“Open up, Dai! I see you in there!!”
I was unsure if this was a nightmare or reality. Perhaps a bit of both. I rolled to my other side, the sounds becoming muffled over the fabric of my blanket.
What warmth! I had not been this cozy in what seemed like eras. The darkened cave of my blanket relaxed me, encouraging me to give not a care to the rest of the happenings in the world.
It was quite unfortunate that the bird at the lattice door would not think the same until he was let in. The demands would not cease.
“Open up right this minute, Malik! I have Templars on my ass!!”
My plan for sleeping in now thoroughly compromised, I sat up slowly, popping my back. Malik was nowhere to be found, I realized. Worse still, I could see a figure lying on the door of the lattice, his shadow casting blackness across the floor. The man’s calls were desperate, border lining panic-stricken. I got to my feet, searching fruitlessly for Malik.
Back at the lattice, I took in the white robed man, his hood masking his face, though I could make out dark, thick facial hair. Clearly not the eagle-eyed man, Altaïr.
Clearly nobody I knew, either. He was an Assassin. That was the only thing I could be certain of. There were no injuries that I could see, but the poor soul was practically begging to be let in, with Templars about to murder him. Allah damn them…
My heart, against my better judgment, boldly took pity on the man, and reached for the pole leaning against the wall. Shakily, I latched it to the door and pulled back to open it with a squawk.
“Thank you, Dai.” One could not doubt the relief in the man’s voice. He was practically beaming down at me, grateful for my good grac--- Wait, Dai?! He thought I was the Dai, the controller of this bureau. He thought I was---
“Rajah!! Stay back!!”
I barely registered the enraged scream before I was knocked away from the door. Malik anxiously slammed the grate shut in the man’s startled face.
“Malik, what the--?!”
“Who goes there?!” Malik demanded, the anger seething off of him in feverish waves.
“Abbas,” The worry had made itself prevalent again in the man’s voice. It faded every now and again, and I knew from experience that he was glancing over his shoulder in paranoia at who might be lying in wait behind him. “Let me in the damned bureau before these fuckers gut me!”
Malik watched the opening frantically, clearly unsure of whether it was safe to invite the man in. His pulse visibly pounded in his thick neck.
“Where are they and how far?” Malik’s voice, however, betrayed none of his indecisiveness.
“I can’t be certain, but they are not in sight. No doubt still searching. I am as anonymous as I can get. Let me the fuck in before they find me!”
Malik let out a frustrated sigh before fixing his gaze upon me. Eyes with the intent of murder or the like tore apart my flesh and ripped my soul in two. I was frozen with guilt in my veins and fear just about everywhere else.
“Get your ass in here.” He growled, violently sliding open the grate with a jerk of his arm. Even as the new man - Abbas - almost fell in the opening, thanked the Rafiq, and the lattice door had been shut, Malik’s vehement eyes never strayed far from mine. Only when he tended to Abbas did they let go of me, long enough to unstick my feet from the floor and my blood to cool to room temperature and for me to start shivering.
“Are you injured?” Malik looked him over.
“I am still in one piece.” Abbas replied with an incredulous huff.
“Come with me then and tell me how your mission fared.” Malik suggested calmly, though the look he cast at me showed he was anything but calm.
As Abbas was directed toward the library, he gave me a curious glance before scampering into the other room. Malik, however, was not that kind. In one quick movement, he ripped his jacket off of me, never breaking eye contact as he slipped it on himself.
I expected a slap and had Abbas not been there, that most likely would have come to occur. But Malik resisted the urge, only narrowing his eyes at me before striding to the library to speak with Abbas. A conversation I had absolutely no desire to listen in on.
Malik may have only had one arm and to an extent, that may have weakened him. But never in my entire life had I been more afraid of a man. The guards, however many run-ins I had had with them, were mere snakes. Easily outrun and did not bite if you did not piss them off.
Even Altaïr, whose eyes made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, who had killed many, did not make me a feared to be near him.
I was trapped with Malik, who may or may not dismember me now that I interfered with his work. I could attempt to climb out of the bureau, but Malik could easily catch me with my battered leg. I was terrified, my heart beating in triple time against my chest. I was ice cold and scalding hot at the same time. This was going to be a very long wait…
I was right. It was perhaps only minutes that Malik was away speaking, but it felt like hours. Hours upon hours of pure torture.
