It had been running close to two months upon my arrival there at the bureau. Assassins came and went. Quite the interesting characters, they were. I made refuge in the corner of the library, hoping to be noticed as little as possible. Among the many that visited was eagle-eyed Altaïr, whom Malik was less grouchy toward, but not what one would call friendly, either. The weather was up and down, too, unimaginably sweltering during the day, and inhospitably frigid come nightfall. The one good thing about Jerusalem in summer was that we got two seasons in one, it seemed.
The passing of time also heralded my new found strength. My leg did heal, though Malik insisted that it needed a thorough time to recover, which may take several more weeks. He said it was ‘perfectly normal to feel better, to feel like I could jump to the moon and back. But he also warned that these were all false sensations. I really wasn’t better. My senses were out of whack, I was disillusioned.’
I felt well, despite what Malik said otherwise. I knew that I was better and stronger than I had been in years, gaining weight under Malik’s cooking and developing skills that I never would have hoped to learn out on the streets. But he knew best, so I trusted him.
My health was one of many topics that Malik and I bickered over, though never once did I bring up the Creed or the Brotherhood. I did not want to hear him say what I knew had to be true.
On good days, Malik would continue to teach me strategies in chess or instruct me on how to write, which was exceptionally difficult for me. I could barely even read Arabic, let alone pen it. My name was something otherworldly, seeming almost like it would take years to perfect.
And on really special days, which were exceedingly rare, Malik would read to me. His voice was a drug I could not get enough of. He made the words sound like music, a true silvertongue.
Malik would train as well, though never when I was around, be it when I was on the rooftop, or bathing. He probably did not think I would watch him in silent fascination, marveling at just how quick and deadly in combat he was. He also was unaware of the strange, intoxicating feelings that were awakening in my body when he practiced… Though I’m sure the glances that he threw over his shoulder every now and again were warnings that I was studying him too hard….
This was ridiculous. My feelings were too far out of hand. I had to rein them back in before I did something rash. Malik would never want me. I was far too weak, with nothing to give him. I could not even pay him back for taking care of me. And that made me feel guilty about not being able to leave. But I was not at fault for that. I had no choice in the matter. Malik would not let me go.
One day, Malik was busy with his maps while I tried to scribble my name on a practice piece of paper. It had been cooler that day, the bureau noticeably darker. Malik noticed the change. I was in the middle of a rather good attempt when Malik suddenly perked up, eyeing the patio. Eyebrows knit, he left the counter and strode under the grating, peering up at the sky and glowering.
“It looks like we are in for a quite a storm, young one.”
My head shot up, my name now a jagged line running down the page like a lightning strike. “Storm?!”
“Yes,” he spoke quickly, all but his eyes not betraying worry, “I will have to shut the cover for the roof. I will not have my bureau flooded. The novices will just have to wait out the storm. If they had any sense, they would make retreat to here as quickly as they could.”
I sat there, frozen and trembling, not really hearing the frustrated words that were leaving his mouth. The clanging of the lattice door and the intolerable screeching as the metal cover slid along its tracks made me shudder violently. The light in the bureau retreated until it was almost as dark as night. The cover clanged shut and then I could not see my hand in front of my face. I clutched my quill so hard I could feel it begin to snap in my grip.
Thankfully, I could see a sliver of light snake through the gap where Malik reopened the cover. And then it was gone as he slammed it shut again.
“Well, shit.” He muttered. He did this repeatedly, determinedly trying to get the metal canopy to latch until I heard him yell, “Allah, damn it all!”
What little light that remained illuminated Malik as he stalked back into the library and through the secret door, a deep scowl etched upon his face. Had I not been so utterly terrified, I might have found his anger mildly amusing. When he re-emerged, he carried a coil of rope. When he reached the opening of light, he looked up and grimaced. Grunting, he threw the rope down and again, stormed into the back room.
While he was gone, some unknown force unstuck me from the counter and I crept to the lattice opening, staring up at the incensed sky, the dark clouds pregnant with rain and lightning waiting to char my flesh and scald me to the bone. A rumble came from the heavens, a chuckle that said, “I know you’re in there. A roof isn’t going to protect you.”
This storm would be a cruel one, its fury twice that of a normal storm that occasionally rolled through Jerusalem. Thank Allah I had a place to stay…..
I assumed Malik was going to try and tie the lattice shut. How he was going to tackle that, I had not an idea. He would have to climb to the opening and tie it with one arm. Actually, no arms because how was he going to hang on and tie at the same time?
Picking up the rope, I knotted and unknotted it, trying to see what kind of knot would withstand the most force and pressure. When I found one that could easily be undone by pulling at both ends of the rope, but was strong enough to hold the cover shut, I climbed to the top of the wall, hoping I would not have a repeat of last time.
I grasped the grating as I pulled the awning closer to the wall. There was a metal ring that hung from the cover and a semi-circle of a ring on the wall that probably boasted a hook at one point, but now no longer. I laced the rope through both rings, barely shutting the cover to conserve as much light as possible. When the knot was in place, I slammed the cover shut and tightened the knot blindly, the darkness thick and unforgiving. I then let the two long ends of the leftover rope dangle to the floor. When both were pulled, the knot would come undone and the cover could be opened again.
I nodded in approval, feeling accomplished that I actually managed to pull the stunt off. As I braced myself for climbing down the wall, a clap of thunder sent me flying in a leap of holy terror across the room. I hit the floor on my shoulder, but no pain registered as I curled up into a ball, my head encased in my arms.
“Rajah, are you all right?!” I could hear Malik’s panicked voice and a hand came to my shoulder. My head snapped up, breaths coming in quick pants as he heaved me off the ground. I nodded, looking back in the direction of the opening.
