AN: skywalker05 taught me interesting factoids about ancient paper and people and gods. Some of those factoids will be showing up along the way. One I found on my own is the relevance of the number 13 to Shia Islam. I like that I can google '13' and in five minutes wikipedia will have told me everything there is to know. O brave new world, except no, really, it's fantastic.
Exactly what the status of Altair and Malik's relationship is – and how it got from the end of And When the Earth to here – will be explained.
2/27/13 EDIT: attempting to make my convoluted timeline fit.
The Source and Spring
Eleven Years Later
Malik wakes just after dawn with a feeling of dread coiling in his stomach. Blearily he swings his legs over the bed and looks around, as is his nature. Locations must be checked for spies, food must be checked for poisons, and the day ahead must be checked for trap doors and targets and danger in all forms. His room is smaller than really befits his rank: he, Malik A-Sayf, second in command of the whole Assassin's Order. He could have demanded half the fortress as his own, but then there would have been too much to check each morning.
Anyway, he has few personal possessions and a lifetime's experience of making do with small rooms. It's enough.
The room is safe but the dread remains. As he pulls on his clothing, his experienced hand still fumbling over buttons and ties, he senses it waiting. Another aggravation in a fortress filled with them. Today he has to talk with merchants over taxes and visiting Rafiks over new rumors of war. The Crusaders have fallen back in the last few years, their moral depleted after failing to take Jerusalem, but where they retreat a new enemy comes forward. Talk is ripe of a fur-clad army sweeping in from the East, burning whole cities to the ground. They are still far away—but getting closer.
Malik must plan for this. He must also keep track of Brotherhood recruitment and the training of novices. He must practice his own fighting, two daily hours of combat to ensure his skills stay sharp as his sword. At some point he must find time to eat. There isn't time for nameless qualms and he'd like to ignore this one.
But he is thirty-seven, and an experienced fighter; he was once Dai of all Jerusalem and still maintains the title; he can kill a man as smoothly with one arm as with two. He knows to listen to his instincts.
There's a mirror mounted to the wall, and once dressed Malik studies his reflection. He's changed little in the years since Altair's ascension. Oh, perhaps his beard is a bit thicker, perhaps he's lost some weight. Sometimes he's still startled by the sight of his robes of office, the flare of black against the backs of his boots, the traditional white costume hidden under the extra layer of authority. And sometimes he does feel off-balance, his body weighted wrong against the world. When half-asleep he's liable to stumble.
He lets his eyes drift to the pinned sleeve. At first he'd refused to look, to acknowledge the injury: to glimpse his naked self while bathing was vile. But over time he's adapted, because if Malik knows nothing else, he knows how to adapt. Now he reaches with the arm that's still his to touch the stump through the cloth. His fingers feel out the stitching cut through heavy scars. There are some pinpricks when he presses hard, but no real pain.
Eyes and mind a careful blank, Malik presses harder. Still it doesn't hurt.
He wishes it would.
But he is much too busy this morning for self-reflection. Off he goes, and the Order swallows him: this teeming beast of a Brotherhood, swollen with the weight of its disjointed parts, always days away from utter ruin. Good in some ways. Malik learned long ago how helpful it is to keep busy. But exhausting as well. Much had been neglected in the final few years of Al Mualim's rule, the foundations rotting beneath the gleaming frame. They hadn't realized the full breadth of the damage then. Though it's been over a decade since the Old Man's death, they are still scrambling to shore up the walls.
Malik hurries through his day and the dread hurries after. Such an annoyance, and for no reason. Last night he hadn't even dreamed.
It finally catches him as he stands with his elbows resting on the edge of the training ring in the main courtyard, watching older novices work. How long since it was him dodging blows inside? The faces have changed but the sight is the same. Except that there's only ever one shadow by his side. It startles him, when he thinks of it, Kadar's death. That the world could end and then continue on as if it hadn't—that Malik could pry himself out of bed with his duty in mind, as if any of it still mattered—
He tries to tell himself the Brotherhood needs him, but it doesn't really. It was born before him and will outlast him when he dies. For thirteen years he's tried to be an older brother to a concept, to a ghost. And it leaves him scraped hollow, because no one's ever noticed.
"Come on, come on! Really lift your arms." Rauf looks the same himself, still buried under his trainer's mask. There are lines around his eyes, signals of stress or age, but his voice is loud as ever. The fear of many a novice, Malik muses, and smiles.
Officially he is here to observe novices go through their paces. Unofficially, it's nice to have the chance to talk with a childhood friend.
Rauf leans against the barrier from inside the ring. "They look good, eh?" he says. "Nothing like they were when they started. I beat some skill into them somehow. –I saw that flinch! What good will it do you in battle? Use your braces, try defending yourself."
"You've done well with them," Malik agrees once Rauf has settled down. "I've always envied how perfectly you fit your place."
"Well, I don't envy you a bit. Second-in-command is too much work, especially when Altair is…" Rauf falters but covers himself quickly, in a voice a touch too loud. "Some of my students are worried about the Mongols. I tell them if they want to wet their beds it should be over the Templars, but they think the rumors are more fun."
Malik straightens off the railing. "I can't blame them. Unsettled peace is almost as bad as declared war. Which reminds me, I must sent out messengers today. I want to meet with our men from the East and figure out just which rumors are true."
"Too busy," says Rauf with a smile.
"Maybe you don't have enough to do."
"What! Did you see what these men looked like when they started? To begin with half of them weren't even men. It's no small task to train a bunch of boys."
"I've been meaning to ask you about that," says Malik. "Anyone here particularly talented?"
"Mm." Rauf considers and cocks his head, looking from novice to novice. "That one," he says finally, pointing at a dark-skinned boy of about sixteen. "Born into the Order, actually. Very cautious but smart about his moves. And the one on his left isn't bad. A little reckless. They'd make a good team. Why? Sending my students off already?"
"Just trying to keep track of who ought to be where. It seemed a lot simpler when we were the novices. There were always assassins wherever they needed to be."
"Fewer novices with the Crusaders pulling out."
"Which is one of the many reasons we need to strengthen our ties with the villages. If they trust us they'll send us their sons."
