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And The Stars Remain

Chapter Text

The sun rose in the east, casting a bright and loving glow upon the city of Jerusalem. The rays of light escaped over the mountains, eager to engulf the earth in a pleasant glow and to chase away all the evils of the night. The light found my face and kissed it, as if it could not stand being away from me another second. The feeling was not mutual.

I detested the daytime. It meant the stars were dead for the time being, and I was no longer able to hide away from the people. It meant I, like all the other flaws of this wretched city, was exposed, naked and raw, for Allah and everyone to gawk at. Or, in my case, to be ignored and pushed around, like a clod of dirt kicked into dust. The streets of Jerusalem were the epitome of filth, disease and crime.

The wind picked up, the comfortable chill of the night giving a dying breath before the heat of the day overwhelmed everything in sight. Yet another reason I hated daylight hours. Along with the heat came the smells of the market. Spices, fresh fruit and vegetables, cured meats and bread, almost anything that the stomach desired lay in neat rows for people to buy. Or for the unfortunate like me, to stare and wonder what all that food must surely taste like.

My belly gave a hollow moan. The meager supper of an apple and stale piece of bread last night had clearly not satisfied me. I rubbed it, offering my consolations, but the only answer came in a growl.

I suppose one could gather that I had no money. I had not held coins in my hand in years. With that in mind, I had taken up digging in the garbage for leftover scraps or on worse days, depending sheerly on the good grace of the people, which was something everyone had less and less of with each passing day.

Only on rare occasions would I ever steal directly from someone. I was lucky the guards never caught me, for who knows what they would do to a girl such as myself? I have seen what they do to those who cannot defend themselves. Torture is an applicable word, but not nearly descriptive enough.

I stole from those who held an air of worth about them. A risky gamble, but nonetheless, worth it. I had needed the food, but the guilt that tore me up afterwards made me question my self-worth. I would be damned, but I needed to eat. It was always an endless banter between what I knew was wrong in my own mind and my will to survive. So I only stole when my situation was so dire I had no other choice.

I could hear the people beginning to flood the streets, jockeying and bustling to reach the market before all the good picks of the day were cleaned out. I leaned over from my little cubby in the church ledge and observed the mob of people flocking towards the pillar of smoke that came from the nearest market.

I did not want to mingle with the morning crowd that guaranteed me to be shoved into a wall or pushed flat on my face. But my snarling stomach suggested otherwise. I'd pay for it if I did not obey. I made it to my feet, stretching out the aches and pains of another sleepless night. My back end was numb from having remained in a sitting position for so long.

The roof of the church was already seething with the ever rising heat and I could feel the skin on my bare feet getting scorched. Maybe, with any luck, the crowd would thin out so I would not have to travel by rooftop for long. The only good thing about the roofs was that I could be more readily hidden and they kept me away from the humans crawling about the streets like the rotten insects they were. And it was especially here, on top of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, that I felt I was closer to the stars.

I picked up my pace, leaping from one roof to another with ease while keeping a sharp eye out for archers who were ready to make me the first casualty of the day. I approached the market cautiously, maintaining my distance as to not alert anyone. Alas, that is not what Allah had in mind for me, for when I decided to jump down from the roof, I did so in the clumsiest manner possible.

A sentry spotted me just as I was about to make my exit, and in a panic, I hurled myself blindly off the gable right in the middle of a huddle of guards. A slew of nasty remarks were thrown in my direction as I picked myself up off the ground and continued on my merry way. Mercifully, they had better things to do other than harass a bumbling, inept, homeless girl. My heart gave many thanks as I saw them turn away and continue on with their conversation before I rudely interrupted.

I made my way inside the bazaar, hoping that maybe it would be my lucky day. I admired the crates of crisp fruit, warm, fresh bread and the scent of a seasoned meat wafting through the air that tormented my aching belly. It was all I could do to not seize the food in front of me and scarf it down then and there... Just one bite would do...

Someone bumped into me roughly, knocking me forward. I could feel the plated armor against my back, the clanking of a sword in its holder. I froze, not daring to move a muscle in fear that may have been one of the guards I accidently flung myself into. Or perhaps it was just one combing through the mob, looking for suspicious individuals that had intent on robbing the market.

I could not hear anything above my own heartbeat, the adrenaline that lined my bloodstream. It was the point where I had to decide whether to run or stay. Flee and starve to death, or remain and possibly have myself arrested, for someone of my class should not have even been allowed within sight of the marketplace. Neither option sounded appealing. But there were no other choices, especially when I glanced through a screen in my hair to find the guard looking towards me. I was uncertain if his gaze was fixated straight upon me, but leaving was out of the question. That was asking to arouse suspicion.

Rooted to my spot by renewed fear, I decided to attempt to act normal and reached to inspect a piece of bread. It was only when I actually had it in my grasp that I noticed how much my hands were trembling.

The heat of the bread was extreme as well, causing me to nearly drop it. But I clutched it tightly, clinging to something that may possibly give me life. My fingers dug deeply into the crust and slowly, I lifted it to my nose, inhaling the rich, luscious aroma.

My whole body cried out for that piece of lifesaving grace that was in my possession. I needed that vital piece of life. I craved it. But one look at that guard made all my hunger go away, replaced by butterflies that filled me to the brim. I could not eat it there, let alone steal it to save for later. It was a death wish.

It had never pained me that much to do anything in my life, but I placed the bread back in the crate, ignoring the wails of protest from my stomach, and turned away. Joining a small gathering of persons leaving the market, I left the area. I had to regroup. There were more guards around than there were earlier and I knew there was no going back the way I came. A bubble of dismay floated in my empty stomach.

Nothing was going according to plan. Not that I even had a plan to begin with, but I knew I had just passed up an excellent opportunity. All because of that damned sentinel. I could have easily slipped that bread down my shirt and there would not have been anything anyone could do about it. But that moment had been clouded with panic and uncertainty and it was too late to change it.

The guards were thick in numbers that day. I was not sure why, though it may have been due to that fact that there had been a strange man dressed in white robes running around the city, killing important officials. An Assassin, they called him. There was always one to be found everywhere. I stayed away from all that trouble. All the protection seemed trivial for just one man. How dangerous could he be?

Very dangerous apparently, in the eyes of those protecting Jerusalem, and though the fortified security may have meant good for the citizens and their leaders, it did me none whatsoever.

As my group led me through the streets, I began to contemplate what to do. I imagined all the town markets were heavily guarded, so it was safe to assume stealing food was a good way to get myself killed. It would take a miracle to get in safely even if I had money. If only I had money...

I know not what drew my attention to him out of all people. He had appeared out of nowhere, like a specter. More like a demon, I daresay, given his dark robe. His hood cast a black shadow around his head, so I could not make out much of his face.

What intrigued me more was that the stump of his left arm was pressed tightly against his side, the sleeve stitched up to his shoulder. He walked with an air of knowing what he was, but also knowing that he was not the strongest of his kind. He was an Assassin, but not the one the guards were on the lookout for that day.

A mysterious, troubled man he was. How he got around with only one appendage, I had not an idea. I may have felt more sorry for him had I not noticed the bulge in his coat pocket as he strode past. The man may not have had two arms, but he had coin. A lot of it, too, as the swell in his pocket indicated.

My instincts overrode everything else. He couldn't be that much of a threat. One arm had to be crippling on him. On the other hand, he was an Assassin and two arms or not, he'd been trained to fight, and no doubt probably knew and mastered one hundred different ways to kill a man. Half of which probably did not even involve any sort of weapon, only his own powerful fist.

But it did not matter then, as my mind had already labeled him as weak. The urge to steal was far too great to pass up, the prospect of having money and food too irresistible.

I did not pause to give thought to the predicament I was already in and broke away from my group, immediately subjecting myself to exposure. I matched the footfalls of the handicapped Assassin as to not tip him off that he had a tail. My heart was beating so hard against my chest I thought it may burst through my ribcage.

I trailed closer to the man until he was an arm's length away. A few steps more and I could have traced my fingertips lightly over his robes.

Two steps more and I was almost pressed right up against him. I was already beginning to regret it. A surge of guilt was threatening to overwhelm me for stealing from the poor man, but there was no time to back out as my hand was already shakily reaching into his coat pocket. I wrapped my fingers around the thick, burlap pouch and swiftly yanked it out of his robe.

I did not remember who saw me first, the Assassin or the guards trailing behind us that I had failed to notice beforehand. Like lightning, the Assassin flipped around, holding a knife to my neck. I was so stunned I forgot how to breathe or move. The cold blade of the dagger effectively cut off my air supply as the man studied my face.

"Well, well. It seems the dirty thief chose the wrong man to steal from today." He spoke my thoughts nonchalantly in a husky, thick Syrian accent.

I had seriously underestimated the man. He knew very well how to wield a blade. I was too rattled to speak, so instead I took to analyzing his face, or what I could see of it anyway. The lower half of his face was covered in black stubble. Shadows casted down from his hood prevented all else from being observed, apart from the glassy reflection of two dark eyes staring at me with animosity.

"Do you have anything to say to justify what you have done? Or has someone else gone through the trouble of cutting out your tongue so I do not have to?!" He demanded sharply.

I was about to spit in his face when I felt a slash of pain run up my leg. I shrieked in surprise. I figured, somehow, the man holding me was trying to force words from my mouth by cutting my lower leg off. Then it dawned on me; the one arm he had was preoccupied holding a knife to my throat.

And that was when he pushed me down. The stones of the street slammed into the back of my head. My vision fell into blackness, but only for about two seconds when I felt a foot drive hard into my shoulder blade and the clashes of swordfight ringing to life around me.

I impulsively rolled to the side to escape and covered my head, waiting for the next earth-shattering blow. But it never came. I peeked through the crook in my elbow to see a swarm of guards had taken to the Assassin like bees to honey. One man with one arm against six eager to beat him into the ground.

My vision began to fade in and out because of the pain, but I caught glimpses of the battlefield. One guard fell, and then another and another until all but one had fallen to the Assassin's wrath. I could not catch all the details as to how each one died, it all happened too suddenly for that, but the last demise made up for all the others.

The Assassin danced around the sentinel, deadly and calculating as a snake, anticipating the move of the other man. He lunged out of the way as the guard stabbed for a strike at his shoulder, and that was a fatal error. The Assassin struck; lodging his blade in the jugular of the opponent with so much force he beheaded the man in one slice.

Blood splattered everywhere, on my face and down the road several feet. I gasped at the warm sticky fluid and buried my face as I heard the man hit the ground with a wet thud.

My stomach heaved, but there was nothing to throw up, thankfully. I would not have to replace what could have been in my stomach. There were footsteps coming towards me and I froze, pretending to be dead so the man may perhaps leave me be.

"I know you are alive. Stand up." The throaty voice commanded. I felt a warm substance drop onto my arm and I peeked out of my cove of safety.

There was the Assassin, towering above me with the dagger pointed in my face, the blood from the beheading still fresh. Another plump droplet of blood plummeted to the ground, splashing into the street and running through the crevices between the bricks, never to be seen again.

"Get up, I said." The man growled, holding an unspoken threat that he might remove my head in the same manner should I not comply.

I was unsure if my leg would bear my weight, but I did not dare let him know that. I rose slowly, testing my knee and finding the gash to be more excruciating than I had originally thought, but I could walk. I had to.

I observed the battleground. The bodies of the guards were strewn about, the street slick with the blood and gore still oozing from their wounds. The mysterious, hooded man stood in front of me, the point of the knife still inches from my face. He was a head or so taller than me and, given how quickly he had slain those men, very swift on his feet. I could not misjudge him again, or I too, like those guards, would pay severely for it.

There we stood, facing each other down for several moments, searching for the weakness of the other. He knew I could not run with an injured leg, nor could I probably outrun him with both good legs. That most likely encouraged him.

With a flick of his blade, he motioned for me to go to the right, down a narrow side street. I was confused as to what his intentions were. I was not sure whether he was letting me go free or he was going to follow me to a directed location. Something inside me conveyed it was the latter, as I was still clutching his money sack. I could have given it back, but the sinister glint in his eyes notified me he was not going to play games or let me go at that stage. So I went along with his wishes.

The presence of the man behind me caused me to worry about every incessant thing. If his intent was to intimidate me, he was doing an excellent job. If I fumbled or tripped, I feared he would not hesitate to jab his knife into my back. Maybe that was for the better. I would not have to witness the coldness of his eyes as he did so.

I was deeply afraid. I did not know what this man had plans for, but I knew they could not possibly be good. Not with how my luck had been. I did not think that I had ever heard my heart scream that loudly in fear. That, in turn caused my leg to bleed out profusely. Soon, it began to throb so badly I was in fear of passing out. I could only hope our destination was not far.

I had to give my strength credit, though. It had lasted me the long walk, though almost halfway there did it fail me. I could hold myself up no longer. My leg gave out and I crumpled to the ground. The pain bombarded me, washing over me in waves that were impossible not to drown in. My world was spinning and I closed my eyes, panting, desperate to escape.

I heard the man sigh, but the sound was muffled, almost as if I were hearing it through a tunnel. "Stand up, thief! We are nearly there. A few more steps are all you must overcome."

That last statement did not exactly make me want to spring to my feet. I wanted to tell the man to take a flying leap, but I think that was something he had probably done all the time, if he was anything like the man in white I'd seen, who cascaded down from the top of the Dome of the Rock as easily as if he were walking down stairs.

I lacked the strength to even lift my head and acknowledge his presence, but I could hear him sigh again, obviously exasperated. He stomped his way over to my body, the vibrations of his footfalls killing off any hope that he considered me a lost cause.

I prepared for a smack to the head or a kick in the stomach to get me to my feet, like a sick animal. But I was, needless to say, pleasantly surprised when I felt myself being hoisted into the air, a strong arm wrapping itself around my waist. The Assassin had flung me over his left shoulder and I lay there, dangling helplessly, weakly beating him with my limp fists. He ignored my protests and continued walking.

What idiocy the man possessed! How dare he do this to me! I did not know what made him think that he could just kidnap me! I just prayed to Allah that I might see the light of day again.

Wherever it was we were going, we made it as I heard a door being opened and shut, darkness immediately consuming my sight. Or maybe that was because I had passed out.

I came to when I felt myself being let down to the floor gently. I hit something soft, but I was in too much pain to care where I was. I sank into the soft pillows, pressing my cheek against the cool wall. Sweat drenched every inch of my body as I tried to push away the throbbing that agonized my poor leg.

I parted my eyes to get a glimpse of my surroundings and found my captor crouching beside me dangerously, observing my condition. I immediately curled myself as close together as I could.

"Who are you?!" I whispered violently, my voice raspy.

"Ah. So it seems the little thief has a tongue." The man smirked, removing his hood and revealing his face to me for the first time. I was effectively taken aback by how much younger he was then I had made him out to be.

His short, black hair was slightly ruffled, with thick, dark stubble around his chin, blended well with his tanned skin. His lower lip pouched out slightly more than his upper and thick eyebrows framed his eyes, those of which were a shadowy night, obscure and gleaming.

He was attractive, perhaps in his mid-twenties. But that did not change the fact that he was an Assassin, my captor, one who could kill me very easily, whose intentions may or may not be pure.

"You.....You did not answer my question."

He simply scoffed at my reaction. "I am just a Samaritan who was concerned enough to not leave you dying like a dog in the street."

If he had any intellect about him, he would have left me there to rot.

"I would think you would want me dead." I muttered, watching as his eyes took on a sheen of cruel sarcasm.

"Well, I can decide I do not possess the medical expertise to save your leg and just let it become infected and perhaps have it amputated." His words held an air of truth in them, even with the icy contempt lacing every syllable.

The man, assassin, whatever he went by, was, without a doubt, the definition of merciless. Maybe that may be the very reason he was missing an arm. Some unfortunate soul must have fallen victim to his wrath and grew tired of his insults and chopped it right off. At least, that is what I would like to think happened.

"No different than yourself!" I retorted angrily.

But the man straightened, walking away from me, holding his finger up to silence anything I may have to say. "Except I can walk. Your days of thievery would come to an end quickly with one leg, would they not, young one? So perhaps," he paused, turning around with a counterfeit smile forged upon his face, "Perhaps you will do me a favor and silence yourself while I treat you so you do not bleed all over my bureau."

He shrugged his proposal, and then spun on his heel and went into a doorway across from me and disappeared. The only thing I could do was just sit there, completely staggered at the manner in which he treated me. Perhaps I deserved it. I did steal his money. But I was also injured, so one would think, since he dragged me all the way here, that he might take pity on me.

"Asshole." I growled under my breath, closing my eyes and pressing my head against the coolness of the wall. What I had failed to note was that he had been walking through the doorway right as I spoke.

"No different than yourself."

My eyes snapped open to find him crouching in front of me, carrying rags, a pot of water, some herbs and some gauze. His expression was smug. Such a jackass... And he flaunted it. I flashed him a glare before leaning back against the wall.

He wiped away the blood, the rag returning crimson-stained. I winced when he touched the wound itself, shocks of pure torture flying throughout my body. I jerked my leg back, but he caught my ankle, his grip strong.

"Hold still." His command was intense, yet held an undertone of gentleness that I most likely falsely detected. I relaxed my leg. I trusted he knew what he was doing. I had to. He was my only hope at that point.

"So where might your parents be, child?" I flinched slightly as he rubbed herbs on my wound, struggling to hold my leg in place.

"Dead," I answered breathlessly, "Does it matter?!" I added this harshly, not in the mood at the moment to answer his interrogations. But he, however, was not going to let it go.

"Yes, it does when you are stealing out of my pocket," It was then he noticed I was still in custody of his coins. "You can keep holding onto that for dear life if you like it."

His eyes flittered back and forth between the bag and my face.

"I will. Thank you very much for your concern."

He shook his head and chuckled, eyes drenched with disbelief.

"You steal to survive. Where are your morals, young one?" He then began to wrap my leg with thick, white gauze, too concentrated on his work to look up at me.

I was stunned he made an assumption like that. "I only steal when I absolutely have to. And I have morals. Not that you deserve to see that many of them." I retorted. He did not know me from Eve. What gave him the right to judge me? He was not Allah. At least, not the version I had in mind. I did not believe Allah was quite that much of an ass.

"And I just so happened to be your lucky target?"

I could feel his gaze on me as I lowered my head, letting my hair disguise my face as I grunted out an answer, "Yes, only I was not that lucky," I paused, peering up at his dusky eyes. "I underestimated you greatly." That was the biggest understatement of the entire century.

"You did, indeed." He replied, and I swore I caught a hint of haughtiness slither onto his face as he spoke. Of course, as I tried to analyze it, it disappeared into a mask of approval as he observed his handiwork. "There, that should do it."

His next question caught me off guard. "Do you have anybody you reside with?" He looked back at me, awaiting my response.

I had not lived with another person in years. I did not know what gave him the impression that I was anything but homeless. My clothes were baggy and torn, I had no shoes, no food, and no possessions. Unkempt did not even begin to describe what I looked like. Also, why would I have stolen from him in the first place anyway?

"No... I do not have a home. I stay on the roofs, as far from the people as I can stand." I did not care for the majority of people. Nor did they care for me. It was a relationship that had remained unchanged for years.

My reaction did not seem to shock him. "You are a recluse. No different than me, it seems." I stared at the side of his face as he gazed off in the other direction, wondering why he said that.

Perhaps he spent all his time in his bureau. Quite the lonely lifestyle, but I had no right to condemn him. I was in a no better situation. There was a long silence as I tried to figure him out.

"Perhaps, you should stay here so I can make sure that your leg stays intact."

I was not sure I heard what he said correctly. He was really offering to let me, me of all people, who had stolen his money and caused a fight in the city, stay with him. No matter what I gave him, it would not be enough to repay him for his kindness. I had not rested inside a building in.... who knows how long. It almost felt unnatural.

"But –"I started to protest his actions when he held up his hand to silence me.

"Do not question me. It is for the best, believe me."

I could not understand the turning of my luck, but before I could dwell on that, he continued, "I assume you are hungry."

With the pain dimming, I could almost hear my stomach singing its opinion. I nodded slightly, afraid if I did anything too dramatic, everything would disappear with a poof of smoke. "Yes sir, I am."

"Then you will not be much longer."

The man stood to leave and strode slowly to the doorway where he'd come out of earlier. I could not discern his actions. He was callous at times, but he acted like he cared. He was the first person to notice me in so long without pity or anger in his eyes. Annoyance, yes, but not pure rage. Not like the sentinels, whose tempers flew off the handle if one simply brushed past them. I wanted to know why he was different.

"Sir...." I blurted out, causing the Assassin to turn his head slightly to hear me out. A few moments went by as I formed the sentence in my head, "Why are you treating me with such kindness?"

He had to take the time to formulate an answer. In the end, he spoke, "I am not heartless."

That made no sense to me. I was a thief, a beggar. Why feel sorry for me when no one ever did?

"But I stole your money," I glanced down at the bag still in my grip. "I still have your money." The coins jingled in the pouch against my thigh, as if to prove my point.

But the man remained quiet, fixated on a point beyond my head, lost in a vision I had no sight of. His eyes were haunting, an uncanny, mournful glow that held a past that was far more miserable than I was able to comprehend.

"There is a reason you are not telling me." A shot in the dark I was taking, but my presumption was not far from the truth.

"There are some doors that should never be opened, young thief. There are some doors that hold secrets that should never be revealed," His voice was dead, like that of a phantom speaking through his body, desperate for a message to be heard. His gloomy eyes took hold of mine and did not let go. "So, perhaps," he continued, "We should keep our histories to ourselves, shall we?"

His gaze did not take leave of mine until I agreed, making sure his point was clear. "Yes, sir..."

And with that, he vanished into the darkness of the room opposite me. The man's speech unnerved me. What had I been dragged into?

To distract myself from the eeriness of that conversation, I observed my surroundings. The first thing that struck me was that the room lacked a door. The only escape I could see was on the roof. How had we gotten in here?!

My only guess was that the front entrance must have been in that room across from me. Perhaps the rooftop entry was for the Assassins to actually gain entrance without arousing suspicion. The guards would not be able to find it easily and the bureau's real purpose could remain undetected.

Underneath the grated lattice, to my left, on the wall was a giant crest carved to look like the outline of the Assassin hood, similar to the one that man wore when I first saw him. Ivy clambered up the wall to cling to the grating. Below that was a fountain that spouted water into a small basin for drinking.

There were no other rooms, save for the one across from me, where the man was at the moment. I did not dare venture to look inside, as my leg would likely have given out on me and the man may not have appreciated my snooping.

Everything had darkened somewhat when the man came back, which alerted me that it was now evening. He carried a bowl, with steam billowing out of it, and handed it to me carefully.

"Thank you, sir." He nodded curtly, going back to bring a second bowl for himself before taking a seat next to me. The smell of the soup was overwhelming, the dull ache in my leg instantly forgotten. I could not remember the last time I had such a feast in my hands. I hesitated, almost sure it would evaporate in my grasp.

"It is not that terrible. It will not bring harm to you." I looked up at him slowly, almost startled by his comment. No, that was not it at all. I was not afraid of him poisoning me.

"Sir.... I just have not eaten anything like this for a long time." I smiled half-heartedly, hoping he understood.

"It is fine. It is better to be strong than emaciated." He looked at me with concerned eyes, every bit as serious as I was. And I knew he was right. I had to eat to sustain what little health I kept.

I lifted a spoonful to my mouth slowly, curls of steam drifting lazily away as I blew on it. I took a small bite and found it to be piping hot. When the heat passed, I could taste the spiciness dancing across my taste buds like fire. It was neither overpowering nor dull, rushing down my throat to my stomach in a euphoric frenzy. I had never felt more satisfaction. I threw down two more spoonfuls before turning to nod quickly at the Assassin, smiling my appreciation. He smirked back at me and proceeded to work on his own bowl.

It began to dawn on me that I did not have a name for the man who saved me. "Sir-"I began to ask, before immediately being cut off by his annoyed voice.

"Please do not hold me in such high regard. Call me Malik."

The irony left me dumbfounded. I laughed slightly. "I was just going to ask you what you called yourself." I could see the smirk creeping across his features.

"Great minds think alike." He mused.

Malik. I found I liked his name, the way it rolled off of my tongue and fell from my lips. Quite a beautiful name.

I also may have been misunderstanding my hearing, but I caught that little note of mockery laced within that last remark. How could a poor thief like me have a great mind?

"I have no such thing, considering all of the turmoil I have caused today." I looked down sheepishly and took another careful bite, awaiting his cruel agreement. But instead, he had only reassurance in store for me.

"No more trouble than what is normally caused these days in this city. It seems we will never have peace here." He looked quite dejected. What he said was true. There had always been some sort of unrest within this city and being in the position I was, it was difficult to avoid said mayhem.

"No, especially not in my world," I agreed, "Not ever." I shook my head. There would likely never be peace within Jerusalem. Not as long as I lived, anyway.

"And you?"

I looked back up at Malik, who eyed me curiously, trying to pry information from me. "What do you go by in these parts?"

I let my head bow, my hair concealing my face. "Rajah."

"And how old are you, Rajah?"

"I am nineteen." I mumbled.

"And you have been alone for nineteen years?" He presumed. I was slightly irritated. I did not know why he felt the need to play guessing games about my life, especially with what he himself said earlier.

"I thought we were not going to divulge our pasts." It came out sharper than my original intent. I could see the slight embarrassment coloring his eyes before he looked away.

"I apologize." He said quietly, still not meeting my gaze. I felt guilty and awkward for griping at him. In reality, he had just saved me from certain death and I just blew him off. I owed him everything, my life mainly.

"It is fine. I just do not care for double standards." I clarified, smiling slightly. He raised his head and examined me with inquiring eyes. There were secrets hidden deep within those doors of darkness. Secrets I may never know, but tried to figure out anyway. His gaze drifted to my empty bowl.

"Are you finished?" He asked, breaking my reverie. All I could do was nod and hand him my bowl, as I was slightly shaken from the intensity and temptation of mysteries trapped behind those obscure eyes.

As he stood, he spoke again, "You rest here tonight. I will be in that room over there," he gestured to the doorway across from me, the inside dim and unknown. "Rouse me if you require anything."

With that, he began to stride towards the other chamber. I looked down at my lap absentmindedly and saw the money bag, wrinkled beyond belief. I held it in my hands, pondering how it was the reason that I was in the situation I was in. The things that money will do to a person....

The man was just about to disappear when I called him back in. He came, setting the bowls down somewhere and stood in the doorway, his cloak shadowing him. He only had about two seconds to react as the coin bag sailed in a graceful arc towards him. It should have gone over his head and out of his reach, but his quick reflexes set in and in a blurry motion, his skilled fingers wrapped securely around the pouch. He looked vaguely confused, his eyes looking to mine for a reason.

"Thank you sir- I mean Malik."

My correction made a quite alluring smile come across his face, his eyes gleaming with a knowing expression. He nodded his thanks.

"Sleep well, Rajah." His soft voice echoed as he melted into the wall of darkness.

I lay back on the pillows, and for the first time in my life, did not feel the least bit insecure about my location. My leg pulsated every now and again, but for the most part, I felt content, with a full belly and safety enveloping me. The noises of the night quieted and I felt myself slipping away to the welcoming arms of sleep. And resist, I did not.

Chapter Text

It was late the next morning when I awoke, which was different for me. I was normally quite the early riser. The best time to get around without too much trouble from anyone was in the early dawn hours.

I yawned and stretched, popping my back, noticing for the first time in a long time, I had awoken without pain. The rooftops were not the most comfortable place to rest, let me assure you. These pillows granted me great comfort.

I stood up, continuing to crack muscles here and there, making sure to not put too much weight on my still-tender leg. I looked about for the hooded man-Malik, but found the room devoid of his presence. He must be in the room across from me. I summoned my courage sleepily and sauntered forward into the room.

"I trust you slept well."

Malik stood to my right behind a counter, concentrated on a large piece of paper in front of him, not even looking up to acknowledge my answer.

A yawn escaped my mouth before I could help it and I could only nod as I looked about the space. The sweet smell of incense laced the room, coming from a small upright pipe on the counter next to Malik. It puffed out billows of smoke, giving the room a hazy glow combined with the sunlight streaming from the patio.

The front entrance to the building lay across the room, which confirmed my theory of how I came to enter this place. Shelves lined the walls of the entire chamber, containing books, scrolls and artifacts of unknown worth. A ladder behind me led up to a ledge where I assumed his sleeping quarters were, given there were no other exits other than the one out to the streets, and the one I just came through. One could really seclude themselves here....

I turned back to Malik, who continued to sketch out what looked to be uneven shapes within the limits of an even bigger, irregular shape. I could not discern what it was. I knew the man may've been an Assassin, but his taste in art was a bit strange....

"What is this?" I asked, motioning to the paper.

"A map of the city, young one." I immediately felt quite stupid for not knowing what it was, taking into consideration that I should know this city inside and out.... But I had never seen it drawn out before, though I could tell you how to navigate through Jerusalem from simply standing on the rooftop.

I looked past Malik at the rest of the rolled up papers behind him, wondering if this was all he could do in his free time.

"Are those all maps?"

"Most of them, yes." These clipped responses were not providing me with much information. I wanted to know more, or at the very least, engage in a conversation. I was having to work very hard to do just that.

"..... Why do you make them?" I knew I had gone too far as Malik looked up at me with an aggravated expression.

"Why are you asking so many questions?" He snapped.

"I was only curious. There is no need to bite my head off." I retorted defensively.

Malik simply sighed and looked back down to his work, deciding to give me a little rein. "They are important to our cause."

"The cause, I assume, for your Assassins?" I probed, waiting for him to growl at me again.

"Well, the young thief catches on fast, now." He observed, still engrossed in his map. He was clearly just trying to provoke me.

"Could you please, if you may, stop calling me that?" I spoke carefully, trying not to lose my temper.

"What, a thief? Is that not what you are?" He asked innocently, his eyes flashing me a painfully cynical look.

"No, I am not. You are mistaken." I watched as he gave me a sweet, but knowing smile.

"And you, young one, are simply delusional."

And so there we sat in strained silence. My frustration boiled in my stomach as I watched him work. It probably would have given me great pleasure to grab his ink bottle and 'accidently' tip it all over his masterpiece. I could only imagine how absolutely furious he would be, and that is why I refrained.

I, instead, began to look around the room and took in the sheer amount of books on the shelves.

"You are quite the avid reader, I must say." I commented idly, still scanning the spines of the books.

"Quite observant, young thie- ah, young one." There was a snort as he corrected himself. I turned to glare at him, noticing a small smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. I sighed, which seemed to only spark his amusement further.

"Perhaps we should tend to your wound." He suggested, though probably not out of any particular concern for my wellbeing. If he were smart, he would not come near me.

"If I do not rip your head off in the process." No matter how daunting that may have sounded, he obviously saw no threat in me and found his medical supplies.

He had me sit on the counter and hold my leg out in order for it to be checked. I felt no pain, but perhaps that was due to the fact that I was still reeling about his remarks. Either way, I thought about kicking him like a child would, but I resisted that as well, for he could have easily broken my leg in that grip of his.

"You're healing up nicely. Perhaps another day or two and you will be free to run again. Unfortunately."

It amazed me how fast we went back to square one. He had dual personalities, I would swear to it. An almost pleasant one and then the utter wretch with a tongue like knives. I may have overreacted to his words, but at that moment, I simply cared not what left my mouth.

"I don't understand why you have a problem with me now. I returned your money. Why are you suddenly treating me like I am a thief?!" I demanded, the fury gushing from my lips. If this was how he treated everyone, no wonder he was alone.

Malik looked up at me sharply, seemingly disturbed at my reaction. "I am not treating you any different than how I treat other people who are ungrateful," He replied coolly, standing up to meet me face to face. But he continued before I could interject,

"In fact," he stated, placing a finger on the table, "Had you not stolen my money in the first place and had you not been so incredibly bothersome, I may not have had to treat you in such a manner. But it seems I have no other choice but to regard you this way in order to get my point across."

I was absolutely speechless. I did not know one could be that cruel with words. "What point may that be?" I inquired, trying to maintain composure so he would not see how he had affected me.

"To leave me alone, child," he almost whispered in a strained voice, eyes closed. "I want to be left alone." He opened his eyes and they were stone cold, completely unreadable.

I couldn't take it anymore. "If that is what you want, sir, than that is how it shall be."

"Good," he declared, backing away from me, holding his arm out, "I am glad we understand one another. Now go."

I heeded his order, slipping off the counter and scampering to my nest of pillows, where I curled into a ball. I struggled to rid the words away, knowing they should not have affected me as much as they did, but was unable to keep them out of my head. They wormed themselves into my brain, carving a hole where they repeated over and over again, ad infinitum.

I just wished for sleep to come, or the sun to melt me into a puddle so I could get away from Malik and his cruel demeanor. But those ideas never came to pass, so I just lay there, hidden in my cushions, waiting for the day to wither away.

I was unsure of how much time had gone by, or if I had dozed off, even, though I was sure I had kept my eyes open the whole time. It was only when I heard the quiet shuffle of steps coming my direction did I pretend to fall asleep. I tried to make my breathing steady, body still as could be.

His stare bored down onto me and I was unable to shake it, like I was his prey pretending to play dead. I did not know if he knew that I was really awake, but this waiting was very uncomfortable for me.

Boldly, I rolled over, feigning a yawn. I stared up at Malik, the sun of midday making it hard to make out his features with its glare.

"What?!" I snapped, the events of earlier beginning their repercussions, "Have you come to chase me out of here as well?!"

It was only after the words had left my mouth did I catch the look of sadness on his face before it dissolved into a mask of indifference. I felt slightly guilty for snapping at him. Perchance, he felt bad for the words spoken earlier, but what came out next made the remorse diminish.

"Normally, I would make you leave and let the city guards do as they please with you. But seeing as how you are injured, it looks as though I am forced to make an exception." His tone was slightly obnoxious, but the feeling did not reach his eyes as he seated himself next to me, offering me a bowl of soup. I took it from him and downed it without really savoring it.

In my periphery, I could see him pulling a book out from under his arm and setting it on the floor. After I turned away and continued to eat, I could sense his gaze had fallen on me. I attempted to ignore it, but as before, I found it impossible to resist.

I snapped my head over in his direction, catching him red-handed. But he was not ashamed as being caught. "What? Why must you look at me like that?" I inquired testily. I was not a statue to be admired.