“What did I tell you about the door, Rajah?! You are to leave it alone and let me handle it! I leave you by yourself for two minutes and you’re out here-“
My fear turned to fury. “Oh Malik, don’t let your pride be wounded because I got up there and you couldn’t. At least the damn door is closed and it’s not raining all over your precious bureau!” I glowered at him in the now dim room.
“I think it’s high time that you hold your tongue and learn some manners, young one! I can decide that your leg is better right now and turn you loose in this storm! I don’t think you would fare very well, now would you?” He growled and pushed past me, inspecting my work for several long minutes as our eyes adjusted to the dark. His threat sent shivers down my spine. Allah, save me if he were to be that cruel. “How did you do it?” He demanded, his tone still hard, “How did you get it to stay closed?”
I took my time answering to spite him. “It is quite simple, really.” I muttered, grabbing one of the extra ropes he brought in. I went through the process of tying the knot, purposely making him watch and learn rather than try and explain it to him. Allah forbid that I speak until I was addressed to. I was, however, very delighted to see Malik’s surly expression turn thoughtful as I pulled the ends of the rope and the knot untied itself in a smooth finish. He laughed, curious.
“Let me try.” He took the rope from me and I stood to his left, becoming his missing hand as I walked him through the method of tying it. He did well, until it came to actually making the knot undo itself. When we pulled our ends of the rope, the knot cinched tighter instead of coming apart.
“Wrong.” I corrected. Malik and I looked at each other for a moment and then broke out laughing. “What happened?” I asked, searching for his mistake.
“I’m not sure.” He admitted, chuckling and grinning unlike I had ever seen him before. Genuine and beautiful. Our laughter died down and we glanced at each other again in the shadows, thinking about Allah knows what when a sudden echo of thunder broke our gaze. We looked up, hearing the first taps of rain on the roof that told us it would be wise to make haste to the shelter of the library.
A few hours can change everything in a situation. The storm had grown, from a fledgling shower to a blackout of a hurricane, with winds that rocked the walls of the bureau and lightning that was so bright it put our lantern to shame. Malik was reading his book by the lantern with the incense burning beside it, giving him a shadowy, smoky glow. I sat to his right outside the counter against the wall, shivering and tense. That poor knot must be getting a workout keeping the cover shut.
Lightning flickered and not two seconds later, a blast of thunder caused the building to shudder. My hands instinctively went to my head for protection, only to realize that I was not outside. I looked around and then hugged my chin to my knees, rocking back and forth.
“I hate storms.” I grumbled.
“I think one could gather that.” Malik spoke quietly, watching me out of the corner of his eye. I had barely began to acknowledge him when another round of thunder quaked the bureau, sounding as if the sky was being torn in two, the wall behind me vibrating. I buried my head down between my knees, wishing for this torture to end….
“Young one, come here,” Malik was now fully studying me, calling me over with his concerned eyes. Hesitantly, I stood, casting the ceiling a nervous glance. Silently, I warned it not to cave in on me as I laid my head on my arm on the counter, digging my nails into the wood.
“It will be all right. You are safe here.” Malik’s soft voice did little to soothe my frayed nerves.
“That’s easy for you to say. You have not nearly been struck by lightning.” One of the most frightening experiences in my entire life. It was in my early days, when I was running out and about, against my old guardian’s wishes. I had watched with a wary eagerness as the storm moved in, the first one I had ever seen. An hour later, I was looking up at it with awed and worshipping eyes as the lightning pierced the sky and earth, the thunder shaking the land and the rain coming down in thick, driving sheets. A true force to be reckoned with, that storm.
Not a minute later, the whole world went a burning white for several moments and then I was falling from the heavens, from the very place I thought I was safe, to the cold, wet ground. I don’t remember the impact, only that I thought I was dead. When I came to, I looked over to see the faces of some frightened children who had moments before been innocently playing in the rain. They never once offered me aid, just gazed on at my broken body as if I were a creature from another world.
From that moment on, storms were not to be tempted or trifled with. Whenever one came through, I hid away, in doorways or under market awnings, anywhere so that the lightning would not recognize me and succeed at what it had failed to do the first time.
“Do not be afraid, young one. The storm cannot harm you here.” Malik’s warm hand then came over my trembling one. It was a willing touch, not done so in medical need, but rather one of comforting need. My shaking stopped, and I felt strangely relaxed and at ease in that little circle of light in the dark room. I watched Malik’s passive face, as if he cared not that there was a storm tearing through the city.
“I feel childish.” I said sheepishly. He was not afraid of the storm. Why should I, even when I had good reason to be?
“It is nothing to feel silly about. You would be surprised. Altaïr the Great is afraid of water. He cannot swim. Never has been able to,” He said so matter of factly, smirking, “So it only goes to show that we all are afraid of something.”
“Except you. You don’t seem to be afraid of anything.” I said sullenly.
“Oh, young one,” He chuckled darkly, “There are plenty of things I am afraid of.” The quick glance he gave me was ominous.
“Like what?” The question came out before I could stop it. Malik looked away, his emotions hidden well behind a blank mask. He said nothing until I finally worked up the gall to apologize.
“Forgive me, Malik. I need to learn to not inquire about some things.” Damn my loud mouth. Damn my curiosity. Damn it all to the deepest pits of Hell. I was going to ruin this man.
“It is fine. There are just things I do not wish to speak about. Do not suppress your curiosity.” His tone was lighter, more forgiving and lenient, inviting my need for knowledge with open arms. I could not resist as I searched for the most basic and easiest questions.
“What is your full name?”
“Malik Al-Sayf.” He spoke without glancing up from his book, his hand still around mine, disturbed every so often only when he had to turn the page.
