting to hear what you mean about the men talking."
"Now, Malik, we've been friends forever, so you know I don't believe a word…er…or, I don't care about a word, er…"
Malik nods. "Shall we get moving?"
"Oh! Yes! Yes, please."
So they do, and Malik hums a bit, a little lighter now, the worst of the exhaustion lifted, and he waits until he's sure Rauf's relaxed himself to say with the slyest of smiles (because he is still the Dai, even now, even in retreat, and the Dai of Jerusalem should always have the last word): "I suppose the men say that Altair and I are fucking."
Rauf falls right off his horse. Just like a cat falling out of a tree. Malik only partially blames himself for it, because Rauf always has been a notoriously bad rider. But he's kind enough to dismount his own horse and help the sputtering assassin to his feet.
"I've heard that gossip," he tells him. "Amazing how concerned people are with it. But Altair has a wife and children, doesn't he? So he can't be totally broken."
Rauf brushes himself off, sheepish. "Well, I never believed it. Er. Not that it matters what I believe. You're my friend, plus you outrank me, plus you could fend me off with your one arm even if I had an extra two. But…I've always wondered why you forgave Altair. If you forgave him. How you did."
Malik looks to the sky again. There are no answers up there. There never were any, he thinks. But still people draw shapes out of stars and the wolves raise their heads to howl.
"I forgive Altair," he says. "I don't forgive Altair. He killed Kadar and I hate him. But Kadar was an assassin and assassins die, so I can't hate Altair for that. Except I wish he'd die. Sometimes I even think I'd die to make him happy."
Rauf nods knowingly. "We all feel it," he says. "That's why we follow him, even if he's cruel. Because he's so great and so beyond and just…you see him and you're frightened, and awestruck. You pray he'll notice you but you're afraid of what he'll do."
"For me, it's different, I think. I don't know why."
"I need him without fearing him—or if I fear him, I fear the bits of him that aren't him. The bits he uses as a shield. The Apple bits, I fear. The rest of him...Al Mualim used to treat Altair like both his son and a god. No wonder he's so screwed up, the poor bastard! People don't like gods, they fear them. And another god is the last thing this world needs."
Rauf cocks his head, considering. "And maybe another worshipper is the last thing Altair needs?"
"Yes. Something like that."
"Well!" Rauf jumps back on his horse, jaunty and assured, though a second after he's landed he's hunching over sore ribs. "With the two of you we're fine," he coughs out. "You keep the Order balanced out. I'm happy just to follow!"
Silence. He looks back to where Malik still stands unmoving by the roadway. "Am I following you…?"
Slowly, Malik shakes his head. "Not once we've beaten Abbas," he says. It hadn't really felt like anything the first time he said it: he was caught up in the twin horrors of losing Masyaf and finding his brother. But now it feels like something he can't ignore.
"What? Why not?"
"I'm leaving, Rauf. I'm going to leave."
"And go where? Back to Jerusalem? Does the bureau need you back?"
Malik whispers, "Altair needs me back. But I can't. He…he's seeing Kadar, Rauf. In his head. Because of the Piece of Eden. He's seeing Kadar and maybe it isn't real, but it's happening to him. Not to me. He'd even steal my ghosts away."
He knows Rauf is staring at him. Knows it as he remounts his horse and nudges his heels. Knows it as they start off yet again, at a fast trot.
Knows it as Masyaf falls further and further behind him and it doesn't feel like losing home. It feels like sloughing off a burden that he's carried far too long: like he only has to round the next bend in the road and there will be an oasis waiting for him, familiar and comforting. A quiet shepherding village near Damascus, where he can stop running and rest.
Whispers. Always whispers. Abbas has won and he's the Master and there are whispers trailing in his wake.
The men? The villagers? Abbas curses them and throws them in the cells and has a boy flogged for the insults he knows he heard. But they don't stop, the whispers, they grow stronger. He has been Master of the Brotherhood for three days and all he can think to do is sit in the rubble of his victory with his head in his hands.