"So calculating. I could never do your job." Rauf calls to the novices, "Alright, drop your blades. You should be grateful I'm nice. If I were mean I'd have you keep embarrassing yourselves in front of Dai Malik." He waits until the last student has left the ring before glancing sideways at his companion. "Actually, Malik…if you're so busy you probably don't have time to talk, but I wanted to tell you…"
"What is it?"
Rauf sags under his grey cowl. "She has decided she refuses to see me," he says, crestfallen. Malik crinkles his brow.
"Who decided? Dima? Again?"
"Yes, Dima, again. I don't understand women. I don't understand the concept."
"I thought things were going well between you two. You certainly visit her enough."
"That's what I thought! We had a fine arrangement. She kept herself for me, and I treated her well. But apparently the others were jealous, plus there were a couple other men who kept lurking around. She said it wouldn't work."
"Have you thought of asking her to marry you?"
Rauf looks perplexed. He lowers his mask to gnaw at a fingernail. "Marry her? But I'd have to talk to her father first, and he's in Jerusalem. Or at least that's where she thinks he is. Altair would never give me permission to go."
Exasperated, Malik says, "Rauf, Dima is a prostitute. I think you can ignore societal custom with her."
"It wouldn't be right," Rauf insists. "Besides, the brothel isn't far. Marriage would only complicate things."
"Not being able to see her doesn't complicate things?"
"Oh, you don't understand. You never go to the brothel."
"Tell her you want her to stop working and come live in Masyaf. She wouldn't be the first to marry an assassin and give that life up."
Rauf still looks skeptical. "She marries me and then what? Stands around naked in the back garden? Waits at home for me, darning my tunics? I don't think Dima is that kind of woman."
"Then she's perfect for the Brotherhood," Malik starts to say, but before he can finish a third voice interrupts.
"Dai Malik! There's a message." Raed strides over to them from the direction of the main hall. Although technically still an informer he no longer dresses the part: his guard's robes are cut to the knee and grey, without added decoration, and he's grown out his beard. His pack and short knife have been replaced with hidden daggers and a heavy sword strapped to his back.
Malik nods to see him approach. Raed is a good man, and a loyal one: he insisted on following Malik to Jerusalem after the latter was made Dai, and later returned with him to Masyaf. Not an easy change for a man with a family to bundle along, but Raed never complains. Malik trusts him utterly.
"Safety and peace," Raed says to Rauf, before looking at Malik with troubled brown eyes. Malik frowns. Raed is quiet, as befits a man who once roamed cities, listening in; he doesn't worry easily, at least not in public. "There has been a message," he repeats, and Malik's alarm taps him on the shoulder.
"There are often messages," he says.
"Yes, Lord, but this—"
"Please stop calling me that."
"This message is from Kapısuyu. A messenger hawk flew in with it not an hour ago."
Malik takes the offered paper but doesn't read it right away. Instead his fingers feel out the roughness of the paper, the grains branching out like veins against his palm. From Egypt, then, or near-abouts, judging by the thickness. "Kapısuyu?" he asks. "So far?"
Rauf looks mystified. "You've heard of it?"
"I remember the name from an old scroll of Dai Faraj's." Malik lets his old teacher's name slip quickly from his lips. "It was a port city under the Romans until an earthquake tore it down. It's just a small settlement now. Do we still have assassins stationed there?"
"We do," says Raed, "and one wrote to let us know that he passed through their borders two days ago, riding hard for Al Masyaf. He'll be here within the next months."
"He." Malik remembers, and inhales. Oh. So that is the answer. That is the dread. Of course. They have been preparing for it, him and Altair, they have talked about it when they talk at all, and yet Malik had almost forgotten. His return, after thirteen years of exile. He'll be here soon.
"Abbas," says Malik, and Rauf flinches.
"What? You're letting him return? I thought he was banished."
"He has been banished. It was never meant to be permanent. Altair told him he could return after thirteen years had passed. 'One Prophet and twelve Imams,' he said. 'A holy length of time for any good Shia Muslim."' Malik smiles wryly. "I think he thought he was being funny," he says. "Abbas was in no position to argue."
"Maybe so, but do you think thirteen years out in the wastes will have made him any less, ah." Rauf hesitates. He was friends with Abbas once, and though he sided with Altair in that last, great separation, and though he has never been anything but dutiful, Malik can tell he is reluctant to finish his sentence. "He won't like Altair anymore now than he did then," is what he finally says.
"It's what was decided," says Malik.
"But it seems like a strange decision!"
"At the time Altair wanted his head. But considering the situation it wouldn't have been wise." Malik glances at Raed, standing patiently to the side. If Raed has doubts, he won't admit to them here. He's far too devoted for that.
"I need to tell Altair," Malik says. "No doubt it's slipped his mind as well."
Raed says, "I'll walk with you, Lord."
"Only if you stop calling me Lord. For Allah's sake, Raed, how many times did you knock me on my ass in training when we were children?"
A flicker of a smile ghosts the other man's solemn face. "Too many to count. But we aren't children now. And you have become the better fighter by far, Dai."
"Dai I'll allow," says Malik grumpily. "Damn it, do you make me feel old. A proper Dai has a white beard down to the ground and knows more wise metaphors than I do words."
"Well, you know a lot of very cutting insults. So you're probably fine." Rauf pats his right shoulder, reaching awkwardly around. It would be easier to touch the left one, but he knows—thinks he knows—better than to try. "Tell our Grandmaster I'm beginning to forget what he looks like. If he doesn't show himself soon it's because he knows my students could beat him in the ring."
Malik forces himself to laugh. Rauf is only joking. He can't know how often, and how seriously, Malik's thought the same thing.
Where are you, Altair? Do you even exist? Or have you let it swallow you whole?
Raed follows him away from the ring and back into the shadow of the fortress, striding along the path as it slopes upwards. Once they are alone he says, "Dai Malik, I agree with Rauf. I don't think it's wise to allow Abbas to return."
"What else could we do? He's served out his punishment. He has the right to return to the Brotherhood."
"Forgive me, but it doesn't sound as though he was much punished. Thirteen years in a quiet village, far out of reach of Templars or Crusaders. How is that punishment?"
"For Abbas it was a brutal one," Malik says, and shakes his head. Driven Abbas, so jealous, so determined…death might have been kinder. "Altair couldn't leave it alone," he adds. "Why do you think he always went in that direction to meet with the Rafiks? Every time there needed to be some Order-wide gathering, he picked some backwater no one's ever visited before."