By the time Abbas has left the library and stopped to give me a hard look and a sigh, I was a nervous wreck. His demeanor only confirmed Malik’s anger. Perhaps Malik vented most of it on him and my lecture would be rendered less harsh. I would have to thank Abbas later.
Malik appeared almost as soon as Abbas took his leave, leaning heavily against the doorway, picking at his fingernails, making me afraid to look up. I could feel his eyes devouring me whole. I kept my gaze averted. His voice was booming in the stillness, though he spoke in an almost hushed manner.
“In case you weren’t aware, I am the Dai, which means that I run this bureau and monitor everything that goes on within its walls and what goes on in this city. I determine who comes and goes, which means that I decide whether that door remains open or closed!” Malik’s voice had risen to a frenzied crescendo, yet he held the slow, drawn out way of speaking to me as if I were an invalid.
“But he needed in!” I rose to defend my actions. What I did was perfectly justified. Well, to everyone but Malik.
“How did you know he was an Assassin?!” Malik challenged, his whole body radiating confidence.
The man’s robes were the obvious answer, but then I realized that wasn’t enough proof to dignify my actions as Malik began to voice my thoughts.
“You did not know him. Worse yet, he could have been a Templar clothed as an Assassin! One of us! You could have compromised the entire Brotherhood!!”
Malik held not only an air of ferocity, but also one of disappointment, which made me feel even more of an imbecile. My brain rushed for a reason, any reason, to rationalize what I knew now was a foolish course of action.
“He thought I was you, since I wore your robes! I am sorry, but I thought I was doing you a favor. I fucked up, obviously.” I was sulking like a child come then, and Malik did not want any of it.
“I do not need to hear your excuses as they do not matter. Nor do I care what he thought. Unless I tell you otherwise, that door and anything else in this bureau, in fact, is off limits. Do you understand me, Rajah?”
In exact childlike fashion, I muttered my response under my breath.
“I am afraid I did not hear you. Speak up, young one.” Malik commanded.
“I said I understood.” I snapped. I hated repeating myself. I hated all of this, particularly myself most of all.
“Good, I suppose we should get to the matter of feeding you.”
While Malik went away to prepare breakfast, I remained in my position, curled up against the wall. And it was later, as the two of us ate fresh fruit, that I came to realize my mistake in its full nature. It was not my place to let that poor man in, that much was true. But I could not have just stood there and let him be massacred right before my eyes. I would have been just as much to blame as the Templar, had I just been a bystander.
Either way, Malik would probably still very likely be angry with me. I remembered he had sleeping quarters on that ledge lining the circumference of the library walls and had I not been in such a panic to find him, I may have actually used my common sense to know he was probably still asleep and had not heard the disturbance.
As Malik redressed my wound, I could hear him uttering oaths about the Templars, using curse words I was not sure I had ever heard before. There were even some from different languages, I think. I assumed he was still holding me here, considering how he spoke of the Templars being the scum of the earth and how they poisoned the city. How considerate of him to not throw me to the wolves.
Later, after Malik finished, he went into the library and I followed him, simply out of sheer boredom. I rested my arm on the counter, watching in a daze as Malik lit his incense, and started browsing through his massive collection of books behind the counter on the shelf.
“What are you doing?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Killing time.” He mused, running his finger along the weathered, dusty spines.
“What am I supposed to do?!”
“I am sure you will figure that out.” Malik responded distractedly, promptly ignoring the rest of my outbursts.
I threw my arms up in frustration. There was nothing to do here at the moment. Not with him acting like I did not exist. I could not do anything, I could not touch anything, I could not leave… What a great situation. I drummed my fingertips on the counter, though not for long as Malik threw an accusatory glance over his shoulder, threatening to chop all of my digits off if I kept it up.
Searching for an escape from the mindless boredom, I pushed away from the counter and wondered about the room until my eye caught a small table sitting in the corner. One had to sit on the floor in order to actually use it, but it was not one to sit and eat at. Instead, there were curved pieces of ebony and ivory sitting atop a checkered black and white table top. Malik had a bizarre taste in art. I feared if I stared at it too long, I would be hypnotized.