"Stop sulking," chides Ali. Loyal Ali. Ali who'd never whisper. "There's so much to get done!"
But Ali seems content to focus on only one of those things. Though Abbas thinks they should be concerned with the Order as it is, on rebuilding or reeducating or remembering the heart of the Creed, Ali cares only about those who aren't there. "Those scoundrels made off with it," he tells Abbas. "We must find them. We must find where they've hid."
Only, there are scarcely enough men left in any condition for a mission. Many of Abbas's men are novices, or lower-ranked journeymen; many of the high-ranks have gone. And many are dead. There are too many bodies to bury all at once and three days later they still lie stacked under trees and at the end of alleys. Most of the villagers are too frightened to leave their homes, much less claim their dead. Masyaf grows bloated with the horrid smell.
Ali says to bury their men and leave the others for later. "Worry about dead traitors last," he says. "Better for us if the rats get them. Saves us the work."
Abbas can hardly hear him for the white-touched whispers. Oh, Allah! Protect this servant of Your name in the struggle ahead.
Masyaf has long suffered under the rule of evil men. First Al Mualim, then Al Mualim's pupil. So many fled with Altair, blind to the last. Did they not see Abbas? Hear him? Abbas held the Apple of Eden! It sang to him of power, and he told it that it could not be more powerful than God; it sang to him of slavery, and he told it that all men are slaves before God first of all. It brought back the dead—
No. That was a trick. And it was so much better than the first time he held it, years ago, when it laughed…
Ali says he will get used to it, once they find it. He is determined to find it. Ali says now that everyone has seen the Apple it has become the crown of the Brotherhood, and as long as the traitors hold it Abbas will never quite be in control. For his part, Abbas worries more about the village itself: it's still swamped with mercenaries, for instance, all those men paid off by Ali. They laugh in Abbas's face when he suggests they join the Order, but they don't leave, either. Instead they skulk around Masyaf, openly drinking and harassing the few women who dare to be out.
Ali says they're not a problem, though, and Ali is loyal, Ali would know. Ali says they can worry later about the mercenaries and the damaged fortress, the whereabouts of the women in the back garden who have all vanished since the battle. "The Apple first," says Ali. "We must find it. And you must leave Altair's body hanging for all to see."
Sometimes in the past three days Abbas has thought that chasing down Altair now, when he has so obviously lost, amounts to vengeance. Murder, even. It amounts to something the Creed dislikes. It might not be necessary. But whenever he mentions the Creed to Ali, the frizz-haired man stares blankly for a second before waving a hand. "Everything is permitted," he shrugs; because Ali is so loyal Abbas refrains from pointing out that the average novice has a better grasp on the actual meaning of the words.
The whispers tell Abbas he brought the dead back to suffer, in defiance of all his creeds. The whispers tell him the Apple has forgotten. The whispers tell him he is lost…
Abbas might go mad with the whispers if not for Ali's steady hand.
"We must find the Piece of Eden," says Ali firmly, almost shrilly, with a smile that's stretched. "We must kill Altair."
"And then I will be Grandmaster in everyone's eyes," says Abbas, not quite as firm.
"Oh, yes," says Ali. "Trust me on that."
Brother? Ahki? No, he's not you.
No, says Abbas, caught and sweating. I'm dreaming. No.
This isn't your room. Altair should be here, and my brother maybe.
It's mine now. Who let you in?
Huh. I know you, right? Hello. Seen Malik around?
I don't know where your brother is. I want to find him! I will find him!
Maybe. I dunno. If he fights you he'll win.
He lost last time. Because of you he lost.
He can't beat me, neither of them can! Because the weapon creates you! You'll kill them both for me and then I'll never bring you out again.
That's what the Apple is. That's the truth.
I guess it is. Oh well.