"For secrecy, I thought. Because for the first years of his rule there were spies in Masyaf."
"There were, but you know Altair is too stubborn to admit he's worried about spies. No, he chose that place because it was near the edge of our borders. Near Abbas."
Raed looks at him. "You know this for fact…?"
"Yes. And don't think Abbas doesn't know. I'm sure he ignored his orders and crept to those meetings every time they happened. Never invited. But never chased away, another message from our Master. 'Look how forgotten you are. The Brotherhood discusses its future while you sit surrounded by ruins, doing nothing. Look how little I fear you, that I'll let you watch us pass you by.'" Malik says grimly, "Don't ever forget that Altair can be cruel."
Raed digests this, eyes flickering. Pulling at his beard he says, "But that only confirms my point. Why let him back? He's sure to be vindictive."
"Maybe thirteen years in the wilderness has shocked him into obedience."
"You know Abbas as well as I. Obedience towards the Grandmaster is not something he understands."
"Yes, well." Malik shrugs. "If he tries an assassination of his own Altair will have his eyes for rings in an instant."
"You truly don't fear him?"
"Not even a little."
"Then why wasn't he executed? He tried to kill the leader of the Assassin's Order. Why let him live at all?"
They're in the main hall, now, at the edge of the stairs. From here Malik can see that there's no one at the Master's desk. He knows where he should check next but doesn't want to do so with Raed along. Let Altair be saved that embarrassment, at least. The whole Order doesn't need to know how warped their leader's become.
"Abbas tried to kill Altair, yes," says Malik, "and if it wasn't for that Piece of Eden being beyond his ability to control he might had succeeded. Not because he was so strong. But because, of all the assassins who were there that day, I'm told almost none of them defended Altair. Certainly no one came to help him take back the Apple."
"I don't understand, Lord."
Malik sighs. "You and I hadn't arrived from Jerusalem yet. But you must remember the murmurs. Burning Al Mualim's corpse? Proclaiming himself Grandmaster?"
"Al Mualim was a traitor. There's no doubt of it."
"But there was doubt, don't you remember? I trust Altair. I would give my life for him. But at the time even I wasn't sure…it sounded so outlandish…and its messenger was so hated."
"No thanks to Abbas stirring up trouble."
"That's just the point. If we'd executed Abbas then, half the Brotherhood would have risen against us. They trusted him more than they trusted this novice-turned-Master who'd probably insulted every one of them at least once. Banishment was as much as we could handle."
Raed still looks perplexed. Malik claps a hand to his shoulder. "I need to go find him, Brother," he says. "Don't worry about Abbas. Between his blind anger and Altair, I know who I'd put my faith in."
"You are a good friend to him," Raed says after a moment. "I hope he realizes it."
Malik might have reacted differently once. But after years of practice he knows how to keep himself calm. "He knows what he thinks he needs to know," he says, with no spark of emotion. "It's all I ever expect."
But Altair is not where Malik had expected, locked away in that fetid dungeon room of his, the air thick with dust and the smoke of tallow candles. He's instead in one of the small rooms set aside for dealings with the local villagers, a well-lit space with plenty of pillows and close to the kitchens, so that tea can be brought in for guests. Altair keeps a chair in there, a heavy oak thing with carvings running down the back that he thinks makes him look important.
It works. Malik pushes the door open a crack and glances in, catching sight of him: the Grandmaster in stern blue-black, the clothing tailored to fit perfectly, sitting with one leg crossed over the other and one hand supporting his head, while the fingers of his other drum restlessly against the chair's arm. Whatever agelines he has make him look stern, not elderly, and he could pass for a man ten years younger. Every so often the light catches his hidden blade in just the right way, the silver glittering.
Altair looks dangerous, and powerful, and very bored. He also isn't alone.
There are two older men in front of him, clearly villagers, sitting cross-legged on the cushions clutching cups of tea. Their djellabas and bushy beards speak to their being typical Masyaf peasantry. Malik's attention is drawn instead to the boy standing behind and to the left of Altair, clothed as a novice but with the bearing of a sultan.
Darim is tall for his age of twelve. Born into the Order, he wears his uniform as a second skin. Malik can't imagine him dressed any other way. Privately he has always thought Darim looked more like his mother: his face is square and his solid arms have none of Altair's lanky elegance. But there is no doubt that they are father and son. Both have the same narrowed eyes, the same pale skin that looks so incongruous in the Levant. And both are wild creatures at their core.
Malik enters the room and says, "Safety and peace," but before the words are fully out of his mouth Altair is on his feet.
"You," he barks, sounding a tad desperate. "Finally. Where were you?"
"Was I expected? I wasn't aware you'd sent for me."
"No one's sent for you, but you ought to have been here." Yes, definitely desperate. Altair waves a hand at the seated men. "These two…" he says, and Malik watches him swallow the word peasants because after all these years even Altair has figured some things out. "These two have a problem. With each other. Fix it."
Malik blinks. "What?"
"They came to Father for advice," Darim supplies. "Hello, Uncle."
"Hello. So if they came to you for advice," he asks Altair sweetly as can be, "then why am I the one who needs to give it? Out of wisdom, Grandmaster?"
Altair growls, "Out of time. All day listening to these—people—complain. I have other things to do!"
"And I am just so burdened with free time."
"It's your own fault," says one of the peasants. "The assassins are the ones who told everyone to come here if something happens. This jackass's son ran off with my daughter. Cost me face in front of the whole village. But if I settled it the normal way you'd haul me in for murder."
The other man glares. "Your daughter bewitched my son. Blame yourself for raising a witch!"
"My daughter was plenty meek before your son got ahold of her. Your family has always been trouble. Not a one of you ever goes to mosque, I've seen it!"
"We've lived here longer than you. Go back to Damascus, and take your harlot daughter with you."
"No Mahr. No one asked for my permission. And now her bridehead's gone. Worthless! You owe me your whole flock for what that cur cost me."
"Mahr is for her to use, not for you," says Darim, but is roundly ignored.
"And who taught her to give it up before a marriage contract was signed?"
"Steal from me and then insult me? Fuck the bitch who brought you to life!"
Under the shouting's current, Altair says, "They have been doing this for an hour."
