Assassin's Creed: The Secret Crusade Page 27

‘What do you mean?’

‘Each man I’ve slain has said strange words to me. They are without regret. Even in death, they seem confident of their success. Though they do not admit it directly, there is a tie that binds them. I am sure of it.’

Al Mualim regarded him carefully. ‘There is a difference, Altaïr, between what we are told to be true and what we see to be true. Most men do not bother to make the distinction. It is simpler that way. But as an Assassin, it is your nature to notice. To question.’

‘Then what is it that connects these men?’ pressed Altaïr. The Master had the answers, he was sure of it. All of them.

‘Ah. But as an Assassin it is also your duty to still these thoughts and trust in your master. For there can be no true peace without order. And order requires authority.’

Altaïr could not keep the exasperation from his voice. ‘You speak in circles, Master. You commend me for being aware and then ask me not to be. Which is it?’

‘The question will be answered when you no longer need to ask it,’ responded Al Mualim, mysteriously.

Altaïr could see he was getting nowhere. ‘I assume you called me here for more than a lecture,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ said Al Mualim, and directed him to Damascus once more. The one they called Abu’l Nuqoud. He was to be the next to die. First, though, there was the impertinent Bureau leader to negotiate …

‘Altaïr, my friend. Welcome. Welcome. Whose life do you come to collect today?’

Altaïr frowned to see the Damascus Bureau leader, insolent as ever, but not enough so to warrant his fury. It was quite a talent the man had for judging it so well. Perhaps if he had been able to put his skills to better use, he wouldn’t be spending his days behind a desk in the Bureau. One day Altaïr might remind him of that fact. In the meantime, he had work to do. A new target.

‘His name is Abu’l Nuqoud,’ he said. ‘What can you tell me about him?’

‘Oh, the Merchant King of Damascus,’ exclaimed the leader, visibly impressed. ‘Richest man in the city. Quite exciting. Quite dangerous. I envy you, Altaïr. Well … not the bit where you were beaten and stripped of your rank … But I envy everything else. Oh … except for the terrible things the other Assassins say about you. But, yes, aside from the failure and the hatred – yes, aside from those things – I envy you very much …’

Altaïr imagined how his neck would look with a blade sticking from it. ‘I do not care what the others think or say,’ he said. ‘I am here to do a job. So I ask again: what can you tell me about the Merchant King?’

‘Only that he must be a very bad man if Al Mualim has sent you to see him. He keeps to his own kind, wrapped in the finery of this city’s noble district. A busy man – always up to something. I’m sure if you spend some time among his type you’ll learn all you need to know about him.’

Which was exactly what Altaïr did, going to the Omayyad Mosque and Souk Sarouja, as well as Salah Al’din’s citadel, where he learned that Abu’l Nuqoud was hated by the local populace, that he was corrupt and had been embezzling public money, much of which had been diverted to Jerusalem in payments to William de Montferrat. (Altaïr smiled grimly about that.)

Passing the Madrasah al-Kallasah he came upon scholars talking, and hoped he might hear something of Abu’l Nuqoud. They weren’t talking about him but Altaïr hung about anyway, perplexed by their speeches.

‘Citizens. Bring forth your writings,’ the first was saying. ‘Place them in the pile before me. To keep any is a sin. Know and embrace the truth of my words. Free yourselves from the lies and corruption of the past.’

Although he’d been about to move on, Altaïr continued to linger. There was something about that. Free yourselves from the lies and corruption of the past. Could it have something to do with the ‘new order’ he kept hearing about?

Another scholar was talking now: ‘If you truly value peace – if you truly wish to see an end to war – give up your books, your scrolls, your manuscripts, for they feed the flames of ignorance and hate.’

Altaïr had heard enough – and he didn’t like what he had heard. Give up your books. Why?

He put it out of his mind, however, continuing to learn about the Merchant King. Nuqoud rarely left his chambers, he heard. However, he would that very evening to attend a party he was hosting – held, many said, merely to rub his personal wealth in the noses of the citizenry. He had even ordered wine – in contravention of his faith – for the event. If it was to be anything like his previous parties then that was when Altaïr would strike. He had heard of a scaffold left outside the balcony of Abu’l Nuqoud’s quarters. It was, he decided, a perfect time to go to a party.


The festivities were already in full swing as Altaïr made his way around the palace courtyard, feeling conspicuous in his robes. They seemed dirty and shabby compared to the outfits of the guests. Most wore finery, their robes intricately embroidered with expensive threads, and unlike the majority of Damascus residents, they looked healthy and well fed, talking loudly over the music, laughing even more loudly. Certainly there was no shortage of refreshments. Servants moved through the guests offering bread, olives and delicacies on golden trays.

Altaïr looked around. The dancers were the only women present: six or seven of them, gyrating slowly to the sounds of al’ud and rebec played by musicians stationed below a grand balcony. The Assassin’s gaze travelled up to where a guard stood with his arms folded, looking out dispassionately over the frivolities. This was Abu’l’s perch, decided Altaïr. Indeed, as he watched, the tempo of the music seemed to increase, the al’ud all but drowned by heavy drumming that began to excite the partygoers, a sense of anticipation building. The dancing girls were forced into faster movements and were glistening with perspiration below their sheer silk outfits as around them guests raised their hands, cheering the drums on to a crescendo that built and built until the very air seemed to vibrate – and suddenly he was there above them: Abu’l Nuqoud.

Altaïr had overheard lurid descriptions of the man’s appearance. Of his corpulence – he was as big as three normal men, they said – the shiny trinkets he always wore, his gaudy robes and bejewelled turban, most of which Altaïr had dismissed as the exaggerations of a resentful populace. But he was agog to discover that the gossip had understated the man. His girth, jewellery and robes were bigger and more garish than anything Altaïr could have imagined. He watched as Nuqoud stood, continuing to chew whatever meal he had been enjoying, grease glistening around his mouth. And as he strode the length of the balcony gazing down on his guests, the skin below his chin undulating as he finished his food, his robe fell open to expose his bare chest, a huge expanse of flesh glistening with sweat.

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