“What is this?”
“What did I say about messing with items that aren’t yours?” He did not turn around, but I could read the condescending look on his face like a book.
“I was not touching it! I was asking what it was!”
Frustrated at having been interrupted, he turned his head to barely look over his shoulder. “That is a chess table.”
Ah, right. Of course. “What the hell is chess?!” I scrunched my face in annoyance at the explanation.
“It is a game.” Malik sighed, not surprised at the extent of my stupidity. I was not stupid. I had the capability to learn. I proved that yesterday when I picked up on Malik’s reading. I was just… ill exposed. I was homeless. If only he would teach me, he would not be complaining all the time.
Picking at my fingernails, I commented, “It certainly is a shame that one would pass up the opportunity to play this game. But I guess since I cannot touch anything…”
I got the reaction I wanted. Malik growled, “Do not twist my words, novice. I said that you could not touch anything unless I said so otherwise.”
“So you are saying otherwise now?”
“I am asking for you to stop being a rude brat!”
I paused, knowing that confrontation was not the way to play this game. Sighing, I gave in. This arguing would get us nowhere.
“If I stop being a rude brat, would you show me how to play the damned game?”
I could hear the smile of victory in his voice. “I may entertain the idea.”
And so it began. Malik sat at the table opposite me, admiring his army of black pieces. He allowed me to go first, as I controlled the white ones. The goal of the game was simple: Capture the other king, but do not be a moron in the process and leave yours out in the open undefended, which was ultimately how I lost the first several rounds. Malik’s moves were calculating and pensive, knowing exactly what to do and when to do it, my next moves he read as if they were printed across my face.
So recklessness became my next strategy. Always doing the opposite of what my teacher expected. Soon, my pieces were spread out all over the board, some were open and easily overtaken, and others were not. Malik took this in stride, only giving me occasional glances that questioned my level of sanity. I only smiled, enjoying that with every move, his confusion and frustration escalated.
And that was the end of it. He could not stop me. I had his king in my hands before he knew what had happened.
“How is that for a little healthy competition?” I chided, twirling the ebony piece in my hand.
“What are the odds? I get beaten by a mere beginner.” He shook his head in disbelief, leaning back to look at me.
“They must not be in your favor today.” I teased.
A knowing look was thrown my way from his glowing eyes. “Must not.” He agreed, standing and walking behind the counter, pressing on the wall between two bookshelves and drifting silently past a hidden door to even more unknown spaces within this entire complex.
So many mysteries… This whole order was built on secrecy, which most likely was how they survived all these years. So little is known about the Assassins that the majority of the population believes that they no longer exist when one does not show up for a long while. Very few even know how to handle them, as the Assassins are far too skilled in everything that they do.
And here I sit, right in the middle of their headquarters in Jerusalem, a place unbeknownst to all but the Assassins themselves. This all came back around to the liability deal, of which I refused to dwell on for very long as it caused me unnecessary anxiety.
Around then, Malik returned with plates of steamed rice and cured meat, which tasted rich and fell off the bone, melting in one’s mouth. Malik knew how to cook better than anyone I knew. What the hell was he not good at?!
After lunch, we played more rounds of chess, with Malik winning a total of only one game. My irrational playing could perhaps have been considered cheating, but either way, it threw Malik way off guard. It was also, after several games that lasted into late afternoon, that I began to notice how utterly stifling the heat was. Normally, the library was quite cool, but not that day. The heat had snuck its way in here. Beads of sweat began to trickle through our hair and down our faces. I found myself wiping my face more often than I was concentrating on the game until I reached the point that I was so uncomfortable that I uttered, “Damn this heat.”
Malik, who was looking equally uncomfortable, said sympathetically, “I can fix that for you. Come, young one.”
He stood, strolling again behind the counter and through that door. I followed suit, plowing through the door, paying little attention to the crates of food and medical supplies that crowded the shelves in the room. An opened door to my left led me into a small chamber, where Malik sat, filling a basin up with water. A flight of stairs lay dead ahead, leading up to a second floor that contained Allah knows what.
After the basin was full, Malik gestured for me to get in before turning to leave. As tempting as that water looked, I had my doubts.