Five days and Altair has not been found. Nor the Apple. Ali says that Altair must be insane by now, truly and deeply insane, the insanity of men who talk to the dead as if it were a calling. Abbas thinks of Al Mualim's megalomania, and of Altair's. The Apple seems drawn to such men—so perhaps when he thinks of the others' egotism he is thinking of his own.
But he fought with the Apple, when he held it. He is a man of God forcing it to do his bidding. He is the rightful Grandmaster…!
Ali is too busy to bother with talk of God. Abbas knows because he has tried (surely after everything, a man as smart and devoted as Ali would be willing to hear the truth) and been brushed off. It feels a touch backwards; he tries to remember if anyone ever brushed off Altair and kept his head.
Abbas tries very hard to focus on what Ali is right to call important.
Al Masyaf has turned into a sieve. Every day a couple more assassins trickle away, to whereabouts unknown. Abbas puts spies on some of the more suspicious men but it's pointless. These are spies chasing spies, Brothers chasing Brothers. Who knows who's scheming how, and for whom? Men drift off, every day Masyaf is a little emptier, and the desert has never felt so close before. He has nightmares where he is smothered by great sandstorms, lost in dirt-bleeding clouds.
"For now we have the mercenaries," says Ali. "We can worry about recruitment once we have the Apple. Why can't we figure out where these men are going? It shouldn't be so hard."
"It's easy to get lost in the desert," Abbas says.
"Hnn. Easy to die in it, you mean. Even now I'm sure our enemy lies dead, bleached by the sun."
"I've sent spies. They always get shaken off."
"They allow themselves to be shaken. The next man who comes back empty-handed should be branded a collaborator and thrown off the cliff! If they struggle in the desert then so does Altair."
But Abbas remembers otherwise. He knows Malik has survived the desert before.
Eight days pass and they go to the mountain village, Abbas and Ali. Ali still wears his red-and-white. Soon after the victory Abbas tore through Altair's things searching for the dark Master's robes but could only find a pair set aside for mending, with wide rents in the front and sleeves. He wears them anyway, having had no time to track down a seamstress; they're too small for him and he sweats in the heavy velvet. Plus the wide sleeves get caught on the hilt of his swords. Who designed such impractical things? And why did Altair always look so effortless wearing them?
But he wears the hot, cumbrous robes and goes to the mountain village with Ali. Altair has not been found. Ali is grinning his stretched grin as they climb the paths.
(Abbas has never been a Master Assassin and he has not lost his finger—he found in Altair's quarters a hidden blade, a real one, the blade so clean it glistened in the half-dark, and he strapped it to his arm for a day to see how it would feel.
It gave him blisters where the brace rubbed on his wrist and had he dared to spring the blade he would have lost half his hand. So he threw it away, disgusted. No time to fool with such trinkets now. The Apple is the real weapon.)
The men of the village, and even most of the women and children, are waiting for them, clustered at the dead tree where everyone leaves their horses. They are silent, somber, watching the new Master of the Brotherhood with hooded eyes.
The brothel's widows are shuttered.
Abbas and Ali are both very much in control: they've brought with them bodyguards, of course, and they're armed. But Altair rarely used bodyguards, unless you counted Malik, so Abbas had been hesitant to take any until Ali pointed out the folly of such bravado in these tumultuous times. Besides, no one would think him weak. With such a retinue, handpicked by Ali because certainly the Grandmaster didn't have the time, they would think him a king.
Ali steps forward now. "The traitor Altair Ibn La'Ahad hasn't been found," he says. "His band of cowards and liars is still out there. Many of you have given children to the Order. Children gossip. Surely someone here has heard where they're likely to go…"
No one says anything, for a minute. Abbas has tension running through his spine into the meat of him, the brace of the body after the arrowhead's sunk in but before the pain begins.
Then: "Our children gossip? It's you people who're the spies."