“How old are you?”
“When is your birthday?”
“November the 10th of the year 1165.”
“Have you lived here all your life? In Jerusalem?”
“No. I’ve only resided here a few months.” This surprised me. I had surmised that he had lived here far longer.
“Where did you live before?”
“In Masyaf. I was raised there, where I spent most of my life trai-“ He stopped abruptly, pressing his lips together, his eyes neutral and careful, leaving me to do the guesswork.
“Training?” I raised an eyebrow, filling in the word, knowing I was damning myself, but not caring otherwise.
Malik sighed and laughed once in disbelief. “Well, if I’m going to Hell - if there is such a place - I might as well do it thoroughly.”
He released his grip on my hand and closed his book, sliding it away. He leaned closer to me, looking me square in the eye, entrusting me with a dangerous secret. “Masyaf is where all the Assassins are trained and live for most of their lives. It serves as our headquarters, far to the north, in the mountains of Syria, at least a week’s ride from here. Four days, if one travels quickly.”
My heart beat pounded, my head spinning as it took in this information. “So… is it a village?...” I had never left Jerusalem in all my life, so the idea of other places existing outside of the city was a foreign, but fascinating concept to me.
“There is a fortress that stands high over the village, where the citizens live. It is one of the most important duties of the Assassins to protect those citizens and the villages in the area as well as to maintain hideouts like this bureau in other cities, to strengthen our status and control over said city.”
“And you, specifically, have to maintain this bureau?”
“Yes, and make sure that the city of Jerusalem has as little Templar control as possible.” His eyes darkened and his gaze turned to the desk.
“Templars? Aren’t they your biggest threat?”
“One of the biggest, yes.”
It then occurred to me how much he had opened up to me, how much precious information had been spilled to me. “Why are you telling me this?” I asked gently.
Malik’s head snapped up. “You asked me to.”
“I meant willingly. You do not-- should not-- have to share this with me.” I was cautious now, afraid I knew too much.
“You were the one that asked.” He shrugged, as if all of that information, my life even, meant absolutely nothing to him. I already knew way more than was healthy for an innocent bystander…
“Allah damn it, Malik! You can’t –“ Malik’s hand flew up in a blinding moment and smacked my cheek in a blurry motion. The blow wasn’t harsh, not by a long shot, but it still stunned me.
“That’s a blasphemy.” Malik said lowly, his eyes filled with warning. I was still shaken by the slap, my pride wounded severely.
“I was not aware you were a religious man.” I said coolly, narrowing my gaze.
“And just how sure are you of that?” He challenged.
“You don’t attend a mosque.” I stated the obvious, scoffing.
“So? A Dai must change himself to blend into his environment for the safety of the Brotherhood.” Malik proved me incorrect yet again.
“So you really are a religious man.” I guessed in disbelief.
“No, not at the moment.”
I threw my arms up. Roadblock after roadblock I kept hitting and I was fed up. “What the hell, Malik?! You cannot keep your story strai–“
“An Assassin must do what it takes to protect the Brotherhood,” Malik’s voice rose above my hysteria as he began to pace back and forth behind the counter, agitated, gesturing angrily with his arm. “We change our clothes, religion.. the way we act or think, even! And in that, we become selfless, soulless beings, dedicated solely to our Master and our Creed.” He ended his rant solemnly, stopping in front of me, his hand on the desk and his head lowered.
I exhaled, incredulous to what had just been spouted to me. One cannot dedicate every ounce of their being to a cause that could care less if they lived or died. Of course, I was not one to judge. I had had nothing to dedicate myself to in my life. Hell, I would be rotting away in the street had it not been for Malik. He had cared enough to not only save me, but to bring me back to his bureau and care for me. The Assassins protected the people, I gathered that much. But Malik went out of his way for me.
“I would not call you soulless. You saved my life.” Without even thinking, I reached for his hand to comfort him.
“And in that process, I have ended it!” Malik cried, yanking his hand away from me and storming past the counter, leaning against the doorway to the patio. It was hard to conceal my rising fear as he began to speak, “I should have left you to die. It would have been a better way to go than….” Here he paused, almost as if to stop himself from rambling on about something better left unsaid,
“You’re too innocent.” He admitted sadly.
I was dubious. “Innocent?!” I demanded, “I have seen what the streets can do to a person and –“
“And it is nothing to what the Master will do when he recruits you,” Malik advanced toward me, causing me to back up until I was pressed against the wall. “Are you aware that we torture our own novices? We do so to make them accustomed to it, so that they can withstand anything our enemies may put them through to get information. They cannot say one word. Not once.”
By then, he had all but pinned me to the wall, his eyes their own form of torture, his face mere inches from mine. “They aren’t even allowed to scream.” He breathed, his voice making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
Thunder boomed and I startled slightly. Malik stared at me, unsympathetic, gauging my reaction. This was not a Brotherhood, it was a cult. And in that, I saw my life flash by as if I had already lived it. They were going to make me one of them. I knew this was coming. I had known it all along, but it was too late. I chose not to escape. Maybe Malik had staged it like this all along. To charm me into staying when in actuality he did not care about me at all. They needed new recruits. They must have been in a critical state if they wanted a weak girl like me among their ranks.
But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was now trapped, a fly in a spider’s web, with the spider now about to strip me of my flesh and rip me limb by limb. And all the while I was helplessly attracted and mystified by said spider. It just goes to show what happens when you trust the wrong person. And now it was the end.
I found the courage to swallow. “I take it I cannot leave now.” I whispered.
Malik shook his head simply and then moved away. “I can’t let you go. You know too much.”
I followed him, speaking now in desperation. “I would not say anything. You know that. Besides, who would believe me?!”