"I am not looking at you like anything. I am only concerned if you are alright." That response made no sense. Especially with what had left his mouth earlier. Very contradicting, indeed.

I laughed without much humor. "That is quite amusing. Only a while ago, you said you did not give a shit what happened to me."

"I never said that."

"Well, it was implied." I narrowed my eyes as he tried to take the words out of his mouth. Or at least the meanings.

"I only wished to be alone. I never said I did not care what happened to you. If that were the case, I would not have brought you here. Remember that."

He was treating me as if I had no common sense. It exasperated me to an excruciating degree. "You seem to have many different versions of yourself. I wish that you would only stick with one. You are giving me whiplash." I shook my head, tired of these maddening exchanges.

Apparently, Malik was, too as he threw his arm up towards the heavens. "Allah, have mercy, you are infuriating!"

"And you are so full of shit." I muttered, slamming my bowl down beside me. The anger ate away at my middle and I was struggling to hold back the urge to hit something. Growing up in the streets taught me how to defend myself should the time come, if flight was no longer a choice. Though in most cases, if I could flee the scene, one could bet every last coin that that was my first option.

I heard Malik sigh. "I've been perfectly honest with you. So honest, in fact," He held up a finger quickly, "I will tell you right now that I put poison in your wound last night."

My first instinct was to laugh. How stupid did he think I was to believe that? "You're goading me!" I chortled, over-exaggerating my laugh for effect.

Malik, however, did not find the situation funny, looking surprised that I was not taking him seriously. "Do I look like I am goading you?" He murmured threateningly, his gaze icy and one eyebrow lifted.

It was then my laughter ceased. What if he was telling the truth? He was an Assassin. The way I had made him angry earlier may have added motive for him to kill me. My stomach dropped and I think I forgot to breath as all reason left my mind and panic took over.

"Listen to that," Malik stated, looking around the room and smiling, "Such beautiful silence. I never thought I would hear it again."

I was not paying attention at that time because I was too busy ripping the bandages off my knee to check the wound. Had I had any sense, I would have realized that he had said he had poisoned me last night, meaning I would have been dead by now. But paranoia had consumed me, and there was no stopping it.

Malik's warm hand placed itself on the gauze, his soft voice cooing, "Novice....So gullible."

I looked over at him, seeing him try to hold in his grin and then it dawned on me. Too late. "You jackass.."

All that could be heard for the next several seconds was laughter. The kind that reverberated around the room and made one want to giggle even when they did not know what was happening. Had I not been so outraged at my own stupidity and at him for tricking with my head, I might have found that chuckling kind of lovely.

In order to be heard, my voice went up about two octaves. "How dare you do that?! That is my life you are joking around about!" However, my pettish anger had no effect on him. Perhaps it made it worse in actuality. I leaned back against the wall, feeling like a child that was being ignored.

"You just proved that I cannot trust you. Ever." I mumbled, folding my arms firmly across my chest, sulking.

"Maybe you should learn not to trust strangers so easily next time. If there even is one. There may not be anyone to take pity on you," He squinted at me, his next sentence a warning, "So perhaps you should try being a little more grateful that you are alive and on the mend."

I could not feel his stare let go of me, as if waiting for one of my snarky comebacks. I did not disappoint. "And you should try being less of an asshole."

He only sneered. "I have tried that already. It has only brought me failure." He then picked up his book and flipped it open, ignoring my coughed reply of "Clearly."

With nothing left to do, I watched Malik as he suddenly became engrossed in his novel. The cynical, mocking version of him was almost seeping out as the pages of the book engulfed him. It was quite bizarre how a book could possibly do that to someone.

"How do you do that?" I said softly.

Malik looked up at me, confusion tainting his features. "Do what?"

"Read." I pointed to his book. He was almost incredulous, to the point he thought I was trying to pull one on him. He laughed once in disbelief.

"What? You really do not know how to read?" He was quite surprised when he really should not have been. It wasn't that big of a surprise. I shook my head.

"You seem to forget that I live on the streets where I have no access to any sort of literature."

"I'm sorry." He said quietly.

"It is okay. No need to apologize." It was okay to forget I was homeless. Most of the time, everyone forgot that I even existed.

"No, I'm sorry you do not know how to read! You don't know what you are missing, young one." He corrected, as if reading my thoughts.

"Well...I guess I don't." I agreed. Reading was not something I had been taught and it did not put food in my mouth, so I never gave it much thought. It was something that did not spark my interest. Until now.

Malik sighed, flipping through the book. "One can lose themselves in these pages. I can travel the world and not even have to leave the bureau."

It was no wonder he looked so absolutely rapt while reading, his soul and mind adrift on some unknown current. "That sounds captivating. It would be nice to escape every now and then."

I watched as his eyes returned to the pages and I hesitated, biting my lip before asking my next question. "Could you perhaps...teach me how to read?" I feared his reaction to be one of humor, one finding me hopelessly foolish. But instead, he stared ahead into the distance for what seemed like forever.

I counted my heartbeats to keep track of time. I reached fifteen counts when he began to speak.

"I suppose I could...teach you the basics." He sounded neither overjoyed nor sullen, and he scooted closer to me, handing the book to me. I held it carefully between us, the smooth, dry surface of the paper foreign to my fingertips.

Malik's rolling, liquid accent narrated the black, printed symbols on the page, turning them into pictures that unfolded and rippled in the mind's eye, swirling in vibrant colors. Malik's husky voice pulling at the corners of my mind was the only indication that I was not dreaming. My eyes would follow the printed words, finding they fit what Malik spoke perfectly, though I understood none of what I saw.

Every now and again, Malik would point to a word I said I had not understood and I watched his hand. It was calloused and rugged, with veins snaking throughout his bones and muscles, carrying warm, thick blood. Wrapped in a smooth, tanned hid, I found his hand quite enticing, but not in the way one would think. His sole hand was one of a warrior who had fought many rough battles and lost its twin, but was also one of an artist, a writer who created life as well as he could take it away.

I think Malik sensed I was not paying as much attention to the book anymore, as I was intrigued by the mysteries that he presented, held deep within himself. I could also feel him looking at me, but not once did I ever catch him in the act.

"Do you understand, young one?" I heard him ask about a particular sentence that I had failed to make sense of. I turned my head to find his curious gaze fixated on me, awaiting a response.

"I-I think so." I stumbled, the information I had learned was then lost as I was immediately struck by the close proximity we shared. The aroma of sandalwood and faded ink still clung to him and I was drawn to the scent. It was a comforting, warm smell, one that I would always associate with him from there on out.

The stubble on his chin called out to me, too. A strange urge beckoned me to run my hand along it, to feel how prickly it would be under my touch. But I did not dare act upon that. It was asking to be slapped. So in an effort to peel myself away from that thought, I averted my gaze to his eyes. Endless, black holes stared back at me. I felt as if I were looking up into the sky at night, into another world where I could escape from this life and find myself in another, where I was safe and sound, away from pain and suffering.

His eyes glistened like beady, onyx pearls, taking in my face as I was his. Or maybe he was admiring his reflection being mirrored back at him, who knows?

But it was in that moment that I knew, even if it took a day, ten days, ten years, ten thousand years, no matter what, I was bound and determined, come hell or high water, that I was going to figure this man out. I had to. I did not know where that sudden surge of emotion came from, but it welled in my stomach like a rock, weighing my thoughts and I down. It was not even that I wanted to figure him out. It was also an urge to protect him from harm.

I had only known him for almost a day now and I knew how well he could kill. I knew he was an Assassin, and to be downright honest, how much protection could a weak, destitute girl like me provide for him? Not that much, if any. But it did not matter. After all he had done for me, the least I could do was give him my life. And even then that would not be enough.

This sudden realization caused me to break our gaze first, afraid my feelings were plastered all over my face. How could I be feeling this for him?! I had only known him a day! He still may not be worthy of my trust, although that was kind of a moot point considering he had saved my life. But he had so many secrets I wished to know....

And in all honesty, how bad could those secrets be? He murdered six men right before my eyes. And those killings were nothing compared to the hay-days I had seen some of the guards have in past years.

Yet, none of this explained the sudden wave of protectiveness. Perhaps it was because I had not had close human contact in so long and I wanted to enjoy it and keep it near. I had no idea I craved it this much. I had been around so many people in my life, yet not one of them cared. Until Malik happened to show up.

He was still watching me. That is until the bells began to ring throughout Jerusalem, echoing panic in the city walls. Something was wrong. Somebody important was dead.

Malik's head snapped up and he leaped to his feet. He grabbed a pole that was leaning against the wall and used it to shut the entrance from the roof.

As it was about to shut, a white robed man flew in, landing hard on the carpet. The jolt of his impact startled me, but his appearance frightened me more. He rose from a crouch to his full stature. His initial height, easily six and a half feet, would have done enough to intimidate anyone without added Assassin robes and armor. He hood shadowed his face to the point I could only see his mouth and chin.

A shady, sinister man, almost ghostlike in appearance. Were all the Assassins like this, carrying wicked like auras about them, or was that only the impression that these two gave off?

"I never thought I would see the day you kill inconspicuously. Oh wait, I never will."

The man blew off Malik's snide remark, watching him slam the grating closed.

"Safety and Peace, Malik." The voice leaving the hood was quiet, yet held an almost smug tone, one that obviously bothered Malik.

"A little late for that now, Altaïr."

So that was his name, Altaïr. Quite a handsome name for a warrior like the tall one in front of me. It was then I recognized him. The white eagle I had seen the past week or so, flying from rooftop to rooftop, wreaking havoc in the city. Malik's comment made sense. The man was anything but inconspicuous.

"Who is this?" It was then I looked up again to see Altaïr giving me a curious look, taking notice of me for the first time. The literal translation to that was that I was an unwelcome visitor, a possible threat, as I could see him ball his hands into fists.

"A young girl I took in."

Absorbing Malik's frank tone, Altaïr gave him a knowing, albeit judgmental smile. "I am sure that is all there is to that story."

Malik took the Assassin's arm roughly, leading him to the library. "Let me talk to you in the other room, novice."

Well, clearly I was not Malik's only target when it came to name-calling. I slid to the opposite wall as soon as they were gone, leaning my head close to the doorway as I could to overhear their conversation. I had had plenty of experience eavesdropping. The key was to look innocent while doing so. I took Malik's book with me, pretending to decipher it while silently digesting what I heard.

"Be out with your business." That was Malik, curt as usual.

"I'm here to inform you that the deed is done. Talal is dead." And that was Altaïr's low, yet overly confident voice.

"Oh, I know, I know. In fact, the entire city knows!! Have you forgotten the meaning of subtlety?!" Malik had gone from an almost calm to livid frustration in less than two seconds.

"A skilled Assassin makes sure his work is noticed by many." Altaïr defended.

"No! A skilled Assassin maintains control of his environment!"

"We can argue the details all you'd like, but the fact remains that I have completed the task set to me by Al Mualim."

I could hear something heavy thud against the desk, a book perhaps, and then Malik's scoff.

"Go then," he taunted, "Return to the old man. Let us see with whom he sides."

"You and I are on the same side, Malik." Altaïr's reply silenced him, or more likely, Malik was just ignoring Altaïr at that point.

Footsteps could be heard making their way to the doorway and I immediately returned my attention to the book, not daring to peek through my hair at the daunting Assassin due to come out any second. But the footfalls stopped and then I could barely make out that the conversation had turned back to the subject of Malik's hospitality.

"I trust you are not spilling the secrets of the Brotherhood to that girl, are you? I am sure Al Mualim would be very interested to know why she is here." Altaïr's underlying threat in that statement caused Malik to fly off the handle.

"How dare you disrespect me! Is this how you are with the other Bureau leaders?!"

But Altaïr continued to probe for information, despite Malik's nasty remarks to him. "Who is she, then? She could be a liability to the Brotherhood. You, of all people, should know that."

A fist slammed down onto the counter, presumably that of Malik, and then came his forcibly controlled explanation, "I told you before. I am taking care of her until she is well enough to look after herself. She was wounded and needed assistance. And she is innocent. Leave her alone. She knows nothing of the Creed."

There were questionable parts to that statement. I did not exactly ask for his help, he rather forced me to come here with him. And innocent? One could argue that I was not so, keeping in mind all that I have had to do to survive on the streets. But I said nothing.

"Finally developing a heart, now are you, Malik?" Altaïr, well, I hoped he was teasing.

"Perhaps, but you will not have one soon if you do not exit my bureau and make leave for Masyaf this instant!"

Before I could make heads or tails out of any of that, the footfalls scurried from the room and stopped in front of me. I glanced up slowly to see Altaïr observing me, and for the first time, I saw strange, golden eyes that pierced through the shadows of his hood, staring dead at me. His eyes, almost raptor-like in color and alertness, caught every movement. A wicked shiver went up my spine as he spoke quietly.

"Safety and Peace, miss." With that, he climbed up the bureau wall onto the roof and disappeared.

Assassin or not, I knew I had just looked into the eyes of death. I hoped his wishes of safety and peace rang true, and were not a curse of some sort.

I looked to the doorway, expecting Malik to enter, but he did no such thing. Unsettled by what had just been said to me and confused by what the two men had exchanged, I pushed myself up carefully, limping to the doorway. Inside, Malik was scribbling something in a log book, though exasperatedly. The effects of what had come to pass had not gone away for him, either.

"You do not like that man." I stated the obvious, but Malik did not look up.

"I should've expected that you'd be listening." He mumbled to himself. Malik threw his quill on the desk, nearly spilling his ink bottle, before sighing and meeting my eyes.

I tried treading lightly to not aggravate him further, "How could I not? You two were practically at each other's throats."

He scrutinized his writing, shaking his head. "My business here is none of your concern, young one." He regarded me again, his eyes warning me to not push the subject.

I did not take the hint. The questions overwhelming my mind flew from my tongue before I could stop them. "What is that Creed he thought you were spilling to me? And why was he so concerned I was staying here-?"

"I am beginning to wonder," Malik cut me off, staring at me with venomous eyes, "If it is disrespect or stupidity that keeps you here bothering me with your incessant questions."

The sting of that remark only fueled my ire, with my curiosity now long gone. A toxic mixture boiled in my stomach and I lashed out. "Perhaps it is a bit of both, considering you're the one holding me hostage here until I am better!"

By then, Malik had had enough. He held up his hand. "Please, young one, just let it be."

"But-"

"I will speak no more about the matter." He turned to the shelves behind him, purposely paying no attention to me.

Dejected and riled up, I spun on my heel and left the room, plopping down onto the pillows, out of sight of Malik and his savage statements. I thought we were making good ground, but now we were back to these never-ending arguments.

Why did it even matter that I was trying to befriend him? I would be out of here, and the sooner the better. Our paths were not meant to cross, especially since he did not seem to trust me.

But... it did make sense. How could he trust me with a secret like that, one that was not his to share?

Something Altaïr had said nagged at me. He called me a liability. No, he said that I could be one. That is, if Malik told me about the Creed. Liabilities were not..... tolerated.

If I knew about the Creed, or the Assassins, or whatever it was that I was forbidden to have knowledge about, I was a liability. I needed to be done away with so I wouldn't tell anyone what I knew, so their secrets would remain safe.

This startling revelation, along with the image of Altaïr's sinister golden eyes, sent numerous painful shudders down my spine. I may be dead, soon. If Altaïr were to ever come back, I would make leave as soon as possible.

Then it dawned on me. What if Malik....? No. He hadn't told me anything about the Creed, nor did he want to. Maybe that meant he was still trying to protect me. But I already knew what he was. I knew what they all were. I knew the location of their hideout here in Jerusalem, this bureau. Would that be more than enough for them to kill me?

I decided right then and there to never ask about the Creed again.

To try and dispel my rising panic, I grabbed the book from where I left it across the room and lay back down on the pillows. Flipping through it, I soon found that I could not read the pages without Malik's help. The characters on the page made absolutely no sense to me, jumbling the thoughts in my head and multiplying my confusion until I slammed the book shut, infuriated.

So I laid there, watching the clouds pass by overhead through the grating. A warm breeze wafted through the room and brought with it the scent of the city, the scent of the outside. Oh, how I wished I were on the rooftops again!

The loud scratching of Malik writing was the dim reminder that I would not be leaving here anytime soon, whether I was well or not. I hoped the latter was not true. It only added to the growing chaos in my brain and the oddness about this place. Perhaps what I needed was the open air. I decided to do just that. I would go out onto the roof at sunset and clear my head. Allah knows I needed it.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

“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.

Chapter Text

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?”

“Twenty-five.”

“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.
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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.

Chapter Text

The ominous chiming caused Malik to break away frantically from my neck, clearly startled. The warm sensual feelings were gone, replaced by instant worry. I could briefly remember thinking that all that work I had gone to to relieve him of everything had just been destroyed.

Breathing hard, he muttered, “Damn it,” under his breath. Our embrace was broken as he made his way to the patio. I tailed after him, feeling cold with fear and uncertainty as it iced every away every emotion from earlier.

“What is happening?!” I demanded, to which of course, I got no answer. Malik didn’t even make it to the pole to close the grating when Altaïr leaped in, a bat out of Hell. He landed wrong, hitting the floor hard on his shoulder. A grunt escaped his chest and he struggled to his feet. He was completely soaked with blood, his eyes darting back and forth like that of a wild animal.

“It was a trap!” He cried, out of breath, clutching a wound that was weeping blood through the fabric.

“I have heard the city turned to chaos! What happened?!”

Altaïr panted, “Robert de Sable was never here! He sent another in his stead. He was expecting me!” He twitched, struggling to get the words out between hitched breaths.

Malik caught him by the shoulder, “You must go to Al Mualim.” His voice was calm, but layered heavily with concern.

Altaïr was shaking his head quickly, nearly interrupting Malik, “No, there’s no time! She told me where he’s gone, what he plans. If I return to Masyaf, he may succeed. And then, I fear we’ll be destroyed.”

My heart rate stalled. Those words…. Altaïr spoke of doomsday. Malik cast me a worried glance and then pulled Altaïr to the library doorway, the last bits of conversation lost to me. I could barely catch Malik’s last low, reassuring words, “We have killed most of his men. He cannot hope to mount a proper attack,” Malik then stopped, doing a double take, “Wait, did you say she?”

Altaïr was just as confused. “Yes, it was a woman. Strange, I know. But that’s for another time. For now, we must focus on Robert.” He continued on with his plan, exchanging ideas and tactics in low tones. I zoned in on Malik’s face, watching it change from startled to determined and back again. I heard Masyaf being spoken several times.

Something Altaïr said made Malik blanche. The dark haired man immediately looked at me and I tried to make sense of the expression. He looked stricken, almost lost. Altaïr followed his gaze, watching me with his bizarre, golden eyes. The two men betrayed nothing, said nothing, and I went completely still.

Altaïr broke the stare off first, as Malik cast him a troubled glance. They retreated to the library, where they could not be heard. I sank to the floor, gripping my head. What was happening? Who was Robert de Sable? Why was Altaïr so wounded? Why was Malik so disturbed by it all? My mind spun in circles. Something was deeply wrong, not just within Jerusalem, but throughout the entire Holy Land, it seemed. Something that ran deeper than just the Crusades.

In all this time, during the war, I had never felt such rising anxiety. I was one to stay out of trouble, though I had nothing to lose. And here I am, thrown right into the middle of it. And so was Malik. I hoped he was not too deeply involved, though it seemed the way Altaïr spoke of it, that the entire Order was being threatened. I prayed he would not have to actually fight, though I knew he could handle himself…… It could not be as bad as Altaïr had said…

‘I fear we’ll be destroyed.’ The Assassins could not be destroyed. Hell, no one could handle when just one showed up, let alone the whole lot of them! The Assassins could not be destroyed.

Malik…he could not be…A lump rose in my throat and I could not breathe. Tears drowned my eyes.

No! I could not cry. I had to be strong, for Malik and myself. We would be all right. It was not as horrendous as it had been made out to be. I would let Malik inform me about it instead of jumping to conclusions. I focused on steadying my breathing and not tearing my hair out, staring at my feet. It would be okay…

Altaïr stormed out onto the patio, a fiery determination set upon his features. His wound was bandaged, but he still huffed as he scaled the wall and disappeared into the afternoon haze. Malik followed soon after, a carrier pigeon clutching his arm.

I got to my feet quickly. “Malik, what are you doing?”

“Gathering my men.” His tone was dead, his expression completely unreadable. With a thrust of his arm, the bird took flight into the air.

“What is happening?” I demanded.

“I’m not entirely sure myself.” Malik answered, still deeply disturbed.

“What do you mean?! You sounded very sure of yourself earlier!”

“That was before I was aware of Altaïr’s suspicions. There is more to all of this….” He murmured to himself.

“More to what?! Malik, please tell me….” I was frustrated with his departed eyes, but more than that, I was fearful of how utterly lost he seemed, unable to find his way anymore. He used to be so confident, so sure of himself, arrogant even. And in that moment, I’m not sure he knew which way was up and down.

“Rajah, there’s too much to explain and so little time.”

I seized my head and commenced to start tugging on my hair. My gut broiled. I was so confused and apparently so was he. It was like a blind man leading another blind man. I turned away. “Is there any way I can help?” I offered at last.

“No…” Malik answered tiredly, as discouraged as I was, his hand rubbing his forehead.

I did not give up. “Is there anything I can do? Anywhere I can go? There must be something I can do to help.” I held my arms out, seeking an answer when I saw his brow narrow. He was thinking. He was coming up with an idea. He looked up at me, meeting my eyes.

“Do you know where Solomon’s Temple is?”

It was the most random question I had ever heard. I knew not how a supposedly ancient, mythical temple related to the situation at hand, but I tried to answer with the most information I knew, which amounted to little more than legends and rumors that lurked in the shadows of Jerusalem.

“I know it was supposedly here in Jerusalem, but then it was destroyed and covered up by one of the Islamic mosques. That’s the extent of my knowledge,” I eyed his thoughtful countenance, the way he lifted an eyebrow, as if to question my logic, “You speak of it as if it actually still exists.” I was dubious. But with everything that had been happening lately, the Assassins had probably already found it. The next thing we would know, they would find a way to literally turn the world upside down as we knew it.

Malik looked down again, rubbing his goatee, his eyes shifting. I could almost envision the calculations running through his head. Then he shattered the strained silence, “I must go.”

“Where?” Then it began to dawn on me. “To Solomon’s Temple?! Why?” What on Allah’s dear, green earth could a Temple, which is said to be buried deep beneath the ground, do to assist us?!

“There might be information there we need. A journal, to be specific.”

I threw my arms up. “Whose journal?!”

“Robert de Sable’s, the commander of the Templars. I remember seeing it when I was last there, when-“

He cut himself off abruptly, struggling to maintain his composure. He was deep in his nightmares again, something I doubted he would ever recover from. I tried to reach out to him.

“When what?!” I screeched, trying to keep him there in the present.

“Never mind that. I must leave immediately.”

“Well, I’m going with you.” I spoke quickly. He would not go alone and I was not going to be left behind.

Malik slammed the rooftop entrance shut and began to stride to the library. “You cannot come with me, Rajah. You are safer here.” He was closed off, decisive, refusing to discuss the matter as if it were out of the question.

I would not give in this time. “I will just follow you, Malik. We both know how well that went last time.”

He whirled around to face me, his eyes dark and testy. “If I lock you in here, you will not be going anywhere.” He threatened, daring me to defy him.

A twinge of that tight claustrophobia set in and my middle was reeling, becoming gnarled up. “You can’t keep me locked in here like an animal. I can help!” I yelled desperately. I could hear Malik sigh, but I continued, “You cannot just go in there by yourself. What if there are Templars waiting for you?”

“They won’t be. There’s nothing of interest to them in there anymore. Besides, how would they know I am on my way there?” His brow was crinkled, his eyes narrowed at me, tiredly wondering how long I would keep up the charade.

“What if there is an ambush? You yourself said we can only anticipate what is to come and-“

“And what will you do, Rajah? Sacrifice yourself?” He cut me off sourly, his eyes nothing but slits. He was bitingly sarcastic, mocking me. My stomach twisted, sick that he would ask me such a stupid question like that and make me out to be a fool.

“Yes, I would.” My response was deadly serious. I would never hesitate to do such a thing for him.

He looked me right in the eye and I could see his own eyes begin to soften with defeat. “All right, you can come along. But no matter what, you stay right on my heels. Do you understand, Rajah?” His features turned determined and hard, warning me he was the protector and that he would do whatever it took to keep me safe.

I nodded curtly. I gestured, knowing deep down, that I would never let him have the chance. “Lead the way.”

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Where might a fabled Temple be hidden, one might ask? Well, where else is there to hide one other than underneath another Temple? The Dome of the Rock, one of the grandest Islamic shrines in the Holy Land, to be specific, hidden in one of the most obvious spots.

I had heard the rumors that the First Temple was located on the Temple Mount, but had been destroyed. What was left was covered up, so anything that remained had to have been buried. which led everyone, myself included, to believe there was nothing left of it anymore, apart from the Wailing Wall, which was the remains of the Second Temple.

That was before Malik led me into the Dome of the Rock and showed me one of two hidden entrances that led down beneath the shrine. I stepped down into the dusty tunnel, mouth agape as Malik lit a torch and let the light illuminate the tunnel. How, in Allah’s name, did this exist undiscovered for so long?!

As we walked through the labyrinth of shafts supported by shaky, wooden beams, I wondered to myself just how well I thought I knew Jerusalem, my beloved city, when I had no idea that buried below one of the most iconic places in all of Israel, laid Solomon’s Temple, the stuff of legends. A subject that was very controversial to even the most religious of people. How had more of the population not known about this, that a section of it still remained? Part of me wondered if this place was purposely buried, to protect secrets which must never be found…

This was just one more thing that would make everyone believe I was a lunatic. First, I was kidnapped by an Assassin who tells me all the secrets of his infamous Brotherhood and now I knew there were complete ruins of Solomon’s Temple that lay beneath the city?! I would be imprisoned and done away with for sure…Needless to say, I was in complete awe of the sight of what lay before me.

“How has nobody discovered this yet?” My voice betrayed every note of wonder as I looked about the passageway walls. Malik walked briskly ahead of me, knowing exactly where he was going, wherever that may have been.

“Because nobody knows that there are still ruins in here, young one. After the Temple had been destroyed, the Muslims took over the Temple Mount and built the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Any attempt to destroy the Mosques and search for these ruins would cause jihad, a holy war. So no one has even bothered to search for remains and assumes that there are none left.” He paused, looking over his shoulder, “I imagine if anyone of the Jewish religion finds this place, there will be a holy war. They pray for this Temple to be rebuilt. After all, it was built by King Solomon himself and is said to have housed the Ark of the Covenant.”

Allah, have mercy…… “Well, the Ark must be here, too. You’re proving that this Temple actually still exists, contrary to popular belief.” He said nothing, though I imagined he probably smirked at my comment.

When we reached the heart of the temple, I took a deep breath to steady myself, unable to comprehend what I was seeing. The chamber was quite vast, the ceiling towering cavernous above us. We stood on what probably was a balcony or loft that overlooked the entire room. It smelled of abandonment and decay, but that did not dampen the spectacle.

On the ground floor, to my right was what looked to be a grand entryway that had recently collapsed in on itself. Above that was an alcove that looked to have housed a large box of sorts. Of course, it was empty. Perhaps the Ark really did not exist. What a shame…

Malik hurriedly climbed down a ladder to our left, his face devoid of emotion, and headed for a table left of the collapsed entryway that offered up nothing but a bunch of scattered papers. Someone had been here not long ago, and whoever it was had obviously left in a hurry.

By the time I was done marveling the chamber and got down to the ground, Malik was infuriatedly cursing and ripping papers from the desk, flinging them every which way until his eyes lit up. I watched him pick up a book, the journal I assumed he was so readily searching for, and laughed in shock.

“I cannot believe the fool was idiotic enough to leave it here.” He shook his head as he leafed through the pages, silently reading.

I peered over his shoulder to take a look, but what was on the page was written in complete nonsense, scribbles and circles and sticks that fit together in jumbled writing that I figured only somebody from another world could read. Crusader languages.

I had no hope of digesting the writing, so I turned to watch Malik’s face for interpretation. I found I was glad I could not read them, for whatever they said seemed to tear Malik’s world apart. His face, try as he did to compose it, fell, and then a look of utter despair crushed his façade.

It was a look that I had only seen once before, but only it was unseen, a force that wrecked within my own body when I was young. My guardian had squeezed my hand gently as my father’s back became a mirror and in it, I saw my face, Malik’s face, being thrown back at me. It was an emotion I would not wish upon anyone.

Malik let out a choked breath and his eyes closed. The cursed journal fell from his grip and thumped onto the table. Malik leaned against the desk, his head hanging low, an air of deadness and uncomprehending surrounding him.

“Fils de salope… Cela ne peut pas m'arriver...…” The foreign words slipped from his mouth, things I had never heard before except straight from the mouths of the Crusaders. I could only guess they were of the language found on the pages he had just read. He probably did not even know he had not spoken Arabic.

I did not realize I had spoken until Malik looked slowly up at me with a confused expression. “You have been betrayed.” My voice sounded strange to my own ears. Malik blinked, unsure of what to make of my statement.

“I watched my father walk out of my life without a second glance. And I see that in your eyes,” I spoke softly, gently touching his arm, “Please tell me what’s happening.”

Malik clearly was unnerved by what he read and attempted to put everything back together. “There are no words when you have been betrayed, young one, especially by one that you have been calling ‘Master’ your whole life,” He let out a strangled, dark laugh, “I feared this would happen…” He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Your master…..betrayed you? You mean…. The entire Brotherhood is- is corrupted?!” I spoke incredulously, blinking.

“Not all of us are… It makes sense, though. Altaïr was sent to kill nine different men, from Crusaders to Saracens to the common slaver. Al Mualim sent the orders. He was sent to kill them to- to better himself and the Brotherhood, as these men became ever growing threats to other cities and the Brotherhood itself.

“There was a common link to this seemingly random order of people and recently we found them to be Templars. All of them claimed to want peace, alleging that their actions were done to promote it. But the ways they went about to achieve said peace was not at all ethical. The messages they delivered to Altaïr were cryptic, making no sense without the missing link,“ He gestured to the book, “But now, they all add up. These men were working with Al Mualim, who I have now found to also be a Templar, to gain control over a piece of Eden. The Apple, they call it. A powerful object that is capable of things we still aren’t sure how to control. Only it seemed Al Mualim wanted it all to himself so-“

The gears in my head were working ahead, catching onto what the plan was. “So he had Altaïr kill all nine men so he could solely control the Apple, claiming to better the Brotherhood, when all the while he was really undermining it?!” The idea, oddly enough, made sense for a mad man desperate for power. And all the Assassins played right into his hands.

Malik was still flabbergasted at the revelation, trying to understand it, or why it came to be in the first place. “Yes, and we never expected it. None of us…” He nodded with sad but knowing eyes, “I must ride for Masyaf. With any luck, I can catch Altaïr before he arrives.” Malik tucked the book into a pocket inside his robe, jogging towards the ladder.

“Where is he?” I breathed, keeping up with his quick pace as we left the temple via the sandy passageways.

“In Arsuf,” he responded, “He made leave immediately after killing Robert. Or rather, to be correct, the woman who took his place. He’s on his way there now to kill the actual Robert.”

Pushing aside my bewilderment as to why a woman would be sent in a man’s place, especially one who was so powerful and important, I asked concernedly, “And what are you going to do about it?”

“I don’t know. I just need to be there to assist Altaïr.”

I was almost sure that Malik saw the dreaded statement coming, and I was also sure that I knew the response subconsciously even before my big mouth launched the statement.

“I’m going with-“

“No!” Malik growled, stopping just shy of the entrance, grabbing my arm and yanking me to face him. “The situation is unpredictable enough as it is. I have no idea what I’m going into. You’ll be far safer here.”

Somehow, I already knew that it was all going to be a failed endeavor, but I still tried, my heart protesting. “But-“

“It will ease my mind to know that you are here, away from danger,” He said gently, begging for me not to argue, to give in.

My whole body whined in the unfairness of it all. “How do you think I feel?!” I cried, desperate to keep him safe.

“Rajah, it is my job. It is what’s right.” He was pleading come then, and I pressed my lips together. I knew he was trying to do what was best, but I was not going to let him leave unless he knew how unjust it was to me.

“So you’re just- you’re going to leave me here without any indication as to whether you will come back alive or dead?!” I demanded roughly, eyes blurring as he looked away into the fading daylight, his demeanor of a man literally falling to pieces right before my eyes.

“Yes, because I’m going into this blind. Rajah, I could die right now, returning to the bureau. And would you have seen it coming? No. Rajah,” He squeezed my shoulder, his eyes letting loose his emotions, “We are born to die. Everyone is. But it is our job as Assassins to die doing what’s right.”

“What is right anymore, Malik?” I asked, unsure of anything, as my life whirled upside down, with everything I held dear about to be gone. And I was absolutely powerless to stop it.

Malik paused to stare at me, taking the sheer state of my emotions. “Whatever we believe to be right,” he stated simply, gripping the back of my neck, smiling slightly, “I believe saving you was the right thing to do.”

I looked down, feeling my heart tear itself in two, the sheer pain causing the tears to spill over. “I’m sorry.” I whispered brokenly, wiping the tears away before he could see them. I was sorry for everything I had put him through. I was so sorry for causing his indecision and his pain…

His hand curled around my chin and tugged it up. I looked into his gentle eyes. “I’m not.” He murmured before pulling my lips to his. The kiss was soothing. It wasn’t needy, or desperate. Just a simple press of his mouth to mine. My worry disappeared, almost as if he were draining it out of me.

“Malik,” I whispered when he pulled away. I wanted him near. I wanted to know he was safe and I knew I would not have that knowledge for much longer, though how I tried to prolong it.

“Rajah, listen to me,” he studied me, his features resolute, “You must be strong. You have to be. I can’t leave Jerusalem unless I know you will be safe. Promise me you’ll be okay. Promise me now, Rajah.” He had clasped my hand in his, clutching it like it was his last hope of living, which, in a way, it very well was.

I could have been selfish. I could have said no and told him I would be reckless so he would stay. It meant he would be near. But part of me knew he would never look at me the same again if I held him back. He had to do what was right. I would not be here today if he had not been free to follow his gut. So, by letting him go, maybe it could count for paying him back for that good he did.

“I promise, Malik.” I clasped his hand, smiling as he pressed his forehead to mine, his thank you coming in a soft sigh against my lips.