The crowd mutters. Abbas peers over the heads, one hand pulling nervously at his beard. "Who said that?" he snaps, but subsides when Ali gives him that look that says, Don't worry so, Master. Don't concern yourself with this.
Ali motions people aside until the speaker is found. He's an old man, bent and bald beneath his prayer cap. Yet despite that there is a strange youth to his eyes; the color in his face is that of a man twenty years younger at least. "You have something to say, Grandfather?" Ali asks.
"Grandfather, eh? You don't look like any spawn of mine."
"Wisdom follows age, Grandfather. You must know the Brotherhood better than its Brothers. You must know where…"
"I know there was peace a bit and now there's fighting, people fighting over nonsense titles like they always do. But the assassins'r supposed to fight the invaders, not each other. I remember the old man of the mountain, kicking out the warlords 'round here. Kicking out the slavers. Keeping off the Crusaders. That was a leader," the old man says with flourish.
Abbas says, "Al Mualim was a traitor. Altair also. He was possessed and blood-mad! He would have thrown us all into meaningless wars just to keep himself amused."
The old man says, a touch wistful and a touch sad, "More than just him possessed around here. Playing with the spirits is Allah's work, not ours. I'm beginning to see my punishment now."
"Who said anything about spirits?!" Abbas yells, deeply alarmed and ashamed of being alarmed, in front of all these villagers and that stupid old man. "No one asked you for your worthless opinions. Stay silent if you can't help." weak "I said, enough!"
"Master," Ali intersects, "calm yourself."
At the same time another villager says, "Forgive him, Master. He's too old to know what he means." Abbas looks at the eyes of the crowd and sees fear, and it reflects like golden light on Ali's face but Abbas just feels sick.
"I'm ninety-seven," says the old man indignantly, "or maybe ninety-eight? But never mad, oh no. Not like some around. And my son died for you so I've the right to speak!"
"He babbles like this all the time lately," the other villager says, but Ali waves the pleas off with a smile.
The old man ignores them both. "The problem with you assassins is you keep trusting it, 'cause it tells you pretty things you like to hear," he says.
"It?" Abbas manages. "What it?"
"They'll come back, oh yes, they're coming back alright, little shreds of ghost breathing in your ear, but you can't control 'em, they're too angry. They control you and mock you and that's how they want it. Now you're the slave. Maybe it hurts to be stuck between life and death. Allah forgive me, I was greedy but I thought…"
Ali says calmly, "You think too much, Grandfather," and Abbas sees the future as clear as if he held the Piece of Eden, sees it in the light on his friend's face.
He thinks: Ali is going to want to kill him. Assassins never kill civilians here and the greybeard doesn't know what he says. But I owe everything to Ali.
Ali says, "Has anyone in this village ever actually pledged allegiance to the assassins, Master?"
"Well—that isn't our way, to demand it."
"But why not, when these shacks sit on our doorstep and look to us for all their needs? I think they should pledge their fidelity to you. To their new Master."
"But I am the Master of the Brotherhood, not of all of them."
"If you are good enough for their sons you are good enough for them. We'll have them bow, and talk…"
"Aʿudhu billah," calls the old man. "I seek refuge with God, he is the greatest."
"Ali, enough of this chase. Let Altair alone for now. I want him dead same as you but there's so much else-…"
"There is nothing else. Not until we, until you have what is rightfully yours. Don't worry so, it won't take long. They'll pledge and prove themselves or else they'll lack for what we've always given them. Someone here knows where Altair's gone."
"Even so, the Creed is for the Brotherhood. It's never been meant for them."
"Until now. You are the Master! You decide what is right!"
"I'm not Allah, Ali. That is Altair's problem, he thought that he was."
"Altair has many problems, Master, but he was never—"
"Master Abbas, what is it? Why do you flinch?"
I should pray, Abbas tries to say, pale and worn up as thorn bushes in the scouring wind. Allah give me strength against these demons. But there is no answer, though his faith has survived the worst times in his life: only Ali tapping his foot and the old man nodding, as if he knew.