Malik turned back to me, his expression deeply pained. “You know I want to believe your words, but I can’t. I do not want you to leave. You must stay here with me for the meantime.” I watched disdainfully as his features hardened into a mask of resolve.
And then, the vulnerability set in. I saw my freedom tumble out of my hands. I saw my days of being able to fly from the roofs begin to fade away, nothing but a distant memory. The spot on the ledge of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre I no longer occupied. No more guards. No more being pushed about or kicked like an animal. No more going to sleep at night with my belly still growling. No more of any of that.
Part of me was overjoyed. Another part was confused, the reality not having set in that I would no longer be in constant danger of being harmed. But the most dominant part was panicked with claustrophobia. I was trapped. I could not escape. There was no way out. No way back. And no way forward. Someone else had taken the reins of my life and set a chart for a destination unknown. And I could only sit and watch in utter silence, numb with helplessness as the only life I had ever known disappeared into nothing.
I realized I was shaking as I watched my fears turn into a horrible reality, a nightmare become lifelike. I had not a clue what expression my face held. I could only hope it was unreadable, but either way, Malik sensed my troubles and reached for my hand, holding it tightly in his.
“I will protect you, Rajah. My Brothers will not harm you. Your days of being alone are over.”
Come then, I was completely numb, even when Malik’s features became agonized as he read my face and pulled me into him. His strong arm around me was comforting, reassuring. I wrapped my arms loosely around him, breathing in his scent. I said nothing, just clung to him. I felt absolutely empty. I stared at the lantern, watching dazedly as the light began to flicker faintly, dying, much like me. It was better to feel nothing, I supposed, when all you had ever known was ripped away from you. And with that, I was unsure of who I was anymore.
“You still do not trust me, do you?” He murmured gently.
I did not trust him?! He was about the only one I could trust anymore as my life spiraled downward into this abyss. I struggled to find words that could properly convey what I felt in that moment.
“I… I trust you. I just don’t know where my life will go at this point. I feel.. I feel I have no control anymore.” I pulled away from his embrace to look up at him and saw that he was genuinely upset. A tiny spark of remorse flicked within me, not wanting him to bear my burden of emotions.
“We’re both in too deep. And I’m afraid we cannot dig ourselves out of this hole.” I knew he had gone through being tortured as a novice. He had said that all Assassins went through it. But it would be nothing compared to what their Master would do when he found out that Malik had been harboring me in his bureau all this time. I did not want to imagine what would be done to him. It was too much on my already overspent emotions. He tucked a loose strand of my hair behind my ear and something in my face, I don’t recall what, made him exhale and look away quickly before returning my gaze, “I do not want you to be suffering, Rajah. Please tell me what I can do.”
He seemed so desperate to steal my pain away. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he did actually care about me. The look on his face certainly indicated so. But I could not take it anymore. I did not want him hurt. I could barely handle my own feelings, let alone his. I had to pull away.
“Just… let me think a while.” I said quickly. I did not wait for his approval; I just made for the patio without a second glance. I hid away in the corner farthest the library. It meant huddling almost directly underneath the undulating awning of the opening, but it was dark and cool, a place where I could think clearly, listening to the rain tapping on the roof.
The way I saw it, I had two options. First, I could escape and run to the farthest location I could think of while still remaining close to Jerusalem. I knew just the place. It was the one I used to flee to when I needed to bathe, where there was relative peace and quiet, a place down by the river that no one knew about but me, just a few miles out of the city. I could live there, at least, until the Assassins were finished looking for me. Which brought on the first dilemma.
How would I get out of here? I could not leave through the front door, obviously, nor could I climb out of here fast enough without Malik noticing. Perhaps when he went into the back room, which I did not foresee happening with him probably on high alert on the fact that I could be contemplating these very thoughts.
Besides, even if I did get out of the bureau, could I get out of Jerusalem without being spotted by other Assassins? No doubt there were several posted throughout the city, on missions or gathering information. I knew that Malik knew the city almost as well as I did. He could track and find me in a heartbeat.
Say I did get out. I made it to my hiding place. How would I survive without food? Surely there was some means of gathering roots or fruit… There had to be.
And more importantly, did I even want to survive? All on my own out there? No humans, no help, only even more dangers, like poisonous snakes, starvation, exposure……loneliness… It would be exactly where I was to start out with. Only everything would be three times worse.
I was not a fan of option one.
Option two, I could remain here with Malik. My freedom would be gone, my life uncertain, facing an unknown with this group, the Assassins, whose customs were so backwards from that of common society, but also made sense, in a strange, twisted kind of way…
Malik would be the only stable person in my life, the only one to be counted upon. Malik, the dangerous but captivating man who I knew was trying to save me all along. I had just pushed too far into his life. He was the only one who actually cared about me……Could I bear to leave him behind?
My heart constricted as I knew I cared about him too much to run away from him. Perhaps, I cared more about him than he did about me. What if he did not feel the same? He did not like seeing me hurting. But did that qualify to mean something more? Was this all part of the act?! It seemed far too real to be faked. He couldn’t still be trying to lure me in, could he?
Well, he would not have to try, as I was already in far more than he probably bargained for. Either way, disregarding my feelings, he had risked his life, risked everything for me. I could not let him down. I would not leave him unless he ordered me away. And in that, my decision was sealed. Come what may, I would brave the unfamiliar. I had to, for Malik, who had seen far too much turmoil for a man so young. I could only hope to help heal him as he had healed me.
The hazy drone of voices awakened me the following morning. My consciousness faded in and out, fragments of different sentences running together in a hushed blur. The conversation was urgent and blunt, though the tone of Malik’s voice was kind, addressing his companion as ‘Brother.’