When we returned to the bureau and Malik had unlatched the lattice, Assassins began to drop in one right after another. These men must have been the ones Malik had sent for earlier. Hardened from a life of combat and sheer physical perseverance, these men were tough, all business and ready for commands. They rivaled even the best and burliest of Jerusalem’s guard. They watched with silent eyes as Malik readied himself to leave and for the bureau to be left in another’s hands. I stood by the counter, my stomach churning with anxious dread at the time to come that was to be spent away from Malik.

“I want you to stay here at the bureau until I return. I am leaving one of my men in charge here,” He motioned toward an older gentleman behind the counter, who nodded his head. He boasted steadfast eyes and a white, drooping beard. I glanced over at him and then back to Malik, very unsure of myself. I did not want to let him leave and I did not want to be here with that man. Malik could sense my unease.

“You can trust him.” He murmured, leaning close to me. I did not want to trust him. I tugged at Malik’s arm as he began to make his way to the front door, his men already ahead of him.

“How long will you be away?” I asked, trying to maintain my poise over the panic that was steadily building inside. Panic of him being gone, panic of not knowing where he’ll be, or if he would come back at all…

Malik hesitated, uncertain himself. “I’m not sure. I’m not sure of anything, Rajah,” He took my hand, cradling it. “I will send word when everything is sorted out, I promise.”

A seed of hope began to bloom with in me, try as I did to crush it. “And you’ll come back?”

“When I can.” He answered reassuringly, “I’ll be okay. They don’t call me the King of Swords for no reason.” He grinned down at me, and I knew I had to have faith in him. With his skills, he would be fine.

I smiled back up at him. “I know.” I then leaned up and pressed my lips to his. What I didn’t expect was for him to wrap his arm around me tightly. He deepened the kiss, holding me as close to his body as he could.

This would be the last time I would hold him, for a while…perhaps maybe even ever…

My heart retaliated and I dug my fingers into his shoulder, striving to not cry again. We broke our lip-lock, just gripping each other, holding onto these last moments we had left together. His eyes met mine and I knew. It was easier to let go now than to prolong the inevitable.

I released him. We held eye contact for a long moment as my heart began to shred itself to pieces. Malik then left to speak with his men outside. I followed, holding to the door as the group conversed in hushed voices. Malik’s blue robes stuck out in the sea of white.

When they finished discussing their plans, Malik roamed back over to me, his eyes pained, but purposeful. He pressed his lips to my forehead, murmuring huskily, “Remember your promise, Rajah. Inta hayati.” Those sweet words melted my already tormented heart and I look up to him. He stroked my cheek delicately, his eyes set, but filled with affection.

And then he was gone, flying up to the rooftops with his men, as graceful as a ghost. When he was out of sight, I stood there for several moments, my heart beating hard against my chest. I had to see him one last time.

I scurried up after him, clawing my way to the top of the roof. I scanned the horizon and there, heading towards the Damascus Gate, was the flock of white eagles, the dark spectre just ahead of them, making headway through the city.

I did not expect them to give pause or thought to look back. I just wanted to make sure they made it out of the city safely.

And then, I watched the dark figure stop, almost perceptibly turning around towards me. I had no idea if he could see me, but Malik was looking in my general direction. His face was blank, set in the usual scowl he always wore, his brows knit. But he stood there for several moments, poignant, like a statue, gazing at me, like he was seemingly asking me for permission to leave.

I nodded my head once in acknowledgement and acceptance, telling him it was okay, nudging him toward his duty. We would be okay. He gave me back no response, but instead turned away and jumped off the roof and ran until he and his men reached the gates, mounted their horses, and galloped until they were but dots on the horizon.

I pressed my lips together, trying to keep my heart from imploding. I looked towards the heavens, the stars beginning to shimmer brightly, the sun having long disappeared. I missed him. I missed him so much already. I did not know how I would survive the unknown amount of time he would be away, but I could not help that. I had to stay strong for him and keep my promise. I prayed that he would be alright. I asked the stars to watch over him and keep him safe. And when he looked skywards at night, I hoped he thought of me.

Chapter Text

The next few days were excruciatingly unbearable for me. Patience was not one of my virtues. The waiting was going to be the death of me. Being alone with someone in an empty building provides ample time to get to know that person. But Malik had drawn me in. He was interesting and enigmatic, and at the very least, attractive.

The temporary Dai was none of those things. He was even more reserved than Malik, if that could even be possible. He shut down every attempt at conversation until I did not even venture near him anymore. My very presence seemed to draw annoyance from him. He clearly wished to be elsewhere rather than be shut in with an overly anxious girl.

Anxious could not even cover the basis of what I was feeling. The Dai obviously either withheld information from me, or he did not even have any information on what was transpiring in Masyaf. This only added to the constant worry that plagued my mind day in and day out. Every waking moment, my mind was restless, wondering what was happening. Was Malik all right? Had he been injured? Was he even still-

I refused to dwell any further on the matter when it got to that point. Otherwise, I would scream as every organ in my body would begin to implode. I ate very little and slept even less those first several days. I was often found just lying on the pillows on the patio, chewing my nails down to the quick. When they were all but gone, I took to tugging at a particular strand in my hair, pulling it until it was gnarled and destroyed.

There was nothing to do but wait. Wait for news of any kind from Masyaf. Boredom was the bite of a spider, puncturing the skin so that poisoning worry could set it. I seemed to grow weaker, physically, emotionally and mentally drained as more days passed. The silence was roaring, the possibilities endless. The ring of my promise to Malik began to fade away as the anguishing panic consumed every thought. I refused to eat, the thought of food utterly sickening.

It got to the point that the Dai had to practically threaten me to eat, reminding me how displeased Malik would be if he returned to find me in that kind of condition. I ate then, but hesitantly, not appreciating the term if.

Sleep rarely visited and when it did, it was not peaceful. Nightmares haunted me of what was surely going down in Masyaf. I watched so many different versions of Malik’s death that I often woke shouting at the top of my lungs. The Dai stopped coming to check on me, and I soon learned to try and roll into the pillows to muffle my cries. Some nights, I would run to the roof, wailing, begging the stars to bring him back, the pain too much to bear. I prayed for a sign, an omen, anything that he was okay. But it seemed none would come.

On the morning of the fifth day that Malik had been away from Jerusalem, I laid on the rooftop of the bureau. The morning sun was not kind to my skin, peeling it away and melting me into a puddle. My eyes stung from yet another sleepless night. My belly gave a disgruntled moan, braying helplessly for nourishment. I was weak with sleepiness, utterly spent by just lying there. I was an absolute wreck.

I felt no hope. I felt no peace. I felt nothing. Just complete vulnerability. If I shut my eyes and thought hard enough about it, I could almost believe I was still destitute, with no one to care about me, or anyone else to worry about other than myself. It wasn’t hard to imagine. Five days of breaking my promise to Malik had undone all the work he had put into me in two months and had quickly rendered me back to my original state that he had found me in. Oh, how displeased he would be. How displeased indeed.

A slight weight landed on my belly and I opened my eyes to find a pigeon resting there, fatigued and deadbeat. How fitting for my imagination. Now, it was very easy to imagine I was still homeless. The birds used me as a nest all the time, it seemed. I was just registering the thought of ‘Please do be kind and don’t defile me,’ when I noticed the piece of paper the bird carried.

Curious, I pulled it from the bird’s grasp. Strange, we had not had a carrier pigeon come through here in days. A vague warning passed through the back of my head that it was not my place to step in and read the note, but my hopes would not permit it. I feverishly opened it.

The writing was difficult for me, being barely literate, to decipher, but it read something along the lines of this:

Al Mualim has betrayed the Brotherhood and has been killed. Altaïr has been made the Mentor. I am not sure when I will be able to return, as we have quite a mess here in Masyaf to tend to. Maintain the Bureau and I will give word as soon as I’m able to leave.

Malik

My tired eyes became wider as I eagerly devoured each line. I gave a small cry of joy. He was okay. Relief slammed into me. I felt weightless with elation. I had a reason to live again. He was alive and safe. I actually began to laugh.

So caught up was I in my happiness that I squeezed the pigeon to my chest in a tight hug, feeling as though I was reaching through it to Malik. The bird gave a startled gurgle as I kissed its beak. When I released it, the poor creature waddled away from me on unsteady feet, watching me with repulsed eyes.

I re-read the letter, feeling closer to Malik already through his writing. ‘Oh thank you, Allah! Thank you for taking care of him! Thank you so much!’

I was hyper, with renewed vigor and life as I leapt into the bureau, practically throwing the note in the Dai’s unsuspecting face. When he examined it, though, he was eyeing me suspiciously, not nearly as ecstatic about the news.

“I do hope you haven’t been snooping through all my letters. This is official business. For my eyes only.” He warned me, his voice unforgiving.

My good mood began to ebb away. “Why, yes, I did read it. It was practically dropped in my lap-“

“Then you should have brought it to me. It is nobody’s business but mine. It is none of your concern what happens in the Brotherhood.”

I scowled at him and snarled, “Any business regarding Malik is my business. I deserve to know what’s going on!”

“You deserve to be back on the streets where you were found. You’ve done me nothing but trouble. You’re lucky that I do not kick you out myself!”

“Go ahead then. I would be more than happy to inform Malik of your disrespect to me. Seeing as how he is the Dai of this bureau, I’m sure he would be very interested to know how you have treated its occupants.” I advised this to him sweetly and he paled. Malik’s wrath was not one to be tampered with. That, or he was not expecting my retaliation to be that confident.

I turned on my heel and ran from the building, fleeing to the rooftops without a second glance. Anger propelled me as far as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I sank onto my ledge, murmuring obscenities about the man, the insolent bastard. Who did he think he was, talking down to me like that?! He was the one harassing me, not the other way around! I would not have bothered him so much had he not acted so secretive. I knew I wasn’t one of them, but he knew I meant a great deal to Malik. He saw our exchanges before he left.

It was apparent I was more of a hindrance to him than I was of help. I would tell Malik about this. I did not care if the man was an Assassin or not, I had taken enough of that bullshit my whole life. I would take it no more. He would never have said that had Malik been there. The coward clearly was afraid of him, as he should be. Malik would beat his face in without losing his place in his book.

Malik… The thought of him made me comforted and depressed. Comforted because he was alive and well, but depressed because I knew not when he would return. It may well-nigh be another month before he came back.
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I was wrong. It was two and a half months. I retired to a rooftop garden where the bureau was within view, as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was quite the walk. But I dared not return to the bureau, as it was no longer home. Not unless Malik was there. I watched, more and more dismayed as each night passed, waiting for his return. I hoped he had not forgotten about me.

No, he was just held up in his duties. He said he would come back, did he not? It could not have just… slipped his mind that I existed. But as each night grew longer and longer, with no sign of his return, did I begin to wonder. And wondering turned to doubting, myself and him. Masyaf must have been in a very serious state for him to have been away for two and a half months.

Part of me deliberated if I was jumping to conclusions. His duties did come first. I hated that, but it was true. He was devoted to his Brothers. I just did not want to be ignored too much. But I knew Malik. He would not overlook me. Not with what he had said the night that he left.

Another morbid, macabre part of me wondered if Malik had even written that note. Could somebody have forged his handwriting? No, it looked like his script. Besides, how and why would a forger think to send a note to Jerusalem? I tried not to dwell too much on that scenario because it brought up further questions. What could have happened to make someone forge the note? Did someone force him to write it? Was he dead? What-

That was normally my stopping point, because if I edged too much farther into that territory, my anxiety would eat me alive. So, I deluded myself into believing he was stuck in Masyaf because of his work. It was a healthier option to accept rather than being torn between him being held hostage, being dead, or him putting me out of his mind.

I dedicated my time to walking around the city, scrounging for food and climbing buildings to occupy myself. I even practiced my leaps of faith a time or two, though the exhilarating feeling was dampened by not having someone to share it with. The rest of my time was spent sleeping, when not watching the bureau or scouring the city. It helped me to escape the ever-present nightmare that was engulfing me. But even sleep was not always kind.

I would have dreams where I could see Malik returning and I would be frenzied with glee. I would run to hug him and he would either not remember who I was, or he would be liquid, a ghost I could not grasp onto.

Another cruel version would be when I watched him enter the bureau from the hard journey back. I would run to the door, only to find it locked. I would turn the knob, gently calling his name. When he did not answer, I turned violent, rattling and pounding the door. When no response came, I climbed to the roof to find the lattice door heartlessly locked. I would scream and cry his name, trying desperately to get his attention. I feared he was dead, but what I got in reply was an end worse than death. Malik would yell at me to leave him alone, to stop nagging for food, wondering why it was always him that the homeless trash would bother, telling me he would rather me be dead….

Believe me, I wanted to be. I would wake with tears still flooding down my face, and I would curl into myself, wrecked with sobs. It would take me a moment or two to distinguish dreams from reality and when I was fully awake, I would wonder over to the bureau to make sure I wasn’t shut out and that the roof grating was still accessible.

Depression easily overwhelmed me after a few nights of that. I would sit in my garden, weeping, my heart calling out for Malik to come back, and then later, it screamed for anyone, anything, to relieve me of this emptiness!

When my tears ran dry and no one came to my rescue, I would coil myself together, just to wait it out. Waiting for an absolution that seemed like it would never come. My mind became muddled, my body numb and cold as September’s wrath raged through Jerusalem. For a city of the desert, September’s highs and lows were like that of a woman with child. Fuming heat ravaged the day; the nights were of ice and anyone out on the streets for long while during that time had better check that their extremities were intact.

That made stargazing well-nigh impossible. I would briefly peer up at them as they were born in the evening and then again as they died in the morning. I beseeched them to give me hope, to give me anything. As of late, they only seemed to be laughing at me.

They did so on a particularly cold morning, the early dawn air biting with the first cold snaps of fall. I sat on the edge of the building that held my garden, staring blankly out onto the deadening horizon. I was without rest after a repeat of the bureau nightmare. I stared down at the source of said nightmare, my body beginning to tremble with sobs I knew I did not have the tears for. I cried so much in the past month that I could probably drink the entire Jordan River and still not be able to make up for what had left my body.

But my gut hiccupped anyway, aching for what it had lost. I was unsure if I was awake or dreaming anymore. Had all of what I had experienced been a dream? Was my whole life a dream? Was I was longing for something I never had?

The sunrise was light lavender, and the first strings of passerby began to leak out into the streets. It was like this every morning. It would always be like this, never to change. None of this, none of me, would ever change.

The air smelled of bitter frost and smoke. I looked to the nearest market, already open for the day. I sniffled. Perhaps it would do me good to go for a walk. I slipped from the ledge, the ground frigid beneath my feet. Hugging my arms tightly to my chest, I sauntered to the market, leisurely admiring the crates as I went by. The meats and breads were tempting, but what looked even more so, were the strawberries, red and sweet. I picked one up, admiring the rough surface of the seeds and the deep shade of scarlet they were, a tuft of green leaves atop its head. He always had a fondness for strawberries….

I grimaced at them and set the fruit back in. There was no need to be reminding myself of him. Especially not here, where everyone and Allah could see.

“Ten coins, please.” The seller, a scrawny man with a graying beard, was watching me shadily.

“I was just looking.” I said absentmindedly, moving on to the next box.

“Ten coins, please.” The man said again, demanding. He was staring dead at me. I looked up, wondering what part of ‘just looking’ he did not understand.

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t going to buy anything.”

“You touch it, you buy it.” He growled, inspecting me head to toe, finding my dirty appearance unsuitable to be near his food.

“I don’t have the money.” I said testily.

Clearly, you don’t.” He smirked, taking a dig at me.

I jabbed a finger at him. “Listen, you son of a-“ I was jerked forward when the cocky bastard seized my clothes and heaved me to him, beginning to berate me for talking to him like that. My anger flared up at having been embarrassed in front of everyone in this Allah damned market! He had no earthly right!

My fist flew up and buried itself in his nose, smashing it into his ugly face. He let go of me immediately and fell backwards, smacking his head with a loud thud against the table. I felt no remorse.

“Don’t you fucking touch me, you piece of shit! Allah damn you!” I shouted, though he was out cold. I straightened my clothes, my fury having earned me a leery crowd. I acknowledged not the horrified stares that were thrown at me and stormed out into the street.

I went about three strides out of the market, my anger pushing me forward when the first cries of “Assassin!” were being hurled from the rooftops.

I whirled around, the normal scene behind me having turned to chaos in less than a second. The crowd scattered in every direction like rats. I scanned the mob for a white clothed figure, but was unable as I was pushed and shoved into shoulders and chests.

I tumbled back toward the market, fighting back against the frantic people, trying to reach the Assassin. Hell, for all I knew, he was gone, flying over the rooftops like the eagle he was. I figured it could have been one of the novices, visiting Jerusalem for a mission, though I had not seen many lately.

What I did not expect to see was the Dai of Jerusalem lying on the ground with a Templar straddling him, about to make the death blow to his head. I did not stop to notice the details or my emotions, the need to protect overriding everything in my body.

I ran with the speed of a demon toward the unsuspecting Templar, barreling into him with all the force I could, effectively knocking him off of his target. His chainmail screeched as we skidded down the road. He was caught off guard and so was I as I took in how young he was, his helmet having been knocked off during the struggle. He was my age. But he was quicker about reacting, grunting as he shoved me off of him.

Perhaps it was a good thing I weighed so little. I immediately rolled back over onto him, as he was still struggling to get up with all of his armor. I found I had nothing to kill him with, and so with nothing else at hand, I proceeded to beat him with my fists.

Three hits to his face was I all I could manage before he was retaliating, ramming me back to the ground, pinning my arms down with an iron grip. I screeched and screamed, defenseless without my hands. He called me several choice names in his bizarre language and I watched him withdraw a knife, decidedly pondering what angle would be the best to drive it into my face.

My adrenaline was drowning me and I began to panic, thrusting my hips in the hope that it would throw him off balance. It wasn’t enough. It only prolonged the torture. He actually had the gall to laugh at my pitiful attempts to unseat him. But in the one precious second of him being caught lopsided, I got my foot between his legs and pushed.

He yelped in agony and I had him. He was the open space where I could get the King. I jostled him onto his back with a cry and seized the dagger from where he dropped it. He was begging, but I did not let him do so long. I drove the knife right into his forehead. Blood squirted like a fountain and drenched me. I stabbed him until his face was nothing but an oozing mess of warm blood and gray bits of brain that ran into the cracks of the street.

I felt no remorse, not for this vile creature that almost succeeded in what he tried to do. I buried the knife in his chest and stood, wiping his blood from my face. And suddenly, it was all surreal. Had that just happened? What became of my quiet walk?

I turned around to acknowledge the Assassin to find him right behind me, staring at me. I barely got a chance to say his name before he engulfed me in a hug so tight it was hard to draw breath. I could not register what was going on. The turn of events came to be so quickly. Was I dreaming again? Was this about to turn into a horrid hallucination where he would be torn away from me yet again?

Dear Allah, it felt too good to be a dream. The warmth of the Assassin, the smell of him, the feel of his rough coat and skin. He could not be real, this perfection, the absolute relief evaporating my worry….

“Malik…” I whispered, finding my voice. He was here, he came back. He was alive… After all this time, he really did come back…

“I’m here, habibti. I’m here.” Malik breathed into my ear, clutching me close.

My heart soared like a bird in the sky, my eyes beginning to well with tears as the reality of what was happening crashed down on top of me. I could not believe it. I could not believe it was real… The uncanniness of it was palpable, after months of thinking the worst. And here he was, solid in my arms unharmed. My luck had turned the tides.

Malik…” I pulled back, to admire him, the exultation covering his face, the bright wetness in his dark eyes, the vivid red blood streaming down his shoulder and tainting his robes. “Malik, you’re hurt.” So much for being completely unharmed.

“I will take care of it when we go back to the bureau.” He nodded in the direction I had come from. I laced my hand in his and practically pulled him with me down the street. When we made it to the hideout, Malik swiftly unlocked the door, ushering me inside. I expected the Dai to greet me with a discouraging word or two, but he was not there. He had locked all the entrances, including the one to the roof. Only Allah knew where he had gone off to. Perhaps it was a good thing, as the real keeper was there to relieve him of his duties.

Malik was more baffled than I. “Where’s the Dai?”

I smiled. “He’s right here.” I said sweetly, gesturing to Malik, who gave me a knowing look.

“I meant the man I left behind to look after the bureau.” Malik brushed past me to check the patio, returning still dumbfounded. I stood with my arms crossed by the counter.

“I don’t know where he is. And frankly, I could not be happier that he is gone.”

Malik’s head snapped up, his eyes aware and decoding my statement, “Rajah…” He snarled, “Why were you not staying here like I asked?”

I huffed, “Well, if your man had not kicked me out, I would have stayed.”

His eyebrows shot up. “He kicked you out?!”

“Actually, I kicked myself out,” I cleaned up my statement, “He was an asshole. He claimed I got into his business and was a nuisance to him.”

Malik had gone into the secret room to fetch his medical supplies. “And so,” he called, voice muffled, “you just ran off? Clearly, you broke your promise to me.”

I sighed, “No, Malik, I did not.”

Malik was not satisfied by the information I had given him. “Where did you go, Rajah?” He pressed.

“Why are you grilling me like this?!” I was upset at the incessant interrogations. Why was he not happier to see me? Unless he did not want to see me at all… I pushed that thought away.

Malik slammed back through the hidden door, throwing his materials on the counter, “I have not exactly enjoyed being away from you and I would like to think you actually stayed true to your promise instead of running off and putting yourself in harm’s way!”

My hands balled into fists. “I know how to handle myself. And let’s face it, if I had not been out on the streets, I would not have found you and you would be dying like a dog in the street!”

Malik exhaled as he shrugged out of his robes to assess his wound. “I believe I have heard that line before.” He prodded at the cut, which still lazily wept blood.

“I believe I have as well,” I watched him try to dab away at the wound with a damp cloth, “Here, let me.” I offered, rubbing away the excess liquid.

Malik leaned back, letting me clean the gash. He was silent for a long moment. I made no move to speak, for he was in close quarters with me, the space behind the counter much too cramped for two people.

“I have missed you, Rajah. More than you will ever know.” His voice was softer, gravelly. I was concentrating very hard on cleansing his wound then, sprinkling the healing herbs he brought madly into the wound.

“Well, how do you think I felt?” I muttered distractedly.

Malik continued, laughing lightly, “I believe Altaïr has been planning to murder me. I was more concerned about you than was healthy.”

I blinked. It made me feel … wanted to know he was thinking about me. At least, to some degree. “What is there to worry about?” I said, perplexed, casually eyeing the scruff on his neck.

This!” Malik’s voice rose, gesturing to the door, “You running off, getting yourself into trouble, getting killed. When will you learn, Rajah? When will you learn to not worry me so much? You accomplished almost all three of those scenarios today!” He was angry, passionately so.

“I had to save you, Malik. I could not let you die!” I was wrapping his shoulder, flustered, and I ripped the gauze off with a snap, finished. I then had nowhere else to go, no excuse to be that close to him, but I did not move.

He leaned even closer to me, pressing me up against the counter. His eyes were dangerous, challenging. “It is not your place to save me, Rajah. I will not have you killed trying to do something as stupid as that.” His voice was lowered, husky.

I was blushing, my heart beginning to throb unremittingly, because of how hot it had become all of the sudden, and also because a man and a woman should not be that close and pressed up against each other, even in the middle of an argument. I was getting a might overwhelmed, but I dared not back down.

“It is not stupid. You’re everything to me, Malik.”

“And you will go on just fine without me. You have managed so far.”

The assumption stung. It was the wood feeding the lit fire within me and I was suddenly ranting, in the hopes that it would relieve the tension between us.

“You have no idea what I have gone through these past months! What if I told you my life was falling apart without you here?! You gave me hope to keep going. You were my motivation. I believed I might actually have a future worthwhile. Having you by my side was the main reason I wanted to continue living in this shitty world! Without you… without you, I have no reason to go on. So how dare you assume I’m fine without you, you jackass!”

It felt good to let it all out so he knew, be it a fraction, of the utter hell it had been the last few months. But it did nothing to satiate the fire that bloomed ever strongly in my abdomen. He had gravitated so close to me and he made no move to go away. I could not rid myself of the feeling and I could stand it no longer, so I leaned forward and locked my lips with his.

It was the first moment I had felt alive in so long. The heat consumed me. Malik huffed into my mouth and I held the back of his neck, fingers digging into his hair. Allah above, he was warm. Solid. His skin blazed beneath my touch and I shivered. I was in a frenzy, unable to stop.

Malik pushed me onto the counter, and he leaned over me, his hips somehow in between my legs, his rough hand dragging down my stomach. I shuddered, every inch of him touching me. I was intoxicated and needy, craving… more. I needed him. I did not know for sure how or in what way to quench that need, but I wanted to find out.

He kissed my neck, heaving me closer still and I groaned. I could not handle it. I could not breathe, my thoughts were gone as I blindly kissed him when he returned to my lips. I was reciprocating these feelings, Allah knows what they were, responding to his every touch in ways I did not think were possible for me. It was intense to the point I wanted to scream.

"Malik." I breathed, my voice squeaky. I clutched his neck and I could see fire in his eyes, ablaze with greed and hunger. Whatever feeling it was that was raging within me, it was mutual. He attacked my mouth again, angrily tearing away at my defenses. I only whimpered and held tightly to him, letting him, no, encouraging him to have his way with me.

Malik froze, his head snapping in the direction of the patio. His grip tightened on my hip and though I remained still, his heat still tingled under my skin.

In another dimension, where I wasn’t lost in the throes of passion, I could hear men speaking. I could not understand what they said. It did not make sense. They did not speak Arabic and they sounded like they may have been on the roof. Our roof. Their voices drifted cold down through the patio grating. They were close, extremely close…

“Get down!” Malik hissed. He was falling away, dragging me down with him behind the counter.

“Malik..” I whimpered, filled with terror. My hands shook as I clutched his shoulder. He crouched in front of me, in a protective spring. He watched the doorway with wide, calculating eyes. His hand slid to the counter, the knife giving a small, metallic screech as he glided it to him.

“Stay here. Do not move.” He whispered urgently, barely sparing me a glance as he crept out from behind the counter and snuck to the doorway. I could no longer hear voices and I feared they were still on the roof. They could not have gotten into the building. The grating was shut. There was no physical way they could be inside the---

A loud rattling of the front door silenced all thinking. I jarred and watched Malik turn suddenly, staring at the door with startled eyes. I was frozen as the terror kept me in place. And there was Malik, exposed in the thick of the situation, a perfect target. I was not even watching the door anymore. I was looking at him and how much of a venerable position he was in. If he had not locked that door, he would be the very first to regret it.

We remained there, with the minutes stretching into what seemed like hours. We could hear the potential intruders speaking in their strange native tongue before they casually meandered away, a relief to my pounding heart. We both stood.

“Damned Templars…” Malik oathed. He still eyed the door warily.

“That sounded close.” My voice was slightly shaky.

“That’s because they were. They were trying to open the grating,” He jogged to the patio to evaluate the damage. Finding none, theories began to fly from his mouth, “Either they stumbled upon it by sheer luck or worse yet, someone followed us.”

Those ominous words sent tremors down my spine. “Well, what do we do now?” I tried to keep my voice level.

“I’ll provide a distraction.” Malik stated, unwavering in his words as he slipped his robes back on.

Whatever he planned, it involved putting himself in danger. I would not have it.

“Oh no, you don’t! I just got you back. I’m not going to lose you again!”

“I can’t let them find the bureau, Rajah. If that happens, given you and I aren’t killed, we will have to pack up and leave to find a more secure location. That may mean leaving Jerusalem, but that matters not. The Brotherhood was almost compromised, and I will not have it in jeopardy again.” He pushed past me, securing his weapons, already headed for the front door.

He was steadfast, but he had no idea how stubborn I could be. Or how cunning. Because I would not have him sacrificing himself for his Brotherhood when I only got to be with him for as short a time as we had had.

“Well, you won’t have to.” I walked up behind him, watching him give me a baffled look.

“What?”

I smiled coyly, “I’ll do the compromising.” I began to stride past him when he yanked me back by my arm.

“And how do you plan on doing that?” He was sarcastically going along with my plan.

I shrugged simply, “I’m going to pick a fight.” I stated.

Malik actually snorted. “Rajah, please, don’t be so stupid. Do not do this and get yourself killed for the Brotherhood.”

“What Brotherhood?” I mocked innocently, my hands going to my heart, feigning horror that he would believe such a thing, “I am just a simple, homeless girl looking to start trouble.” As if absolutely nobody in the city was looking to harm me…

Malik began to see how serious I was about playing my role and how far I would go through with the scheme. “I do not like this plan, Rajah.” He looked at me as if I had a disorder.

“Well, I did not like it when you left me for Masyaf. But you said and I quote, ‘It was for the good of the Brotherhood.’ Well, so is this. If I fuck it all up, it’s not going to be your fault. And besides, no one else will know I am working for the Assassins anyway.” I shrugged my explanation, but Malik did not buy into the simplicity of it.

“Rajah…” He was severely unsure, but I could not let him dissuade me. I was not doing this to protect the Brotherhood. I couldn’t give more of a damn about that. I was doing it to protect Malik. Not necessarily in the fact that he would be killed, no, but to ensure the bureau would be safe. The place was his home. My home.

“I need a knife.” I ordered, looking down suggestively at his belt. He followed my gaze and unhooked a blade from its holder, gingerly handing it to me, as if it would break, or I would.

“Do you know how to wield this?” He asked uncertainly.

In truth, not really. I had only used knives to cut food when I could, or as in the case of twenty minutes ago, to bash someone’s head in. But I have said it before, I was a fast learner.

I snorted. “I’ll figure it out as I go.” I turned to leave, afraid he would pull out his pained face and then I would not be able to leave at all. But Malik had not released his grip on my arm. I was jolted back, forced to look at him.

“You know if you die, you’re breaking your promise?”

Of course, he had to pull that card out. I watched his eyes become pain-stricken, trying to lure me in in a last ditch attempt to stay.

“I understand. But I don’t plan on dying, Malik. I promise.” I could see his face turn into a doubtful expression, already anticipating the worst. I knew I should do the same, as I was deluding myself and him into thinking I had even a slim chance of survival. “But, in the case that I don’t return by… tomorrow morning, you can come searching for me.”

I only pictured that I could be knocked unconscious and that no one would find me until I woke up. So, I gave him a window, for I knew not how long this would take.

Malik’s eyes, however, became wide and colored with horrible anguish. He clearly feared he’d find something far worse. But he steeled his features and nodded in understanding. He pulled me in, molding his lips to mine, most likely hoping this would distract me, to hold me back. It only did the opposite as I thought, for the second time, that it may well be the last time I would hold him….

I pulled away before I got sucked into the whirlpool of pleasure that would ensure my staying. I had to do this, or he would. And I wanted a choice. If one of us were to die, it would be me. I knew he thought otherwise, but I had nothing else to lose. He had the Brotherhood to live on for, and Altaïr. He had far more to lose.

I caught a glimpse of his disturbed face as he let me go before I bolted out the door and onto the rooftops. I could not settle on those thoughts as there were more pressing matters to deal with at that moment.

I scanned the horizon, a blue void. The heat shimmered down in waves that turned to sweat as soon as they came into contact with my face. What a lovely day for an affair such as this. I searched for a group of Templars. Judging from the different voices that I had heard, there were multiple.

And there, several blocks from the bureau, was a group of the slugs. The chainmail with a red cross advertised them to be so.

They had to be the ones who harassed us. There was not another group of them in sight! And if they were not the culprits, well… They were too close to the bureau for my liking anyway. I took a deep breath, my heart in my throat as I stalked the group, gathering stones as I went. My mind should have been spinning with a plan, but it was safe to say, my mind had blanked out of any of the sort. I only focused on them, refusing to let the insects out of my sight.

The first stone left my hand and clocked the one leading the group right in the helmet. He stumbled, his arms flailing to relieve the gonging in his head. The others snapped their gazes to the roofs.

"Come catch me, you motherfuckers!” I did not believe they understood a word I said, as they were looking at each other in disbelief and bewilderment, though not for long, as I released the rest of my stones to be entombed in their faces. A woman’s shrill voice could be heard from nearby. The Templar captain removed his helmet, only to be revealed that it was not, in fact, a man.

The woman, her pale skin and lips, stretched into a vehement snarl, shrieked orders in her peculiar, ugly language at her men to give chase. And hesitate, they did not. But I was already on the move by then, heading south, toward the Zion Gate. I had no idea where I was headed, only that I had to lead them as far from the bureau as possible. They chased me across roofs, through the streets and out of the city past startled civilians and guards, who did not bother to assist me.

My feet scraped the rough stones and dirt of the road as they pursued me. My adrenaline, it fueled me. I led them a long way, further and further away from Jerusalem into the farming fields with soft soil and crops with weeds sharp enough to tear one’s foot apart. But that did not stop me. I was surprised they gave chase as long as they did.

I would often let them almost catch up, to fool them into thinking they were gaining ground. But I knew what I was doing and never let them stand a chance of getting too close. I giggled as I played my devious mind games on them. I was as wild and reckless as thunder over the land, racing the eagles, soaring with the wind. There were times I believed I could fly, and that instance was one of them. They couldn’t capture me. Nobody could.

I never saw the knife coming. I could hear the swish of it slicing the air behind me, and I watched with a shock unknown as the blade point suddenly appeared repulsively in my kneecap. There was no pain, as the adrenaline overrode any of the sort. But it did hinder the ability to bend the knee and I went down, face first, into the sand. I squirmed to get up, my panic rising when I realized I could no longer move as quickly as I needed. The knife squelched when disturbed, causing bright red blood to spurt from the wound.

I looked behind me. The Templars were close, too close. I was losing my own game. I grunted, forcing myself up. I hobbled, dragging my crippled leg behind me like a cart. I suddenly felt like I carried the weight of the world. I was dangerously exposed, the easiest target practice. My body and lungs burned with fatigue. Every gasp for air was like a blade being jammed down my throat, much like the one in my leg.

I may have been stronger than I used to be, but the knife prevented flight. I was too weak to fight them. I had to hide. Only there was nowhere to go. The landscape was barren, filled only with sand, and a tree that jutted out a few yards away. I had to rest. I could run no further. If I did, I would die. I had no other options.