Another villager steps forward, anxious. "Assassins," he says, "we don't know where Altair has gone. If we did we would tell you. Now, please…"
"I believe you," says Ali, bobbing with delight. "I do believe you, we both believe you, I would only like to ask—"
Ali tilts his head and all the villagers follow his gaze. Two men are coming up the path towards them, carrying a third between them. They're too far away yet to make out many details, but their outfits are not those of the Brotherhood, minus a delusory attempt with a red sash and cowl. But no silver ornamentation, and the ill-tied sashes are bunched over patched tunics, not robes. Mercenaries, then. Ali's men.
The man they hold is struggling to find his footing; they haul him at a pace far too fast for anyone so clearly injured, and only their tight grip on his arms keeps him upright. But though as they come closer his clothing proves torn and filthy, it is undoubtedly a high-ranked journeyman's costume.
"Why do they call for you first?" Abbas asks.
"They don't want to bother you," says Ali, calmly. "We fought a great battle. Why should you be bothered with every injured man?"
But something proves off the closer the mercenaries and their assassin cargo come. They really are dragging the hurt man, with little care for how much pain he must be in, and anyway why would anyone drag the wounded all the way up this steep path to a nameless village? The healers are in Masyaf!
"Lord Ali," says one of the mercenaries when they arrive, going straight to him, but then the frizz-haired man gives him a certain kind of look and the man hurriedly bows towards Abbas. It's a short bow and the man's expression is openly insolent, but then, the mercenaries aren't real assassins. The real assassin they throw on the ground at Ali's feet. The journeyman tries to right himself, then curls around his hurt and groans.
"What is this?" asks Ali. "Why are you bothering the Grandmaster?"
The taller mercenary grins. He's missing an eye and missing three fingers and uneven stitches misshape the skin below his right ear. His comrade could be his twin but for the height difference; the scars may be in different places and different parts may be missing, but the effect is all the same. Abbas has had many a target hire such men, and he's killed them many a time.
"Found him while we was searchin' the caves," says the tall man. "Got a broke arm and all torn-up insides but he still tried t'fight."
"You pulled him here from the river by a broken arm?" Abbas asks, incredulous. "No one's paid you to torture our men!"
The mercenary glances at him. Shrugs. Looks back at Ali. "Not your man now. He's one'a the ones you said to watch out for."
Ali suddenly looks very interested. He waves off the mercenaries, who fall back to glower at the boneyard-silent crowd beyond, and calls over one of the bodyguards. "I want to see his face. Make him sit up."
The assassin hesitates: judging by the uniforms he's outranked by the wounded man. But Ali's expression bears no mercy and finally he takes hold of the man by his shoulder and the back of his neck and pulls him onto his knees.
The face is swollen, half the bones within it shattered, but Abbas needs the sparest second to recognize Raed.
Raed sways and his head sinks back on his neck. His eyes drift from Ali to Abbas without surprise, only a hatred pure as water from a mountain brook. He can't quite work his lips into a sneer but everyone sees him try.
"Hello," says Ali. "Did they leave you behind?"
Raed spits at him. It comes out bloody.
"Tsk. I have to tell you, I never thought you were very friendly. Tell me, where have Altair and Malik gone? I know you know. You'd lick the dirt from Malik's boots if he let you. Sort of funny, really, the dog with another dog for its master."
Raed says, struggling for the words, "And who are you…that you should decide the fate of your Brothers?"
"What? Abbas, what is he saying?"
Raed doesn't need a voice to taunt Abbas, who could sink into the earth. "It—it's part of the Creed," the Master mumbles. "Remember? You learnt it…"
"Right, right. Nothing is true, everything is permitted. And I shall do everything to this nothing unless he tells me where Altair and Malik are."
"C-Coming for you," Raed says. "You've…failed at everything. You couldn't even kill their children. I got Tazim out."