“Are you sure about this Malik? No one will barge in on me?”
He only smiled, “It will be fine, young one. Just be mindful of your leg.”
“You won’t forget I am in here and walk in on me, either?” I asked nervously. He snorted.
“I am not that old and perverted. Trust me, my memory is well, Rajah. Now go on and get in.”
I thanked him hesitantly and I could hear a muffled reply as he shut the door on me, leaving me in my privacy. After an assessment that he was gone and no one could peek in, I quickly stripped, practically diving into the basin.
The cool water was heaven in the suffocating heat, cleansing away the sweat and grime that had accumulated over the past week or so since I had last bathed. I pushed my head underwater, completely submerging myself in the icy bliss, losing myself for a minute or so.
When I surfaced, I wiped my face, watching my warped reflection still in the calm water, green eyes flickering. My gaunt, white cheeks were mottled with freckles that refused to come off, no matter how hard I scrubbed when I was younger. Thin, chapped lips became thinner still as I grimaced at the unappealing face gazing back up at me, thick eyebrows narrowing. The face of one that everybody ignored. I could stand in the middle of the street and scream at the top of my lungs and yet no one would care, or even notice. I slapped the manifestation away, a wave taking it over the side of the tub, and I ran my hands through my long, dark hair, leaning against the basin wall, allowing my mind to wander.
How had I been so fortunate? Where did I go right for Allah to give me a change of luck? Just the other day I was sleeping on the ledge of the Church of the Holy Supulchre and now here I was, living in the Assassin bureau with a shadowy, rude, yet caring man who may or may not be holding me hostage here, who may or may not be trying to save me. A man who I may or may not be developing feelings for.
I did not know if one can have feelings for someone this fast, but I knew I cared about him. I wanted to protect him, but more than anything, I wanted to figure him out, to know why he saved me, why he got angry so easily, why he could be so melancholy all the time. I just wanted to know…everything.
If he was going to kill me because I knew too much, he would have done so by now. He knew the Creed as well as anyone else in the Brotherhood. He would know if he had broken it.
But then I remembered, he had said it would be up to the Master if I lived or died, and that would depend on Altaïr being good at keeping secrets and telling lies. Those golden eyes seemed to tell me they were. The water turned several degrees colder.
Malik would not kill me. Would he…? He may not have a choice in the matter. He cared about me, I think. But feelings can only go so far when it comes to promises to something bigger, a higher power one had dedicated themselves to beforehand. He would have his orders and he would have to follow through with them, no matter how he felt otherwise. His feelings for me could not be that strong to disobey direct commands, anyway.
But I was alive at the moment. For how long, I did not know. But I knew Malik would not let me go anytime soon.
The water was then way too cold for my taste and I jumped out, goosebumps painfully pulling every hair on my body up rod straight. I dried myself and threw my clothes back on, tiptoeing back to the library.
I saw the hidden door was ajar and I could hear subdued noises behind it. Peeking through, I could see that night had fallen, the darkness of the library penetrated only by candlelight. I heard Malik grunt before I saw him. The light made his bare arm coppery, the blade of his sword glint. And then he was moving.
Lithe and quick, clearly not hindered by the loss of an arm, Malik swung his blade offensively, dodging his invisible opponent before parrying and stepping around it. The sword bit and cut, Malik never losing focus, as cold and manipulative as he had been playing chess. The dance went on for several minutes before Malik dove forward and gutted open his opponent’s stomach and with a slash, drove his blade in to the hilt in his enemy’s brain.
Breathing hard, he leaned forward on the counter. He had obviously been practicing for the hour or so that I was bathing, though not without suffering from the heat’s wrath. Sweat ran down his face, dripping onto the wood, his hand and muscles trembling from the effort. The frigidness from the water had worn away and I found myself quite warm then, overheated almost, thought the night had drastically changed temperature. The candlelight illuminated his muscled, sturdy frame, his head bent down, as if in prayer.
He then glanced up at me--- no, at the door I was hidden behind. His eyes were dangerous, glinting sinister in the night, a predator looking for his prey.
And then he grinned. He knew I was there, watching and listening. His eyes pierced through the door, through me, knowing he had found his prey, knowing I was his.
No. I would not be leaving anytime soon. If at all.