I was not used to climbing trees. I preferred the solidity of buildings beneath my feet, but it would have to do. In a blurry panic, I made for the tree. It was crooked and curled from years in the sun, and the knots made good footholds as I made my way up the trunk. The branches were sturdy, but only about midway up the tree. They then became less stable and that was when I really learned to trust my footing. My injured leg was useless, a rigid setback as it refused to be bent.

The shouting of the Templars soon filled the air. They hooted and hollered, their victory clear before them. So confident they were in their win that one of them even started coming up after me. They taunted me in their foul tongue and the fact that I could not understand them made me all the more terrified. I watched with short breaths as he grew closer and closer. He drew his sword, licking his lips like a rabid animal, his eyes crazed with the thrill of the hunt.

The branch snapped. The ground was not a short drop below and I watched. I watched with surprised eyes as he plummeted earthward, his wide eyes never taken off of me. I could hear his impact, the armor clanging like a bell. My hope for him having broken his neck was short lived when he got to his feet, enraged.

I exhaled, shaking as I straddled one of the thicker branches and held on for dear life. Their female leader hit him sharply, exclaiming at him. She drew an arrow from her quiver and loaded it into her crossbow. Her eyes, black and glinted, were unrelenting. They were fixed on me, never wavering. So focused was I on the sheer cruelty I saw in them that I only had seconds to shrink back when the arrow was fired at me.

She was deadly accurate. The arrow grazed the branch where I had been leaning over. I heard her shout furiously. I drew myself closer together, listening as she loaded another arrow in and shot it at me. I braced myself for the impact, muscles tense, but she, thankfully, missed again.

My breathing was hitched, but I was smiling. I could hear them begin to argue, irate that I had made them look like fools. They did not leave, though, only circled the tree like a pack of hungry dogs. They were going to wait me out.

“You are lucky we are patient, you sad sack of shit,” The woman began to threaten me in rather fluent Arabic, “Perhaps, if you climb down, we will feel forgiving enough to kill you quickly. If not, you can stay up there and starve. We’ve got all the time in the world.” She laughed viciously, her gaze the face of true evil. My mind, at the time, vaguely wondered if this was the woman who took Robert’s place, the one Altaïr was sent to assassinate. How anyone could mistake her for a man, I did not comprehend. She was too petite, no matter how much armor she threw on. But hell, she was tougher than many men.

I realized she was still watching me, awaiting a response. I thought about not saying a word, but I knew I had to keep them interested, on their toes. I would not let them go back and look into the bureau. I smirked.

“If anyone is going to die of starvation, it will be you, my friends. Starvation or boredom, whichever comes on faster. I have lived on the streets all my life, so I have ample experience in both departments.”

The look on her face was priceless. If eyeballs could physically pop out of one’s head, it would have happened then. The others did not speak Arabic, as they gave the woman a look of puzzlement, and later fear, as she gave a scream of infuriation. She lashed out at them, yanking a knife out of their belts and throwing it with deadly speed at me.

I had no time to react as the second knife had became embedded in my other leg, my bad leg, lodged just above the ankle. My mouth opened to scream, but nothing came out. I would not give them the satisfaction. I closed my eyes, doubling over and biting my tongue to counteract the pain.

My other leg had begun to pulsate with overwhelming agony, the knife protruding grotesquely from the kneecap. I had to pull it out or I could kiss my ass goodbye. There would be no possible movement with it lodged in my leg. I stuffed my mouth with my shirt, laying down my own blade and grabbing the handle of the dagger. I did not give myself time to pray to Allah, I just yanked.

The pain became white and I could not see. The veins in my neck strained as I screamed into my clothes. The point of the blade was no longer visible, but the knife was not completely out. A cascade of blood began to squirt out of the wound and flew like rain to the ground below.

With another squeal, I pulled the blade out, the flesh squishing sickeningly. Tears were flowing down my cheeks involuntarily. The knife was coated in blood and bits of meat. Bile climbed up into my throat and I immediately leaned over the edge towards the Templars, letting the vile, hideous contents of my stomach assault them.

They jumped back in comical horror. Soon followed after that was the bloody knife. I wiped my mouth, watching the blood, the color of burgundy, trickle from the wound and coagulate.

Next was my newest wound. I grabbed the hilt, bracing myself for the oncoming woe, but was found unprepared. I was blinded by anguish, rendered weak by the acuteness of it. One could have been sawing my foot off and it would have felt no different. I could hear the blade scrape bone, and I cried out, shuddering violently. It only took one tug and the knife came out looking similar to the other. I tossed that over the side, unaware of who it hit or where.

I leaned back against the trunk, waves of pure torture swamping me. My legs throbbed, the both of them. The blood had to be oozing out and falling like the rain in a storm. I was crying and sweating, unable to breathe. I hoped the scum below me grew impatient and left, or killed me. Either option sounded appealing.

But I knew I would not survive the coming hours leading to nightfall. I had to do something, else I bleed to death. I wished I had told Malik to come look for me earlier than tomorrow morning. He may have had to deal with the Templars, but at least, I would not reek as badly.
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My consciousness faded in and out, and my vision swam, but I always made sure to hang on to the branch tightly. Evening came quicker than I anticipated. The sounds of the night came and that relaxed me, oddly enough. I could not see the stars through the woven leaves and branches above me, but I knew they were there, watching. I did not matter anyway. Soon, I would be seeing just how brightly they burned.

My thoughts turned to Malik. He must be worried sick. I hated that. I hated that I was the cause of his concerns, but I could do nothing about it. Not with these assholes below me.

The soft glow of the fire illuminated four bodies. The smoke cooked the cool air. They were bedding down for the night. That’s what I assumed, as they were all lying down. They really did not plan on leaving. One would think they had something better to do with their lives than just sit around and harass a poor civilian. But then again, they were Templars and they had not exactly been kind to anyone as of late.

I turned my knife in my dirty fingers. I was still out of it from the pain, but I thought my legs had stopped bleeding. I had nothing to cover them up with, so the risk of infection was high. But there was nothing to be done.

Studying the camp below me, I weighed my options. I was not going to stay here and wait for them to leave. It could be, for lack of a better word, a boring stalemate. Plus, I did not exactly want to starve again. Even further, Malik would come looking for me eventually, and though I had seen him take down six guards, something told me that the woman who led these men may be more brutal than the entire Jerusalem guard combined.

So, if I wasn’t to stay, what then? The only way to escape was down. Falling wasn’t a good idea. I would have to be utter silence climbing down. A single noise would set them off, even if it wasn’t me. I would have to be careful. I hoped my knees would be strong enough to withstand my weight. At least, until I got away from them.

Seeing no other way out of this, I began my descent. My heart began to hammer like no other. My mind was a rush of pain and adrenaline. My legs begged for mercy, buckling every so often and leaving me clutching the tree like the mad one I was.

Tears began to blur my vision and I blinked them away rapidly. It was no time to panic, hanging from that tree. But if they saw me, I would be nothing more than mere chunks of meat on the ground by morning. I was practically sliding down the tree rather than climbing, the bark scratching loudly in the eerie silence. I cast quick, rattled glances below me, but not a soul was troubled. I let out hot breaths, continuing my perilous descent.

The closer I came to the bottom, the shakier my grip became. The crackling and snapping of the fire became my only aid in blocking the ungodly amount of noise I was making. My knees strained from the pressure and I envisioned them imploding. My vision turned shades of gray and white and I feared I would pass out. The loads of good that would do me. My grip would fade instantly with my consciousness and then it would be certain death.

What a sight I must have been. Clinging to the tree like the desperate beast I was. The Templars would surely not spare me a good laugh.

After what seemed like an endless odyssey, the softness of the sand greeted my tender feet. I dared not breathe, as the Templars were inches away. They breathed silently in their sleep and the woman clutched a blade near to her, like a child hugs their favorite toy. I swallowed.

My first instinct was to run, but I could not be that silent. I watched them for several long moments, awaiting a response, movement, anything. But they did none of that. My heartbeat threatened to reveal me and I clutched my knife.

Perhaps, if I could end this, they would no longer be a threat. I would just have to be extremely careful.

The men were twice my size and could smash my skull in their hands. But they were made susceptible when they exposed their necks. I tremblingly advanced with small steps to them. How was I going to do this? Especially without one of them screaming and alerting the others?

If I had any ounce of intelligence in me, I would have just turned and run. But I wasn’t intelligent. So with a shiver of bravery, I plunged the knife into the neck of the bastard closest me. His artery exploded in a spray of blood which coated me from arm to face. He gurgled and clutched his neck, choking on the thick liquid. I released the knife and watched in horror as he spasmed to his death.

I bit my tongue, pushing the impulse to heave away as I crawled to the next one. His throat erupted into a jet of blood, which he immediately and audibly began to cough on. I speared him again to silence him, but it was too late. The man next to him had begun to stir.

With a panicked growl, I wedged the blade lengthwise into his shoulder and then again into his neck. His eyes bulged and he tried to grab me. I plunged with all my weight onto the handle and ignored his weakening gropes. The blade sank deeper and deeper into his neck until I felt a small jolt. The blade then sunk into the blood rich soil and his head rolled away, eyes still startled wide open.

My breathing became no more as I watched the head bump into the only living body left. The woman was sitting up stick-straight, her eyes locked onto the head. She ogled it for several long seconds before she slowly gazed up at me, her eyes immense, black chasms that were glassy and crazed. She glared at me with enough hatred to dismember me.

“You bitch!” She bellowed. But I was on my feet, throwing my soiled knife right at her. I did not know if it hit my intended mark, and I didn’t want to stop and ask. I made for Jerusalem and did not look back.

My legs were burning like a wild fire, but I did not stop. If I did, I would collapse and give up. I tore for the gates, my vision beginning to blacken at the edges. If only I could beat it to the bureau, this race against my own mind.

I shoved past guards and civilians, falling often and bringing them down with me in my hysterical escape. The stones beneath my feet were becoming uneven and just remaining upright took all my willpower. My throat was shredded and my lungs were useless. The images of what had come to pass came wormed into the forefront of my mind, swirling and running together like the colors of a rainbow. If only it could be that pleasant…

Those thoughts jumbled my sense of direction. Was I even going the right way? Where was I? I was dizzy and lightheaded. Climbing the roofs was a struggle all in itself. The air seemed thinner up there. I spared a glance skyward and I could feel my body falling. Maybe this was it… My vision faded and came back, like the waves of the ocean.

Where was I? Where was … Malik? I could not be far from the bureau… My mind swam as I scrutinized the buildings near me. No, I was not far. Clutching my head, I pushed to my feet, wobbling. I had to get there. I had to see Malik…

I cannot even remember traversing the buildings to get to the bureau. To me, I just magically appeared there, the journey taken out of my memory. Perhaps I had blacked out, the walking dead. I wasn’t even sure what reality or dreams were anymore. There was no difference.

The lattice was open, a warm, inviting glow radiating from inside, a beacon in the night. “Malik…” My voice was gone. It was merely more than a rough whisper. And then I was plunging again. The impact was astounding in my ears. I groaned, the tears creating trails in the blood and grime on my face. I felt sticky and sickly, weak. “Malik…” I whimpered again.

He couldn’t hear me. Perhaps he wasn’t even here. The smell of sandalwood and dried ink greeted my nose and I inhaled, becoming weaker still. Oh, but he was here. I could faintly hear screaming, two different men screaming at one another. Malik and someone else. Was Altaïr here? Why would he be here? Why else would Malik be yelling at the top of his lungs?

The argument was fading in and out, ringing in my ears, as if I were hearing it through a tunnel. And then, it went quiet. He would find me… He would save me… But it had gone permanently black at that point.

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The darkness was penetrated only by an orb of light, coming from directly in front of me. I ran to it with all of my strength, but it came no closer. The gloom sucked me down. It grabbed at me with inky hands and pinned me down to its everlasting depths. I was drowning. I couldn’t breathe. My arms flailed to grab something, anything to bring me salvation.

But the hands held me down. They did not let go and I had no choice but to surrender to the temptation of the abyss. It was strangely warm and safe down here. The hands would not let anything hurt me. They drifted across my face and through my hair, caressing my skin. I leaned into the gentle touch, wishing for them to continue. And they did, on and on until I felt as if I was hypnotized by the phantom hands.

The illusion began to fade when pain found me. It began to pulsate slightly in my lower extremities, enough to wake me. I blinked awake, realizing I was never really asleep. A lantern burned right in front of me a few feet away, a hazy glow in the darkness. And there were hands lacing through my hair. Well, one really.

Malik’s soft breathing was somewhere above me. I was lying down, completely swathed in blankets, which explained the warmth. It was dark and quiet. As my eyes adjusted, I soon discovered I was on the ledge that lined the walls of the library, Malik’s sleeping quarters. Why I was up here, I had no idea, but I did not inquire.

“Ugh…” My head felt like a stone being beaten over and over until it cracked. My hand went to my forehead.

“Shh, you’re all right. You’re safe now.” Malik’s voice was warm and gentle, close to my face. I could not see him, but I felt my head was cradled in his lap. I reached for his face, and a hand laced through mine, easing me.

“What happened?” I croaked, my head groggy of the past events.

“I found you lying on the patio in a rather large pool of blood. Your poor legs cannot take many more blows.”

I struggled to find his face in the obscurity. Sitting up proved to be a challenge and I found I could not handle it. My world spun and bent in alarming ways and I collapsed back onto his lap.

“Easy, habibti,” he cooed, his voice concerned, “You need to rest. Movement will not aid your health any.” His hand rested on my shoulder to restrict me, but he rubbed circles lightly on my skin.

I massaged my sore head, struggling to remember the confrontation, but the only confrontation I could recall was the one I overheard when I landed in the sunroom. “Who were you arguing with?”

“The man who took care of the bureau while I was away,” I detected a slight note of contempt, “I was making arrangements with him.”

“By arguing?” I laughed skeptically. Malik had a way with people.

“Well, I warned him he may want to learn to treat women better, or it may get him killed.” Yes, there was definitely disdain in his voice.

I said nothing, instead looking through the dark room for the said man. I saw no trace of him. In fact, I couldn’t see much of anything. But the lamplight did illuminate the counter and a sack that rested upon it. Brows knitted, I questioned, “What kind of arrangements?”

I heard him take a deep breath and that was the first clue that all was not well. “He’s going to become the permanent Dai here.”

My heart actually gave stop when I read between the lines of that statement. “Permanent? Here?!

“Yes, Rajah. Altaïr has made me his advisor and second-in-command. I must stay in Masyaf. I only returned to see to it that the bureau was in working order and to retrieve what is mine.”

I heard nothing over the sound of my world crashing to pieces. He would be gone…Forever…

“I see.” My voice was dead, my body going numb as a defense mechanism to protect itself.

Malik could sense my tension. He tried to ease the blow, but there was no way to. “I know it is quite a big change, Rajah. But it had to happen. You’ll… you’ll become used to it.”

“I don’t think so.” I was dead. Or on my way to becoming so. Why? Why was he leaving me? I thought he would… I thought he would stay here and all would be better. But I meant no such thing to him. The Brotherhood came first. It would always come first, no matter what I had to say otherwise. I just never expected that giving him up would be so… insufferable.

How?! How would I endure that hell again? I barely survived two and a half months! How would I handle the rest of my life?! Four and a half months ago, when faced with the decision of staying or fleeing, I looked forward to the day when I could take my freedom and run like the wind into the mountains and the sky. Now, I would throw that freedom and everything I knew away just to be with Malik. So I would not be alone again…

By then, Malik could see that I was in distress, from the lack of any color in my voice or demeanor, the way I shut myself up. And he was troubled by it, trying to relieve it. “I know Masyaf is a long way from here, but I’ll always be here for you. Always.”

Being there in spirit would not be enough. It did not help me when he was away. I now need his physical presence like air or Allah would do away with me. I turned towards him. My heart fled from my mouth, along with the tears. “How can you put this on my shoulders? After all that we’ve been through…”

My sentence trailed off. No words could describe the sense of betrayal. I thought he understood, to some degree, how I felt. But I had never underestimated someone so much in my life.

Malik was pained by my words. I did not need to see him to tell, no did I want to. Just listening was enough. His hand retracted from my shoulder. “I thought… I thought this would be what you wanted.” He tried to hold back his emotions, but they leaked through. I could hear the devastation in that single sentence, his world crushed.

But it did not compare to what boiled inside me. Not only was I absolutely rendered lost and shattered without him, I was angered. He was clearly blind. He thought I did not mean anything of what I had said. He wanted me to go away. He wanted me gone, to disappear… like I never even existed….

“You think I want you to go away?!” I screeched, “Have you any idea the depression I’ve gone through, the nightmares I have had? If you went away and left me behind, I’d… I don’t know what I would do..” The tears burned my eyes, my throat knotted up. But at least, I felt pain that was enough to make me cry. I would rather have that than the terrifying nothingness….

“What?” Malik was, at first, taken aback by my passionate rant and then amused. “Oh, Rajah..” He began to cackle with merriment.

My cheeks flushed and my insides reeled. “Why are you laughing, you bastard?!” I was furious he found my feelings funny. I literally meant nothing to him!

Malik was still snickering when he began to speak again. “I – I wasn’t going to abandon you. When I said I came back to get what’s mine, I meant I was coming back to get you. I had no other reason to return,” I could feel him pull me tighter to him. “I thought you were upset because you would have to leave Jerusalem behind.”

“Oh,” I frowned, my cheeks even redder. “Well, you could have just said that instead of being so cryptic!” I snapped. The way he worded that made me believe he was really leaving me. But underneath the embarrassment and irritation, I was unfathomably alleviated of worry.

“I am sorry. I thought I made it clear enough that you are mine.” He said suggestively, running his hand along my arm possessively.

I shivered, imagining the innocent yet wicked grin he bore. “Clear as mud.”

“Clever one.” He growled lowly, leaning down to press a long, lingering kiss to my lips. I was faint and oh so happy he was not leaving. I gripped his neck as he pulled away, holding him near.

“When will we leave?”

“When you are well. In a few days, perhaps. Given you don’t run around and make trouble. You’re lucky you can still walk. Had I found you later than I had, your legs might have to have been amputated.”

I cringed. Luck had been with me. I may never be that lucky again. “Well, I sure gave those Templars trouble.” I recounted the story to him, every gory detail. Malik grimaced when I reached the end of my heroic tale.

“And that is why you should let me do the distraction work. Women and fighting do not mix.”

I snorted. “That woman who led the Templars sure handled being in battle well.”

“I wonder if she is the one Altaïr informed me about. The one who stood in for Robert…” Malik’s tone was observant, “But why would she still be here?”

“I know not, only that she tried to kill me.” The image of her malicious face would be one I would carry with me the rest of my life.

“At least, she did not succeed in that endeavor.” Malik murmured. In his hold, nothing seemed wrong. I smiled and closed my eyes when the wooziness set in again, the room spinning in wondrous colors.

“Malik, I’m feeling a little…dizzy.”

He hushed me softly, “Go to sleep, habibti.” He pressed his lips to my forehead and the world righted itself steady.

“Don’t go.” I pleaded, fearing he really would leave when I fell asleep. I could not be where he was not.

His hand ran down my cheek soothingly, “I would not dream of it. I will be here when you wake.”

“Thank you…” My voice drifted away. All that mattered was that he was close. He stroked my cheek, and I was lost, gone, gone, gone away….
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“Are you ready, Rajah?”

I snapped my head toward Malik and he watched me expectantly from atop his horse. I nodded quickly and climbed aboard my own mount.

I had found myself, again, going back to four and a half months ago, when I had the chance to escape the bureau and the crazed life I had seemingly fallen into. Oh, how I wanted to leave. Oh, how I was afraid of what would happen to me if they refused to let me leave. All I had wanted was to run free again, to leave it all behind and go back to my own version of what one could call a normal, everyday life on the streets.

Flash forward to a few days ago where I did not think I could face that life again. Alone, starving, watching the days pass by, thinking it would all never change. A predictable existence. And now I stood on a great precipice, about to dive in head first to a bottom unknown. And never feeling more hopeful.

I was reminiscent. I did not miss my old life, nor even the freedom of it, because with freedom came a price and that price was loneliness and starvation. Nothing to look forward to. I was only saying goodbye to it. And Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, my beautiful, troubled home. I would belong here. I would always belong here. It was home to me. I would miss it. I would miss the heat. I would miss the ruggedness, the toughness, the beauty and mystique. My little ledge on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. My hideout in the wilderness, with blue waters and untouched nature, quiet and undiscovered. And of course, Malik’s Bureau, which had become more of a home to me than any other place in this land. I would miss all of that.

But it was time to move on, time to turn my back on everything. So it was goodbye to my beloved city. Goodbye to everything I knew. It was time to let go in order to grasp onto something better.

I glanced over at Malik, chasing away his worry by smiling reassuringly at him. It would pass, like everything else. He grinned back and kicked his horse up the hill. I followed him greedily. I did not look back that time as I sped ahead with all out of my control, laughing the whole time. I promised myself, someday, I would return to see my home again. But for that moment, it was farewell as I ran onward with Malik to Masyaf, to my new life.

Chapter Text

The journey to Masyaf was a long and arduous one. Five days of hard riding in the unforgiving desert heat. The hours grew lengthy and stretched into a blur as the sun drained our energy. The first day tired me out and I was leaning against my horse’s neck by mid-afternoon. I had never traveled this far in my life, and especially not on horseback. My thighs were given quite the workout.

We made camp early that first night. I practically fell from my horse as we stopped in a small grove of bushes that lay not far from the road. The air began to cool considerably as the sun left the sky and hid beneath the earth. Though the fire and the labor taken to create it warmed us, it only did so for a little while. The desert was heartless, day or night, and could be dangerous enough to kill by any means possible.

The stars shone brightly that night and I found myself in awe of just how vast the space above me was, truly unhindered by buildings or trees. The blackness split into a chasm of wonderful colors, a streak that spilled unto us another universe. The stars beamed down onto me, raining their light down to the ground.

Were they really that small or were they so far away that the appeared to be so? And why were they here? Were they the ghosts of our ancestors, watching over us? Did Allah put them here, scattering them across our world to give us something beautiful to look at?

Or were the stars something more, something that we were incapable of comprehending, something that not even religion could explain? But how could anything so magnificent exist and not have been made by the hands of something greater? My mind spun in circles, wanting to know what could possibly be out there. Was there another place like our world? Or were we the only ones in an otherwise impeccable masterpiece?

Oh, my aching head could not handle the deep thoughts. I chose then to lose myself in the swirling colors of the crevasse before me, the splattered hints of pink and cyan exploding across the darkness, a stain beneath the stars.

I was aware of Malik rubbing my arm, tightly cradling me to him. He had wrapped a blanket around us to ward off the chill of the oncoming night. I leaned my head against his shoulder, pressing into his warmth. I glanced up to see he was watching me, his eyes glittering with the light of the fire. He smiled down at me and I snuggled closer to him. If Allah had created the perfection above me, than he had certainly had a hand in creating the man beside me.

After a restful sleep, we continued on. The land seemed ageless, with no beginning and no end. No boundary between the earth and the sky. The wind called my name and the sun burned my soul. The desert sands were painted different colors, depending on the time of day. A light shade of apricot in the morning hours, the color of golden cream come noon, and by sundown it had tainted itself a burnt umber and blood red.

The sand was a living, breathing being, constantly changing. It folded over itself and rose anew, like the waves of water, all that remained of a dried up sea. The winds carved a deadly magnum opus that no human could hope to tame.

The people we passed were as rough as the landscape itself, with dark skin that had dried and cracked in the sun, with dust hidden in every exposed nook and cranny of it. The clothing, no matter how fine, was worn thin by the heat, the ever present dirt and grit. Rich or poor, the desert did not care. It would take any one person’s life with greed, soaking them in like rain, however rare it may be. When the rains did come, I was told they were of the most violent kind, wiping away the face of the earth and anyone who stood upon it. Storms that turned the air to a whiteout so thick one could not see the hand that they had stuck out in front of them. These tempests, I was also informed, could put the ones in Jerusalem to shame. Somehow, I doubted that. If there was anything these strange people were good at, it was exaggerating stories.

The arid sands never gave up their dead, no matter how beautiful and innocent they may look. They displayed their arrogance in the bones that jutted from the ground, what remained of the souls the desert had sapped, and also in the constant heat that drained the spirit and the will to keep moving.

Shepherds guided their sheep and their goats along the trodden path and camels grunted and bellowed as they shouldered their load. Dust was kicked and scattered into the air, choking. Water seemed like a distant dream, unheard of in a place like this.

Roman ruins and the fortresses of Crusaders stood watch over the trade route as we ventured deeper into the Syrian Desert. The foreigners, with their pale skin and dense armor, marched in pairs and in droves, more of them gathered here than I had ever seen in one place at one time. Malik kept his head down, giving them no reason to investigate us.

By the afternoon of the fifth day, that sands had morphed into scrublands, but the heat did not go away. It made itself prevalent by searing away at my skin. There was no relief, nowhere to hide. My light skin had begun to redden and peel. I was sore and tired, oh so tired. I felt like I was whittling away bit by bit the farther we went.

The landscape had begun to lose its charm, the appeal dying away as the winds whispered across the land. Everything had become dull, unchanging. I felt like I was slowly being consumed by the land, evaporated by the sun. I leaned my head down and closed my eyes, wishing to be awoken when we were in Masyaf.

My horse stumbled and I was jostled back to attention and only then did I look up to find the mountains standing stately in front of me. They captured my attention, awesome in their height, jutting out confidently, kissing the sky. They gave no remorse, as fearsome, if not more so, than the desert itself. They unfurled and dipped into bottomless valleys, while some of the peaks were still snowcapped, the summer heat having done nothing to dampen their wrath. The air was cooler, yet it livened even the least cheery of people. If anything, at the very least, it made them walk a little bit faster.

Steep and rocky, with cliff sides deemed impassable. Trees grew atop these cliffs, jeering down at us below. A path sculpted itself upward, enduring in its way to the top. A distant minaret of smoke peeked out from beyond the mountain. A village was near. A village this far up seemed like something impossible, but from the expectant look on Malik’s face, nothing was impossible.

Assassins, the monk-like warriors they were, began to dot the crowd that filtered down the thin pathway. We were close. And soon, a gate appeared before us. And not just any gate. A wicked wooden, spiked number, to be specific, a gate straight from hell. Banners of red and white fluttered in the gentle breeze, boring the symbol of the Assassins.

I watched citizens wander to and fro, perfectly content with the hooded soldiers that stood guard along the path, as if they belonged. The people of Jerusalem did not grant such courtesy to the Assassins when they showed. We dismounted the horses, who gladly shed our unwelcome weight, and Malik guided me inside.

The air was different up here, clean and full of… life and hope. I did not know what to expect of Masyaf, only pictured what Malik had described. It was everything he had said, only more. The path continued up through the small, but bustling village. Clusters of shacks upon shacks lay gathered at the foot of the mountain, some built right on the cliff’s edge. Traders in the village market stood shouting into the crowd. The people looked dirty and smoke clouded the air. It was the poor part of town, but nonetheless, made fantastic by the fact it had been built atop a mountain of this size.

Malik kept leading me up the pathway and the guards became more frequent. They wore white robes that were similar to those of Altaïr and Malik, but some wore white cowls, others gray. There were markings on some, others were bare. They stood with their hands on the hilts of the sword at their side, waiting for a fight.

There was a second level, as crowded with houses as the first. The people paused to stare, not at Malik, but at me. I was a newcomer. Even in a village of this size, they could tell I was not one of them.

“Why are they all looking at me?” I leaned near to whisper to Malik.

“You are a new face. They’ll become used to you after a while.” Though he said that, he walked closer to me.

A third layer came into view, though it was much smaller, boasting a rather hulking building. But the road went on, with a drop off to one side, the river a blue string at the bottom. The soldiers were thick in numbers along the cliff, tense and observant.

The mountain blocked the view of anything behind me or in front of me. I looked over at Malik, wondering what more there was to see and why he was smirking and how was it –

How was it I could be confronted by a palace this high up in the mountains?! There it sat, beyond a few other building and a colossal wall with a heavy iron gate.

It seemingly grew out of the summit, built by the very stone that made up the cliff sides. There were towers that challenged the sky, knifing up to the heavens. There were domes, balconies and grey stone walls with carvings I could see from where I stood. The flags and banners were more vibrant, as if the castle did not call enough attention of its own. It dominated the mountain, laying claim to it.

I was struck dumb, standing frozen in disbelief of the sight. Jerusalem’s towers could not hold a candle to this structure. I doubted anything could. Why- and how for that matter- would anyone build a place of such grandeur? For what purpose could this castle serve? I had not expected this to be the dwelling of the Assassin Brotherhood. I had expected something a little less… conspicuous. I felt like a fortress of this scale could not exist in the same world that we lived in.

Malik was grinning like no other, drinking in my reaction. I blinked, my mouth still agape. I shook my head, my mind whirling. The castle could be fit for a king, for Allah, even! I could not wrap my head around the fact that I was staring at a citadel of such sheer magnitude. I couldn’t take it all in fast enough.

Malik began to make his way to the palace and I followed along blankly, still stupefied. The fortress grew in size, never ceasing to gain the ability to loom over me dangerously. I grew dizzy from looking up that far into the air and still seeing stone. This place was unparalleled by anything I had ever seen in my entire existence on this dear, green earth. Every place paled in comparison.

Inside the fortress walls was a training ring with a pathway that snuck around it leading to the inside. Two grey-cowled Assassins – I could only assume they were novices- fought viciously under the watchful eye of their mentor. Many others stood outside the rink, cheering on their favorite.

“There are so many of you…” I murmured under my breath. Malik only chuckled.

“That is why they call us a Brotherhood.”

“I know, but I have never seen so many of you in one place.” Malik only laughed.

Those Assassins were too caught up in their fight to care much about a strange new girl in their territory. Malik led me inside the monster of a castle and I found the inside to be as lavished as the outside, if not more so.

I was in the middle of a library, shelves upon shelves of books. Pillars lined the walkway that held up the second floor, with guards stationed at every one.

“All of you Assassins look the same.” I muttered, daunted. Malik rolled his eyes, grinning.

A staircase ahead of me led up to an open doorway and two stairways branched off on either side of the landing. I could see other arched doorways past the shelves that led to other wings of the complex. The Assassin symbol, either on a banner or carved into the wall, punctuated every side of the room.

Up the stairwell we went and through the doorway on the landing, I could see a lush garden in the back, the complete opposite of the tough exterior. I could see women gliding along through the grass and flowers. A paradise.

On the second floor, there were more shelves of books, to which many scholars browsed and scoured through. A desk sat in front of a huge, marvelous window, giving view over the entire fortress. Incense burned thick in the study, making a musky glow come over the space.

More of interest came from behind the desk. Altaïr looked up at us with eyes made tired from slaving over his paperwork. He immediately got to his feet and smiled as he hugged Malik and acknowledged me kindly. Old Eagle Eye was not nearly as fearsome when he was not killing people, nor nearly as arrogant. He had changed over the past four and a half months, along with my Malik.

He asked us of our travels, of which Malik replied that all went well. He ushered us back down the stairwell and through one of the hallways. We were treated to a bountiful feast, of which left me full and satisfied. I was still marveling at how such a spectacular abode could exist.

After dinner, we were shown to our sleeping quarters. I tried to keep track of where we were, but I got to looking around so much that I became lost. The place was massive, with endless passageways, all made similar by stone walls, wooden beams near the ceiling and colorful rugs along the floor, and rooms that led to Allah knows where. This could make for an interesting day trying to explore the whole castle.

Our quarters were separate rooms, directly across the hall from one another. My room was large, the ceiling lost from the rest of the room. The bed was plush, with thick blankets, and a bowl of water sat atop a table beside the bed. A desk took up one corner of the room, which was all alight by candles that defended the room from the dark. Two doors led out to a balcony that offered a view unlike any other.

Beyond the garden, beyond Masyaf, the mountains continued, eternal in their way. Night began to fall and the landscape lay shrouded in mist and obscurity. The heat of the desert was a forgotten myth as a frigid breeze raked its claws across my skin. The air was changing. A storm was beginning to brew in the distance, clouds materializing in the sky.

I shuddered. How far we had come. And yet the stars never changed. Such a petty distance to them, where we were barely more than a speck of dust in Allah’s eyes. Jerusalem was so far away and in this strange place where I would likely spend the rest of my life, I felt apprehensive. Everything dear and familiar to me seemed to have never existed and I had never been more unsure of myself or of my life. For the first time since we had left, I began to question my decision on leaving home.

“Is it everything you expected?” I turned to see Malik leaning against the doorway, the welcome glow of the inside illuminating him.

“It is and then some.” I replied, letting the awe of the intimidating place seep into my voice.

“But… it is not Jerusalem, is it?” Malik interpreted, seeing right through the disguise to my core. He came up beside me, bring his arm around me. I leaned into him, my rock, the only one I could depend on.

“No, no it is not.” My voice was neutral.

Malik sighed. “I did not want to leave Jerusalem. I did not want to tear you away from your home, but I could not leave you behind, either. Altaïr needs me here and so this was the only way I could have both. I am being selfish, but leaving you behind was unbearable.”

“It’s not like I did not want to come out here with you, Malik. I would have followed you whether you wanted me along or not. And this place is beautiful, beyond words, but it’s… I just…” Pangs of emotion welled up in my heart.

“You’re homesick.” He knew exactly what was wrong. I only nodded and leaned closer to him. He rubbed my arm, his head on mine.

“You’ll become used to this place. It may take a while, but you will. It only takes time,” He turned me to face him, his eyes soft, but serious. “I’ll always be here when you need me.”

I needed him now, very much so. He smelled of dust and travel, but there was also that dried ink scent. And I was taken back to the bureau, back home. He was home to me. He would always be home. He pecked me gently on the lips. “You need rest, Rajah,”

‘No, I need you.’

“I’ll be right across the hall if you need me.”

‘But I need you now. Can’t you see that?!’

But I did not voice my thoughts. I only murmured my assent and nodded. He did not need to know how wrecked I was. I could survive this. I had to. I had survived my life this far. I had endured the cruelty of Jerusalem’s streets.

But…I was no longer in Jerusalem. I was in a palace far away, in unfamiliar territory, where I knew not anybody or anything, where everything could be a threat. I needed something to hold onto, something to get me through the night, just tonight.

“Malik-” I called, but the only response I got was the soft click of my door shutting. He was gone. My heart sank.

