The sun had shifted and was leaving the sky again, the happiest time of day for me. And I decided it was time to bid it farewell. I stood up from the cushions, testing my leg to see how it would cope with my weight, as I had been hobbling around on just my good leg, putting as little force on my injured one as I could. Surprisingly, I found I could stand well without any immediate trouble.
The wall, however, could pose a slight problem. I stared up at it, feeling the imposing glare it cast down upon me. Or maybe that was the one coming from the library, where I was sure Malik had a clear view of what was to transpire. No matter. I had climbed buildings no different than this one. Just not…..with an injured leg.
I climbed up onto the fountain, choosing my footholds carefully. One small slip and my leg could end up in worse shape than before. I gripped the first ledge with all my strength, praying silently to Allah before hoisting myself up.
And that was when I really found out the condition my leg was still in. White, hot stings of agony shot up my spine, almost blinding me. My grip was gone and then I was careening back to the floor in a heap. My hands went to my leg without thought, clutching it to make the pain go away.
Little by little, it ebbed and seeped into darkness and I sat there, thanking my lucky stars that I had not been injured in the fall, nor had I been climbing a taller building. I could have easily been dead.
I glowered. How can a damn wall, of all things, push me down? A wall does not do anything. It is just there. I could not let a wall defeat me. Me, who had climbed rooftops my whole life. If one armed Malik could defeat six men, then I believe I could manage this with a bad leg.
The feeling of being watched became more noticeable and I knew Malik was probably enjoying this. My cheeks flushed. Something about having Malik watching my failures made me embarrassed. I felt the need to impress him. But how could I? He was an Assassin, for crying out loud! He had seen it all. Besides, he was most likely going to lecture me on how not to explore all the possible ways to reinjure myself.
But the need for redemption was too strong now. I was going to prove to both him and myself that I was not a weakling.
I pulled myself up again, ignoring the spotlight I felt was cast upon me and positioned myself on the fountain. All it would take were two to three great leaps and I would be free.
The crushing pain washed over me again as soon as all that weight was put on my leg, threatening to drown me. I growled, pushing it away, refusing to fall and humiliate myself again.
Lunging up off my good leg helped and soon I was almost at the top. I groped for the ledge, almost within reach. And then my bad leg slipped and I felt my stomach drop as I awaited the oncoming plummet. But my grip held.
Again, I reached for the ledge, my muscles straining to the point I was seeing white, my vision blurring and focused on the sky. I would be that much closer if I could just climb this damn mountain of a wall. My adrenaline drove through my veins, giving me the energy to do one last push. The distress of my leg made my stomach clench and I bared my teeth.
‘I mustn’t fail now.’ I could only hope I had not ripped my wound open as I grunted and practically threw myself onto the ledge, rolling ungracefully into the most beautiful sunset I had seen in ages.
Golden rays congratulated me on my strenuous, but remarkable climb. The sun’s painful goodbye stained the clouds a blood red that ran into the purple night sky. The stars were already twinkling brightly, as if overjoyed to see me after so long. I laughed through my labored breathing, in shock that I had managed to accomplish this small feat. My leg might have hell to pay for it later, but for the moment, the pride and the sunset were worth it.
I sat up, hugging my knees, still panting from the effort when I looked to my left to find Malik staring down at me. I was, to say the least, quite disconcerted. His charcoal eyes surveyed me with a fascinated gleam.
“I’m surprised to find that you have not left by now, young one.”
“How—how did you find me?” I stammered, still off guard to have him appear out of nowhere like that. In regards to my question, he offered a chuckle and said,
“You are not hard to track, especially with the racket you were making.” He looked at me, smiling softly. “You are not the only master at eavesdropping.”
He sat down with a sigh, remarking quietly, “Had you been wearing robes and not been so clumsy, I might have mistaken you for an Assassin.”
My climbing skills, despite my ruined leg, must’ve been pretty good, if Malik were to mistake me for one of them. I was flattered, but still vaguely upset. “Well, I am not so. You would not want me around anyway.” I said bitterly, remembering our past argument.
“You’re right. Though you have the skill to be one, you are not an Assassin. And I cannot share our secrets with you.” He looked away, with what seemed like regret lacing his features. “I may’ve already made the error of letting you reside here.”