Malik shrugs. "Of course they have. Honor's at stake."
"So let them kill each other! They'd have their honor back and I'd have some peace."
"If it were that simple they wouldn't be here. It's usually someone innocent who suffers when a blood feud gets started, you know that." Malik thinks for a moment, then raises his voice. "This is what you'll do," he says sternly. Instantly the bickering men fall silent. To the man whose son started the problem, he says, "You'll give him your—"
"I already tried it," says Altair. "Then they started arguing about how much livestock is worth a missing virgin daughter."
"I'm not finished. You've another son, yes? And you another daughter?" At the nods, Malik says, "Have them marry, assuming they're of age."
"They are," says the father of daughters, "but how does it help me to lose another girl to him?"
"He'll pay you for both marriages. You won't have lost anything."
The father of sons protests, "If I pay him for his first girl it'll look like I condone the marriage! Like I don't care that my son didn't bother to ask me first. They'll laugh me out of the village."
"You're not condoning anything. You're not paying for that marriage, you're paying quite a lot for the second, because it's such a good match. Or at least that's what you can tell people. You've admitted no wrongdoing, and you've gotten your brideprice." With a glance at Darim, Malik adds, "Though of course the Mahr will go to the daughter in question, unless she decides otherwise herself."
"Of course," both men mutter, but no one is fooled. Not all customs are easily changed, not even by assassins.
With the argument ended the two men are quick to leave, with wide-eyed salaams and not-so-stealthy glances at the various weapons the three assassins wear. Even Masyaf villagers, used to the Order, are made nervous in its depths. It couldn't have been any different under Al Mualim. Altair is a fair ruler, if not always kind, and the Old Man could be a black-clad terror.
Visions of the past remind Malik why he's come. "I need to talk to you," he tells Altair. "We've received word that Abbas is on his way back."
Altair sits back in his chair, reaching as he does so to pull the front of his cowl low over his eyes. Matched with the black cloak, the cowl is even more noticeably an affront than it used to be. But the Son of None will never give up its protection. Malik has long since stopped hoping otherwise.
"Let him come back," the Grandmaster says. "His banishment is rescinded. Let him return to being a superstitious fool at the gate."
"Some of the others are concerned. Rauf, Raed…"
"What threat is Abbas? Thirteen years have dulled whatever sway he had within the Order. He doesn't have the skills to defeat me directly, nor the courage to betray us outright. And he doesn't have it."
Malik frowns. "It?"
Altair meets his gaze, steady. "The Apple."
"You would never use that thing in battle. That was one of the first things we agreed on."
"I mean it, Altair! Bad enough you pry at its secrets like an opium addict haunting the docks. If you ever use it against someone else, anyone else, you can find another jester to play at second in command. I'd rather beg for coins in Acre than watch you turn yourself into a demon."
Altair murmurs, "You are so frightened of it. Even you. Its power is extraordinary."
"Which is why I fear it. Which is why you should as well! We don't know a damn thing about that Piece of Eden. How did Al Mualim learn of it? Why was it in Solomon's Temple? What is it? Such a thing should be impossible, yet here you are, offering it your strength year after year. Waiting for it to consume you."
"Why should it consume me? Why is it so hard for you to consider that I might be stronger than some wizard's forgotten toy?" Altair grins darkly, with no mirth. "You don't know what it offers the Order, Malik. You're too wary sometimes."
The argument is so well-worn the sentences themselves feel threadbare. Endlessly the Apple rises between them and nothing is ever resolved. Malik still wants to beat the other man senseless. How can the idiot be so blind?
On cue the pain returns, oft-visitor that it is, sharp and prickling through the discolored flesh. Malik winces and rubs at the stump through the sleeve. Fingers that don't exist tingle, a wrist he doesn't have burns ceaselessly. Altair notices, it's obvious from the way he stiffens up, but still the connection isn't made.
Oh, the idiot. They've fought this battle a thousand times, usually until they're both hoarse from shouting and someone has driven his fist through the nearest door, but Altair doesn't realize. "How do you know what the Apple can do?" he always asks, and never thinks to take Malik's grimace of pain as an answer.
(Not you, not you, not you. The King of Swords hears the voice in his sleep sometimes. An old song born on a chilly breeze.)
"You promised me you wouldn't use it in battle," he says. "If you break that promise—"
"I won't," Altair interrupts, and frowns at Malik's missing arm.
Then Darim says, "Excuse me, Uncle." Malik falters, having all but forgotten Altair's son was there. "Who is Abbas?"
"A coward," says Altair. "An assassin in nothing but name."
"Oh. Is he dangerous?"
"Well," Malik considers, though he'd given Raed the same answer an hour ago, "he has some skill. But his piety and his jealousy ruin his talent."
"Why was he exiled? You've never mentioned him before, Father."
"If he was important I would have mentioned him." Altair's tone turns brusque. "It's impossible to escape your questions. You should work your sword arm as much as you do your tongue." Darim scowls, but if Altair sees or cares he gives no sign. "Go, train in the courtyard. I'm done coddling villagers for the day, there's nothing else for you to watch here."
"But, Father, aren't you coming? You said you'd practice with me…"
"Go," says Altair again, sharper. "I'll come later."
Darim deepens his scowl. "Safety and peace, Uncle," he mutters, and stalks out of the room. Malik watches him go, recognizing the want in the boy, the longing of a son for his father.
Only Altair could be so clumsy with his own family.
"You're harsh with him."
"How else should I be? He's my first born. Every enemy I've ever made will want his head, even if he doesn't end up the Brotherhood leader."
"He's a fine fighter."
"He's a reckless one."
"Eager to prove himself to his father. Sounds familiar, actually."
"He knows what's important," Altair allows, with a sliver of pride. Malik busies his eyes on a different corner of the room, so he doesn't have to see the satisfied glow. The Son of None has two sons of his own. And a wife. A whole loyal Order at his command. His detractors silenced by his adept leadership. A second in command who is ever devoted, ever pliant, ever willing to pretend he knows how to forgive. Yes, the maligned orphan Altair has made himself a king's bounty in Masyaf.
Malik has an empty grave, and voices in his dreams.
"You'll be there when Abbas arrives," says Altair.
"We'll have to find him a suitable post. Perhaps by the stables. He can help shovel animal shit. It'd be the most useful thing he ever did."