“Stay…”

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

The storm rolled in an hour or so later. I had changed out of my grimy clothes and into my nightdress. I lay curled up in a ball under the wooly blankets, watching the candle flame eat away at the wax. There was no way I was going to endure the storm in darkness. The lightning flickered outside, the rain splashing against the windows, shadows dancing in corners and on the walls and I braced myself. The answering rumble shook me down to my core.

I hated this. I hated being alone in this cold, dark place, especially with a storm trying to force its way in. I wanted somebody to hold. I wanted Malik. I did not want to be alone. I flung my legs out of bed, the cold lashing at my unprotected skin. I went to my door and silently clicked it open. There was no one about and everything was eerily silent. I crossed to Malik’s door and only before my knuckles touched the wood did I begin to question myself.

What if he was asleep? His room was quiet. I didn’t want to wake him. What if he didn’t want to be disturbed? I didn’t want to intrude on his privacy. I did not want to make him angry. But I needed to be close to him. He had told me if I needed anything to come to him.

Well, this counted.

Thunder boomed and I rapped my fist on the door, shivering, not giving a rat’s ass at that point. I could hear him moving to answer and the door opened almost instantly.

“Rajah…” Malik spoke softly. He wasn’t surprised or angry. He seemed almost… relieved. Understanding, I daresay. His eyes were lustrous from the dim glow radiating in the room. He was still in his Assassins robes, save for his blue cloak, leather belt and boots. His red sash was loosely tied around his middle, his white robes slightly parted. His copper skin was striking against the white.

When he held his arm out, I did not hesitate to go into him. I wrapped my arms around him, refusing to let go. He turned so he could close the door with his back, leaning against it, stroking my hair.

“I should not have left you alone. I was going to come to you if you had not shown up.” He muttered.

“I hope- I hope I am not intruding.” I mumbled, uncaring when he was holding me.

“Rajah,” He pushed me away to make me look at him, “If I did not want you in here, I would have made sure you knew. I don’t normally let anyone into my space, but you… you are the only exception. I want you close to me. I always want you by my side.”

I smiled, watching him try to make me understand. Tears threatened to flood my eyes and I felt my heart swell.

“I just wanted to be with you. I didn’t want to be alone.” The thunder bellowed and I flinched. Malik clutched me.

“You don’t have to be, Rajah. I’m here. I’m yours.”

He was mine… My whole body soared on an unknown sensation and I reveled in it. I didn’t want it to end. “Don’t make me go.”

“I won’t. I want you to stay. Always…”

He pulled me to the bed and we fell beneath the covers. He pulled me flush against him and Allah, it was warm, with his fingers stroking patterns on my side. I was groggy without sleep and blissfully high off of his touch, of his heavy closeness. He was solid and powerful, he would protect me…

We watched the rain hit the windows, tapping ruthlessly for our attention. But it wouldn’t hurt us. Nothing would hurt us. His heartbeat drummed against my ear and his quiet breathing made everything so tranquil and serene, the strength of his arm around me, guarding me against the shadows of the stormy night…

And in that moment, I was not longer afraid. With him by my side, I believed I could do anything. I had done all of the things that could have killed me somehow, but I had survived. And for Malik, I would get through this, through it all. I would prevail somehow because my life, though he was snoring slightly at that point and his head had slumped slightly on top of mine, had begun anew.

Chapter Text

Malik was right. I did become used to Masyaf. At some point, I even gave it the pleasure of calling it home. Four years came and went like the travelers and gypsies of the desert. I was not sure how time could go by that fast, but I was kept so busy that I really couldn’t pause and keep track of it. Malik trained me, brutally, both for the worst and the best case scenarios. He chased away my instinct to run and replaced it with the one to fight.

He taught me how to throw a knife, which I quickly caught on to, hitting targets with extreme ease. Archery, however, was a different story. After managing to have the bow literally explode in my hands and fall to pieces, one would think that I would quickly give it up. Oh no, I managed to shoot an arrow out of it and yes, I hit a target. Only it wasn’t the one I was aiming for right in front of me. It was the target at the other end of the range. Clearly, I wasn’t going to be an archer.

Malik then tried me out on sword fighting. He equipped me with a novice’s sword, which was supposedly lighter and made of slightly weaker metal than that of one held by a more capable warrior. Believe not what Malik tells you. For an inexperienced arm, it was heavy. And in that, Malik would defeat me with ease. Nobody, not even Altaïr, could defeat him. He really was the King of Swords. Had I been his enemy, I would have died a thousand deaths. But Malik was never one to gloat in his victory. He always helped me and never, ever cut me down. He nurtured my growth until I was able to hold my own.

My speed and stamina were pushed to the extent I did not know I had. I found abilities I did not know I was in possession of. The sheer physical demand took its toll on me and I was constantly fatigued, falling asleep as soon as I hit our bed. But my body was rewarded well for the work. It filled out, muscles blooming and fat developing in places that I did not think possible for fat to belong.

My mind was exercised as well. Malik taught me the languages and cultures of the world, concepts that were so alien to me. Why did we not all speak Arabic? Were the people on the other side of the world really so different as to create a whole other version of the way that they lived?

Malik assured me that everyone had a different way of living; but honestly, whoever invented the European languages must have had a disorder of the cruelest kind. German was a bitch to learn. Malik would teach me certain phrases and have me repeat them, to which I would only stare at him in utter bafflement and ask him to keep saying said phrase over and over again. I think it took all he had to not begin laughing as I plowed my way through the sentences, butchering the words up in every way possible. Interpreting was not my calling, either.

Not much was known about the ways of the people of the Far East, but I found it to be so much simpler to pick up on their system of symbols and signs than anything that the West had to offer. Writing my own language of Arabic took a long while to achieve mastery.

I also learned of the Templars and their feud with the Assassins. I learned of the Creed that guided the Assassins in everything that they did, the mysterious belief I was forbidden to have knowledge of.

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” I had never heard anything more atheistic in my life. And yet, it made sense. How could anything be true? You, truly, cannot trust anyone but yourself, and sometimes, even that is questionable. There was also no way to prove that there was a god of any sort. There were only the beliefs and the lies of men who wished to trust in a power bigger than themselves and to also have an excuse to blame their poor luck on. One could follow these lies, but how are we to know anything?

Everything is permitted. In some cultures, rape and murder are permitted, even encouraged. Arranged marriages are an example. One or both suitors may not consent to being with one another, yet are forced together, be it by family, the church, or otherwise.

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted. It was a warning. I had never heard anything more of truth in my life.

The tenets of the Creed were self-explanatory and simple. Stay your blade from the flesh of an innocent, be hidden in plain sight, and never compromise the Brotherhood.

I was never forced to swear an oath to the Brotherhood, but I still felt the urge to believe in it, not to be accepted, but because... it simply made sense to me. Everyone had the power to choose, but it all seemed so clear. Perhaps I was becoming brainwashed, but the Creed freed me from the constraint of society.

I felt increasingly surer of myself, refreshed mentally and physically. I was powerful. I could do anything. The world didn’t seem quite so threatening anymore. I had control, contrary to what I had once thought. I believed in myself and though I stumbled and fell at times, I remained strong. Malik was always there for me. He never let me down. The four years had changed me and I was no longer weak and impoverished, begging for food and hoping to see the light of another morning. I was becoming a warrior, hardened, confident and brave, carrying myself with more certainty than ever before, begging instead for challenges.

I even challenged some of the cockier novices to a race one day when I saw them picking on one of their weaker kind after a vicious training round. They scoffed at me, taking none too seriously. They did not believe a girl could possibly be strong enough to take on big, tough men. Their comments were venomous, but they accepted the challenge nonetheless. My gut twisted.

We were going to do it my way, like a real homeless person does. I ordered them to remove their weapons, robes and boots. If they were going to prove they were ‘real’ men, they would race me without the comfort of their uniforms. They did not protest. Of course they didn’t. They would not have backed down from a challenge, let alone a woman. What they did not know was that running was the best of my skills and I had been doing it my whole life.

The race would commence beyond the gates of Masyaf, at the base of the mountain. The boys spoke off-hand comments, not difficult to discern of what. Their smug faces said it all. They already deemed it a victory for themselves. I was but a mere roadblock, unable to handle the rough terrain. I was not a game changer.

At the starting point, I was already jittery with anger and anticipation. My legs shook and I refused to stand still. The adrenaline gushed heavy in my veins. My stomach swelled with nerves. I was ready to run. Standing and waiting to go was agony. The novices looked ahead, as greedy as I was to win, to take the lead. Only I was more than greedy. I was hungering for it, ravenous.

The signal to run was a blur to my right and my muscles sprang me forward. The tenseness settled into a low burn as I sprinted. My vision narrowed to the road ahead as I ate up the ground. The sand and gravel scraped and skated underneath me, but a whole lifetime of that toughens one’s feet.

Running was one of those activities that made me let go of every trouble and problem. Everything was small, able to be left behind. My strides lengthened as I established a comfortable pace up the steep incline. I could not see anything ahead of me but the path, but the boys could be heard behind me, huffing and breathing down my neck like wild beasts. They clambered up the path with loud, crashing footfalls.

I pushed on faster, willing my legs for more. The burn was pounding in my chest, ripping at my heart and making breathing come harder. I took the sheer grade with advancing speed, pushing more and more. The village came into view. Our finish point was the gateway into the courtyard of the fortress. My vision was watery and my gut white hot. The panting of the novices had become quieter as we flew past the buildings and up onto the second tier.

I didn’t care where they were. All I wanted was to finish. Up the third pathway I went, the castle looming over me, watching with a careful eye. The water below in the canyon looked heavenly, but I could not stop. I was almost there, almost there…

I took an anxious glance behind me to find the arrogant novices nowhere in sight. A grin came to my face and I hurled myself through the gateway. They couldn’t catch me. I was too far gone.

A few moments later, the novices appeared, stumbling, sweaty and out of breath. They bent over, hands on their knees, struggling to remember what it was like to breathe. I was merely winded. I gave thought to going over and rubbing in my victory, but I remembered they still knew how to kill, even without their weapons. I took to smirking at them when they met my gaze before walking straight into my Dai’s outstretched arm.

“Congratulations. Not many can say they have defeated an Assassin, let alone several.”

I leaned against him, the heavy weight of his arm feeling good on my shoulder. “At least, it is nice to know that if I can’t fight one, I can outrun them.”

“You should have run like the Greeks used to in their Olympics. Completely naked. That would have been an interesting sight, would it not?”

He spoke casually, but there was a slight note of... suggestiveness to it. I looked up at him in confusion and in slight disgust, ignoring the warm shiver that ran up my spine.

“No, it wouldn’t! I am not running with a pack of naked men.”

“No,” he said almost regretfully, “I would not want you to, either. No one can look upon you like that unless you wish for them to.”

I strictly watched the exhausted novices saunter to their equipment, trying to ignore the comment and the blush on my cheeks. His gaze lingered on me, making it clear for who he wished me to give consent to look upon my body.

Why was he suddenly using all these bizarre innuendos? We had never shared a bed like that before, for crying out loud! We just literally and simply slept in the same bed. No more, no less. We had made it four years without this happening. Why was he bringing the idea of sex out into the open now?!

I was in the middle of pondering these thoughts a little too hard when an owl interrupted the moment by conveniently choosing then to fly recklessly past me, nearly whacking me with his wing and landing gently on Malik’s shoulders. He looked at us curiously, his massive orange eyes peering intelligently at Malik’s startled face, like he had never been in close quarters with a human before.

I shrank back from the strange, yet noble creature, but Malik was quite intrigued. He reached his hand up to the bird’s head and gently stroked his forehead. The beast nearly went cross-eyed with pleasure, making an odd cooing noise of contentment. When Malik stopped, the owl looked about expectantly, observing the land. That’s when his gaze landed on me.

The owl’s eyes widened. I was sure he was considering whether or not I was to be his next dinner course as he began to inch his way down Malik’s arm with all of the intention of finding out. Malik, the lout, held his arm out to me, offering the bird a bridge to me.

“No, don’t! Malik…” I whined, fearful as the animal wormed his way to Malik’s wrist, preparing to jump to me.

“It is all right. He will not hurt you. He’s merely curious.”

“Curious to see what I taste like!”

Malik ignored me, captivated as the owl arched his wings, his tanned feathers undulating as he took flight. I made a small screech and closed my eyes, braced for the impact.

Weight and claws landed on my head and I winced. Malik began to laugh as I opened my eyes. The bird shifted, situating himself comfortably on top of my head, a perfect nest, apparently.

“Please do not shit on me…” I whispered, raspy. I could not see the bird, but he heard me. Wide eyes, the color of ginger and framed by eyebrows made of down, leaned over to look upon me, upside down. He looked surprised. I guess he did not appreciate my remark. Malik was snickering, enjoying my misery.

Every muscle in me tensed as the owl slowly and carefully shuffled his way to my shoulder. The flap of his wings was sudden and thunderous in my ear. I knew the creature was watching me and I peeked shyly at him. He held my gaze with his eerie eyes as he leaned forward and pressed his beak gently to my cheek, his eyes closing blissfully. I pressed my lips together, looking at Malik for comment.

“He is just giving a beautiful woman a kiss.”

I smiled half-heartedly, tentatively rubbing his soft feathers. The bird sounded his approval before looking back at Malik and I. He almost nodded his goodbye before launching himself from my flesh. He took to the wind, letting it steer him back home. Why he was out in the middle of the day, I had not an idea. It was an experience, nonetheless.

We had begun to make our way inside when we heard a familiar voice call our names. We turned around to find Altaïr and a woman striding toward us. The relief instantly wiped everything else off of Malik’s face as he engulfed Altaïr in a hug. Altaïr pressed his lips to my hand, his golden eyes gentle.

Altaïr had been away for the last four years on missions throughout the Holy Land. The details were lost to me, as I was more interested in the woman by his side.

She was beautiful, with dark hair French-braided into a bun. Her skin was paler than the rocky cliffs of Masyaf, paler than Altaïr or I, even. A petite thing, shorter than me. Her clothing was grey, with a brown cape and supple leather boots. She was a fighter. Her belly was rounded, abnormally so. She was with child, perhaps seven months along.

Altaïr introduced her as Maria Thorpe, his newly wed wife. She greeted us warmly. She was kind. But there was something off. As she nodded at me, I watched her face. She smiled, but not whole-heartedly. She was uncertain, an outsider. How I used to be.

But that was not what bothered me, the itch that refused to go away no matter how many times one scratched it. I studied her face more, but her gaze had returned to Altaïr, who had been in the middle of informing Malik of their journeys.

I tuned most of it out, continuing to blatantly stare at the woman. She sensed this, shifting uncomfortably as I tried to pick her apart, trying to search for her in my memories. There was a face, particular face, quite similar to hers.

Bits of the conversation drifted into my hearing. Altaïr said he had persuaded her. Malik looked unconvinced, weary. Altaïr was worried, trying to reassure that she was not the same. The same as what?! Who was she?! Maria…

I could place my finger on it, the memory was at the tip of my tongue. I knew her, from somewhere. Just where? Jerusalem… Perhaps.

Altaïr swore he had converted her to an Assassin, that she was one of us. Not one of them. Not one of the Assassin’s greatest enemies. She was no longer one of them. Not them. Not a Templar… Templar…

I was attacked by them. Four long years ago. I nearly lost both of my legs when they – she- threw two knives that buried themselves into my knees. She was a Templar, a captain. A woman of danger, of murder, with eyes blacker than the night I killed her men in a blind fury of pain and desperation. So lost was I in pain. She had looked at me with those dark eyes filled with cruelty and wickedness.

She looked at me again. Those eyes had not changed. There was no cruelty now, only confusion and a bit of fear. She was lost, as lost as I was on that night. I could not find the bureau, because of what she had done to me. Because of herTemplar… She was a Templar. She was evil. Her. She. Maria...

I knew. It was her. She was the one who had tried to kill me. She did not recognize me, but I knew. Oh, I knew. I would always know. I would always remember.

“Excuse me.” My voice was dead. I was dead. I was clouded with emotion. I was facing my killer. I wanted to know why. I stormed past them. I wanted to escape with the owl far away from here. I made my way to the village, where I felt somewhat secure.

Why had Altaïr married her?! She was a Templar, for Allah’s sake! A traitor. A would be traitor, anyway. How could the Grand Master be so foolish?! They say love is blind. I don’t know if that’s true. I would never be able to remove the image of her furious eyes glaring up at me, wanting nothing more than my head on a silver platter. If Altaïr expected me to be kind to her, converted or not, he was sadly mistaken. I would never forgive that! It could never be forgiven!

And then I came to realize that I would be living the rest of my life in anger. Maria would not leave. She would always be here, always haunting me. I would not be able to get away.

I then thought about Malik. He was as surprised as me. He was certainly not expecting this. Would he accept it? He would have to. Altaïr was his best friend and he trusted his judgment to the ends of the earth. If Altaïr loved Maria enough to marry her and let her carry on his line, then Malik would have to accept it. Love had to be blind because Malik and I literally stumbled into each other. I never dreamt I would be with him or how my life would have taken such an incredible turn…

If Malik were in Altaïr’s position, struggling and hoping for people to accept the person he loved… He would be devastated if they didn’t. I could only imagine how she would feel… I knew leaving Jerusalem and coming here to a whole new town of strangers was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. But I did it for Malik because I loved him and I trusted him. I still do.

If Maria was that dedicated to Altaïr to change her beliefs completely, she was in the same boat I was. Except hers was sinking. It would take time, but I would accept her and in even longer time, perhaps forgive her and look her in the eye and not see the evilness I had seen so many years before…

I could sense a presence behind me and I turned to find her standing there, looking down at me. My thoughts took a turn for the worst as fear took over and all my previous thoughts were scattered, leaving me with nothing.

“You look like you have seen a ghost.” She said cautiously.

“The only ghost around here will be wearing your shoes if you come any closer to me.” I growled.

She stopped, her eyes immediately guarded. “I was not planning on hurting you.”

I snorted. “That is not what you said the last time I was in your presence.” I got to my feet, eye to eye with her. She disguised her emotions well, for I could not read a single bit of information she radiated.

“You must have known me from my past life,” She said, studying my face. Her eyes then became alight with recognition. She remembered. “You were that bitch who killed my men. How could I forget the face of somebody who committed such an act against me?”

She was not angry, but rather incredulous at her own memory. I, however, became furious. “I can’t forget the face of the person who tried to murder me first!”

I was fearful of her, of what she would do. But I dared not let that side show. It was the moment to see just how much she had changed. That’s why I pulled my knife out and pressed it ever so discreetly against her side.

She glanced down, aware. She seemed, unsurprisingly, bored by my antics, unafraid that I may – would – injure her. Her eyes met mine.

“I’d appreciate it if you would ever so kindly remove your blade from my side. My son and I would prefer that he come out in one piece.”

She was calm, explicitly so. I did not intimidate her. She could still kill me, with child and all, with one hand. I decided it was better to kill her with words than weapons, as her child had no part in this. Moreover, Altaïr would have my head.

“I could give two shits about killing you. But for the sake of your son, I will spare your life,” I replaced my dagger to its holster, “Though I could not imagine being carried inside a monster such as yourself.”

Her eyes narrowed and she stepped closer to me, mere inches from my face. “If you had not taunted us, you would not have had to be chased up a tree like the pussy that you are.”

“You were too close to the bureau for my liking!”

Her visage was scrunched in confusion. She had forgotten the reason I even went after her in the first place. She looked away as it began to dawn on her.

“We did find it… God damn it…” She looked ill that they had been so close to the Assassin hideout and yet, had decided to leave.

What a shame…

“My plan worked. You fell right into my trap.” I was still slightly smug about the whole affair, though it had almost cost me my legs.

She gazed up at me again, scrutinizing me. “You were working for the Assassins,” She came towards me, angling a finger towards me as she picked me apart and stuck me together again, “I should have suspected, but I was so enraged at being harassed by a civilian that I did not put two and two together.”

She crossed her arms, pleased with her conclusion, “You played your part well. It explains why you are here, with him.” She gestured back up the hill.

I focused the conversation back to business. “I did what needed to be done. I could not have him out there, in danger of being killed.”

“Are you married to him?” The abrupt change in subject had me fumbling to keep up.

I narrowed my gaze, “Why?”

“I saw the way you held yourself next to him. You can stand on your own two feet, but you want to be in his presence. Are you married to him?” She insisted.

I was not completely trusting of her, but she would not let go of the topic. I gave her the best answer I could. “Not exactly…”

She sighed. “I know it is not easy to trust the person who tried to take your life. Hear me now and believe me later, but I am trying to make amends, to be a better person. Can we call it a truce?” She held her hand out.

Warily I eyed it, wondering if she meant to chop mine off should I accept. But I had to recall that I couldn’t live the rest of my life in fear of her. She would not go away. And she genuinely gave the impression that she was trying to be good, so I let bygones be bygones.

I shook her hand, confident in the fact that I would forgive her, but never would I ever forget. “Perhaps I can learn to tolerate you, Maria, at least to the point where I will resist the urge to stab you in the face.”

She only chuckled, “That would be enough for me.”

If only she knew how much truth my statement aired.

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That evening, I retired to our chamber. Malik had already beaten me there, as he lay in bed reading a book in the glow of the candlelight. I crawled into bed beside him, curling up close and watching the book intently. It was in another language, Italian, it looked to be.

“You and Maria seemed to be enjoying each other’s company.” He commented.

I pursed my lips. “One could say that, I suppose.” If only he knew the utter stretch of the word ‘enjoying’

Malik’s face contorted into one of disturbance and he shook his head, unnerved almost as he laid the book on his lap.

“Too difficult to read?” I teased.

“No… It is just not… what I expected.” He rubbed his face, stretching his skin, and grimaced down at the text.

“What is it about?” I grabbed the book. It was called “Satyricon.” It … sounded innocent enough to me. It told the tale of a man named Encolpius and his young lover, Giton, both of whom went on several misadventures throughout the novel. I handed it back to him.

“It does not sound that atrocious. Perhaps you could read some of it to me?” Malik would often read to me, which aided my sleep. But tonight, he was hesitant.

“I don’t know if you want me to read this particular one to you…”

“Oh Malik, it is fine. As long as you are reading it, I can fall asleep to anything.”

He frowned. “All right…”

I closed my eyes, turning onto my side away from him as he proceeded to read one of the most decadent scenes I had even heard. My eyes snapped open and my body went rigid.

The scene described Encolpious being sexually tortured and later, his torturer, a woman, forced him to watch her seven year old daughter being taken by Giton through a keyhole after a ‘wedding ceremony’. The young girl cried for him to stop, but Giton, greedy with lust, continues to rape her. Soldiers barge in on them and an orgy ensues. I think the young girl may have been raped by a soldier, but by that time, Malik’s voice had begun to falter out as the erotic scenes had become too awkward for even him to read aloud.

I was loathe to admit it, but I was blushing. The story was sickening, especially the passage describing the young girl’s maidenhood being taken away. But that particular scene was the one that made me clamp my legs together, made my abdomen clench and turn warm.

“No more!” I cried, turning over and yanking the book from him, tossing it to the floor. “Why did you read that?!” I demanded, glaring up at him.

Malik’s cheeks were flaming madly. “It said it was supposed to be a comedy!” He defended.

“I can’t think of anything more comical than a seven year olds virginity being taken without her consent and then an orgy following because of that! Allah, have mercy…”

I wiped my face. Had I read it to myself, I would not have reacted so violently. But having Malik read it to me made everything awkward, especially so since he could see my feelings, knowing how it affected me, affected the both of us. I recalled the comment he made to me after the race and wondered idly if he was trying to get something across to me.

“I swear to you I did not know it would be that bad. I would not have read it to you had I known,” We looked at each other, “You’re blushing.” He commented.

“As are you,” I accused. I then began to laugh, holding my hand to my hot forehead. “Allah, Malik. I don’t know what I’m feeling. This is all so strange to me…” The feelings growing in my stomach, though less potent than before, were still flickering. I wanted to be rid of them. Allah, help me…

“Are you pure?” Malik’s voice was soft, gentle.

I wanted to come back with a snide remark, but all I could do at the moment was nod. I was slightly ashamed to admit that to him, but how could I hide it from him? He had to know. I had no experience in that way. I had seen the guards rape people, but I did not pay attention to the details. The sounds were appalling enough.

Malik had slept with a woman. I was for certain. He never told me outright that he had, but it was a given. Malik had experience in everything. He had always portrayed that. So he had to know the ins and outs of this kind of deal, so to speak.

What I did not like was not knowing what to do. I did not fear him. He would not hurt me, not intentionally. All I wanted was to make him happy. I wanted to be able to please him in the right way. And I didn’t know how to, in this case. It felt so unfair...

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, so am I…” His voice was quieter, chastened. My gaze shot over to him. He was…

“You are lying to me.” He was trying to make me feel better, so he lied to me. He did not want me to feel embarrassed. It was the only conclusion I could come to. There was no earthly way he could still be pure…

He shook his head. “I am a virgin, too, Rajah. I would not lie to you about something like this.” His eyes were deep and sincere. He hid nothing. He was open and honest and real.

My voice trembled, “I didn’t – I didn’t know that you were a virgin. I thought that most men of your age would have already… tainted another woman.”

"No, Rajah, I haven’t. I have never been with someone intimately. Forgive me for being vulgar, but my own blade is the only one I am not sure how to wield with another person…”

We were both flushing come then. I licked my lips, leaning closer. I had to quench this fire. I wanted him to get rid of it, in any way he could. “Well, I guess we will figure it out as we go…”

He held a hand to my shoulder. “After we are married.”

I stared at him. “What?”

“It is all I ask. Just marry me and then we will try.”

“That is one hell of a way to ask somebody to marry you.” I said, leaning back.

“It was the one moral instilled in me by my parents that I have stayed true to. A man and woman cannot make love until after marriage. It makes it harder for one of them leave the other after that.”

I was crushed. “I would never leave you, Malik. You know that. Besides… My purity – It means nothing to me. My body means nothing to me. It’s just a shell to hold our soul until we leave this world. It’s.. it’s worthless to me, Malik. It has been to everyone.”

Those were the only beliefs instilled in me…

“Not everyone, Rajah,” He stroked my cheek, “We wait until we’re married. I want you pure. Nobody else will have you but me. Do you understand?”

Allah, for him, I would do anything. “I will marry you, Malik. But only if you make good on the same promise.”

He held his hand out, expression serious and tender at the same time. Steadfast, I took it. We shook hands and then he brought mine to his lips, pressing them to it. “I will be yours, Rajah.”

“You already are.” I leaned up to peck him on the forehead and he gathered me near, gently stroking my hair, relaxing me until I fell asleep, dreaming of what it would be like to belong to him.

Chapter Text

Before long, a month had passed. I stared out the window that faced the courtyard and training ring, watching. Watching my stubborn fiancée, whose definition of waiting was quite a stretch from mine, train. It was hot that day and he and the other novices had shed their robes. Sweat shone on his skin, his muscles exerting themselves to the brink. His expression was completely focused on the boy in front of him, betraying nothing. The dance was quick, though it had been going on for the past hour. This particular novice was skilled, but against the King of Swords, he was already a goner.

The boy lost his footing for one precious second and Malik struck, sweeping the boy’s feet out from under him. His sword tip was at the boy’s throat, and had it not been practice, that child would have been another dead to Malik’s wrath.

In my peripheral vision, I could see two other novices advance behind Malik. He had fought them earlier and had beaten them through wearing them out. Though they were ever so quiet, Malik had a keen sense for danger. He pivoted around in time to dive out of range as one struck. Rising behind him, he kicked the boy to the ground and somehow, in a flash of silver, unarmed the other assassin. All three boys gazed at the King of Swords in wonder as he lowered his sword, ending the duel.

He turned and lumbered his way to the fence, propping his sword up beside him and leaning against the railing. His breathing was labored, his slender abdomen expanding and contracting visibly. He looked up at the fortress, the light hitting his eyes in such a way to make them appear almost russet in color. As his eyes roamed the countless windows in the castle, I hid behind the veiled curtain, waiting until he turned away to reappear. He stretched, the muscles in his back pulling taut and then releasing. He was strong, so strong… How was it he was still pure after all these long years?... What I wouldn’t give to be one of those novices…

But we had been banned from seeing one another for the entire day before the wedding tomorrow. This was, of course, to ensure no pre-marital consummation. And when I was denied his presence, I coveted him more.

Rajah! You’ll have all the time in the world to admire him after tomorrow. Right now, you have got to work with me!” Maria snapped.

I jerked back to attention. I muttered my apology begrudgingly. We had been trying on horrid dresses all day long. Many were too big and baggy for my petite figure and others were so tight I could not walk in a straight line. Most of them were too frilly. Too long. Too short. Too colorful. I was tired of the charade. Why did I even have to wear a dress? Why did this have to be such a formal occasion? In Maria’s words, it was customary to go through this long, drawn out process just to stand in front of everyone, exchange our vows and then remove these clothes again later. Customary, my ass.

And then Maria found it. A pretty white thing that was essentially in two pieces. The dress came to my hips and the top came to the middle of my waist, leaving my belly exposed. White designs embroidered the bottom in an intricate pattern and arabesque, gold shapes dotted the snowy fabric.

A light, translucent turquoise layer was attached to the dress and wrapped around me, going up diagonally to cover my belly and left shoulder. It was a lovely dress, down-to-earth, yet sophisticated. It was the simplicity and intricacy of it that drew me to it. Beguiling and beautiful, like Malik. He would love it, just like I did.

Next came the problem of shoes, or rather, the lack thereof. I never wore shoes, the one habit of my former life that I had not broken. I had always gone around barefoot. It was not what could be considered ‘proper,’ but honestly, I was not the proper type.

Maria, contrary as usual, thought it would be practical for me to wear sandals or the like. When I refused, she threatened to tie them to my feet, and to also strap my hands together to prevent me from hiking my dress up. I am sure that when I tripped and fell going down the aisle that she would then think it a bad idea to try such a stunt.

Despite our differences in dress, Maria and I had become close. She divulged her life to me and how she’d grown up. She was, in all things considered, a tomboy in her younger years. She had dreamt of being a knight, much to her parent’s distaste. They punished her for not living up to their standards and she was constantly harassed by other children.

After an arranged marriage gone wrong, Maria convinced herself it was time to leave England and run away to the Holy Land to join the Crusades, not as a nurse, but as a soldier. She worked hard to earn her place in the Templar Order, disguising herself as a man and fighting other men twice her size – and winning. Her promise attracted the Grandmaster’s – Robert de Sable – attention. Though he discovered her true identity later, he still supported her.

Over time, after Robert had been killed, she lost her status among the Templars and was all but left behind. She was held captive by Altaïr as leverage to lure other Templars out into the open. It had taken him lots of time to earn her trust and even longer for her to realize just how corrupted the Templar Order was. Altaïr taught her the ways of the Assassins and armed with that knowledge, Maria set out to change herself. And change herself she had. She was not the savage beast from my memory.

She had gone through hardships like me, though they were completely different than my own. And now was the time for the both of us to be settling down. She was just as ecstatic as I was for tomorrow. Only she did not have to deal with the nerves. She would not have to worry about falling up the stairs.

Maria ultimately took pity on me and decided not to force the shoes on me, only on the promise that I would not lift my dress up enough for my feet to be seen. Little did she know, everyone was going to see my feet.

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Thunder rolled in the distance. It had not started to rain yet, but it was close. I shivered in my bed. It was utterly frigid without Malik there, but we were forbidden to lie together. My heart ached. I despised being away from him. I absolutely loathed it.

The candle hiccupped in the darkness and I stared at it, the only warmth in the room. It reminded me of my very first night here, only I was unable to go to him this time. Whoever had invented this custom, I damned them. I could not get to sleep. There was no way to do so, especially with a storm on the move.

I tumbled out of bed, blowing the candle out and slipping into the deep blue hallway. My mousy footsteps and the swooshing of my nightdress were the only sounds to be heard in the silence. The floor was chilled beneath my feet and I buried my arms into my chest. Why must it be so bloody cold here? The window at the end of the corridor offered a blurry view of the fortress and of the ominous dark clouds unleashing their attack. My fear of storms had lessened, though it was not gone, an annoying bug that refused to go away.

A door opening behind me disturbed the stillness and I jerked around. Malik’s dark figure hobbled out into the hall, rubbing his eyes frantically. He hurried quickly in my direction, though I do not think he knew I was there.

I called his name and he snapped to attention, startled. It took him a second to compose his face, but in that vulnerable time, I took in his pallid face, the wan, plagued sheen in his eyes. “Rajah…”

He was surprised, harshly so for me catching him in such a state. I went to him, taking his hand in mine. “Malik-“

“I will be fine, Rajah.” He muttered quickly, smiling weakly.

“Bad dreams?” I wondered tentatively.

He nodded. “Yes.” He moved away to look out the window. I followed.

“What can I do?”

“It was only a dream, Rajah, nothing else!” He snapped. He rubbed his eyes flusteredly.

I watched him, helpless as to what I could do. He was trying so desperately to hold himself together, to hold back the tide of emotions within him. It was so much more than just a dream… He squeezed the broken mass at his side, looking out at the restless night.

I eyed his arm, tracing his shoulder down to his bicep to the abrupt ending, where there should have been more flesh, but wasn’t. The ugly mass of gnarled skin and useless muscle was just…there. Limp, never to be used again. I found I was reaching forward to touch it and I hesitated, my arm in mid-air. We weren’t even supposed to be alone together right now. Malik would not want me crossing boundaries, especially one as strict as his arm.

He was watching me. Watching me waver between desire and ethics. His eyes flickered back down to his shattered wing and then to me. He was inviting me to touch him. My fingers trembled, unsure as I ran them down his shoulder, following the pattern my eyes had traced. His skin was warm and smooth until the base of the stump, where it became rough and bumpy where it had been sawn off. Such an ugly wound to an otherwise flawless body. This was a scar that would never fade with time.

“What happened to your arm, Malik?” I whispered.

Emotions played across his face and then he looked down. He had never spoken of his arm or of his past, which still obviously affected him deeply. I never found the courage to ask of it. I was too afraid to know. I was afraid of him breaking down like this. I didn’t want to rekindle the fire that had burned him down… I regretted the words as soon as they left my mouth. He didn’t and shouldn’t have to tell me. After a pause, I almost offered for him not to when he began to speak.