What was really surprising was the identity of said companion, old eagle-eye, Altaïr. Truly, Malik was a changed man, to regard Altaïr in such a manner, when just a mere month or two ago, the pair could barely stand to be in the same room without killing each other. At that time, I thought it would take a miracle to make them see eye to eye on anything.
Sleepiness slipped around me then and my eyelids fluttered closed. Altaïr’s creeping footsteps left the bureau soon and I was on the precipice of falling asleep again when I was being shaken awake.
“Rajah. Young one, wake up. I must speak with you.”
I was only vaguely coherent of what was going on. Sitting up, I rubbed my eyes free of the assault of the midmorning light, glancing at Malik’s handsome, but worried face. I saw in it last night’s memories that brought on a somber reminder of my decision.
“As I you, but,” I threw an apprehensive glance at the opening in the grating, fearing Altaïr, or anyone really, may drop in and destroy our privacy, “Not here.”
Malik frowned, worry lines creasing his forehead. “I cannot abandon the bureau, young one. Not with all of these missions going on.”
“Well, what do you do when you need supplies?” I countered. He had to leave the bureau at some point or another. After all, I would not be here if he never went out.
“The city is filled with more Templars than normal. I cannot risk being killed here -“
“We won’t stay in the city, Malik.” His excuses would not appease me. But he waved me away.
“It is out of the question, then.”
“It is not far out,” I added quickly, hurrying to not lose his attention again, “Just a few miles or so. Only to the river.”
Malik paused for several moments, lips parted, staring at my pleading expression before sighing and nodding his head quickly, “Alright. But we will not stay long. Just long enough to get all this out.”
Upon leaving the bureau, we found rather quickly that the rain had not at all cooled the land. Puddles of water in the streets steamed and the air was thick and muggy.
There was an atmosphere of tension in the city that day. The normal throngs of people in the markets had noticeably thinned and those brave enough to venture out were huddling their goods to their chests and scurrying back to the safety of their homes. Days like this meant there was an unwelcome force in the city, be it Crusaders or otherwise. A day like this meant snuggling safely away on my church ledge, with only an aching belly and the occasional bird for company.
I stayed close to Malik. Two on the streets were better than one. When we reached the gate, Malik paid for two horses. After mounting, he let me take the lead. It was nice, but unexpected to have a horse. Normally, I walked the several miles or so to the river. Only when it was evening or early morning, though. The desert was vindictive during the daylight.
It was a silent trek to the river. Malik looked equally worried and nervous. Perhaps we should have stayed at the bureau. But then, what if assassins came in one after the other? I would have no time to speak with him alone. Besides, he did not have to leave. He chose to. It was not my fault for asking him, maybe just for persuading him.
The river was a sight to behold, as always after trodding through the desert for a good hour or so. The cool, efflorescent water ran unopposed over the rocks and through the sand. It also gave life to the only trees and greenery for miles around. Birds chirped happily at the fluffy clouds overhead. I pulled my horse up at the water’s edge and flung myself off, breathing in the fresh air deeply. This place made me realize how much I hated the smell of the city.
“This is not very secluded.” Malik said disapprovingly, clearly unimpressed.
Maybe I enjoyed nature too much, but if Malik did not find this beautiful, then there was no hope. “We have not gotten there yet.” I snapped, walking downstream.
“I hope it is not far.” Malik sighed, dismounting.
Up ahead, a few meters from where we stopped, was my favorite place in the whole world. I stepped inside the little cave, the blue water pooling deep in the middle of the floor. I crept around the narrow ledge. The cave itself was small, enough for seven people, roughly, to sit around in before they eventually fell out into the river, which fed the small pool at my feet. The domed ceiling casted the reflection of the water onto me as I sat down. Malik entered the cave with a look of relative awe on his face.
“This is my hiding place.” I beamed with pride, gesturing around me.
“You chose quite a place to hole up.” He commented as he took a seat beside me, removing his boots to dangle his feet in the cool water.
“I only come here every now and again, when things go awry in the city.” I swirled my feet in the water, watching their distorted images.
“You must be down here every other day then.” Malik replied dismally.
“It seems like it.” I agreed, laughing without humor. This was, truly, the only place I could find peace in anymore. Jerusalem had always been a place of unrest, but as of late, upheaval had grown with the incoming of more Crusaders. It was a sacred city, a place open to about every religion there was. These days though, it was rather difficult to see that side of Jerusalem, a paradise of which that was supposed by some, to be the holiest place in the world. If there could not be peace in a place like that, then there was no such thing as peace.
Speaking of which, there was no peace in my stomach right then, as it rolled and tied itself in knots over what needed to be said to Malik. He had to know how I felt, yet actually telling him seemed overwhelmingly difficult. What if he thought me a fool, desperately trying to make something out of something that was not there? What if I mistook his kindness to be more? Why was I questioning myself? What was I going to say? And how was I going to say it?
The doubt I had in myself subconsciously was now manifesting itself at the perfect time. When I needed my confidence most, it was too busy drowning in the waters below me. This was not happening to me. I lured Malik all the way out here to tell him something important and now I was choked up. Damn it all….
I panicked. “Malik-“
“Rajah-“ Malik spoke my name at the same time.
We looked at each other and laughed nervously. “You go first.” I blurted out.
Malik was looking down, sheepishly almost. “I’m- I’m not good with words, Rajah.”
I snorted. “The hell you aren’t”
“It’s true. I don’t like admitting anything to anyone. Especially when I’m wrong.”
Now I was extremely confused. “What were you wrong about?”
Malik sighed before looking up at me through his lashes, eyes in deep shadow, admitting a confession. “You need to know that I manipulated you. I kept you with me, not because the Brotherhood required me to, but because I wanted to. I wanted you around.”