"Careful," warns Malik, grinning. "You'll make him mad."
"The world would be meaningless without you there to call me novice, or him to call me infidel."
"Now that you mention it," Malik says slowly, weighing the words, "I ought to warn you. The few years before his banishment it wasn't—wasn't an issue—but I should say…"
Altair shifts on his chair. "What?"
"Abbas knew. He figured it out towards the end."
"Knew what?" Now Altair stands again, all agitated energy like the static charge before a storm, cracking his knuckles for the excuse to move his hands. Malik watches him flex his left wrist, the tip of his hidden blade popping in and out of its brace. The Dai hasn't worn one since he lost his arm and has never worn the real thing, but he remembers how its weight was a comfort, in some sick way.
"What did Abbas figure out?" Altair asks, though he doesn't need to be told. But he will make Malik say it, because he enjoys seeing Malik's discomfort.
Ah, but that is being uncharitable, or so the Dai supposes. He reasons now as he reasons always that the Son of None is simply most at ease in tense situations. It's what he's used to: the taunts before the carnage. So Malik gives in. Sometimes it seems he has spent a lifetime giving in. Altair is that vulnerable, though only one of them has the power of knowing it. Losing frightens him.
"Abbas," says Malik, "found out that we were-…"
He is distracted by a sudden commotion in the hall, raised voices and alarm. Then Raed shoves open the door. "There's been an attack," he says in a rush. "A few hours away. There are survivors here begging for aid."
All other conversation is forgotten as Altair is called into battle once again. He strides from the room, Malik at his right shoulder, Raed a step behind, already caressing the hilt of his sword. "Crusaders or Templars? Or slavers?" At a group of passing journeymen who start to see their Master and drop into messy bows, he barks, "Round up some guardsmen. I want patrols in the area increased." He marches on without waiting for acknowledgment, robes billowing. Raed hurries to keep up.
"The attackers wore the cross," he says, "so they weren't slavers. It's not a village we protect, though. It couldn't have put up much of a defense."
Malik says, "It must have been a Crusader patrol. What would Templars have to gain from attacking a farming village?"
Raed looks confused. The difference between Crusader soldier and Templar Knight isn't easy for all assassins to grasp. Especially when most of the Order knows only what rumor's told them of the Pieces of Eden. Templars are the enemy and they dress as Christian soldiers: that is what the Brotherhood understands. At least, that is what they understood before Al Mualim bewitched Masyaf.
"We haven't had trouble with Crusaders for months," Raed says. "They're leaving, the Templars aren't."
"Templars don't usually sack villages for the sake of bloodlust. They have loftier goals. Richard's army was huge and disconnected. We'll be mopping up his dirt long after he's back in England."
They've reached a side door. Altair shoves it open and steps out into the piercing daylight. "How many survivors?"
"Three. All men."
"And the others?"
Raed hesitates. "Still there."
They are back in the front courtyard. The stables are down at the bottom of the village, and Malik wonders if Altair means to run the whole way, but instead the Grandmaster stops short and whistles hard. "Two horses," he orders of the first man to answer his call. "I want them saddled and waiting for me at the front gate. And I want another dozen men already riding by the time I get there."
If forced to at the point of torture, Malik might admit he's mildly impressed.
Altair asks for the village's location and then tells Raed to stay behind. "With the survivors. Don't let them panic in the middle of Masyaf."
In the flurry of activity Malik half-forgets that villages being attacked isn't nearly so common under Altair's rule as it was under Al Mualim's. The horses are saddled just past the village walls; the stablemaster hesitates when he sees the Dai, and minces forward with unease all over his face. Malik saves him humiliation and also a bruise or two by mounting his horse before the man can offer to help.
Altair certainly doesn't offer, only watches as Malik grips the front of the saddle with his hand, works his left foot into the stirrup and swings his right leg over. It'd be easier with a mounting block, but he'll sprain his leg pushing upwards before he asks for one. There's a moment where he sways a little to the side (center of balance off again, damn it, how many years until he is used to this?) but in the end he is strong enough to pull himself upright. The horse whickers as he settles himself. Altair looks bizarrely pleased.
Then the two of them are riding hard, as they used to do so often, leaving passerby to scurry aside or else be trampled, shouting to be heard over the wind. Perhaps the best aspect of Altair's rule is that he never hesitates to join his men. No king rotting behind thick walls is this Grandmaster. He would disband the Order and fight everyone himself if he could.
"I offered all the villages from here to Damascus protection! They should have accepted. Three trained assassins would have been enough to stop a bunch of drunken soldiers."
"You can't force people, Altair. The war is ending and some of these towns are so remote. Probably the first suspicious person they'd ever seen was you."
Altair raises his head to glower, face framed by his cowl. "They should have listened."
"They couldn't have known."
"You are always so reasonable." He spits it like a curse but only to hide a grudging respect. Malik shakes his head.
"Not always," he says. "Not with you."
Altair's face darkens, but Malik doesn't care. He leans over his horse and spurs the beast on.
It is, as feared, a massacre.
What had been a busy, if small, village is now a jumble of smoking rubble and bloated bodies. Vultures circle overhead, scared off by the assassins, waiting for chances to land. The livestock has all been scattered or stolen and many of the trees are broken-limbed. The high grasses of the valley are trampled flat.
Assassins pick through the wreckage in uneasy silence. Upon Altair and Malik's arrival a journeyman comes forward with the report: no survivors. Altair points his horse down the main road and trots slowly through, but Malik, feeling useless at the sight of another village lost to fear and frenzy, decides to dismount. Getting off the horse is easier than getting on, and with other assassins watching he makes sure not to slip.
Nestled between a pair of blackened trees is a cottage still half-standing. The back has fallen into itself and the roof's thatch is ablaze, but the front end is intact. "Get some water from the river before it spreads," he tells the journeyman, and the assassin goes to do so, but with no sense of urgency. There's nothing left here to save.
Malik walks towards the burning cottage, as good a destination as any other. He keeps one eye on it and one on the ground, stepping carefully around the corpses. Old men, women in thick shawls, even a shepherd's dog with its throat cut. No soldiers here. The bodies lie sprawled in doorways, or in pieces amongst the smoldering detritus, limbs jutting out at vicious angles with claw marks from the buzzards. There are hoof prints in the dirt, signs of people having been run down.