“It was a month or so before I met you, before I was assigned to be the Dai in Jerusalem. I was an Assassin, just like Altaïr, only I was less of an arrogant bastard. After being awarded the rank of Master Assassin, the man thought himself unstoppable, unable to be defeated by the hands of any human. You know what he used to be.

“Altaïr, Kadar and myself had been tasked with-“

“Kadar? Who is Kadar?” I stopped him.

Malik managed to clear his throat and huffed gently, “My younger brother…”

Younger brother?... Malik never mentioned a younger brother…

“We were tasked with a journey to Jerusalem, to Solomon’s Temple, where we were to retrieve an object of unspeakable value and it was of the utmost importance that we did not fail. If we were to flunk this mission, well, Al Mualim sounded it that the entire safety of the Brotherhood rested upon the success of the operation.

“It was a failure from beginning to end. Altaïr, in his infinite wisdom, took it upon himself to murder an innocent man in the tunnels below Solomon’s Temple, breaking the first tenet of the Creed, of which he held himself so far above that he had deluded himself into thinking he could do anything he wanted without punishment or consequences to his actions. Worse still, my brother looked up to him as if he were a god. My brother regarded him in such a light that he did not see the flaws that were so obviously displayed.

“I had already scolded the man for his actions, but he would not be deterred by my reasoning. When we reached the main chamber of the Temple, we discovered that the Templars had already laid claim to the area. Above us, in an alcove above the entryway, was the Ark of the Covenant, golden and magnificent, and atop it, a strange, round object radiating a glowing light, clearly not a part of the original artifact.

“Altaïr, as soon as eyes were laid upon Robert de Sable, was rabid for his blood. He knew how much of a threat the man was to our Brotherhood. Only I think he wanted the credit for killing the man rather than the benefits that his death would bring. He had lost all reason. The only thing that remained was the need to kill. I was furious. He had already broken the first tenet, and now he planned on breaking all three! He wanted to expose himself and the Brotherhood and come hell or high water, he wanted Robert’s head on a stick and he wanted to be known for it, affect who it may!

“I argued against it, but it was already decided. He outranked Kadar, only a novice, and I. Altaïr could not be persuaded and he could not place himself before six savage knights and be expected to come out in one piece. I had no choice. As much as I disagreed, I had to go along with his decision.

“Three of us against six of them. Altaïr had let vengeance cloud his mind, let his thinking become rash. He attacked Robert first. I tried to stop him, but it only threw him off balance. Robert easily held him back, sparing his life on the promise that he would deliver a message to Al Mualim saying that the Holy Land was lost to him and that he should flee while he had the chance. Altaïr was then thrown through the scaffolding holding up the entryway, which effectively collapsed, no longer an option for an exit.

“It was now two to six. Kadar and I stood no chance. The knights descended on top of us. I yelled for Kadar to run, to get out of the Temple and get back to Masyaf. I told him I would catch up. I couldn’t see him anymore, as I was too focused on fighting. I didn’t hear him. I heard no answer. I looked around the room and he was nowhere to be found. I thought he had left…

“I heard him scream my name and I looked up. Kadar, the fool, had made it to the Ark and held the rounded object in his hands. By the time I was calling his name, the ball was already being tossed to me. I caught it and I remembered how dreadfully heavy the thing was. It almost pulled me down to the floor with the momentum it had fallen with.

“When I looked up again, Kadar was no longer up there, only a Templar that had followed him. I turned my head a fraction, knowing that Kadar must have made it to the ladder and was climbing down to meet me. He had to have been. But he wasn’t.

“There was a cough underneath me. And there was my brother… with a knife blade sticking out of his gut. I couldn’t… I couldn’t….” Malik stopped, letting out his breath. “I couldn’t do anything but stare. I thought I was dreaming… He started coughing up blood and I tried wiping it away. I tried to clean him up, tried to tell him he would be okay, I tried…. And I couldn’t… He wasn’t able to say anything. He couldn’t even say goodbye…

“I remember looking up at his murderer. I realized the only way Kadar could have thrown the object that far was because he had been stabbed so hard he and the object had been launched right off the edge. I remember I slaughtered all of them, but not much else. I know at some point, my arm began to hurt and there was a large gash on my upper arm. I know not how it came to be, but… I could not care less.

“Robert disappeared at one point, probably on his way to Masyaf. I knew I had to warn the others. I had to tell them what Altaïr had done. I had to protect the Brotherhood from suffering the same fate as Kadar, for the Brotherhood was all I had left. So I ran. I ran back to Masyaf. I informed Al Mualim and screamed and yelled at Altaïr. I blamed him for my brother’s death, for leaving us to die. I hated him. Had I the strength at the time, I may have murdered him right there in front of the Master. I wanted him to die, if not by my hands, than by somebody else’s.

“As for my arm, the gash had become infected on the way back, despite my attempts to keep it clean. They had to amputate it. I remember the pain, the blood dripping to the floor, looking over and trying to move fingers that weren't there, the panic that I couldn't move my arm how I wanted. I remember the struggle to live with only one arm. I remember the betrayal and the heartache of being told that I could no longer be an Assassin, that I would have to be a Dai. I remember the struggle to live with myself, wondering why it was me that lived. Why did Kadar have to die? What could I have done to save him? If Altaïr had not been so arrogant, if I had just not let Kadar out of my sight, if only we had run, if only we had never gone on the mission, if only… Allah, if only I could have protected him, but I didn’t. If only I could have told him goodbye…”

He hung his head, overcome by emotion. I cradled him close, for I too, was in shock. How much this man had gone through… How had he survived this? How had he kept this hidden from me for so long? From the loss of his brother to the amputation of his arm, no wonder he was so bitter all the time. No wonder he had treated Altaïr with such contempt. No wonder he would be lost in memories at random moments or times of the day. If I had ever doubted this man or held him down, Allah damn my soul. I didn’t want him hurting. I wanted to get rid of his pain, but this was something that I don’t believe anyone could cure.

This was something he would have to live with for the rest of his life.

“Malik…I’m…I’m so sorry for your brother and your arm. I wish I knew what to say to ease your suffering.” Tears flooded down my face and there was a lump in my throat that prevented much else from being said.

“What’s done is done. I can’t bring him back, nor my arm. I’ve just had to live without it. I’ve forgiven Altaïr, as I’ve learned that hatred will only harm the vessel in which it is stored more than anyone it is inflicted upon. But it was you, Rajah…" He cupped my cheek, holding me near to him, his misty, blinking eyes filled with a need to make me understand his feelings. I had never seen anything more powerful in my life, "You may doubt what a heartbroken man will do to get away from his pain. I contemplated suicide. I had no family. I was alone in a city I was unfamiliar with, with no reason to go on. The Brotherhood would go on without me. But you… You saved me. You gave me a reason to keep going forward. Caring for your injuries gave me purpose when I had none. And then you proved that I could care for somebody deeply again. I never thought I would live to see this day. But you keep surprising me. Every day. And that’s one of the things I love about you. You saved me, Rajah. And you keep saving me.”

He squeezed my hands, smiling down at me with watery, emotion-filled eyes.

I was practically sobbing at that point, both with sorrow and elation, the words he said blasting into my soul. I don’t know how I made him happy. But I would not leave him until he wanted me gone.

“Malik…”

“Don’t cry.” He laughed gently, wiping my tears. He hugged me, pressing me close. I absentmindedly wrote my name, finally mastered, over and over on his arm. He pulled me back, smiling, knowing. I grinned back and he leaned down to kiss my forehead.

“I will be with you tomorrow, habibti .” He said, his eyes bright and hopeful.

“Okay.” This night would come to pass so slowly, but I would be patient. For him, I would do anything.

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The next morning, I was bathed and scrubbed free of all dirt and grit, my skin made aromatic and soft. My hair was washed until it was a glistening, dark curtain falling to my side. Maria considered my hair to be the longest and straightest she had ever seen, falling to my lower back.

She braided my hair into a fishtail and threw the braid over my right shoulder to help frame my face and neck. At least, she tried to.

“I’m not that good at this,” she admitted, laughing, “I never grew up playing with dolls. I only enjoyed pulling their heads off.”

“That’s reassuring.” I stated, cringing.

“Tell me if I pull your hair too hard.”

“You can’t. I have got a tough head.”

Maria responded by knocking on my skull. “Really? That’s remarkable because it sounds hollow. I don’t think there is anything in there.”

I flung my middle finger up in her face, to which she only chuckled.

Several of the women from the garden came in to help. One of them lined my eyes with dark kohl. Another pressed a perfumed, wax stick to my lips. One even drew henna on my hands and arms, swirly golden patterns that made my skin glow.

Only after I slipped into my dress and I had been properly picked at and every last detail was made perfect did Maria let me take a look at myself in the mirror. I did not recognize the woman staring back at me with surprised, stormy green eyes. She was absolutely radiant, a queen. A goddess, I daresay. She looked as if she had never seen a single hardship in her life and had lived in the lap of luxury as soon as she had left her mother’s womb.

“You look beautiful, Rajah.” Maria murmured.

"And nothing like myself.” I breathed, ruffling my dress to be sure it was real. The woman looked nothing like me, yet everything like me all at once. For all that I had suffered through, I never could have dreamt I could look like this.

And soon, Maria ushered me out and up the stairs to Altaïr’s study. My hands shook, my palms sweaty. My gut swirled with nerves, though I was not sure why. Nobody but Altaïr, Maria, and a few select scholars were to witness our marriage. I was barefoot so I would not fall. There was nothing to be worried about.

Perhaps it was only excitement at the prospect of belonging to Malik. The surrealness of it all was too much to take in. To think how we had met… Malik was marrying the girl who had tried and failed to steal his money. My thievery had brought us together…

I caught sight of Malik before he saw me. He was handsome beyond measure, though the nerves were eating him up as he bounced up and down on his heels, exhaling loudly. He wore the same outfit, save that his regular blue coat had been shed for a white one. His eyes glanced up and they grew wide for a moment as he took me in. He smiled, and it took all my restraint to not go running straight into his embrace. The steps grew into miles, the seconds into hours. Every step seemed to take a lifetime to add up. But when I took his hand, I felt that all was well. Malik watched me the whole time, our gaze never straying from the other as our vows were exchanged. My hand shook as I placed the wedding band on his right hand and he placed one on mine, but I was never surer of anything. When he kissed me, I felt weightless, surrendering to him and him to me. I couldn’t believe I belonged to him, this man who had been through so much. It was real and we were together for the rest of our lives.

There was cheering and laughter, but I hardly acknowledged it. There was only Malik.

A party was thrown after the ceremony down in the village. Malik went and put his blue coat back on. We made our way outside and stayed close to one another, dancing to the music that drifted its way through the crowd. Maria, who may or may not have been a bit tipsy from the wine, challenged me to see who could perform the more unnatural act with their body.

She began to bring her legs apart, about shoulder width, and proceeded to sink to the floor, her legs split apart completely in the most twisted of ways. I winced. The poor baby inside her swollen belly probably had a deformity of some sort now.

“I already knew she could do that.” Altaïr shrugged.

“Oh, I’m sure you did.” Malik scoffed.

Maria got to her feet and kissed Altaïr suggestively. Malik frowned, curling his lip. “Go to your chambers if you’re going to do that.”

Maria pulled away. “Bet you cannot beat that, can ya, Rajah?” She taunted in her thick Cockney accent.

“I can, actually.” I proceeded to twist my arms around and around until I linked my fingers and my elbows touched.

Jesus Christ!” Maria exclaimed, making an odd sound of disgust. I made sure to touch my thumb to my wrist to make my point clear.

The music began to pick up speed, the tempo upbeat. I was practically attached to Malik's hip, hesitant to dance, but unsure of what else to do but hold to him. “May I cut in?” Maria asked, disengaging from Altaïr.

I stepped away, gesturing to Malik. “He is all yours.”

“Oh no, Rajah,” Maria reprimanded, pushing closer to me, snaking her arm around my waist, “I want you. This is how a real woman dances.” I could not even protest my confusion. I only saw the comical look of surprise on Malik’s face before we were whirling away. My cries of objection were lost in the music as Maria led, rather surprisingly well. As we danced past Malik, who was still standing dumbfounded and holding his arm out, mouth open, I saw Altaïr whisk Malik away. “Come on, Malik!”

“Altaïr! What?! You bastard!-“

The rest of his insults were gone as they danced in the opposite direction. What a sight, the Grandmaster and Second in Command dancing like young lovers. The laughter was rolling out of me uncontrollably.

“It takes a woman to do a man’s work. You learn that quickly, especially with Altaïr. But I love him, though he can be quite an idiot at times. Like now for instance.” She motioned to the two men as they whizzed wildly about the place. And soon we were, too. My breath was stolen and I did not think, I just followed and let myself get lost in the beat of the music, not caring for one moment that I was in the arms of another woman. It made no difference.

When I was returned to Malik, I was out of breath and dizzy. Maria leaned near and whispered, “Here she is. I just prepared her for the rest of the night.” I turned to her in incredulity and she only winked and skipped over to Altaïr. I watched, leaning into Malik, hoping to hide my blush. I sighed, his scent flooding all around me, the sandalwood and dried ink. Allah, he smelled good…

“Do you wish to leave?” He murmured.

Suddenly a few degrees warmer than I was a few moments ago, I nodded. Malik kissed my forehead and led me away from the crowded village.

The night was blissfully cool away from the heated bodies and cramped quarters of the party. Malik held me close to him, his arm around me protectively. I leaned into his side, trying to stay as near to him as possible. At the base of the village, we sought out a horse and upon mounting, Malik took us further up the mountain, on the trail that continued past Masyaf. I did not know where we were going, nor did I question. I held tightly to Malik’s back and stared up at the night sky, glittered with a thousand lights. The trail continued to crest, leading us to a tiny village, smaller than Masyaf.

The path eventually led to a large fortress. Nothing like the palace at Masyaf, of course, but built similarly, with the same kind of stone and all. Malik explained that it used to be an Assassins stronghold, but had long since been abandoned, as the Templars would have to have taken over Masyaf first before they ever came here. Nobody was up here except us. We were truly alone. I shivered in anticipation.

Malik eagerly pulled us inside, to one of the back bedrooms. The light from the moonlight was the only thing to see by. As I closed the door to the bedroom, I turned to see Malik, crooking his finger, beckoning me to come closer, with deadly, dilated eyes. I did not hesitate. I was not nervous, not the least bit. The feelings consuming me would not allow for it.

“Are you afraid?” Malik asked, taking my hands, holding my gaze. I could almost feel his heart beating in time with mine. The feeling was mutual and it was the moment of truth. This Assassin, who had killed numerous people and tortured a hundred more, would take me. He could hurt me. He could kill me if he wanted. But the idea of that happening was so far-fetched I didn't give it much thought. I wanted him to do whatever pleased him. He needed this pleasure after all the heinous events he had suffered through.

I shook my head. “No. I’ve never been surer of anything in my life.” I said quietly.

“I’m not going to force you to do anything that you are unsure about.” He wanted reassurance, asking for permission.

“I give you my consent, Malik. I’m giving you everything I have. I’ll give you my soul, if you would only take it.” I whispered, pushing closer to him.

“I won’t take your soul, but I’ll take anything you’ll give. I want you, Rajah.” He leaned forward to kiss me and it was the point of no return. We were too far gone. Our bodies gave way to instinct. It was hot and heavy, but slow. Malik murmured sweet in my ear as he guided me, nurturing me as if we were training. I gave in, with no thoughts holding me back, only feeling, as if we were dancing.

As we undressed, Malik constantly asked if it was okay to remove each item of clothing. He didn’t want to hurt me. My heart swelled that he was still trying to make sure I was comfortable, but if I did not get my clothes off, I would lose my mind. I wanted to possess him, to make him feel what I was feeling.

The light of the moon kissed our bare skin and the cold breeze from the open window made the hairs on my arms stand on end. But the heat from our bodies helped quench that. He was beautiful, even with all of the ugly scars covering his body from missions and fights gone wrong, even without his left arm. Allah, he was perfect. His muscles were tense and his chest unyielding to my touch. His abdomen and loins burned against my stomach and a strange part of him pressed against my hips.

His member was engorged with blood and red, weeping droplets of clear liquid. He was so different than me. Malik’s hot, rough hand was running down my shoulder and collar bone, his teeth nipping at my neck. Moans were involuntarily escaping my mouth at just how wonderful it felt to have someone else touch me. My mind was a blurry haze, my gut tugging with need, concentrating on his touch. He cupped one of my breasts and I whimpered, leaning into him. How… how was he doing this to me? Bringing out a side to me I didn’t even know I had.

The place between my legs was tingling and throbbing, becoming stronger the lower his hand reached. To hurry him along, I reached down and gently pulled his erection. I was surprised by the hardness of it, but even more so by Malik’s reaction. He groaned and pressed his forehead to mine. I giggled and explored his length. He felt alarmingly hot, full and heavy, seeking relief, almost, perking at the attention I was giving him. I was fascinated by him, how he worked and the sounds, oh the delightful sounds I could elicit from him…

Rajah…” Malik snarled. There was a certain playfulness to his voice, like he was a child who wanted to keep his favorite piece of candy to himself, one he would not share with anyone else. Right now, I was his favorite piece. He pushed me to the bed, his eyes feral and hungry. He had had all he could stand. I crawled to the headboard and he followed, stalking me. I curled, trying to cover myself up provocatively.

He was on top of me, pushing my back against the headboard, my legs around his hips. I trembled, grabbing his neck. He kissed me, reaching down to touch me there and oh! I mewled, leaning into his shoulder, a blinding wave of ecstasy coming over me. I wanted more of that. Please... Dear Allah…

He rubbed me, ensuring the opening to my womb was slick and ready before he pressed his member to my entrance and pushed into the ring of nerve endings with more and more pressure until it gave way and took him, all of him, in the heat and tightness, engulfed deep within me. It happened so quickly I did not anticipate nor prepare myself. The stinging pain made me rake my claws down his back and I called out into his shoulder.

“Malik, stop!” Allah, how could pushing his body inside me be so painful?

“Easy, habibti,easy. I’m sorry. Tell me when it eases.” He kissed my neck, whispering so brokenly it was almost like he could feel my pain. My body was tense and tight. Malik continued to kiss me and I started to melt, relaxing my muscles and allowing him room to move.

“It’s okay, Malik.” I said softly, clutching him. And Allah, did he move. That second thrust was heaven, making me see white. It was bliss. He drove the scream from my mouth before I could stop it. It was torturous pleasure. And I needed more. I needed him.

Malik moaned loudly, bracing his arm against the headboard, his feet scrambling for purchase on the slick sheets, his jaw hanging slightly open and his brow was drawn up, all of his attention focused on driving himself deeper into me. He held his forehead pressed to mine, with our teeth clenched and our cheeks flushing. The intensity, the sheer agony of the pleasure was indescribable, trying to find some way to reach a release from all of the pressure and force exuded on our bodies.

Groans of torment, quick breaths, whispered pleas, screams and cries, aching, needing. A language almost entirely without words that we both instinctively understood. Somewhere in the back of my mind, behind the carnal instincts, I was amazed by all of it. I was taken aback by Malik’s dominance over me, how I let him control me, all of my movements, my shouts, my very breathing and heartbeat, even. I knew why Malik wanted to wait until after marriage to try this. One has to be with somebody that they trusted completely with their soul. It was almost too powerful of an act and I was afraid of my own body, of what I would do to… be rid of all of these emotions. I did not know how much my body could handle, yet I wanted Malik to push me to my limits and then some. To drive me to the point of blacking out. I did not care because my whole world had become Malik and the beating of my heart and him taking me to Allah knows where. It was all I was anymore.

The soft sigh of my hands on his skin and his warm, rushed whispers along my neck were otherworldly. We were slowly drowning in the throes of lovemaking and we couldn’t be more eager. Of all the ways that Malik could kill me, this was the way to do it. He watched me hungrily, drinking in each of my panicked and needy expressions, my soft whimpers, my desperate, biting kisses… It was killing me.

We were both hot and flushed, slick with sweat, our eyes half-hooded and lustful. We writhed together, panting, shaking, begging, twisting and convulsing. He thrust deep into my warmth, carrying it deep inside of him, his hips sinfully grinding against mine, and it was too late.

The pleasure was tremendous and it sent me into overdrive. Then, I understood. My body let go of everything, my hips rising to meet his, tremors shaking me to my very core. I threw my head back against the headboard, shrieking as my release overwhelmed me, rendering me blind, senseless, breathless…

When Malik met his release, it was with a growl and his hand clawing at me and at the headboard because we both could no longer tell where one body ended and the other began. We held each other, trembling, in complete awe of the other and of what we had just gone through. There was a warm incandescence glowing from within my body, the color reflected in Malik's eyes. They roamed over my face, fascinated by my movements. My thoughts were clouded and I was completely drained of energy, but that didn't stop the gentle shivers of intoxicating happiness from running down my spine. I ran my hands down his arm and back, his skin hot and damp against me, mimicking his caresses to my face. We were both lost in this trancelike state, drunk on the euphoria of the others touch.

“I’ve claimed you, Rajah. You are mine.” He murmured huskily against my neck before cupping my cheek and gingerly pressing his lips to mine, declaring that he was the one who had marked me as his own, the one who had taken my virginity, who had spilled his seed within me, who had become part of me, all of me... He was mine, and no one could take that away.

“I know.” I breathed throatily, clutching his back in the hope of keeping us together. He couldn't go, no. I needed him too much.

We slid down onto the bed. Malik pulled his blue coat over us, too exhausted to crawl beneath the blankets. I fell asleep instantaneously.

And when I awoke to the yellow and lilac sky casting light onto my husband’s shoulders did I realize what the true meaning of perfection was.

Chapter Text

I lay awake, gently stroking the cold blankets that rustled beneath my fingers, solemn. The day was dim, the air chilly. I was alone.

I rubbed the sheets, pulling them closer to me. I imagined them to be Malik, breathing heavy onto my neck, clinging to me after making love. Those first several weeks after our marriage, after that first night, we were inseparable. The faintest touch would send us to our room, that familiar fire between us ignited, too much to be contained.

But that ended three months ago, when Malik left with Altaïr for Constantinople. It was business. Nothing I need worry about. But worry could not be helped, no matter how insignificant the cause.

This particular morning was very abnormal. I had awoken with cramps so severe I was curling up into a ball, tears being strained from my eyes. It was a constant bombardment, never ending, having lasted throughout the night. I knew something was wrong. Our baby was not happy.

About two weeks ago, I had awoken up feeling… strange. My breasts felt heavy and full. Ever since Malik had left, I had been gaining weight steadily over the past two months. My appetite had changed drastically and I would often be fatigued for no reason at all, going to bed at the oddest of times. My time of the month had not arrived, but that was no surprise, as that had always been sporadic, even during my time on the streets. I had no idea what was the cause of my malady, but Maria knew, for she had gone through the same process. The baby that she held in her arms, Darim, who had arrived into this world two months ago, gurgled for her attention. He was the root of the problem, of my problem.

My mind reeled, but I knew it was true. But how? And better yet, why? The idea of being with child was preposterous. Unfathomable. A baby human was growing in my belly. I was feeding, giving life to this…creature that would grow and become one of us! It was bizarre!

Then came the worry of being a mother. Me, a mother?! Hah! I was still becoming accustomed to the idea that I was married, for crying out loud! How would I care for the child? I had barely learned how to fend for myself, let alone a helpless being that would pop out between my legs and scream and cry and shit and beg for attention. How would I raise it? What if I taught it all the wrong things? Malik could teach it better than I could.

Oh dear… How would I tell Malik that I was with child?! That was a whole other added worry! My rational mind argued that he would not be angry with me, since this was his fault, too. No doubt he would be surprised. But would he be joyful? Would he faint? Hell, I did not know!

All of this came into my mind all at once. Maria would hush me and hug me and I would stare at Darim, watching as he suckled on his tiny thumb, a pink mound of flesh that I would soon have in about six more months.

I treated it as a curse. I did not want a child. It was the last thing I wanted. I was only twenty-three years old! Malik and I had years to worry about having children! Why did this happen now?

But the more I studied Darim, the more I began to change my mind. His golden eyes would look about the world, lost in wonder. He was the spitting image of Altaïr and would be even more so as he grew older. He reached for his mother’s face, grasping and beholding her like she was a goddess. He worshipped her, looked to her for guidance. She stroked his soft, peach-like skin and cooed at him, making faces to see him break out into a smile that almost split his face in two and his eyes shine like the stars. His laughter was brilliant, making one do anything to make it continue. His cries would make one do anything to quiet them, to soothe his discomfort.

I began to imagine Malik’s dark eyes instead of golden ones, of his eyes on my face. Of little Malik, learning to walk, to fight, to make us proud. A beautiful child that Malik and I would love and cherish. And in that moment, I began early, singing the unborn baby to sleep, though he could not hear me. I dreamt of what he would look like and of all the things he would become and do. I dreamt of telling Malik and of how happy he would be, of the expression on his face.

But I never got that. At least, I did not think about it today. I was too consumed in pain and worry for the baby. By the time I had thought to get up and get help, it was too late.

A gush of hot liquid spurted from between my legs. My first thoughts began something along the lines of 'I cannot be having my time of the month! I am pregnant!' If only it could have been... A river of crimson stained the bed sheets, with me in the middle of it, sticky and messy.

The pain in my abdomen lessened, but so had that magical feeling of my baby being inside of me. I stared at the burgundy, mucus-filled puddle between my legs, staring at the remains of our child. He was dead. My brown eyed child, with stars for eyes and a smile and laugh of heaven, was gone

I began weeping. Wailing. It was a sadness from the deepest well of my heart. What had gone wrong? What had I done? What would Malik think of me?! Though we had not been trying for a child, the fact that I had lost the baby would be devastating to him. Not just that the child was dead, but Malik would be disappointed in my ability as a wife to bear him children. Would he…hate me? Would he punish me? Have me tortured?

In many cultures, women were punished for losing their child. A particularly preferred method of doing so was by using the Pear of Anguish, a pear shaped instrument that is inserted into the mouth, anus or vagina and was slowly expanded to mutilate the victim. Miscarriage was a sign of a cursed woman, a witch even. A demonic symbol of a woman whom everyone should avoid. The horrible feeling of being trapped came back, the same fear from four years ago when I was told I would have to become part of the Assassin Brotherhood forever. The Assassins tortured their novices. What made their wives any different?

Part of me wanted to believe the idea of that happening was absurd. But I had failed Malik as a wife. What would honestly stop him from turning on me? There was nothing, absolutely no reason to prevent him from hating me.

The door opened quietly, but I refused to acknowledge the one who entered. I held my head in my hands even when Maria gave a soft cry and enveloped me in her arms, whispering that it would be all right. It would never be all right. My child was gone and soon my husband may be, too.

I was vocally sobbing. I could not hold it back. Maria just held me. I may have heard her quietly sniveling too, but eventually, she heaved me out of the bed and took me to clean up. The tears did stop, simply because I was all cried out. But my heart was ripped in two. All my hopes and dreams for my child dashed.

Worse yet, I had let Malik down, who had already had so much sadness in his life. How could I tell him this? I would be his next ruin… I could have told him that we were having a child, that we had some happiness to look forward to. But that would never happen now. Nevermore…

There was a distant call of Maria’s name. “I’ll be there. One moment,” she answered, and then to me, “You stay right here, Rajah. Don’t you move. I will be back.” There was a tremor to her voice.

I did not answer. It did not even register that she was gone. The water was of no comfort. In fact, I felt like I was drowning. But I did not do anything about it. Nothing could cure this. My husband was far away. Even if he were here, there was no guessing as to what he would do. He may kill me. He may not. I did not know.

Oh what was I thinking?! My husband would not kill me! He would be disappointed, maybe to the extent of wanting to kill me, but nonetheless –

“They are back.” Maria’s soft voice reverberated in the doorway. It echoed the anxiety in my core. I choked on it as it rose from my stomach and latched onto my vocal cords.

“He wants to see you.”

Malik wanted to see me. I could not say the same. I was fidgety with panic. How… How could I do this?!

“You didn’t… You did not tell him… did you?” I whimpered, looking up at her. There was no look of betrayal in her eyes.

“He needs to know. He needs to hear it from you, Rajah.”

Dear Allah… I wished she had delivered the crushing blow to him so I would not have to. At the same time, I knew she was right. He would need me to tell him, to comfort him. This news would kill him, too. Dread weighed me down as I rose from the tub. Maria helped me dress, helped me walk, helped me function halfway normal… Without her, I would not have even made it from my soiled bed.

Walking to the doorway, each step brought me closer to my doom. With each step, I became more upset, knowing there was no earthly means to give Malik the truth. The sight I beheld next did only proved that fact.

When we peered out the doorway, I could see Malik and Altaïr at the end of the corridor. Altaïr cradled his newborn son. He looked like he had seen the light for the first time in his life, appearing to be crying at the miracle of his child. It took something phenomenal to make Eagle Eye cry.

I saw Malik. He was absolutely infatuated, fascinated by Darim. His smile, like Altaïr’s, was glowing, filled with an indescribable delight as the child burbled at the faces Malik made at him. That child had them both wrapped tightly around his little finger, literally and figuratively as he curled his hand around Malik’s.

I couldn’t do it. I could not crush him like that, not when he was so happy at seeing Altaïr’s child. I could not kill him with the news that he could have had one of his own on the way, a child like Darim. I couldn’t tell him I had failed him. It would break him. He would never forgive me.

"I can’t.” I pushed past Maria back into the room. The tears swamped down my cheeks like the rain in spring. “I have to go.” I had to get away. Far away. Back to Jerusalem, back home.

“Rajah, you have to tell him.” Maria argued, trying to see sense. I did not want to see sense. I wanted to run away. Pretend this had never happened, even if it was just for a little while…

“Maria, I can’t tell him. I can’t do it. I have to leave.” I threw together a travel pack, filled with whatever my hands could grab. Maria was confused, trying to help, but unsure of what to do.

“Where are you planning to go?” I did not answer, though I believe she knew even before I did, “You cannot go back to Jerusalem.”

“I can.” I spoke shortly and feverishly with determination, trying to hurry before Malik came in and caught sight of me.

“You won’t make it there. Besides, Malik won’t let you go by yourself. You know that.”

“He doesn’t have to know. I do not need his permission to do anything. He can leave whenever he pleases!” I snapped.

“Rajah, he will be worried sick about you! See some sense, will you?” She begged.

I knew she spoke the truth, but I did not want to listen. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to go home. Jerusalem would know. Jerusalem would fix this.

“I am going to tell him, if you won’t.”

I whirled around, striding up to her, bearing down on her. “You will do no such thing.”

“Try me.” Her threat hung heavy between us. I had all but convinced myself that Jerusalem was the solution to all of my problems. Maria would tell Malik my plan and I would be captured before I even left the castle grounds. We were at a stalemate. Neither of us would give in.

My stomach knotted with claustrophobia. If I did not leave soon, I would scream. “I am going whether you like it or not. Get out of my way!”

“If you need to go, then go. But not to Jerusalem. Go someplace that is not so far away.”

I threw my arms up. Where?! Where could I go?! Jerusalem was the only other place that was familiar to me. There was no place that resembled that city in any way, shape, or form that was close to Masyaf. Unless…

Damascus. It was a city of the desert. It was a two day ride from here. I could do that. I could handle Damascus. It was, at the very least, not Masyaf. The heat would help me. Getting lost in an unfamiliar place would aid me.

“I will go to Damascus, then.”

Maria scoffed. “I meant someplace closer than that.”

But I could not be deterred. I had already slung my pack over my shoulder and was going to storm out of the door without further explanation. Maria caught my arm.

“I am not holding you back. But just know that I will tell Malik. He will know of your departure soon enough, anyway. He has to know where you are. I cannot keep your destination a secret for that long.” Her eyes were soft, but steely.

I raised my chin. “That is fine. Tell him if you think it best. But inform him after I have left Masyaf. No sooner than that.”

Her eyes changed not, only followed me after I left the room, unrevealing whether she would follow through with my wishes.

I turned down the hallway opposite of where the two men were and made for the end as quickly and as quietly as I could. There were no calls of my name, there was nothing. I did not turn to check, as I was too afraid to see them, too afraid they would make me change my mind. I tumbled down the stairs and down the endless halls until I found the exit out into the chilly, gray air. The clanging of swordfight resounded in the stone walls, sending shudders down my spine. I could feel Maria watching me still, her eyes never letting go until I reached the bottom of the mountain and snagged a horse, tears already beginning to run down my cheeks again.

The halves of my heart began to tear into fourths as I knew what I was doing to Malik. I did not want to see him hurting. I did not want to hurt him. But I was too selfish. I did not even give myself the chance to say goodbye. What if I decided I wouldn’t come back? What if the idea of facing Malik became too formidable to handle? I turned away from the village. A novice reached up to comfort me, but I had already buried my face in the horse’s neck and ran, never looking back again.

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

I wish I had stayed in Masyaf. I wish I had listened to Maria. Damascus was not Jerusalem. It was the exact opposite.

The heat and cruelness of the city was worse than Jerusalem could ever have hoped to be. It was dry. It was arid. One could not breathe in a city like this, the air was so choked with sand.

I was lost, too. I knew not anybody or anything, and most definitely, not my way around. I had come here seeking relief. I had never felt more hopeless in my life.

With little money or supplies to sustain me, I had resorted back to my old ways. Living on the rooftops, stealing without any real remorse, and stargazing at night. I asked the stars why my luck had gone to shit, what I had done wrong, why I was even here in Damascus, on this planet even. They said nothing, like I should know the answer. Hell, I did not even know who I was anymore, let alone the solution to this shithole of a problem.

I should never have left. I was foolish. Malik was broken now as was I because I could not find the courage to break his heart. If only I had told him… He must think that I do not trust him or he finds me untrustworthy. I could not trust myself half the time, hence why I left in the first place.

He must hate me now. He may not have even come looking for me. That first night in Damascus, I lay there crying about how much of an idiot I had been. How stupid I was. What good had it done in coming here? This did not bring the baby back. It wasn’t mending my relationship with Malik. It was making it worse, in truth. But I had to get away from Masyaf, from everything. I would have lose my mind if I had not.

The second night was no better. I was on the top of the Umayyad Mosque, staring down at those in prayer. The stars casted a glow down upon them. Everything was peaceful. Within me, however, nothing was peaceful. I was a mess. I was crying nonstop. I found it difficult to even think about going back to Masyaf. It was difficult to think of anything. Malik must be out of his mind with worry. Or he decided it was easier to keep going without me. If I were him, I would choose the latter. Perhaps, it was better I stayed out of his life forever. It would do him good. I was of no use to him as a wife if I could not give him children, so what was the point of having me around? My heart was in a million shards and the tears kept trying to come, but I swallowed them down. I had no need for them now that I had made up my mind.