But Ali brushes that aside. "Never mind the breeding. Where is the Apple?"
"You speak of Master Altair's weapon." Again Raed tries to sneer. "You are so transparent. I know what you want. What you are."
Ali stares at him, hard. "No," he says. "You don't."
"Ah hah. Worried? Worried what I found in the caves?"
Abbas, confused and frustrated, cuts in: "What you found in the…? Raed, listen. You don't have to follow Malik to his grave. I am the Master now."
Raed doesn't look at him. "You are a prop," he says. "This has nothing…to do with you."
Ali says, "Tell me where the Apple of Eden is and I won't kill you. I'll, we'll forgive you and bring you to the healers if you talk."
"You don't know…about assassins. We don't fear death like you."
"But I bet you fear pain." Ali shakes his head. "Sad. All this over the last man to deserve it."
"Altair…is my Master. Malik, too. Him, I owe…everything…"
"Yes, yes, I'm sure you've a heartbreaking lament. That doesn't make it any less of a waste. If the man who sins is a sinner, what is the man who worships the man who sins?"
"Ask it yourself, liar," Raed snarls. "S-Stay your blade from the innocent…you have spit on our Creed from the m-moment you arrived!"
"Assassins and their Creed! I'm not talking about the Creed," Ali laughs.
"H-Hard to talk of…what you don't know."
"And what of what you don't know?" Ali grins; Abbas feels his stomach start to sink. "Your precious Malik whom you follow ceaselessly: what don't you know of him?"
"Nothing the likes of you c-could tell me."
"The problem with this Brotherhood is that no one thinks. All the gossip in the air and no one thinks to use it."
"We aren't biddies at the well."
"No, you're worse. Even a biddy at the well would chase off the likes of Altair and Malik. For her honor, never mind theirs. What, do they have to rut naked in front of you before you open your eyes?"
Raed says nothing, then. Only pants and wraps his good arm around his chest, eyes narrowed as he looks from man to man. It seems even the birds have lost their tongues to the news.
"You lie," Raed says at last.
"No," says Abbas, quietly. "Malik as much as blurted it out to me years ago. Everyone suspects it. I'm sure you did too."
Ali waves a hand. "But by all means throw yourself on the rack for a couple of faggots distracted by their own narcissism. It must make you happy, so, go ahead."
"La. Whatever their choices—and whatever your lies—"
Ali purrs, "But it isn't a lie." Abbas, watching this, thinks he should be amused like Ali at the sight of Raed speechless and reddening. And tries to be. He's never liked Raed, the frowning, judgmental shit! But somehow Abbas keeps losing his good humor at the sight of Ali's reveling.
That is not what assassins do.
"Maybe you're jealous, hm?" Ali says, "You'd be his woman but he's already Altair's. Or maybe you're just horrified, as you should be. This is who you let lead you! The man you idolized ought to wear hijab and veil, eh? Ought to chop off what he's got between his legs."
"Whatever his choices, I owe him my family," Raed shouts. "I will fight for him…in this world and the next. His sins are his own. As is my honor!"
"Mm," says Ali. "How dramatic."
"M-More than that. Threaten me as you'd like but you can't torture me. You won't dare. You'll wake up in cold sweat…thinking of what I might say."
Ali says, very quietly, "And why would I do that?"
"Because I saw. What you buried in the cave, I saw it, and I know what it means."
"Buried in the cave?" Ali interrupts. He's felt ten steps behind this whole week and he won't be left out any longer. "What do you mean? What does he mean, Ali?"
"I don't know," says Ali, but above his easy smile his eyes are fixed on Raed's trembling form. "Must be delirious."
"I'm not. You know…you know exactly…"
"Something buried in a cave," muses Ali. "A body? A weapon? Could be an ambush." He shrugs. "It wouldn't be what we're looking for, but I'll send men to check the river right away."