The fears from earlier began to trickle into my system again, which I tried hard to disguise.
“Very well,” I spoke matter-of-factly, keeping my voice level, “So are you going to make me leave? Or would killing me make this whole affair easier?” I meant for the comment to come out sarcastically, but the fear refused to be contained.
Malik caught my uncertain tone, chuckling to himself. “I’d rather not have to kill you, but it is up to the Master if Altaïr mentions it. Unless of course, you drive me so insane I have to kick you out of my own accord.”
I knew he was playing with me and I wished it did away with the unease that I may be trapped here for the rest of my days. I went along with his teasing.
“Well, at the rate I am going, I may not be around very long.”
This made him smirk. “In that, we agree.” He then cast a concerned glance down at my lower extremities. “I hope your leg has not been reinjured.”
It surprised me to find that my leg no longer hurt as much as before. I only felt weak and tired from the climb. “I think I am okay. It does not hurt anymore.”
Malik smiled, and I felt a sliver of joy. It exhilarated me to think I may be able to run again soon.
“We will see how you are in the morning.”
I could not stop the happiness from sprouting in me when I thought about being able to be free again. I missed being able to fly.
However, when I looked over at Malik, I realized I did not miss the loneliness and everything else that came with being uprooted.
I lay down on my back, the roof still warm from the day’s heat, looking up toward my only escape. The sun had made its exit and the stars blinked down at me innocently, the eyes of a child. And yet that innocence held thousands of years of wisdom, and millions of secrets that we may or may not ever know. Things that we cannot know until we were gone from this world. So vast and endless, so much more than us and all we think we have.
“Have you ever wondered what is out there?” I inquired absentmindedly.
Malik looked over at me, raising an eyebrow, not quite catching on to just where I meant. “Where?”
In response, I gestured up to the array of stars blanketing the night sky. “Up there, beyond the stars.”
Malik did not share the same dazed, almost dreamy interest. “I never have the time to look up from my desk anymore, let alone to come out here and stare at the sky.”
I think it took all the restraint he had not to scoff at my childishness, but I guess maybe he did not understand that other than running around looking for food or sitting and starving to death, staring up at the stars was the only thing to save me from boredom.
“I guess I have had too much free time…” I said so without much emotion. He stared at me, as if my rootless existence was some hidden secret that had been kept from him.
“Why are you homeless?” He demanded, “Do you not have family anywhere?”
That was a question that was almost, well never, asked of me. It took me a minute to answer as I struggled to recall memories that I had not revisited in years. Memories I barely had, ones I could barely call my own. Ones you could barely even call memories.
“I never knew my mother,” This was only a guess, as the face of what could have been my mother popped up in my head, yet was not associated with the word ‘mother.’ She was a guardian..
And then there was a man’s face, strikingly similar to mine. “My father raised me until I was six, I believe,” Then there was a fleeting image of my father, his back turned to me as I was hand in hand with the lady who I assumed was the face of my guardian.
“He went away. I know not the reason, only that he left me in the care of an older woman until she died when I was about ten.” I recalled holding her frail hand as she left this world, but there was not that much emotion as she passed. I did not remember caring for her as I was never around her that often.
“And you miss her?” Malik assumed.
I shrugged, unsure if I did or not. “No, not really. I was running around outside on the roofs far more than I ever was with her. Allah knows what has become of my father. Dead, most likely. I do not have much to miss, I suppose. ” Those were the only glimpses into the past that I had, brief as they were, before my life on the streets. For at least nine years, if not more, I had been alone, with only the stars and the birds for company. The only things that did not avoid me at all costs as if I were a nasty disease, or push me around, or try to kill me… Sometimes I wondered why I wanted to keep living in this world.
Malik held the same sorrow. “I am sorry, young one.” His eyes were sympathetic.
“There’s no need to apologize. I do not have much to miss. No love lost.” I shrugged.
“No one deserves to lead a life such as yours. I would not wish it upon my worst enemy. Although….my worst enemy may have already been dealt that life.”
“Who is your worst enemy? If I may be so bold…” My intuition flickered as I suspected I already knew the answer.
Malik motioned angrily, “I have about ninety-nine problems and that man who came in earlier, Altaïr? He is about ninety of those problems.”