“I thought I might find you up here.”

His voice was nearly inaudible in the stillness, yet I still startled. I don’t know how he found me, but I did not even bother responding or trying to figure it out. It was too choked with panic and too numb to know what to say.

“Do you have any idea how worried I have been? How worried everyone has been? Running away like that and putting yourself in danger and not telling anyone?! That was pretty damned stupid!” He scolded me heavily, yet I still barely felt guilty. Of course, he would not understand my pain.

“I told Maria.” I mumbled.

“Who conveniently waited to tell me after you had taken off. Why didn’t you tell me where you were going?! Or why you left, for that matter?”

I still could not bring myself to look at him. “You cannot control me, Malik. You don’t own me. I’m your wife, not one of your novices.” I retorted, finding my voice and my reason.

“Oh, are you really?” he growled sarcastically, “Because I thought spouses actually trusted one another. They do not hide secrets. They do not leave the other one without notice!”

“I was not meaning to hurt you.” I whispered.

“You betrayed me, Rajah! You left me! There is nothing of greater pain than that!”

He clearly had never had a miscarriage. Or he did not care about the fact that he could have been a father. But I did not want to argue about something like that. I just wanted to be left alone.

“I am of no use to you as a wife. You are better off without me.”

Malik was confused, as was to be expected. “What?! Has this city’s heat gotten to your head, Rajah?! I would not have come after you if you did not mean everything to me. What are you thinking?!”

“But why did you come after me, Malik? If I cannot give you children, what am I to you?” I jerked my head to him and wished I hadn’t.

He was all shades of bewildered. He had no idea what I was talking about. The stars illuminated how lost he was. Maria had not told him a thing. He did not know…

“Maria didn’t … say anything?”

Malik’s eyes never left mine as he shook his head slowly, devouring me and my statements. “What happened, Rajah?” He sat down next to me, immediately taking my hand, glued to me.

Allah, damn you, Maria. Of course, she would leave me to do the telling in the end. Of fucking course she would. I had no idea how to start. My emotions clambered for grasp in the slick remains of my heart. “Malik, I…” I took a deep breath, a lump forming in my throat.

“I lost our child. I was with child. And I – I lost the baby. I couldn’t tell you because you were so happy when you saw Darim. How could I? I… I’m so sorry… I have failed you…” The tears ran rampant down my cheeks. I couldn’t breathe. I bawled like a newborn infant, too afraid of what he would say to glance at him.

But he did not say anything. I had buried my head in my knees and I could feel him pry me to him and I was holding to him so tight I was sure to leave bruises. He held me just as tightly. He hushed me and rocked us back and forth, burying his face in my hair. He sniffled a time or two, but if he was crying, it wasn’t audible. I hoped he wasn’t. I could not stand it to see him in pain.

He stroked my hair and after a while, murmured softly, “Rajah, it is not your fault.”

“It is my fault. Something is wrong with me or this would never have happened.”

“There is nothing wrong with you,” He pulled me back to look at him, his eyes gleaming with sadness and resilience, “It was only nature’s way of saying there was something wrong with the child.”

“But Malik… How do you know that it was the child and not… me?” It could not have been the child. I had to have done something to trigger the miscarriage. I had to have.

“I just do. Rajah, you’re healthy. There is nothing wrong with you. Even if it was your fault, I would not blame you,” He stroked my cheek, “We can always keep trying for another one if you wish to.”

“But… he was special. How can we replace him?”

“We won’t replace him. Wherever he is now, he is not in pain anymore. He would not want you to continue to grieve for him for the rest of your life. The next one will be just as special,” My head slid away from his grasp and he pulled my chin up, “Don’t lose hope, Rajah. There is always hope.”

He hugged me close and I leaned into him. There was always hope, he said. There had to be. Otherwise there was no point in living. I still did not feel anything of the sort, but I would take his word for it. I looked up at the blanket of lights above me. If there was any hope, they would be the first to know.

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

We rested in the Assassin Bureau for the next day or two before we made the journey back to Masyaf. The Bureau resembled the one in Jerusalem, but it wasn’t… home. It smelled different and it was rearranged strangely. The sunlight gave the room too much of a tan glow. The Dai of the Bureau never ceased his speaking. I did not like it. It looked like home, but wasn’t.

I was grateful to leave. I still felt foolish for running away, but Malik assured me that if he were in my shoes, he would have done the exact same thing, so my actions, to him, were justified. That still did not push away the guilt.

When we began to leave the city, we stopped at a marketplace to buy some supplies for the way back. I was anxious to go home and so to busy myself, I was in the midst of admiring some of the crates of fruit and how ripe they were when someone shoved me from behind so hard that I was flung forward and the crates of fruit were knocked to the dusty ground.

The keeper took one look at me and I recognized him to be the one I had stolen from the other day. He knew my face as well and before I even had time to be embarrassed, he was already calling for the guards. I could not even explain myself as Malik was yanking me out of the market and pulling me into a full out sprint. It was only then I realized how much I hated Damascus.

Malik made for the rooftops, pulling me after him. A horde of guards was rambling toward us, the bloodthirsty mongrels. Malik heaved me up and practically threw me into one of the rooftop gardens, diving in after me.

We peeked through the curtains that fluttered gently in the breeze, watching the guards clamber their way to the roof. They called out to each other in deep voices, getting louder with each step they took. If they found us, we would not have enough time to get away.

Do not ask where this idea came from, as it was a rather unchaste one, but it was the only plan I had because staying still would obviously not work.

I turned to Malik as coyly as possible, running my fingertips lightly up his thigh. He fidgeted.

“Rajah, what are you doing?” He murmured violently.

I proceeded without further comment to rip off his coat and his robes until he was only wearing his pants and boots. I wrapped my cloak around him and yanked him close, pressing my lips into his neck.

“Oh yes!” I gave a really loud moan of approval.

“Rajah, stop that! They’ll hear us!” Malik whispered frantically, trying to disengage himself. He grunted when I began to massage the trunk of his body to hold him in place. “Rajah, now is not the time for thi-“

“Oh Allah, please! Yes!” I called and then I began to unleash a series of extremely obnoxious and obscene comments and cries. I ground my nails into Malik’s back, trying to get him to follow my lead. And oh, he followed, adding in his own noises, hard grunts and growls that harmonized to our song nicely.

The guards, as I expected, were repulsed by the act. One of them even glanced in on us, right at the moment I had pulled Malik down on top of me, pretending to take him right there. The guard quickly hurried off, the blush on his face visible a mile away even through his helmet.

When we were sure he had chased all the guards and the general public away with our performance, I pulled away and wiped my lips of any excess spit.

“And that is how one frightens away guards,” I said, satisfied with how it went, “Do you think they enjoyed that?”

“I don’t know about them, but I sure did,” Malik stated, a lustful gleam in his eye, “Why don’t we continue?”

“Oh no,” I said, getting up teasingly when he reached for me, “This is a public place. Allah forbid we make love where everyone can hear us. What an absurd idea, Malik. Put your clothes back on, you little whore.” I smiled mockingly, giggling.

“Rajah, that was only the dress rehearsal. You come back here and finish what you started.” He rumbled, following me, eyes hungry.

I rolled my eyes, smiling. “Oh all right. Just be quiet about it.”

We were the exact opposite of quiet. Our cries could probably be heard on the other side of the city. But neither of us gave any thought as to who heard us. I needed that pleasure so much and so did he. We needed each other to survive, and it showed. I don’t think I had ever screamed so much in my entire life.

Chapter Text

20 Years Later

“Easy now, habibti. Careful.”

Malik grasped my hand as I eased myself into the steamy pool, trying my hardest to not slip on the slick tiles. I sat down, the heat wrapping itself around me like a blanket. Malik lowered himself in after me and I scooted back slowly to sit between his legs. His arm came around me, rubbing water onto my tense muscles.

“Ease up, Rajah.”

The cramps had let up for the moment, but I was still taut with anticipation for the upcoming ones. Malik’s hand massaged my shoulder before coming down to wrap around my enlarged belly, intrigued by its size. Malik had been at my side during every minute of my time with child, constantly waiting on me and assuring that I was comfortable. He had never treated me like I would break before, so it could be irritating at times when I could not get a moment of peace. But he was only concerned about the baby and I. It was to be expected.

“He’ll be perfect, habibti. Like you.”

After so many miscarriages and attempts to become gravid, this one had survived the longest. He was a strong one, frequently kicking and moving about, pushing against my stomach in an attempt to escape.

“He’ll be far from perfect if he is to be like me.” I replied quietly.

“Rajah, you are perfect. Perfect for me.”

“Malik…” I groaned.

“It's true.”

“I just want the child to be healthy. That is all I wish for.” I said, caressing my stomach. He would be healthy. He had to be…

“And I want you to be safe.” Malik said possessively.

“Malik, this is not exactly what one would call a ‘safe’ event to undergo.”

“Well, if I could only have this baby for you, I would.”

I looked back at him, knitting my eyebrows together. “If you could have this baby, just how did you plan on getting it out?”

Malik grimaced. “That does not matter, Rajah. If I could take away your pain, I would. I will not have you perish because of this. Do you understand?”

I sighed, “Malik I am not going to die. Neither will he.”

“No, you won’t. I forbid it.”

How he planned to forbid death from coming was a good question. I turned around into him, running a damp hand down his face, water running into the crevasse-like wrinkles on his forehead. He was about to hit fifty, and for a man of that age, he looked worn and weary. Being Second in Command was not an easy on anyone, especially when the Grandmaster was to leave in a few days to travel to lands far, far away from here, taking his family with him.

That was a great weight that had been put on my husband’s shoulders, but he could be our Grandmaster. He had what it took. He had done it before, shortly after my arrival here in Masyaf, during the time that Altaïr had been away. He would be fine. Besides, Altaïr, Maria, and Darim could not be gone that long anyways. A few years, perhaps?

The baby within me began to move again. I rubbed my belly, trying to reach through my skin to touch my child. It would be all right. It would be all right… Wouldn’t it? What Malik had said earlier was creeping back into my mind. Our baby would not die… Would he? What if I could not get him out in time before he died? What if he died afterwards? What if… What if I died before they got him out? Could my body handle this? I was forty-three, for Allah’s sake! Most women who were my age did not survive childbirth. Hell, even women 20 years my junior could not endure it!

No… I had to make it. I had to live. Malik would not be pleased if I did not. If Maria could do this, so could I. Of course, Maria had been a lot younger than me when she had both kids, who were well into their twenties now.

I had to do this. I would not die. I would not. Neither would our child. We would survive this. We would – Oh!

I doubled over, pain twice that of being run over by ten horses and carts making me pant. Oh great... The cramps were back, only worse. Malik held me instantly, asking me what was wrong. There was nothing he could do, absolutely nothing to cure this - ahhh!

The agony came quick and hard, ceaseless, never-ending. I felt as if I were being hit in the stomach over and over again. It was so intense that I was unaware of anything else but this torture. It was unlike anything I had ever felt before in my life. Contracting and expanding, I felt like I could burst, my back feeling like it could snap at any moment. The pain was all encompassing, leaving no part of my body without woe. If Malik could just hold me underwater until I was without breath… That was not too much to ask, was it?

Malik came in front of me, screaming at me to breathe. I tried, but panting was all that would suffice. I could not concentrate. My mind had been scattered by the anguish eating my abdomen from the inside out. The pressure was bursting me at the seams. I felt like my belly could explode and our little son would climb out of the aftermath, looking around and wondering when he would be fed.

I was shaking and trembling from the effort to remain conscious in the potency of labor. I could see Malik, blurred and shimmering, yelling muffled commands at me and Allah, I tried to follow them. There was an intense gleam in his eyes as he screamed for me to push more, more, more…

I don’t know what kind of unearthly sounds I was making, but they helped. I pushed and shoved with all my might, though I don’t know where to. I just gave everything I had. The pushing had alleviated some of the pain into background noise, but in its place was a stinging, burning sensation, as if I were being split in half going straight up the trunk of my body.

I pushed even more, my vision popping in places. I felt like I had no control over myself. My body knew what to do and Malik acted like he had an idea of what he was doing. I had to trust them. I felt like I was in an altered state that was severed whenever I stopped pushing, in which the agony came back anew.

I was pushing, shoving, driving that baby out with all I had. Get him out, get him out, Allah, get that baby out! I did not care anymore, just get him –

There was a slick sliding sensation between my legs and I knew instantaneously that it was over. He was here. Our little son was here…

I parted my eyes to see Malik pulling our son out of the water, wiping his tiny nose and mouth clean. The baby’s skin was that of a seal, shiny and slippery in the candlelight, bloody water dripping from him. He wailed at the cold air, though he quieted when pressed to Malik’s warm skin. Malik’s eyes were gleaming, his face softened by a smile, lost in that child’s face. Every worry and care was gone. There was only our son. Malik was in love. He looked up, moisture running down his face that came not from the pool.

He had a child to be proud of now. He had one to call his own, to pass on his name, our name. He was ours…

I reached for him and Malik gingerly passed him to me. The baby’s skin was flaming, still hot from my womb and the water. His face was crinkled and his eyes were closed, though he was blindly reaching for me, for warmth of some kind. I cradled him to my chest and he found my nipple, immediately caving in to the instinct to suckle.

I was, honestly, almost surprised at the warm, tingling, flowing sensation in my breast. The child began to suck and swallow rhythmically and I slid down a little more into the pool, exhausted, letting the water lap around his form. I cooed him as I watched him melt into me blissfully.

The top of his head was tufted in thick, black hair, his skin dark like Malik’s, his little chubby hands kneading into my breasts, making soft, little hiccups as he lapped up the milk. He was perfect, worth every hardship, all of the cravings and morning sickness, the pain, everything. I vowed that I would protect this child. Malik and I would always be there for him, no matter what.

This child was someone to be revered and respected.

“Tazim.” I murmured. I looked up to see Malik nodding. He leaned down to kiss our child’s head, snuggling close to my side and tracing the curve of my breast with his finger.

“His name will be Tazim Al-Sayf.”

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

The day Altaïr, Maria and Darim left was a sad one. Our goodbyes were hard, but hopeful. Darim said goodbye to Tazim, his little alien, for whom he had been nicknamed after Darim’s reaction upon seeing Tazim for the first time.

And Maria, sweet Maria… I would miss her. Her hair had grayed and the wrinkles had become more prominent in her face, as they had on all of us. But her eyes were as bright and alive as they were when she was young. She clasped my hand tight, telling me to be strong. I replied that I would try my best. Altaïr said goodbye to Sef and his grandchildren, his face resolute. Malik took Altaïr aside then, speaking to him in low tones. They did not hug, as that was an acknowledgement that they would never see one another again. They simply walked near to the other as we escorted them down to the base of Masyaf.

There was not much to be said as they mounted their horses. There were looks of uncertainty and assuredness thrown between the six of us. Tazim simply suckled his thumb, head buried in my neck.

The three of them, with heavy hearts, turned away and rode slowly down the path, becoming small, dark specks in the distance until they reached a curve in the road and were gone from view. Malik, Sef and I exchanged brief glances, the weight of Masyaf falling to our shoulders. We were on our own.

I placed a hand to Malik’s arm, whose lowered head rose slightly to meet my gaze. The worry was already consuming him, try as he might to hide it. He could do this. He had to. I tried to project that confidence in my regard, but his eyes remained unreadable.

I was shoved forward harshly and I nearly lost my grip on Tazim. I turned around to throw an angry word or two to my assailant, a graying man with a thick beard and shady eyes. He turned around, flashed us a toothy, sly smile and said sweetly, “My sincerest apologies, dear one.”

The words were poisoned honey across his lips. Abbas Sofian then turned on his heel and strolled out of the village.

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

The next eight years could only be measured in the special moments of Tazim’s growth. When he opened his eyes to the world for the first time, Malik was especially delighted to find emerald orbs staring up at him curiously.

Tazim would laugh, oh he would laugh, at just about anything. Hell, he did not cry like most children did when they tumbled and fell. He would only chortle at his own clumsiness. And clumsy, he was. From the moment he could walk, he was constantly running around and falling down stairs and then tripping going back up those same stairs. I lost track of the amount of times we paid a visit to the healer. I dreaded the day when he would begin doing leaps of faith.

Malik started teaching him the ways of fighting by day, of which Tazim took to like a duck to water, like he had been born with a sword in his hand. At the time of his birth, it sure felt like that was the truth.
I read to him by night, slowly introducing new languages to him. I swore he would not grow up ignorant. He would never know the life that I had. By the time he was six, he was already skilled in Arabic and German, while Malik taught him English and French.

Because of this being instilled in him, Tazim could always be found reading a book of some sort. Even walking down the corridors, he could manage to maneuver his way through a crowd of people without wrecking everyone or losing his place. Hell, he would fall asleep with several books surrounding him on his bed, without need for sheets as he was buried literally in his pages.

Despite being studious, the kid was quite the prankster. When he was learning the ways of stealth, oh, he gave Malik and I the worst heart attacks. It always occurred whenever we would be coming outside from the castle. Tazim, the little shit, would launch himself off of a ledge somewhere and land loudly behind us. Some days he felt brave enough to tackle poor Malik, jumping on his back and holding to him, hoping to be carried wherever Malik went.

“Take me on an adventure, Baba.” He would beg in his high, squeaky voice.

Malik, still stunned, would manage to choke out, “All right, we will go down to the village. My, are you heavy, young one…” Tazim would then begin that obnoxious laughter of his.

During the harsh winters in the mountains, Tazim would not be deterred by the weather enough to stay inside. He would plow his way out the door and plunge into the thick, white snow, sticking his red tongue out to catch the snowflakes cascading to the earth and melting in his mouth. Seeing him unafraid brought out the child in Malik, who was usually the one to instigate snowball fights, of which Tazim usually won by jumping on his assailants back and shoving snow down his father’s back.

“I beat you, baba! You are a novice!” Tazim had developed his father’s bad habit of name-calling already, of which made Malik all the more proud of his son. He picked up on everything, which fueled his curiosity, of which could not be satisfied. For example, one night, Tazim curiously pulled at Malik’s left sleeve.

“Why don’t you have your arm, baba?”

“I lost it fighting to save someone I loved.” He murmured.

“Why doesn’t it grow back?” Tazim looked innocently into Malik’s war-torn eyes.

After a beat, he whispered gently, “There are some things that cannot be replaced. Like you, young one.” He smiled down at him as Tazim unpinned Malik’s sleeve and stuck his arm through it, his tiny hand emerging from the opening, a miniature version of what used to be there.

On late nights, I would take Tazim out on the rooftops and we would lay there, watching the stars above, losing ourselves.

“What are those, mama?”

“The stars, love.”

“What exactly are they?”

I pondered that for a moment and responded the best I could. “Whatever you believe them to be.”

Tazim thought a moment before rolling his head to look at me, his green eyes, my eyes, alight with truth.

“I believe they are beautiful, just like you.”

Tazim, this soul from a perfect world, saw right through me, speaking what he discerned, though I believed what he saw was a lie. His words were older than his age, as was his soul. I loved that boy. I loved him with everything I had. I begged of the stars to never let his innocence die…

By the time Tazim was eight years old, he had grown like a weed. He was already beginning to rival his father’s height and within a few years, he would easily tower over Malik. Tazim had become one of the most talented and savage novices. Conniving and dangerous, he could easily outwit anybody or survive in any situation. How far he had come… I had given birth to this child in a pool and here he was, on his way to becoming a man so quickly. Wait until Altaïr, Maria and Darim see him! Tazim was no longer an alien.

But that never came to be. Malik had become uneasy around the time after Tazim’s eighth birthday. I am not sure of what he was leery of, but it was evident in the paranoid looks over his shoulder and in the early dawn hours when I would have to beg and drag him back to bed from his restless pacing. He would tell me none of the details, as he believed that he should not have to burden his family with his problems. But it got to a point where I had to worry because his insomnia began to affect his decisions.

“I think we should send Tazim to Jerusalem.” Malik brought this out of the blue and into the open one late night during his ritualistic patrolling.

“On a mission? Don’t you think he is a bit young yet, Malik?”

“No!” he snapped, “I meant to reside there for a while. With the Dai.”

My assumption was far from what he had in mind. Where in Allah’s name had this come out of?!

“Why? Malik, what are you so paranoid of?!” I slammed my book down, my frustration at the lack of transparency beginning to boil over.

He paused. “I don’t know. But something feels… wrong. I believe it would be safer for him to be there, away from Masyaf in case a conflict arises.” He spoke in a hushed manner, as if someone could be listening at the door.

A seed of panic began to grow within me, though I dared not let it try to stem out. “Are you certain there will be an uprising?...”

“I am not certain of anything, Rajah. Which is why I want the both of you away from here.”

“I am not leaving you, Malik.”

He skidded to a stop, giving me a challenging stare, one an alpha wolf gives to an unruly pack member. “You will leave Masyaf with Tazim. I have arranged an escort to accompany you to Jerusalem. Tomorrow.”

My jaw dropped. “Tomorrow?!

“It is settled. You will leave tomorrow.” He held up his hand for no further argument.

“Where was my say in this?!” I screeched. “Did you not take into consideration how I might feel?!”

“It matters not how you feel, only that you are safe!” He turned to me, his eyes flaming.

He betrayed me… I was furious. I threw the book across the room and climbed out of bed, marching up to him. “You hypocrite! You say I cannot do anything without your permission, yet you go and stab me in the back in the name of safety and without my consent! How dare you do this to me? Just because you are the Grandmaster does not mean you can order me around like I am mindless! I am not going to Jerusalem! And you cannot make me go!”

A blinding blur of tan and blue hit my face and I fell to the ground. I clutched my cheek, the sting growing as fast as my fury.

“This is one of the things I absolutely hate about you. You are so stubborn you will not listen to reason. All of this could be avoided if you would just listen to me!” His voice rose to a scream and he made no effort to keep quiet.

I stared up at my husband, his pent up stress turning to fury, unleashed all on me. His words got under my skin, snarled in my soul. I stood up, resisting the urge to hit back and spoke defiantly.

“Fine. I will go. You will not have to deal with my stubbornness any more, will you? In fact, if you are so sick of it, I won’t fucking come back at all!”

I took to the door and shoved it open and let it slam shut. My emotions came loose, the anger transforming to tears as I stormed down the hallway. I went down the stairs and ran outside. I sprinted as far as my legs would take me, down to the village and onto the rooftops. Though I was old, I could still climb well. I let my tears flow freely, weeping.

What just happened? How could he do that to me?! If he did not want any help, so be it. He could stay here and let the situation, if it is as bad as he made it out to be, slaughter him. It’s not like I could do anything. Allah forbid that I get in the middle of any situation. I would be injured in some way.

I reminded myself that he was only doing this because he wanted me to be safe. Was he really sure there would be a fight of some sort? There was nothing wrong! Nobody was upset by Malik’s ruling of the Order. If there was something wrong, it must be coming from deep within…

Malik only decided this so I would not be hurt, but what ripped me apart was the fact that he considered my opinions and feelings unimportant enough to not affect his decision. It did not matter how I felt. It would never matter. It has probably never mattered…

I would go to Jerusalem. And it would hurt Malik because that is all he has ever known how to do. If he wanted to lose everyone he loved, he could have his wish. I knew I would have mine.

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

I stayed outside all night, gazing upwards. What was my fate? What was I to do? What was the right thing to do? I did not know, as I was still filled with the need to make Malik feel what I felt. I still wavered between leaving and not. I was on the brink of making my decision when I noticed a group of guards ushering Tazim and Malik down to the gate in the pink light of dawn.

Tazim must have just awoken, for his thick hair was knotted and ratty. He rubbed his eyes, sleep still on his mind. He clutched his father’s hand. When the fogginess cleared and he looked about, he caught sight of me.

I climbed down from the roof and by then, his arms had snagged around me and I lifted him into the air, the feelings from last night pushed aside to make room for the love of my child. He giggled and tightened his grip on my neck.

“Are you ready to go on this journey, mama?” I looked away from his delighted face to Malik’s, colored somber, but resilient. He awaited my answer, convinced of it.
I pulled my gaze back to Tazim, my decision made.

“No, love, I am not going with you. This is an adventure that you are going on alone. You will be the hero of this story.”

I glanced over at Malik, who had suddenly become fascinated by the fortress and began to trek back up the hill.

“Baba!” Tazim called, but Malik ignored him, continuing up the path. He did not look back and disappeared around the bend. The last image of his father that Tazim would ever see was his back.

That distressed call brought tears to my eyes. When I turned back to Tazim, he was already crying. The guards were impatient, urging me to hurry up with the goodbyes. “Love, you have to go now. Jerusalem is waiting on you.”

“Mama, don’t go! I do not want to be alone!” He blubbered, his face streaked with dampness.

“You have to go, love. You will be all right. Do it for your father and for me.”

He was being torn from my arms by the guard, who were anxious to get a move on.

No, Mama! No! No!

I tried to remain calm, to keep the anxiety from my voice and visage. “Go Tazim, and be strong. I love you. Just go-“

"Mama! Babi! No! Come back! LET ME GO!"

Tazim was howling and fighting like a demon to get to me, even as they practically tied him down atop his horse. I struggled against the motherly need to go to him, to hold him again, just one last time. Even as he was pulled away, he kept looking back at me with treachery etched deep within those emerald eyes. His innocence was dead. He would never forget…

“Be brave, love.” I whispered, tears spilling down my cheeks. What had I done? Why did I not go? My child was gone. I may never see him again. What had I done?! My heart was in pieces. I hated myself. I hated myself. I hated myself…

I picked up a stone and threw it, letting a shout fly through the morning air. What the fuck had I done?! I let my child go! How did I know that he would be safe?! There was only one answer… I didn’t. I had to trust Malik that Tazim would be all right.

But why worry? My feelings did not matter one bit.

I was unaware that I was vehemently stamping back into the castle. Blindly, I hurled myself up to the bedroom with all the intent to rip Malik to shreds. I wanted him hurting. He needed to hurt like I was. I would make him hurt.

I flung the door open with a loud thunk. Nobody was there. Not only was the room devoid of Malik, there was an odd aura, heavy and calculating. There was nothing out of place, but I was still suddenly perturbed. I skimmed around, checking for intruders when I spotted a splash of color on the bed.

A sword stained a bloody red had been carelessly tossed on the sheet, splattering them with crimson. I tentatively picked it up. The blood was still fresh. And Malik was nowhere to be found…

“Malik…” I whispered his name. Something was wrong. Oh, something was very wrong here… He was in danger, I could feel it in my bones.

“Malik!” I called, but no answer was returned. I threw the sword down and scrambled about the chamber, consumed with panic and terror.

MALIK!” I needed to know where he was, that he was safe, that he was not---

An iron arm came around my neck and yanked me back. I instantly gagged, unable to scream. I clawed at the wrist, but it was to no avail as the hold was strategically placed to make everything turn hazy and dark. I lost feeling of my body quickly after that.

Relax! I am keeping you alive, dear one.” A harsh whisper sounded in my ear. I did not know who it was at the time, but all I remembered thinking was how foolish I had been to not leave. Malik was right. I was wrong.

While Tazim’s parents may be dead, at least he will be safe and able to carry on the family line.

Chapter Text

It was dark and I was alone in said darkness. Those are the only facts that have remained true, unchanged in the hallucination that my life has become.

I did not know where I was. I did not know if I was in Masyaf. I could have been at the bottom of the sea. I could have been buried alive. I wish that were the case.

I could not hear anything, only the faint drumming of my heart that could easily be mistaken for fists pounding on the thick walls that surrounded me like a shell.

I had never truly seen what my room looked like, for light was unheard of in this existence. I knew the room by feel. I knew where the iron door was that opened with an obnoxious squawk that I had been hit one too many times with. I knew where I laid at night, in a pile of hay that prickled and poked me in my sleep. I knew my preferred corner to urinate, which reeked the strongest of a sharp, acidic aroma that assaulted the nose. The walls were soundproof stone, misty and damp. I knew this room as if I had been born here. I feel like I have known nothing else.

I had also grown used to my own body odor, a putrid, overripe scent of an onion, smelling of fear and sweat. I had become accustomed to that and also, to my raspy breathing, a hiss that used to keep me awake in the dead of night. Or, at least, what I thought was the night. Overtime, my noisy breaths a soothing noise that helped lull me to sleep.

Sleeping had become a way to pass the lonely hours in this cell rather than a way to rest. In the beginning, sleep was hard to come by. Escape had been my priority. Get out, get out, get out… I came to realize that was impossible.

I was fed once a day and water was tossed in for me to catch what I could and drink what was puddling up on the floor. My hopes began to sink faster than the water seeping into the cracked floor. When all hopes of escape were gone, my only goal became to hide from the monsters with their lying eyes and their cruel hands. The one in charge told me that he was trying to convince the others that they should let me live because to him, I was loyal, I was strong, ‘special.’ I was his ‘dear one.’

When he tried to grab me, I kicked his shin, blindly. He limped away, growling at ‘what a stupid woman I was. How was he going to convince the others now?’

I told him to tell them that his dear one was the one who had snapped his shin. He promised to be back.

And he did. The iron door grated open. Shudders ripped up my spine and I was frozen in a strained ball of terror. I tried to stay still, but he yanked me from my bed. He ripped away at my clothes and left me there, a flower wilting in the heat of August, a piece of paper shriveling in the icy rain. He circled me, examining me. There was a clanking of buckles hitting the floor and a hand touched my face. I may as well have been blindfolded. I could not see shit.

But there was no mistaking when I felt him lift my chin, popping open my mouth and shoving his growing member into my mouth so far that I instantly gagged. The taste was salty and repulsive, my noise buried in the musk of his hair. I tried to pull back, but his hands were in my hair, digging painfully into my skull, letting out a groan of approval. I panicked, unable to move, except with his hands, so I bit down, digging my teeth into his flesh. I could taste blood filling my mouth and I was shoved away.

A sharp crack filled the air before I was struck with a blunt, sharp object to my left cheek. Pain erupted throughout my face and I screeched. I held my stinging skin, the welt already beginning to form. I spat blood before I was heaved to my feet and thrown against the wall.

I rested my cheek there, panting heavily, struggling against my attacker. But he did not let go. I was terrified of what he would do. The panic had wormed itself into my brain.

Several more cracks ricocheted in the air and sprayed cuts on my back to hold me still. My pain was so great I wasn’t even aware that he had implanted himself within me before he started to slam his hips into mine. My head was smashed forward into the wall and I was screaming.

He was violating me. How dare he?! But my thoughts were the only to act bravely, as I was too weak and delirious to fight him. His thrusts burned against my ill-prepared skin. I could feel liquid running down my leg at a steady pace, the burn increasing.

I begged him to stop. He did not comply. He only shoved himself in harder, taking everything I had. There was no pleasure, only anxiety and anguish. I resisted my cries as I knew he enjoyed them. When I made no sound, he would hit me, with his hands, his weapons, or his words, enjoying the dominance he had over me, treasuring it like gold.

This was wrong. He was in Malik’s territory. Malik had every right to do this to me. This man did not. He leaned in and spoke huskily, “Your husband wanted this. He does not want you anymore, dear one. He ordered that you be given to me.”

He pounded ruthlessly into me after each word and I was feverish. There was no way to endure this, only to shut down and wait him out.

When he finally finished with a satisfied grunt, he pushed me down, letting me slump to the floor like a sack of rocks, his seed and our blood running down my leg. The iron door slamming shut signaled his exit. I vomited all over the floor and myself. I felt so humiliated and used.

My husband would never wish for that to be done to me. My husband loved me. He protected me. He cherished me… Didn’t he?

There was no one to reassure me that the words he had once told me were not lies. There was only my mind, which seemed to be deteriorating faster each and every minute.

Didn’t Malik tell me he cared about me? Did he not promise me to protect me? Didn’t he?! I had not dreamt this up… had I? The darkness held no answer, only an empty canvas for the lies to be painted upon and presented to my already unstable mind.

The lies would change. One month, they would stay true to one thing and then the next, the story was completely different. I was told my family was dead, that they had slaughtered and tortured Malik and Tazim, my innocent child, of whom they intercepted and kidnapped on his way to Jerusalem. They prodded needles beneath their nails, flogged them, broke each of their limbs, dripped boiling oil into their eyes, and amputated parts of their bodies and fed them to the dogs, among other things that I am too appalled to mention.

They would tell me they had imprisoned Malik for murdering Sef in fear of him taking over command. They said he would be lucky to live to see another day.

Most of all, they preferred the story of Malik throwing me to the wolves and leaving me behind, wishing to see me rotted away, his heart turned cold and his love for me severed. They told me he had escaped and was far away with Tazim, claiming he relinquished his power and his wife over to the new leader, Abbas, of whom I was to be the mistress of. Mistress is a modest word. More like a whore that was locked away when I wasn’t needed.

Whenever I heard the door open, I no longer cringed and instead, knowing what to expect, opened my legs when told to and never protested my discomfort, for that would further ensue more pain. My hair had been cut. I don’t remember when, but I could no longer hide in my long, dark locks. The lies would then be poured out onto me over a damp pillow, with the said leader hunched over my limp body, thrusting and shoving himself against me like I was a ragdoll. I had stopped trying to fight. There was no reason to now, as I knew not what to fight for. There was no way to escape. I just let him have his way with me.

I did not know what to believe, as there were so many versions of the truth to choose from. I had given up. I was useless, to everyone I had once cared about. I did not care about anyone or anything anymore. I felt empty, used. There was no need to cry because I had not the emotions to do so, for they had escaped out of the room that very first night.

If only I had not let Malik go back into the fortress alone, if only I had gone to Jerusalem and convinced him to leave with me, if only we had not fought… Allah, what had I done? It seems I was paying the price for my decision. I had brought this upon myself and my family. It was entirely my fault…

I was numb. My heart had drained of all feelings, like the dampness that sluggishly dripped down the walls. It had to be that way.