"The war is ending," he says to himself, almost idly. "What was the point?"
He can imagine the chaos. Soldiers drunk and bitter, lied to and forgotten by their kings and priests, leaving their Holy Land in the hands of the enemy. Oh, yes, Malik can imagine the chaos such men could have caused. Here the man beheaded, and here the child trampled, and here—and here—
Malik turns on his heel in a frenzy. He has seen many villages overrun. He has seen battlefields, from a distance and up close, during and after. The stench of rotting flesh, the feel of grease on his lips. He's found lost Crusader men, separated from their regiments, wandered off their trails, dead of thirst in the desert. Skeletal creatures parched to the bone, no fluid left, not even in the eye sockets. Death isn't a shock for Malik. It is an indignity.
More bodies to his left. More buzzards, and they don't lift off when he walks past. He feels their black, beady eyes following him with a full scavenger's sated curiosity. "How many survivors reached Al Masyaf?" he asks the air, and remembers that Raed had said three.
And the others? Perhaps one or two more, out in the wastes, lost and scared? Malik can't see the horizon through the smoke on the air. It pulls tricks on him, gusting into shapes he can almost recognize.
He is almost at the cottage now, lost in his dark thoughts, his robes feeling heavy with the heat from the fire. In the background is Altair, ordering assassins to organize a search for the Crusaders. Malik lifts his eyes to the sight of his Grandmaster (his, presumption that it is) sitting majestic on his mount. Altair the humbled, Altair the redeemed.
Look at all he has been given. Soon Darim will be old enough to ride out with his father on such missions, to attend meetings in Altair's place. Malik has already been asked to give the boy lessons on proper decorum for such a role, and his younger brother Sef afterwards. Altair is planning for the future.
Malik, angry now, buries his nose in his sleeve to ward off the creeping smoke. Altair the insatiable! This is not a world that makes allowances, for anyone. But the man demands so much. The man is given so much, by Malik most of all. Malik, who stands staring into the fire as if from it he will find two small boys, scurrying from the ash.
(But where is the younger brother? Lost in the desert, where Malik has left him for good.)
Altair calls, "Malik, come over here," but he pretends he hasn't heard. He'd much prefer to watch the flames, because in the shadows he sees Kadar. He can even hear him crying out…
Malik jolts to awareness. It's a woman's crying he's hearing, high-pitched and half-smothered, from somewhere within the cottage. Instinct propels him to shrug out of his Dai's robes, leaving him only in white for the first time in many years. Lightness settles on his limbs, a luring freedom. The journeyman comes up behind him with a bucket of water, says, "The Master is asking for you, Lord," but Malik whirls on him and yanks the bucket from his hands.
"You said there were no survivors," he snaps.
The journeyman looks with bewilderment at the black robe puddled on the ground. "Lord, why are you…?" Then Malik splashes the water not over the cottage but over himself, drenching himself fully, robes gone almost transparent across his chest. "Wait," gasps the other assassin as he drops the bucket and darts forward, "Wait, Dai Malik! The roof is going to cave in!"
It's true, it is, and the fire is a wall of heat that plucks the air from his lungs. But the front of the hut is still standing, and the woman must be there if she still lives. Her wail pushes him inside, and he blocks his face with his arm for protection. The journeyman yells his name again, and then all outside sounds are lost to the crackle of flame.
Malik pulls his cowl up and takes a shallow breath, careful with each crunching step not to nudge a fresh ember. Burning bundles of thatch tumble down around him, searing his shoulders, but the walls haven't yet caught, and besides a fallen beam the front room is largely intact. Not for long, but this reprieve is enough. He squints in the murk, unwilling to gulp down a lungful of smoke by opening his mouth to call out. With eyes near useless in the haze he trusts his ears to lead.
The crying is coming from beyond the beam, which has cut the room neatly in two and is burning swiftly. It will spark the walls soon. One end is wedged against the wall, forming a fiery arch Malik starts to duck under, to get a burst of sparks in his face as a reward.
With a snarl that ends in a cough he yanks out his broadsword and swings it down in a blunt chop, using it more like an axe to cut through the beam. The heat against his hand stings something hellish but the wood is soft with ash by now, and crumbles at the blow. Malik takes a wide step over, coughing again, or hacking really, with a sharp pinch deep in his chest.
He scans what he can see of the little room left and catches sight of her, huddled in the corner. She's wrapped the trailing edge of her green khimar not over her face but across her drawn-up knees, and Malik feels an Altair-like flash of irritation at the stupidity of panicked people. She sees him and stops mid-cry, face shiny with sweat, green eyes bright with fear. He cuts through the narrow space to kneel at her side, puts his hand on her shoulder to pull her up, dropping his sword at his feet to do so.
She jerks herself out of his grasp with a grunt that sounds torn from the depths of her thin frame, keeping one shoulder turned and raised in modest defense. The movement is what draws Malik's attention to the blood: the khimar is stained brown where it clings to her neck and the top of her chest. When she gasps a fresh red spurt blossoms against the cloth. She turns her body away when Malik tries to look closer, and with a wince he lets her.
The rattle in her breathing and the whiteness of her lips tells him there's nothing he can do.
But to burn alive is a worse fate than this woman deserves. "Let me take you from here," he says to her. She looks over her raised shoulder at him, wildly, with her cheeks flushed red.
"You," she says. Her voice is rough with smoke and older than her face. "Ahh, ahhss."
"Yes, I'm an assassin. I'm sorry, we weren't here to save this place. Come, Sayyideti, there isn't time. Choose an easier death than this."
"You. You, yes. Take." But when Malik pulls at her shoulder she struggles a second time. "No," she says, panting with the effort of speaking, and he thinks she's lost her mind from lack of air. Then she lowers her shoulder and turns to face him fully. With short, pained movements she draws her khimar up, off her knees.
"What are you," says Malik, and then he sees, and is struck silent. Nestled against her stomach, whining now that the nebulous safety of the scarf has been pulled aside and the smoke allowed in, is a child maybe three months old. His dying mother cradles him awkwardly, looking from him to Malik and back. Altair would envy her the fierceness in her eyes.
"You," she says again. "Take."
Malik leans over them both. The child is whining louder now, using lungs that sound healthy. His face and waving hands are plump. He's wearing a little tunic-shirt that, if frayed at the edges, is spotlessly clean.