Then, somehow, Raed is on his feet, and he is yelling at Ali with both hands bent into claws. Yell at me, Abbas wants to say. I'm the Grandmaster.
"Cur," Raed says to Ali, "liar, I know what you are."
Ali clucks his tongue. "Loyal dog. Stop barking."
Raed is hunched and broken and there's no color to his face but he seems to grow a foot and stand as straight as a fortress wall. There is suddenly too much of him, he is everywhere Abbas looks. This strong, strong assassin. Malik's man, who will never obey Abbas. "I know," he says again, disdainful almost, as if he can't be bothered by the danger. He speaks loud enough for the villagers' sake, but couldn't care less what Abbas might think. "I saw the trunk, the helmet and robe…the cross…"
"You think you can trick all of us?"
"No use for a dog who can't heed commands."
"I curse your children's children, Templar—"
Now wait, Abbas says, now wait a minute. Someone needs to explain this. Take Raed back to the fortress and make him explain. But though he says it—thinks he says it, means to say it—his orders are lost under the villagers' erupting outcry. Ali has a dagger in his hand, though it wasn't there one minute before, and he brings his hand around in an even stroke that doesn't match the crazy firelight in his dancing eyes. There is fresh blood on Raed's face and he lurches. Ali looks thrilled.
"Wait," says Abbas, louder.
Ali doesn't wait. He brings his hand down again and again, quick slashes, quick splatters of blood, and the villagers are flinching now and the bodyguards are uneasy, only the two mercenaries are unconcerned, and Ali keeps slashing slashing slashing while anger fights with joy in his eyes.
Raed stumbles and falls and there shouldn't be enough in him to moan, much less talk, but he says something anyway, a woman's name: Abbas remembers the day Raed took a bride. The little dagger opens up Raed's back, his shoulder blades. The dirt beneath him cannot hope to absorb such heavy weeping. Pain twists him forward and he grabs at Ali's ankles, his knees, fingers fumbling for purchase. He starts to say his wife's name a second time but Ali brings the dagger down and in and then there are no words.
Abbas stands there, clean and separate. Not touched by a drop of blood.
Ali tosses the dagger away, kicks the body off his legs.
"I…" the Grandmaster manages. "I did not tell you to kill him."
"Sorry, Master," says Ali easily. "I got carried away. I couldn't stand to see him lying to you and confusing everything up."
"He…he called you a Templar."
Ali giggles. "Honest, Master, I'd never even heard of Templars 'till I joined your Order. He would've said anything to divide us. But if I were really a Templar would I have helped you? Why would I bother, eh? Altair was the one with the power and the Piece of Eden. I helped you because we're assassins and we're friends. Right?"
"Right." Abbas stares at him almost desperately. Oh, God, how he's waited for such a friend. Allah wouldn't trick him. Not this faithful servant who has suffered more than his share. "But the cave…"
"Could be planted," Ali shrugs, "could be nothing. We'll check. But Templars have been around here before, right? Altair must be crazy if his best idea was trying to use some Crusader's last stand to frame me."
It makes sense, it makes so much sense. Abbas looks over Ali's shoulder at the villagers, and the other man follows his gaze. "They'll all respect you now," he says softly. "No one will scorn you again."
He raises his voice. "Find somewhere to throw the body," he barks to the villagers. "Thus the fate of all loyal men. Remember it when you see the vultures." And no one argues for the traditional Islamic rites or protests the disrespect. Even the insane old man is wordless and grim.
"Let's go back to Masyaf, Master," Ali says to Abbas. "We can come back here tomorrow."
When they head back down the mountain path, the assassin bodyguards and mercenaries fall behind; Abbas leads the way, as is proper, and finally the black robes he wears feel as though they fit.
He has the strangest dreams that night, repeated dreams that leave him shivering with terror while the horizon begins to lighten: he wakes from one into another, and each time it could almost be Kadar he sees, sitting on the edge of his bed and staring, with nothing at all to say.