Yes, my intuition was correct.
“I get the impression you two hate each other.” I watched him roll his eyes.
“You are under the right impression.”
My curiosity got the best of me. “What went down between you two?”
Malik pondered for a minute before finally answering, “I guess one could call it a falling out.” He looked over at me, the starlight illuminating a sad smile. A prick of my own melancholy reawakened in my heart.
“I will not ask what happened as you will probably not tell me anyway.” I watched him look away, still smiling but refusing to meet my gaze.
“You are correct in that assumption.”
My interest was not satisfied, not by a long shot. I wished to know more. I sat up slowly, eyeing Malik. “Though it seems only fair that I get to know a portion of your life as I confided in you some of mine.” I murmured, trying to give him a hint that I still wanted to find out something. I peeked up through my lashes at him only to discover that he was shaking his head.
“No, you confided your whole life to me,” he corrected, “I am not ready to entrust you with my life story.” His expression was stone, unwilling to give. My stomach dropped in protest.
“Not even a part of it? That is not what I call a fair trade.” I folded my arms across my chest. But Malik had already made up his mind.
“You will find out in time, young one.” I looked away towards the last streaks of red dissipating into darkness. Good. The sooner that was gone, the brighter the stars would be. Maybe Malik would feel forgiving enough to let me sleep on the roof tonight.
Probably not. He might be afraid I would run away. And to be honest, I could not guarantee that I wouldn’t.
A violent breeze shot through the air, burrowing hard into my back. I shuddered intensely, the heat now sapped from my body and every hair standing stick straight. I hugged my arms tighter to myself.
“How about this for a trade?” I heard Malik suggest and then I could feel fabric being wrapped around me. His deep blue robe, decorated with white, arabesque designs around the sleeves and lower half of the jacket, swathed around me, encasing me in warmth and protecting me against the wind.
I examined Malik, seeing he was watching me closely, with his white robes cut off at the shoulders and left him bare-armed. I could better admire his shape, which was not softened despite having one arm. He was very fit, his right arm muscled and veined. I resisted the urge to stare at what remained of his left one, a ruined stump cut right below the bicep.
But what touched me more than any of that was the fact that he was willing to sacrifice something of his to give me comfort. Even after all the disagreements we had had, he still put my needs over his. He was special. Something precious that many people did not see, for they labeled him a worthless cripple. No. He was far more and that small gesture of kindness proved it. I watched the rest of the scarlet sky fade away to night, the glow remaining in Malik’s eyes.
“You know, when you are not being cynical, you are actually a tolerable, decent human being.” I commented thoughtfully, pursing my lips, but to this I only earned a snort.
“That is stretching it quite a bit, young one,” he shook his head, smirking. “I appreciate you saying so, but as much as I want to believe it, it is farther from the truth than you would think.”
“Why do you say so?” I inquired.
“My life is much darker than I let on, Rajah,” His eyes shifted to me then, the moonlight bathing him in a liquid glow. My name punctuated that eerie statement. My gaze automatically went to his arm. “I have killed many people.”
I knew this. I had seen him in action. But it still did not stop the night from becoming several degrees cooler.
“If your intent is to scare me, you are not succeeding.” I assured him, raising an eyebrow.
“Is that so?” He jeered, leaning closer until he was mere inches away. But that is not what startled me. His eyes were glass orbs that were cold, ruthless. No hint of remorse tainted his face anymore, which boasted a hunter’s half grin, as if amused by my bravado.
“I am not afraid of you.” I spoke as jokingly as I could, trying to alleviate the sudden intenseness of the conversation. He ignored me and pulled out a blade that glistened in the light. He inspected it, running his thumb along the serrated edge.
“I can make you afraid,” He commented almost casually, but then he glanced back up at me with the eyes of an asp about to strike, a killer thirsting for blood. “Very afraid….”
My heart froze. I remembered watching him behead that guard and the malevolent, evil look on his face. No different than the one he wore now. I narrowed my eyes, hoping to hide what was really raging inside my body. “Fortune will not favor your blade in killing me.” I warned, scoffing at him.
And all at once, the wickedness was gone, a candle snuffed into gloom. Like a demonic spirit had left Malik’s body, leaving him confused and almost doe-eyed in its wake. His eyes were far away, lost in a place I had no hope of reaching. He slipped his knife back into its sheath, blinking.