"Take," insists the woman. She doesn't have the strength to hold her child out to him, but she twitches her shoulders impatiently. "Ass'in," she says, lowering her gaze to the sword on the ground, the knives tucked into his belt. "You can, nnh…keep him safe."
"I understand. Yes." Malik nods, his voice soft. "Your son can be raised within the Brotherhood. He'll want for nothing there, I promise you—"
But she isn't satisfied. "No," she says, shaking her head with surprising force. Malik coughs again, impatient for his own sake as much as hers. "No orphan. Please. You take him. Raised by…an ass'in. Always be safe."
For a brief, blissful second it doesn't make sense and he thinks pain has cost the woman her senses. Then he realizes, and almost loses his balance in lurching horror. The infant screws up his face, threatening to scream.
"No," Malik tells her, louder than he'd meant to, "No, I can't. I'm sorry. It isn't possible. We have many orphans who've never known anything but the Brotherhood. He won't be alone, he'll be fed and clothed and educated with all the rest. He…"
"Assassin," says the woman clearly, as if it were his name. "My son…is not an orphan."
"Where is his father?" She shakes her head. "His uncles? Cousins? Older siblings? Is there none of his family left?" Malik demands with growing anxiety. Again and again she shakes her head. "I cannot raise your son myself. If you want me to find a family to place him with—"
"No! You are an assassin. And you came."
"So did other assassins, I didn't come alone."
"Came here." She says firmly, "Caring. And brave." Malik wants to scream.
"Tell me where your parents are, where your husband's parents are. Or an uncle, a friend…Sayyideti, there must be someone else." But she won't answer.
Rationally he can understand her fear of leaving behind an orphaned child, even a son. Cast him off on some overburdened uncle's household, or worse, the household of a stranger, and her son will never be welcomed. They might raise him resentfully, raise him as little more than an indentured servant; they might sell him as a slave or throw him into a city orphanage, to be met with abuse and eventual military conscription. They might raise him with compassion, and still he might starve or be murdered by bandits or left dead of cholera before the age of two. Where people are poor, bloodlines are everything. An orphan is an unwanted mouth.
But Malik cannot give the woman what she wants. He is not a father.
"Please," says the woman, and now she really is having trouble with the smoke. The conflagration is creeping closer, rising higher. The roof creaks in warning. "Safe with you. He will be good."
"There are other assassins, assassins who have time for children."
"Just because I was closest!" Lie to her, Malik orders himself, lie to her and leave or else you'll die at her side. But he can't. She is dying, and she is desperate, and it's her family she wants to save.
And Malik is an orphan. Even at ten he knew that survival was too great an effort without somebody there to call him by name.
"I can't," he whispers. "Don't ask me to promise this."
"Strong ass'in. A good father." With terrible kindness she strokes the child's face, but her eyes stay on his, entreating.
Malik shouts, "How can you assume that?" and jabs his hand at his left side's folded sleeve. "I can't protect him. I'll fail again. Altair is the one who takes and takes. Everything I have is lost."
(Altair with his children and lonely Malik with his tiny room, would it be so bad? To try again? The hope and fear, the assurances, would it be so bad a second time?)
The woman softens, with a sigh that takes her burdens away. She slumps low against the wall and Malik thinks she's died and left their fight unfinished, but suddenly she rallies, grabbing for his arm, the baby still nestled in her lap. "Tah," she says with fresh urgency, "Taahh…"
Feeling separate from it all (from his body, his history, the wants he'd ignored so well he'd never known they were there) Malik pulls her closer, to let her hiss against his ear. He is reeling too fast to do otherwise. "Tahhh," she tries. He holds her upright and looks at the child, numb.
Kadar. Will you forgive me?
Finally, with a last gush of vigor and blood, the woman whispers. Malik listens, nods, says nothing. There isn't a point. Her eyes hover half-closed and she's dead before he's moved away. Gently he separates the now-squalling infant from her lap, using the whole of his arm to support the tiny body, holding it close to his chest. How long it's been since child Malik held his newborn brother with both hands!
Malik rises to his feet, seeing his sword but having no way to pick it up, unless he was to drop the infant into the inferno. Already the sacrifices start. It surprises him how easy they are to make for a child that isn't of his blood. He steps past the beam, through the sweltering heat, lungs demanding oxygen that isn't there, mind graying at the edges. Damn fire and war, damn the heat of the sun. Malik trudges on, hoping the squalling baby won't move too much because he won't be able to catch him, trusting that the door is near.
What looks like a sheet of dancing fire, solid heat and light, swallows the way out. Malik coughs, and then can't stop coughing. The baby's crying is shriller now, thin and strained and leeched with terror. Malik holds the small face against his chest to protect it and buries his own face into the cowl, and then, because he has faced down pain before, because he so loathes fire, the King of Swords jumps through.
All ablaze, embers popping in his ears, his exposed hand singed and he is rife with silent cursing—
And then the whole sweet, clear world is around him, and the fire is behind.
Malik lands hard on his knees, careful to mind the infant, and coughs so hard he nearly retches. He spits, bringing it up from the pits of his lungs, and it comes out soot-dark and solid. His throat feels flayed open and his hand stings; he has no doubt it will soon blister. He and the child are both filthy and stink of smoke. There are burn marks on his clothing, as well ass telltale patches on his legs and face that pulse with pain.
But there are also alarmed assassins crowding round so he forces himself back to his aching feet. A laugh bubbles behind his lips, but Malik is generally a serious sort, and recognizes hysteria when he feels it. So he only thins his lips, and gathers back his breath.
Someone very close behind him bellows his name and turns him on his feet. Malik blinks at Altair, who is livid enough to smack him across the face, not hard. Malik allows this, because, well. He recognizes hysteria.
His mind is still a little hazy, and the contact between them so rare…he forgets for a moment that there's a crowd as he tilts his face and smiles into Altair's palm. The startled Grandmaster allows it for a second before drawing back. By then Malik's recovered himself.
"Do that again," he says quite cheerfully, "and I shall put acid in your drinking water."
"You are not the one who should be making threats right now." Altair is too flustered to notice the baby. "What the devil were you thinking, going in there? What if the roof had collapsed?"