My initial reaction was to be perplexed. My eyebrows snapped together, “What? But I was injured. You were taking care of me.”
“Perhaps I was,” Malik agreed, “but I had no right to. I should never have let you in the bureau. But I did. I felt sorry for you. I could not leave you lying there in the street. You could have died, via infection or the guards burying you in the earth. I could not let that happen to you, though you tried to rob me. So I went against the Creed. I-“
“But I’m still injured, aren’t I?” I felt stupid asking such an absurd question. He was speaking like I was never as seriously injured as I thought. I knew that lately I had felt much better. He really had been lying to me as I suspected……
“That’s my point,” he exhaled loudly, “You are no longer injured. You could have left a long time ago. I led you to believe that you were in such a bad state so I had an excuse to make you stay,” He looked up at me with regretful eyes, “I manipulated you, Rajah. And it was for my own damn self. I was so selfish…..” He rubbed his face with his hand, looking out into the river, avoiding my gaze.
So, I was right. I could have left while I had the chance. It was not all in my head. I did not have to stay in that bureau with him all that time. I could have been free.
And yet I found, instead of being angered by all of this, I was only vaguely surprised that my suspicions were correct. I did not believe Malik would lead me on like that. He did not seem like the kind of man to do such a thing.
Further still, I was saddened to think he might have been so desperate for company that he had turned to taking me off the streets when the chance presented itself so he would not be alone all the time. It was pathetic, almost.
“If you were so lonely, why didn’t you make Altaïr stay? Or-“
“Altaïr and I hated each other. He would not have stayed even if he did like me. Besides, he is always gone. Never in one place,” He spoke solemnly, “There is no one here for me, Rajah. I am as alone as ever. That’s why I saved you.”
He sighed and looked at me. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that I want your company. No one else’s. I want you to stay with me.”
“Malik, I…..” Words evaded me. I was tongue-tied, unable to speak. My heart began to drum against my chest.
“I’m sorry to overwhelm you with my feelings, but I just wanted you to know that I care for you very much. I don’t want you to hurt anymore.”
I was staggered. I was giddy. I was feeling every sort of good emotion there was. I could not even begin to fathom what kind of courage that took to admit his feelings for me, but at that point, I was just too shocked to say anything. I stood, my hands finding my forehead and a strangled laugh coming from my throat. This was too much, all too much. This could not be happening to me, not me…..
“How ironic.” That was the only thing my scrambled mind could come up with at the time.
“What?” Malik’s tone was taut, demanding. I turned back to him, seeing the water reflect on his anxious stance, his eyes afraid…..
I was star struck for a moment, searching for the words I had thought last night, struggling to formulate a sentence.
“I was coming out here to tell you the same thing. Tha-that I did not care what happens to me and-and that I’ll stay with you as long as it takes to figure you out,” I paused, catching my breath. I could see Malik wanting to interrupt, so I hurried to keep going, to get it all out. If it didn’t, I would literally lose my mind, “I thought I was stupid, thinking that you would feel something for a – a worthless girl like me. I have nothing to give you, we both know that. I just…I have wanted to decode all the mysteries behind you, and in that stead, I have become close to you,”
I held my arms out helplessly, “My feelings are out of my control now. I just…I wanted you to know. That’s all. Not that it changes anything.”
I ended my shaky spiel by sitting back down next to him, while he took it all in with an overcome, but depressed appearance. My hands trembled and my face burned. I did not feel any courage, just relief that I had no more to hide from him.
“Oh, young one,” Malik sighed, both of us looking straight ahead into the trees on the bank opposite us. The wildlife went on, oblivious of the drama occurring between the two of us intruders. The silence stretched on calmly for a few minutes before Malik spoke quietly, “I feel better now that I was not made out to be a fool. But that does not right my wrong.” He glanced sidelong over at me, the comment ending darkly.
“It doesn’t matter anymore. I am staying with you.” I returned the gaze, staring into his eyes to accentuate my point.
“Well, I was not going to let you leave, one way or another. I don’t think I had a choice. I think it’s okay to call me possessive.” He laughed half-heartedly.
“To say the least,” I agreed. Malik held his hand out, and with a slight hesitation, I took it. His calloused skin was warm and rough against mine.
“I thought myself a fool,” I spoke gingerly, regarding him, “for feeling like this. How could you want someone like me?”
“Rajah!” Malik exclaimed, acting almost surprised at my thoughts, “What are you complaining about? Why would anyone want me? I have only one arm! Who would want me as a husband?!” He looked at me in disbelief, clutching what remained of his left arm. He was not offended, only unsure of why I felt like I did.
“Who would want a homeless girl as a wife?” I refuted. Honestly, there was not one person out there that wanted a grimy, poor, uprooted person like me. Unless it was for ill purposes. There were many men I’m sure would gladly take advantage of me if they could catch me…..
“You are not homeless anymore, Rajah-“
“And you’re not crippled, Malik. I’ve seen you kill six armed guards and you have probably killed dozens more. As far as I’m concerned, you are one of the strongest, most intelligent men I know.” I had never said anything more of truth than that in my life.
My defiance made him smile. “You lift me up, Rajah. Perhaps that is why we are meant to be together, to lift each other up.”
Just hearing him say that made me feel warm and good inside. I grinned and intertwined my fingers with his. Again, the silence stretched on comfortably, the both of us wondering what was to come.
“What happens now?” I voiced my thoughts aloud, watching the water churn absentmindedly.
“I don’t know, young one. We can only anticipate. That’s all anyone can ever do.” He was scrutinizing the horizon, the worry and uncertainty wrinkling his brow, no doubt very concerned about his bureau and the missions. I did not like seeing him that way.