“What’s wrong?” The concern within me pushed the words from my mouth, though I’m not sure why I was concerned. I just… was.
“It is ….. It’s nothing, young one. Nothing at all.” He rubbed his forehead, his eyes slamming shut. The ambiguity enshrouding this man was so thick one could cut it with a knife.
“It’s very tempting to ask you about your past when you do that, Malik.” I could feel the need to understand him incinerating my guts.
“I just…sometimes have these moments where I get lost in bad memories in my life.” He looked so broken that I could not have brought the questions to my lips.
“I will refrain from asking what happened.”
“That is for the best, young one,” Rubbing his eyes, he returned his gaze to me, a lie of reassurance. “I just cannot talk about it. At least, not now.” A whispered plea..
“I understand, Malik. I will ask no more.” My curiosity begged for something, anything, to satisfy it, but I did to it what everyone else did to me. I shunned it. We would know another day.
Malik murmured a thank you and I felt….selfish. He should not be the one thanking me. I knew then I was long overdue for some sort of gratefulness.
“Allah knows you have given me enough anyway. More than I deserve.” Back to the stars my eyes went, so Malik could not see my feelings. It took him a moment to respond.
“I was only doing what was right, young one. I have enjoyed your company, even though you have driven me mad at times,” I could hear him laugh softly and then continue, “It is only because I am not used to human companionship.”
I did not need to see the woeful smile etched upon his features to know that Malik was completely sincere in what he said. He was as lost and lonely as I was, if not more so. In fact, if he enjoyed my company, he had to have been very desperate.
Nevertheless, I was still very touched. He enjoyed being with me and I with him. Part of me hoped he would not send me away anytime soon. And then, in a gush, my feelings came out.
“I will never be able to tell you how grateful I am for your care and hospitality. Nobody else would have brought me in. You seem to be the only one who gives two shits about me. I just…” I realized too late that my eyes were watery as I glanced up at him. I only hoped he wasn’t studying me hard. “I can’t… I can’t express my thanks enough.”
Malik, as brazen as he may have been, was moved by my speech, his tone very gentle, unaccustomed to such emotion. “Young one, do not thank me. I did what I thought was right. You would have died had I not been there.”
“I know,” I breathed, “But I wanted you to know how I feel, even though I do not always show it.”
“You’re right about that. You do act ungrateful at times.” He smiled playfully.
I threw a punch rendered weak by a yawn and a sudden wave of exhaustion at his shoulder.
“Well, someone has grown quite sleepy.” Malik observed. I shook my head in denial, wanting to stay awake and talk more, just to hear his voice and feel the rolls of his accent lull me to sleep. I stretched my leg out and winced as a stab of pain cried out in my wound. Malik did not let that go unnoticed.
“You need rest, young one.” His tone was filled with concern. But I still refused.
“I really am okay.”
Malik shook his head, the healer in him coming out. “I would feel better if you rested that leg some more. It is my responsibility to take care of you. I have not had anyone die in this bureau and you will not be the first one to ruin that reputation.”
It was his way or no way, I came to realize. Another gale blew up and I shivered again, huddling closer into Malik’s coat. I nodded my head in defeat, the pull of sleep becoming ever stronger.
“Come along, it is time to hit the hay.” I heard Malik snort, and I frowned. I did not understand the humor in his statement, but to each their own.
Malik hoisted me gently onto his back and we jumped back into the sun room, the landing doing little to keep me awake. After Malik laid me to rest on the pillows and shut the lattice door with a loud clang, I felt him tug the robe tighter around me and then running a warm hand down my cheek.
“Sleep well, young one.” He whispered before he padded off and disappeared.
A slight tug in my heart made me ache for his presence and I found the only way to soothe that was his coat. I clutched it closer to ward off the cold and inhaled the scent that wafted off of the fabric. I could catch whiffs of vanilla and sandalwood, perhaps some myrrh as well, all he burned in his incense. And I could still smell faded ink that especially reverberated his presence.
I smiled, as that relaxed me, knowing that he was near. I spent the rest of the night deciphering the scents, finally falling asleep, feeling as though Malik was holding me in his strong arm.