"To borrow from your logic, it hasn't yet."
"The second most powerful man in the entire Brotherhood, and you play at suicide."
"The most powerful man in the Brotherhood, and your voice could shatter glass. Stop shrieking."
"I am not shrieking!"
The baby, however, stunned into momentary silence, decides the situation calls for someone to shriek. So he does. The journeymen take a step back as one mass. Malik rolls his eyes.
Altair needs another second. "If I had been the one to do that you would have yelled me into my grave. If I am the Master here you ought listen to my, to my…"
"Is that a baby?"
Malik adjusts his grip on the child. God, he's so small. Kadar was a fussy baby, and when he cried only incessant rocking would calm him. Malik sways back and forth, listening to the infant sniffle.
"Malik." Altair is frowning now. "You found it inside the hut?"
"Yes. His mother was calling."
"We were told there were no survivors." Altair turns his frown on the other assassins, who suddenly all have things to do on the other end of the village. The crowd is gone quickly, which Malik half-suspects was the point. "Where is the mother?"
"Dead. She was badly hurt."
"Any surviving family?"
Malik shakes his head, wincing as his hand stings. He says carefully, "Altair, I want to take him with us. To raise him."
Altair hesitates only a moment. "It would make sense. I'll have someone find a space for him in the novices' quarters when he's older—"
"That's not what I meant." Malik pauses too, testing the words, testing the drop. Another step and he will fall. But how far is the plunge this time? "I want to raise him," he says, and there is freedom in knowing there is no longer a choice. "On my own. As my son."
Altair is staring. Their eyes lock. For a minute no one speaks.
"You wanted a child?" asks the older man at last. "You never told me that."
"Is it so strange? Look at your household."
"I didn't say it was strange." He sounds sullen now, no mistake. "I said you never told me."
"It wasn't something I thought of very often. But I…to have someone to care for…"
"Ah, I see. And you haven't had that already."
Malik sharpens his voice, though his throat feels shredded from the inside. "Altair, enough. No more of that here."
"Someone to care for. Of course. A thirteen year drought is a long one." He mutters, "Your forgiveness is a mirage."
"He is a child, you brainless novice. I'm telling you I've wanted a son, someone to raise. Or are you the only man allowed to pass on his name?"
"I never said that."
"And if we are discussing who has cared for whom lately, O Grandmaster, may I remind you of your wife."
"I thought we weren't having the argument here. But if we were I'd say that you gave me your blessing to marry."
"Because I never wanted to be your wife!" Malik says it too loudly and the baby whimpers. Quickly he tempers his voice. "You're right, though, we aren't fighting over that now. I've decided to raise this child as my own. I gave you my blessing once. I'd like yours now. But either way he'll carry my name."
Altair picks at the scar on his lip. He's silent for so long Malik is about to walk away in disgust. Then he scowls at his boots and says, "If you want my blessing you have it."
The Dai dips his head. "…Thank you."
"But are you sure? That baby is an orphan, Malik, not of your bloodline."
"I've never thought that mattered much."
"Nor have I, but…"
"He is an abandoned orphan, yes. And that is more important than bloodlines."
"You were orphaned young. You survived. It didn't hurt either of us to be raised in the Order, without parents."
"That's arguable, my friend. And it's not what I want for him. You had Al Mualim, at least, and I had my brother. This little one needs someone too. And I did promise."
Altair turns his head at the mention of the dead. "If you're sure, then I'll recognize him as your son. But you're giving him a heavy title. It isn't a safe life."
"Yes," says Malik. "I…" It drains him to admit it, but he must. "I'm afraid of that. I could let it all be ruined."
Often Malik A-Sayf looks at his supposedly healed relationship with Altair, the bickering and innuendo and half-intentional insults, the damage they cause each other simply by being in the same room, and wonders why he bothers. Why either of them bother. Who is Altair Ibn La'Ahad that he should be worth such grief? Just a man whose abilities border on godlike, but whose understanding of humanity is equally removed. Half the time they make each other miserable. What is any of this worth?
And then Altair looks at him as he does now, with hesitant warmth as though ashamed of his own kindness, and offers him courage.
"You, afraid? You are the strongest man I know. What do you have to be afraid of? If you say you'll raise that baby then I look forward to watching him slashing people with words as his father does. It'll be amusing."
"I live to amuse you."
"You'll need to find a wet nurse, obviously. There's bound to be someone in Masyaf. And I'm moving your room as far away from mine as possible. I'm sure he'll cry all night long with you as a father."
"Says the man who was scared to hold his own sons when they were born."
"I wasn't. Who told you I was?"
"A good assassin never admits his sources, novice."
"You are a demon, not an assassin. Stop calling me novice."
"Stop acting like one and I will." Malik takes a breath. "I am sorry," he says.
Instantly Altair is on guard. "For what?" he asks, suspicious.
"That you think my forgiveness is a mirage." He smiles faintly at the baby, who's lying watchful in his arm. "Perhaps it has been, sometimes. But that was never my intent."
A muscle pulses in Altair's jaw. He starts to say something but freezes, eyes darting towards some specter at his shoulder. He is more and more distracted lately, and Malik considers pointing it out. Altair's hard whistle cuts him off. A horse comes trotting along, and Altair pulls himself upon its back before it's come to a full stop. Only when the man is sitting high above Malik does he square his shoulders, the stern lord in full command. "Be quiet," he orders. "Never apologize to me again."
Malik raises an eyebrow. "As you wish."
"Here, before you ride off, hold him for a moment so I can get on my own horse." Altair looks askance at him. Malik clucks his tongue. "It's a baby, Altair, not a rabid dog." He holds the child up, until the other man has no choice but to take him.
"…He's calm," the Grandmaster allows after a long, doubtful look. The infant looks back at him, fretful but quiet under his shock of black hair. "Most children would be in hysterics."
Malik muses, "The Son of None holding a baby. The world should end soon." He moves away, but stops when Altair calls his name.
"What is his name, then? What will you call him?"
Malik glances over his shoulder at the two of them, shrouded in the smoke from the still-burning cottage. The roof has fallen in, finally, but the rubble will smolder for hours yet. And no one will return to clean away the debris.
But at least a name can be saved.
"Tazim," he says. "Tazim Ibn Malik." Then he leaves his son in Altair's arms and goes to find his horse.