I had an idea around then, one I think that was waiting to be launched upon the moment we arrived here. I only hoped it would relieve his stress.
“Well….” I spoke slyly, “Did you anticipate this?” He had just turned his head in my direction when a surge of water splashed into him. He did not cry out, only flinched and closed his eyes, wiping the droplets from his face. I was grinning hugely, struggling to not burst into laughter.
He turned toward me menacingly, his brown eyes burning with playful anger, that evil hunter’s grin on his lips. “No, young one, I did not. But I bet you didn’t anticipate how much I would fight back, did you?”
He was then shoving me into the water, my uncontained shrieks, giggles and half-hearted attempts to stay on the ledge were not enough to stop him.
I went in, the icy water bubbling and gurgling in my ears before I came to the surface. I rubbed the water from my eyes, out of breath and absolutely frigid. “Malik, you ass!” I exclaimed, spitting out water.
He was chuckling, shedding his weapons, belt and all of his clothes, save for his pants, like an insect sheds its exoskeleton. Underneath his robes was a whole different side to him, the Assassin side of him. He was limber, nimble and fit, just as any Assassin should be, perhaps even more so. His muscles were strong and wiry, his abs prominent through his thick, tan skin and a thin trail of dark hair just below his belly button trailed temptingly underneath the security of his pants.
The water wasn’t nearly as cold anymore… For a man with only one arm, many people would probably only scoff if someone said that Malik was of this kind of physical caliber. I myself would have doubted it.
Malik dove in without falter, disappearing under the water’s rippling surface. My first fear was that of him being unable to swim, but considering the extensive bulk and strength he carried, that fear for him was an afterthought. Like everything else he did, Malik was a very good swimmer.
And shortly thereafter, he did pop out of the water behind me. I shrunk back, his taunting eyes watching me eerily through the hair stuck to his face.
“Jackass.” I mocked. A wave of water deluged me, and I recoiled, trying desperately to shield my eyes from the onslaught. Grinning and chortling like a child, I shoved water back at him, only he was gone. I narrowed my eyes, trying to peer beneath the waves to find him. Only one cannot see through water very well. I turned around, still struggling to see where he had vanished, knowing full well he was probably way out into the river by now and-
A strong tug on my leg yanked me under the swells with barely enough time for a breath and a strangled protest. The next thing I saw when I opened my eyes was Malik’s blurred but attractive face watching me. He was tantalizingly close, enough for me to touch him, and I found I could not resist the urge.
Without thought, I began to reach out, almost mesmerized in a trance-like state, when Malik grabbed my hand and yanked me to him gently. His arm encircled my shoulder and his forehead was pressed up against mine, eyes half-lidded and our breaths leaving our lungs in silvery packets that floated lazily to the surface. My hands rested on his shoulders lightly and I could feel exhilaration in my gut, an unconscious trail of warmth blooming in my middle. Malik leaned in close, gently pressing his lips to my cheek and the blush that ensued heated my face instantly. He smiled at me, his expression tender.
We went back to the surface, swimming to shore and basking in the midday sun. It did not take long for us to dry off and for Malik to get his clothes back on. And I knew, with each passing moment, that this morning of peace was going to end once we returned to Jerusalem and Malik would have to attend to his duties. And that’s what made the ride back almost as dreadful as the ride going to the river.
The quiet was not unpleasant, just….. all knowing. Knowing that Malik’s duty as an Assassin would always come first. And with loving him came acceptance of that fact. I had to, or I could never stay with him happily.
When we reached the city, we dumped our horses off at the gate and discreetly entered. The tension was still as real as it had been when we left. So real, in fact, that there was a good number of Templars standing guard almost at the entrance. Malik’s sharp eyes caught them before I did and we ducked into an alleyway, scampered up conveniently stacked boxes and climbed to the rooftops.
Now that was where I belonged. Up there, the air was clearer, the haze of the smoky city unable to smother the vibrant, blue sky. I took a deep breath, scanning the horizon, which stretched as far as the eye could see and the head could comprehend. The mountains spread out, unbarred from the confines of Jerusalem, a land that went far beyond my own knowledge. Beyond this city and my special hideout, the world was an alien place. To me, this was home and always would be.
“I’ll race you back to the bureau.” I offered a challenge, the sudden thrill of returning to the skyline of Jerusalem rejuvenating me and kick-starting my energy.
“You know where it is?” Malik asked, wondering how sure I was of myself.
I barked a laugh, “I have lived in this city all my life. I know it like the back of my hand.”
“In that case,” he smiled, “you have yourself an opponent.” He took his stance, leaning forward, knees bent, eyes bright and ablaze with the anticipation of a dual.
He counted to three and with every second, I could feel my thoughts leaving my body, the adrenaline beginning to shake in my legs, my breathing quick but composed, unable to calm my heart…..
We took off like lightning. My focus laid straight ahead, Malik a deep blue blur to my right. My mental map of the city was already beginning to form as I ran. We had entered on the west side of the city, making the Dome of the Rock directly to my east. The Assassin’s bureau was just south of the Dome of the Rock from the way we were heading toward it. I knew this city’s layout like no other, almost as if I were the daughter of Jerusalem itself. In many ways, that was true.
I was almost sure Malik had fallen behind me, though not by far. I had run across these roofs all my life. But Malik was an Assassin, albeit one with a broken wing, but an assassin nonetheless. I was surprised he had not overtaken me. I glanced down below me in the midst of climbing a ladder up a rather steep building to see Malik right behind me, watching me. My heart skipped a beat and in an instinct to protect myself, I scurried up the wall, only to find that I was trapped.
Trapped by nothing more than a sheer drop to certain death. I peered down below at the people in the streets, made out to be mere ants from the dizzying view. Normally, I was not affected by heights, but I was made more nervous of the fact that I had nowhere else to go but down and jumping off of high buildings straight into the ground was not in my normal daily routine.
“A leap of faith is all it takes.” Malik’s voice was smooth and suggestive. I turned to see him nod to a hay cart directly beneath us, frail enough to break should more weight be added to it, much less two people plummeting at Allah’s good mercy out of the sky.
“All it takes to kill oneself.” I replied sarcastically, a note of uneasiness crawling into my voice.
“Not if one knows what they are doing.” Malik contradicted.
“Do you know what you are doing?” I shot back.
“Do you trust me?” Malik fired at me, his voice soft and confident.
“Of course I do,” I answered without pause, “But not enough to jump off of a building to my death!” I exclaimed, gesturing to the drop.
“Trust can take you a long way, young one.” Malik murmured, coming up behind me and holding my arms out to either side of me, spreading them out like an eagle’s wings. My heart was beating so hard in my chest, I was sure Malik could hear it. And most likely, he could feel it, too as he pressed himself flush against me, holding me in place. I swallowed convulsively, resisting the urge to hyperventilate.
“Can trust save us from being smashed to a million pieces?” I asked squeakily.
“Well, we’ll find out.” He murmured, “Don’t close your eyes.”
And then, we were literally flying. Allah took over and the air was stolen from my lungs as we fell earthward. I could not scream, I could not think, only watch through my wide eyes as the hay cart grew nearer and nearer. My hair and Malik’s blue robe billowed in the wind. Tears were forced from my eyes and when I blinked them away, I found I was looking skyward and then the distance and the ground had no meaning anymore. Speed meant nothing, the idea that we could die meant nothing. We were floating peacefully down to the ground. No danger, no death, nothing at all.
The landing was sudden and silent, but painless. It did not even register to me that we had stopped falling. I thought we were dead until Malik shifted underneath me. The world had gone dark under the hay. He had taken the brunt of the fall, and I rolled off to find him laughing. I began to grin, not just from what had just come to pass, -which was, for lack of a better word, invigorating- or from the fact that we had survived the fall in one piece, but because Malik was happy. The laugh was raw. It was real, full of energy and delight.
I’d never seen him look so carefree, so relieved from his burdens, be it mental, physical, or emotional, in which case he was overloaded on all three levels. I felt like I was on cloud nine, I was so blissfully happy….
“What did I tell you, young one?” Malik looked at me wonderingly, his eyes alight. I did not-could not- respond, only smiled and touched his jaw, the prickly hairs somehow still making me unsure if he could be real. I could not admire for long, as I was being pulled forward into him, his mouth on mine.
I did not grasp what was happening at first, I was too busy asking why, or how. But soon, my reason dissolved as his lips, warm and chapped, answered all my questions. He was solid against me, unyielding until he got what he wanted and I melted into a puddle against him. His hand on the back of my neck held me still while my hands moved to his shoulders, fingertips tingling with an excited need. The heat from his mouth, moving against mine, seemed to swim through my body to my stomach, which became overwhelmingly, but pleasurably warm. A more intense version of the feeling that only manifested itself when I watched him secretly during his training sessions.
A tender ache now fanned into a ferocious eagerness as I drank him in. The taste of him, dear Allah, was sweet, but not quite. A distinctive taste I would need more of to figure out.
Malik pulled away, his eyes half-lidded, but bright. “Do you trust me now?” He breathed huskily, his lips still near mine.
My own breathing was slightly ragged as I whispered, “If I say no, would you kiss me again?” I grinned all too fervently when he laughed his reply.
“Perhaps.” A quick press of his lips against my mouth ensued. He smiled evilly at me, his face devilishly handsome. I could not help but pout.
“A little more than that, preferably.” I suggested, attempting to almost beg for more. He only smirked pityingly and patted my cheek.
“When we return to the bureau.”
I practically leaped from the cart, unable to control my anticipation. I startled an older woman and her grandchild, who happened to pick the wrong time to stroll by. I called a distracted apology to them as Malik climbed out more carefully than I did, making sure to not scare any other innocent passerby.
I all but sprinted for the bureau, trying to plow down the door when I realized that doors don’t really work well when locked. Malik shook the keys behind me, practically pinning me to the door as he unlocked it. He pressed his lips to the side of my neck and I bit my lip, trying to control myself in public.
Tumbling inside, I watched as the light escaped back outside as Malik shut the door, the click of the lock bringing a sinful shiver up my spine. I turned to him in the dim room, now nothing but a mere shadow as my eyes attempted to readjust quickly to the sudden change in light. I smiled shyly, inviting him to me. He advanced like a predator to his willingly suicidal prey. His arm swiftly encircled me and his mouth was attacking mine, hot and greedy.
A muffled groan escaped my throat before I could stop it and I could feel Malik’s chuckle as he began to let his tongue sweep into my mouth. I was lost and delirious. He tasted sweet and rich, the scruff of his goatee tickling my skin, and I leaned closer into him, my shaky hands roaming his collarbone and shoulders. He refused to give way, pushing me back against the desk, entrapping me. Yet, I still wanted closer to him.
The hot, sticky feeling in my abdomen was also growing, becoming a very prominent center of attention for me. Malik pulled me tighter to him and that helped, a tad bit. He then became fascinated with my neck and I bent back to allow him greater access. His lips were deliciously warm against my chilled skin. Every part of me seemed to be demanding his attention, refusing to cool off until he took care of it. Oh Allah, he didn’t stop. I did not want him to stop. It was too perfect to end.
And that’s when the bells of Jerusalem began to ring.