If I had been allowed to formulate any sort of sensation, I would be a wreck. I would drown in the waves of hopelessness, despair and worry for my family, the helplessness that I could not reach them, that they could not hear my screams and know that I was alive and that there was the possibility of saving me. They would not have to worry anymore, if only they knew…

But they did not know, or perhaps even care, where I was. That fact was the sole one that stayed true in this fictional dimension, run by lies and horror. That fact ripped my heart from top to bottom with a sickening squelch, the blood spurting and flowing from my body and soul until I was nothing more than a sagging, rotten corpse, with sallow and bruise-dotted hide that hung like a coat and lackluster eyes that stared out of round, dry sockets. Blood stained every open surface of skin, from cuts brought upon by myself or by others, and it ran from every orifice. I had tried so many times to bleed myself to death, but each time, I wasn’t allowed to. They kept a close watch on me and thrashed me severely for hurting myself. My nails were gone from scratching the walls, and my teeth chattered weakly, decaying and putrid. I had screamed so much I’d forgotten what my voice sounded like. My mouth was dry, what vision I had was blurry, every part of my body constantly aching…

My soul was long gone. My mind is a battlefield, whipped and shredded asunder, torn from the very fabric of reality. I had nothing left, other than the depth of the chasm into which I was perpetually plummeting and the demons that permeated said chasm, shadows lurking in every corner and dancing on every wall. I accepted that the farther I fell, the further away my reality went. It was blissful to lose myself in the hallucinations rather than lose my mind in the hellish nightmare my life had quickly become. I no longer knew what is or what was. My memory was shot, as well as my sense of time. Images played all at the same time in my head and them sometimes, never at all.

I used to believe that the meaning of alone meant being by myself, but I had never been by myself. Malik, Tazim, Maria, Altaïr, there was always someone with me. Even on the streets of Jerusalem, there were people, though they cared not about me or my shitty existence. I was still among the living, the sky, the wind, the stars…

Stars didn’t exist anymore. Nothing existed anymore. I did not exist anymore. I was gone, dead. Rajah was gone. There is no more left of that young girl who tried to keep going forward. She’s dead now. She has been for a long time. There’s only me, her body, going through the motions, taking the bloody beatings, taking the dictator with his never-ending need for sex and power, taking the brunt of her foolish decision to remain here. There is no way to save her, try as I might. Her eyes had absorbed the darkness, becoming black planets. She was dead the moment she met Malik and she knew it. She had just chosen to accept her imminent end. And in that stead, she has become the embodiment of darkness.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is the true definition of being alone.

Chapter Text

Eyes. They followed me everywhere. There is a universe behind my eyelids. And I was lost in it. I could not find my way out. If there was a way out. Maybe I did not want to escape. Maybe I wanted to stay there forever in the darkness, my old friend. Normal people, they do not have a clue how beautiful darkness can be. It hides everything and shows all at the same time. One can imagine the light to be as bright as they want without the blindness of the eyes.

The demons appeared from the walls. They spun in circles and cried for my attention. I did not understand their empty chatter. But I succumbed anyway. They would always be there for me when all else failed. They would always love me. I had always denied their presence, for they’d been so quiet all my life I would never have known they were there. But now they were here forever. Forever and ever to stay. I welcomed them with open arms.

I have danced with my demons, many times. I can see from the look upon your face that you must not believe me. Worry not, for there will come a time when your life spirals out of your control until you can do nothing but accept that all you have is yourself and what lives within you. There is nothing better. They encircled me with their slithering arms and claws, engulfing me in their power. Let them come. Let me drown in their caresses. I’ll never have enough. They wanted me, though they didn't care about me. I let them have me.

No one came around anymore. My ghosts frightened them away. They weren’t able to be seen with the human eye, but their company was made known. All living things left me alone. That was the one good thing about my demons, the little shits. We fought on the same side. This was what had become of me when they left me here and let these monsters eat me alive.

There was chaos. I did not know if it was happening in my head or outside the door. I heard noises. Unnatural. Inhumane. Believe me, I would know what those sound like. I’ve lived them, seen them, felt them. And now, they echoed throughout the hallway like a riot.

But yet, I did not move. I am not sure if it was because I couldn’t, or chose not to. I almost opened my legs, preparing myself for him. But he never made his appearance so obviously, choosing instead to slither in with the silence of a snake. Something was wrong. But somehow, I did not care.

The door rattled. It reverberated with the pounding that emanated from the other side. This wasn’t my heart I was hearing. This was danger. I scurried to my corner, hugging myself together. The door swung open violently, the normal screech multiplied to a loud scream as its hinges were strained. The light itself was an intruder, intimidating and assaulting my eyes. I cried out, hiding my face in my arms, trying to get away, but the light came in anyways. I had always hated the light. Always... The demons squealed, hiding behind me or in the walls.

A man stood in the doorway, his face made indiscernible by the shadow of his hood. He yanked me to my feet and I stumbled forward. I did not know what was happening. I froze instinctively. He was taking me away.

I did not want to leave my cell, my safe haven. I did not want to leave. Why did I have to leave? They had never seen the need to pull me from it. Why start now when everything bad that could happen can be done behind closed doors and away from prying eyes?

The Assassin, upon seeing my refusal, took the initiative to scoop me up in his arms and hauled me away. I was too weak to fight, too drained to even voice my protests. He was flanked by two other young novices, who stood at the ready, on alert.

I was taken through the endless, stuffy corridors with stone as cold as my soul. Everything ran together in a blur. The Assassins did not speak, only continued with an air of steely determination. They were on a mission. They had their orders. I could not discern what those orders were. But they knew what to do.

My demons were not pleased. They hated the light. They rippled and swirled in my peripherals, dark masses with glowing, orange crevices for eyes that morphed into different, frightening shapes.

I wished I knew what was happening. But I could not speak my confusion. Why? Why had they come to retrieve me, the most unimportant, filthy, used piece of trash in this horrid place?! Where were they taking me, better yet? As far as I could comprehend, I was not to leave my cell. That was under the orders of the dictator and no one was to disobey his orders unless they wanted to be executed most painfully. What is… am I to be executed? No… there wouldn’t be this much commotion in that. Besides, the dictator did not account for mercy in his affairs, especially those that concerned me. Why would he…

There were screams from behind me, but my captor persisted, a blank expression on his face. Follow orders, ask no questions, even as his comrades were slaughtered brutally behind him. Continue the course even as I was thrown to the ground and the rings of swordfight came to life around me. I did not roll out of the way, only laid there in the hopes I would be crushed or stabbed.

No such luck. There was the thud of a body and then another. Muffled groaning came somewhere from beside me.

“A horse… at the front,” The Assassin grunted, blood flowing freely from his mouth, staining his gritted teeth. He could not be saved if blood had already reached the mouth. “If you want out alive… Run for your life.”

His life then dribbled from his lips, everything he had worked for spilled onto the front of his robes. The poor man. He was only following orders. That is the true mark of an Assassin. One who follows his Creed and his leader to the death.

His body exploded into a million shards of light. I did not know what was real anymore. I struggled to my feet and tripped my way back to the floor. I crawled down the hallway, the coldness of the stone seeping into my skin. I felt for an exit, hoping to not be discovered. No way but forward. What way was forward?

There was fog in my vision and the demons were swimming in it, playfully inviting me to join. I only ignored them. That man had an undertaking to do and for whatever reason, I was going to finish it for him.

I did not know how I was not spotted, for I was so discombobulated I was rolling my way down the stairs as my legs refused to hold me up for long periods of time. I supposed everyone was too busy fighting to pay attention.

I was then outside. I could not figure out what baffled me more, the sight of the sun or that Assassins, hooded figures with the same white robes, were at war everywhere I looked. They bit and tore at each other with iron fangs, hungry for the other’s blood, the only thing that united them anymore. The light tore at my vision, sending my knees to the rocky earth, burning my skin. What was happening? Why? Why, why, why?! Tears poured down my face unknowingly. Some of my demons beckoned me back into the castle, back to the safety of my cell. Others, either the brave ones or the stupid ones, soared into the fray, encircling warriors, poking and prodding at them, as if betting who would win each particular dual. I can’t figure out what way to go, what way is up and down. My world was tumbling, falling faster with every clash of a sword that I heard. I couldn’t sort it out, discern what was reality and what was not.

I did not wait to stop and ask. I pulled myself to my feet and ran to get away from it all, from myself. Run hard. Run fast. Run forward. Don’t look back. I failed the last two orders. Swords impaled and crashed above me and on all sides of me. I dodged them the best I could, swinging at every – Look out! That’s a knife!

I dove down below a silvery line that glinted in the rays. Note to self: don’t run into those. Watch where one runs. Don’t hit anyone, don’t let anyone hit you, don’t trip and fall and most importantly, don’t draw attention to yourself and let them catch you alive. How hard can that be? After all, I did not know who was who and what side they were on. There was only the demons and what was left of me and these simple commands to keep me in one piece.

Down the steep, trademark incline of Masyaf I went. Miraculously, I was not felled. There! There’s the horse, the white one, awaiting my arrival. I made it to the horse colored Assassin white, the color of snow. I used to love snow. At least, I think I did...

Only when I had mounted the white steed did those against me bother to give chase. I was running, digging my face in the horse’s mane. I was alive. I was going, going, gone. There were shouts behind me and the whistling of the wind in my ear. I shivered. I was not safe yet. I trusted the horse to know the destination, as it was not here.

There was a yell to my side and suddenly I was being pulled from my seat. I was screeching and kicking like a caged eagle. The ground was distorted, flying at a dangerous speed, a blend of instant death. I pushed the man into it. I was not sorry.

But I was now in a precarious position, hanging like a madman on the side of my horse, exposed, easily nabbed and overtaken. They took advantage of that.

There was a shouted signal in the distance. A banshee wailing of oncoming danger. A symphony of instantaneous injury. Arrows. There was no escape from them.

They buried themselves in my horse’s side. He screamed and toppled to the ground. I was soaring in a leap of faith. The ground became even closer. I accepted it. I wanted it. I embraced it. I would have kissed it if I could.

The ground arrived faster than expected, with a thunderous blast, giving me not only a bear hug, but a prompt punch to the entire body. Darkness returned, zipping up around me like a comforting blanket. I have wanted you, darkness. I’ve always loved you.

And with that, I am dead, gone gone, gone… The dictator’s dear one is dead.

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

The dimness was nice while it lasted. For once, my demons were at bay and I was at peace. The gloom was a comfort, secure and warm. Lovely.

And then it was ripped away like the covers on a cold morning. I was startled by how fast it went, almost as quick as it had come on. Colors swam into my vision, blinking and flickering until my gaze was fixated upon eyes. They stared down at me through golden irises. Another through dark ones, like that of the night I had just escaped from. Reserved, blue ones stared at me from afar, unsure of how to help.

I did not recognize a one of them. Foreign. Unfamiliar, perhaps a threat. Where am I? A glimpse of the surroundings told me I was in a room of some sort, a lantern burning beside me. The sheets were tucked tightly around me and immediately I felt tied down. The room felt claustrophobic enough with all of these people staring down at me like they had discovered an alien. I sure felt like I was.

I wanted out. I wanted to escape. Had I fulfilled that man’s wishes? I felt I had not. He was still rotting in that hallway and I had let him down. I would not let his death be in vain. He was only following orders.

“Shh, shh, you’re safe, Rajah…” A soft, female voice cooed me, laying a gentle hand to my torso. I was not safe. Not yet. That man died in vain! I had to get away! I was not away! I needed to be! Far away. Far, far, far…

By then, the man with the golden eyes and a graying face was trying to hold me down, forcibly. I would not be stopped. These people were no more than enemies in my eyes. I wanted away, to Jerusalem, though I know not why.

I was clawing, kicking, screaming until my throat bled. I must get out! Get away from this place where I have known nothing but pain and fear. Let me out! LET ME GO!

And they did. They let me take flight out the door with my freshly coated, blood caked nails and sore throat. I ran into the night. The abandoned village disappeared like the clouds of dust I kicked up. There were sentries on duty, hooded and lethal. They caught my crazed escape attempt within seconds.

They all grabbed for me at the same time. I darted and fought. I yelled my reasoning, among other things. They were unconvinced. But I gave them no choice, aggressive and belligerent in my actions, struggling like the animal I had become until they let me go. I ran until my legs cramped and my lungs burned. Rocks cut my feet. Wind tore at my face and hair.

I kept going and did not look back. I kept running until I came to a cliff side overlooking a canyon with a blue snake at the bottom. It would not stop me. I would not let a cliff side stop me! But I hesitated to admire the beauty of it.

Nature had created a daunting masterpiece. The white cliffs were jagged and menacing, jutting out into the crevasse. The trees grew at odd angles from the side, trembling in the cold wind that blew from below. And the river, peaceful and slow, cut mercilessly through the rock and soil, making its way silently to the sea, never to be seen again. Like me…

I stared down the dizzying drop. My hair blew in my face and my clothes, tattered threads, flapped violently in the breeze. I looked up at the unending bright dots. Why? Why must it come to this? They didn’t answer.

Unashamed, I peered back down to see my demons floating and swirling around one another. Some splashed in each other’s faces. How joyful they seemed… They called to me, promising to catch me, that it wouldn’t hurt. One step was all it took. And all my hurting would be over. No more pain, no more agony, no more hallucinations, nothing. It was tempting. The man’s orders had been to get away, had they not? He told me to run. I had done so. This would do him justice and then some. He would be proud.

I edged my foot off of the cliff, my toe testing the air like I would test the heat of bathwater. There was nothing holding me back, nothing but air…

Stop!” An urgent cry came from behind me. I froze. Oh Allah, what now?

I turned to find the man with the golden eyes inching towards me, approaching me as if I were a spooked horse.

“Do. Not. Move.” His voice was slow, reassuring. I did not buy it.

“I’m going away. You can’t stop me!” I am not sure if that was the demons or me speaking.

The man halted, his eyes hard. “No, you aren’t. Not while I am here.”

“Go away! Leave me be!” I cried, turning back to my work.

“Rajah, if you jump, I will have to jump in after you.” With all the confidence in the world, he began to remove his boots.

“Don’t be absurd. You’ll be killed.”

“That makes two of us. Besides, I am a good swimmer.”

“The hell you are. You can’t swim.” I blurted out. Old Eagle Eye couldn’t swim. Wait…… Eagle Eye? Where did that come from? How did I know his nickname?

The man smirked. “As long as we are both bluffing, would you be ever so kind as to move away from the edge?”

I made no move. In seeing that, he sighed and proceeded to remove his hidden blade and belt.

“I am not going to say the fall won't hurt. But I am more concerned about how cold that water will be.” He said, peering down regrettably at the calm below him.

I snapped my head to him, eyes ablaze. “How cold?”

He pursed his lips. “Freezing,” he replied, “Perhaps a little warmer.”

Sighing again, he crouched down, rubbing his hands together, eyeing the horizon thoughtfully. After a while, he said hesitantly, “Your husband, his brother and I, when we were young and foolish, ventured out and were playing out on a frozen lake during the winter. Well, we thought it frozen. I went through some thin ice and Rajah, water that cold, like that right down there, it knocks the wind out of you. Every rational thought leaves your mind. It is similar in feeling to being stabbed a thousand times.”

He exhaled again, straightening up, his hands on his hips, lamenting. “That is why I am not eager to jump in there after you. But I will. I’ll follow you all the way to the bottom. I have no choice. I owe it to Malik.”

Malik?!” That name… I knew that name… from somewhere..

“Yes. Your husband would be none too pleased with either of us if you follow through with your thoughts. Neither will your son.”

I looked back down at the water. The demons looked annoyed, whipping the water furiously, angry I was not coming as fast as they desired.

My husband… son… I had a husband? A son? Who were they? I know, you are thinking this is the moment that I will remember their faces and come away from the edge. You are in for a letdown. I did not remember. Their faces… I cannot remember. I couldn’t… There was nothing.. I had shut everything out in my time in that cell. I did not want to remember what I had lost, for the pain that would consume me would leave me in a state worse than I am now. I had nothing to live for. As far as I was concerned, no one existed anymore but me, my demons and the dictator. Nothing… They were little more than dead to me.

“Rajah… Take my hand. You do not want to do this, to yourself or them. The chances of you making it to the bottom without hitting something are slim. You may not even die at the bottom. You may break every bone in your body, except your neck. It will not be painless.”

I stared at his hand. Who were my husband and son? Were they alive? If not, it would be easier to jump. The demons assured me I would not feel anything. But would Eagle Eye have it the same? I would have his death on my hands. I could not take a life that had nothing to do with my suffering. But I remained frozen, for the demons would not let go or loosen their grip.

“You love Malik. This is true, Rajah?”

“I… I’m not sure. I don’t feel anything. I don’t think you understand that.”

“Perhaps. That may be true, but I know he loves you. Do not give up on him.”

“I do not know that. I don’t feel it.” The demons spoke.

“So you believe ending your life is the best option?”

“Yes. I do.” I did not hesitate.

Eagle Eye was crestfallen. “What you will do to Malik… What will your son think of you?”

“Then lie. Tell them anything but the truth.”

“I don’t lie, Rajah. Not anymore.”

I looked back and his eyes spoke the truth and nothing but the truth.

“If you do this, Rajah, I will never forgive you. Because you will hurt Malik, and for that, forgiveness is unattainable for you in my eyes.”

I could care less about his forgiveness. But I did not want to hurt the mysterious man he spoke of. Malik. My… husband. My child could easily be lied to until he was old enough to understand, but my husband… No. He would know the instant it happened. If we had been married, we must have been close enough to feel each other’s pain. I could feel it now. I would not have that on my hands, either.

I reached back and carefully took his outstretched hand, rough and warm with years of sun, work, and blood, following numbly as he pulled me to safety. He said nothing as he led me back to their camp. No gloating in his victory. Not a word.

He left me with the night-eyed woman, whom he kissed and promised of his quick return. He then threw me a soft goodbye, “Safety and Peace, Rajah.” He and his expectant blue eyed son then left the house.

The woman simply held me in her arms, never letting go, only humming softly in the lamplight, a soft glow that illuminated her aged but still beautiful face, with the sparkling black eyes of the young woman she had once been. She rocked me like a child. I stared at the lamp, flickering at me. The demons had begun to subside their protests, taking to nipping at the lantern’s flames and floating lazily about the ceiling. I just clung to the woman, whose presence radiated safety and warmth. She would not hurt me. I did not remember these people well, but I felt a familiar, long forgotten sense of home. I did not remember where that sense had come from beforehand, but it felt nice. There was no obscurity, no perverted thoughts, no more of that. I relaxed. I felt at ease, at home and cared for. This was –

A ruckus outside had me rigid in her lap. She had to pry my fingers away from her middle to move and she glanced quickly out the window, exclaiming with a look of joy upon her face, “They’re back!”

I could only assume she meant her husband and son. I watched her fling open the door gleefully. She paused only to acknowledge that I had not joined her.

“They got him out, Rajah. He’s safe.”

He... Him… Who? … My... husband?

My husband. He was safe… he was alive… Not dead, unharmed.. away from the dictator… He was away from the demons.. He was-

“He’s home.”

Chapter Text

I did not know what I had been expecting. But it wasn’t the sight before me. Not this man hobbling like a one hundred year old to his seat. His steps were short, dragging, like his legs could fail him at any moment. He clung to the Assassins next to him like they were his saving grace, most of his weight thrown onto them. What little clothing he wore hung loosely and his body was withering away, broken, mistreated, skin and bones, of which looked as though they could snap and pierce through his hide.

He glanced up, scars covering his once lovely appearance. Dirt and grime stained his skin and wrinkles dragged across his face. The scars cut right through his beard. Those eyes, once so full of life, were now so full of suffering. He was ripped apart, his soul barely clinging to reality. He was not the man I had imagined and if I could remember, he was surely not the man from my memory.

He was so weak, practically carried by the Assassins rather than assisted. He could swivel his head about, trying to take in his surroundings. He caught sight of me as he went by and he had to look twice, as if he had seen an apparition. Though barely alive, he regarded me as if I were an angel. His eyes, though bloodshot and blurred, became alight with recognition and love. I wish I could say the same happened to me.

He immediately tried to shimmy free of his comrade’s hold and to shuffle his way to me. He teetered, his balance off and the guards held to him, refusing to let him walk on his own. He fought them, but it amounted to little more than a weak push and pull.

He was begging, looking pleadingly at them, giving pained and longing looks in my direction. The guards were not forgiving. They pried him away.

My legs, as if an ancient force took over them, moved of their own accord. They stumbled blindly for the man who so desperately wished to see me. The dirt blew in my face and I lost sight of him. In his place, my demons had begun to churn in front of me, warning of bad things in the utter nonsense of their language. I stepped around them and went forward. I wanted to see the man. If he could not come to me, then I would go to him.

The steps seemed like miles. I felt as though I was farther away from him, making headway backwards. Quicksand seemed to envelope my feet, drowning, insistent. I did not stop. One step after another would bring me closer to him. My demons pulled at my legs. I paid them no attention.

Finally, I reached him. For moments, we just took each other in. I still, even after staring at him and drinking him in, I did not recognize him. His dark hair was matted and graying, his eroded skin the texture of leather, his arm, his entire body was bony and cracking before my eyes. Nothing about him triggered anything.

Not even his voice, soft and rusty from ill usage, the whisper of my name, jogged my memory.

Only when he reached feebly for my face did my mind spark, and it did not provide the image I expected nor wanted.

Instead of recollections of my past beyond this mess, I was given the image of the dictator, smiling a toothy, knowing grin, gently massaging my cheek, unhinging my jaw and burying himself to the hilt in my open mouth. The taste was still fresh in my mind, a putrid, salty flavor, reeking of body odor. Blood and semen coated my mouth. Nothing would ever get rid of it. Nothing…

I backed away from the man. I would not let him be tainted by my memories. He had to remain pure. I was not pure. Unclean, unclean, unclean…

The man’s eyes shattered. A soul rejected by Allah. Damned forever.

“Rajah..” He murmured, but it came from the dictator’s face, still reaching for me.

I ran. I ran as fast as my old legs would allow. I wanted to hide in the dirt, in the mountains, where no one would ever find me. I burst into the first house I saw and collapsed onto the dusty floor.

I wanted to die. I wanted to get away from this. If looking into my husband’s eyes couldn’t save me from myself, what could? Simple. Nothing.

In my haste, I knocked a over a bucket of water. The water rushed all over the floor and I had fallen into the clear liquid. A face stared back at me that I could not identify. Her murky eyes held no answers, only secrets that spilled and ran down her face in a puckered scar that ran from eyebrow to jaw. She’s lucky she could even see out of that eye… She had no hair to hide behind, a spirit with hollow cheeks and skin as pale as snow, crumpled and sagging.

Something glinted in the corner of my vision, tearing my gaze away from the woman in front of me. Sunlight plunged in through the window and cast its gaze upon a blade that had been left behind by whatever family had lived here before.

My demons playfully knocked it to the floor, like a cat. They shoved it to me like a dog would a toy, eager to play fetch. They told me strange things, like how beautiful I might look, how my answers may be found within that puddle, how my reflection might change and morph into the woman I once was, if I just looked at it in a pool of blood.

What did I have to lose? Eagle Eye had said it was not going to be good if I ended my life. Well, he had been wrong. I did not recognize my husband and I did not think I ever would. Besides, Eagle Eye did not say anything about this.

Droplets of blood stained the clear water scarlet and I slowly waited for my reflection to change.

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

I stared into that puddle for hours upon hours. Many things changed. But not my reflection. It stared back up at me with numb eyes in a frame of red.

My skin had become mutilated, my attempt to drain myself of blood a failure. The knife lay a few inches away, taunting and teasing. The reflection had not changed. My demons lied to me. What did I expect?

Maybe I should have jumped. But I couldn’t do it now. Everything was watching me. The walls had ears, the windows eyes. I could not die. I wished to hell I was.

The only place I had not cut was my neck. Fuck it.

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

I threw the knife away from me. It was too soiled. Too bloody.

I was back outside again, the stars shining upon my arrival. They didn’t understand. They’ll never understand. Nobody will.

I did not know why I was in front of that door. I did not know how I knew that he was in there. I did not know why I even bothered. What was the point? There was none. I had no business trying to make sense of him, someone who was not mine. Yet, it did not deter me.

Two guards answered and asked me of my intentions. I hid my hands behind my back, pulling the sleeves down over my wrists. I stated that I wanted to look into the eyes of the man that had been rescued. They recognized me and let me in without hesitation, stepping outside as I stepped in.

The room was dim, aside from the lantern that cut through the dark. He laid there on a cot, his thin frame shadowed. He was asleep, head lolled off to one side. I did not want to disturb him, but I wanted to see him. I wanted to try looking into those eyes as dark as pitch again.

I touched his forehead, his skin warm to the touch. They had scrubbed him clean and his skin looked and felt softer. He stirred. He opened those eyes for me and there was a universe coming to light in them. They sparkled like a young warrior’s upon seeing his lover after years of battle, like seeing the moon after a lifetime of darkness. He knew me, perhaps better than I knew myself. He knew who I was, what I had lost so long ago.

I could also see in him everything that had been done to me. I could see it in the gauntness of his cheeks, the sagging skin, the ribs poking out of his torso, his faded muscles. A ghost of what he used to be. Though I was looking at a mirror image, the light never darkened about him. He had not given up. The demons never got to him.

He touched me, cupping one of my cheeks, holding me near to him. He apologized over and over, that it was his fault, that it wouldn't have happened to anyone else. I hushed him. There was no need to worry over what could not be changed. There was only this moment. It could be our last. Never let it die. He massaged my hand, looking up at me with wet, starry eyes. I let him because his touch felt gentle and loving, familiar even. I let him worship my body which had been abused for so long. I lay down next to him, and he hushed the candle into darkness. I flinched, fearing the demons as they reveled in the nothingness.

“Do not be afraid of the dark, habibti. There are guards outside. They will not let anything harm us.” His voice was melodious, calming. Though I wanted to believe his statements, they were simply not true.

“There were guards outside of my cell, too. They did not do anything to protect me. I was always being hurt.”

I could feel him hug me close, protective and determined. “I will defend you. I will die for you, Rajah. I will do anything to keep you alive and safe. We will leave for Jerusalem, retrieve our son and hide away from the Brotherhood for a long while.”

This man would give up the Brotherhood for me. He would lay down his life for me. I was flattered. He must have loved me a lot. I wished to Allah I could feel something in return. This man would take me away, away from here. That Assassin that saved me will not have died in vain. I would be away. Far away.

This man would protect me. I would see my son. Maybe there was hope. Hope for me to one day see my reflection the way it was.

The next morning, there was chaos again. Cries. Swordfight. I was being yanked from my cell all over again. It was not over. It would never be over. I would never see my reflection, it seemed.

Chapter Text

The early dawn hours spilled unto us a new horror. Danger. There was danger everywhere. My husband was trying to help me up as were the guards. It was happening all over again. I was reliving my nightmare. I was not out yet. I would never truly be out.

The guards pulled us out of the house. The village was under attack. Assassins attacking Assassins. I hovered near my husband. I would not let him be hurt. He had just escaped this. They would not hurt him. I refused it. My husband appeared to be thinking the same, throwing his good arm in front of me.

The guards led us away from the village. I did not know where they would take us, but as long as we were safe, I was not going to complain. I could see Eagle Eye flying and clawing his way through the masses, murdering one after another. He would survive. He and his wife.

We made it out of the village, down a steep incline. My husband and I clung to one another, trying to hold the other up. It was the least we could do. The guards were on high alert, anticipating anything. All we could do was anticipate.

We were in a meadow, fog rising from the ground. It was difficult to make out anything on the horizon. We could have been walking into a trap. But staying behind in the village where we could easily be slaughtered was too dangerous. It was eerily quiet. The commotion at the village was just a distant hum. The hairs on my neck were standing on end. The whole situation raised our anxiety. The guards circled around us, and even Malik, as frail as he was, was watching, checking all sides, the instinct to fight ingrained in him.

We had to get out of there. Get out, to Jerusalem. Far away… Far, far, far.

The ambush came out of nowhere. They were born from the mist like ghosts, figures shrouded in evil. They were quick and nimble, like my demons, who had taken leave and vanished. Our guards were overcome instantly. We were caught unprepared. We all panicked.

Swordfight was exchanged and a flurry of upheaval erupted. A knife was dropped to the ground and I made for it, keeping my husband behind me, as I was stronger than him at the moment. I would protect him. He would not die, not today.

I was a savage. I knew then where my demons had gone. They had become me. I was them. We had always been bound together. They came out in the forms of snarls and screams as I unleashed my pent-up fury. Die, all of you bastards. Die…

I couldn’t tell friend from foe. They all looked the same, blurry and white. My husband and I were the only ones to be trusted. We were being backed up the hill, towards the village. We were simply overwhelmed. There were too many.

There was a roar from behind us, unearthly. There were more of them. They were going to flank us. We could not run back. We could not fight our way out of it. We had no more options. We had to hold our own, but there was nothing to hold. We would just not go down without a fight.

I heard him scream from behind me. I turned to see him go down on his knees. He wasn’t going to get back up, not with a sword about to impale his skull. No… He would not be hurt. Not him…

Not… Malik…

I sprinted towards him, diving down. I intercepted the blow. The sword was shoved clean through my middle. All went silent. All went dark…

“And what will you do, Rajah? Sacrifice yourself?”

The words echoed from another place and time. Back when I was myself. Back in Jerusalem. Back home. When we tested how far the other would go. Back when I knew I loved Malik. I knew my response.

“Yes, I would.”

The answer had still not changed.

The flashback snapped back to the present by the sound of screaming. Howling. A man calling out what I thought was my name. I searched for the source, somewhere above me.

There. There he was. Malik. My Malik…

It was just him and me. Everyone had disappeared and died. This was how it was. He was crying, tears slicing through the blood on his face. Those eyes I had seen alight with so many emotions over the years. I’d been with him for so long. I knew this man, inside and out. I loved him, for all that he was. I remembered. That first moment, back in the Bureau, when I swore I was going to figure him out. I had done that, and yet I had never paid him back for his debt that I owed him for saving my life.

I supposed this would do. It was the only way to fully pay it back. I knew the price to pay was death. I had known it all along.

I felt him heave me onto his lap and I felt no pain, oddly. In fact, I felt disconnected from my body, even with the ugly sword still buried in my stomach. I trembled, hugging as close to my weeping husband as I could. The darkness of my mind was gone, relieved of me, fading like the fog in the morning sun.

“You will be all right, young one. You’ll be okay…” He cooed, his voice breaking as he tried to hold back his tears, trying to keep me alive and knowing he couldn’t.

“Malik… Don’t … be foolish.” The blood was rising in my esophagus. I did not have long. When the blood reaches the mouth, it is too late for the victim.

“Don’t leave me here, Rajah,” He begged, “Don’t leave me alone. Don’t go where I cannot follow. I won’t be in a world where you do not exist anymore.”

I had failed him. We had come so far, only for me to break his promise. I was dying.

“I am sorry I could not keep my promise, Malik. I tried… But you – you’re far more important to me. Give Tazim my love,” I shifted, trying to push away my own grief at the fact that I would never see my son grow up, touching Malik's face that was bent close to mine, trying to wipe his tears, my heartbeat faint, “Malik… I love you. I always have. And I always will.”

Malik frantically shook his head. “No… No. Don’t say goodbye. Please…” He was clutching me hard enough to leave bruises.

“Malik…” My voice was weak and there was a distant tugging on me from something beyond our world. My soul wanted to leave. I did not have much more time. I needed to hear him… Just once…

He understood. “I love you too, young one. More than anything. Inta hayati, habibti.” He smiled gently, tears trickling down his chin.

I wiped them away and pulled myself to his ear. “Be brave…” I felt liquid iron dribbling out of my mouth and I pressed my lips to his cheek weakly, feeling his warmth against my now frigid skin. I could not move anymore. My strength was gone. I slid slowly to his shoulder, the sun shining on a bloody trail flowing down his cheek to his collarbone.

Suddenly, I was no longer tethered to my body. Everything was clear and painless. I was staring down at what remained. My demons were still around, but they had a new subject of interest. They took to Malik like they had always known one another.

My poor Malik… His begging began softly, murmuring over and over for my return, like a prayer. When I didn’t, he began screaming and wailing at the top of his lungs, cradling my lifeless body to him, protecting me still. The howls of a broken man who could not be fixed. He pleaded for anyone or anything, for Allah, to help. I had ruined him. He had nobody, save for his son, who was hundreds of miles away. I asked the stars to give him peace. I would always be there to watch over him and my son, wherever I was, and someday, Malik would join me…

I turned away as I felt myself being pulled from the earth, into the stars. The transition between life and death was fast and pleasant, relieving. I was sucked into a vortex, spinning at otherworldly speeds, twisting and turning in a void of lights and sounds. Wherever I was going, I was ready.

It all went silent abruptly. It all went black, like a lantern being blown out. It was like this for what seemed like forever. Floating endlessly. Was I in Heaven? I opened my eyes to another abyss, this time gray. It ebbed and undulated like the waves of an endless ocean. Everything was here. I had become the wind, the stars and the universe. I was anything and everything that made up the world that I once knew. And I was not alone.

When I came about, there was someone standing above me. I glanced up to find dark hair, copper skin, a man dressed in Assassin robes. A novice. He was young, in his late teens. He held his hands behind his back, grinning down at me.

“Hello, Rajah.”

He had my husband’s grin, his voice.. He even looked almost like him… My husband… I missed him so much..

“Malik?” I pondered, reaching for him. The young man smiled sadly and shook his head.

I had the spine tingling feeling I was staring into the blue-eyed visage of Malik’s dead brother, Kadar al-Sayf.

Chapter Text

His image swam before me. I saw pieces of Malik in him everywhere. But he was not Malik. And he knew it. But it couldn't be helped. It was not his fault. Perhaps, it was a good thing. My husband was still alive. It wasn’t his time yet.

I looked around me. “Where am I?”

Kadar laughed and gestured almost proudly about the empty space. “Welcome to the afterlife.”

Afterlife? What… This was not what I had anticipated. This was not a heaven of any sort. It was… nothing.

“Not what you were expecting, I see?” Kadar’s voice mirrored my emotions. I got to my feet, though I wasn’t standing in the literal sense, but floating in the rippling waves beneath me.

“What is this place?”

“Anything and everything you wish for it to be.” He answered simply.

I looked at him sharply. “Anything?”

He nodded, absurdly smug, as if he was showing off this place as if it were his own. “Anything, for we are of the stars now. Whatever you believed in your past life, it can exist here.” He spun in a slow circle, and in my mind’s eye, I could see the space before me transform, the shivering walls displaying clouds, meadows, mountains, deserts, waterfalls, and rivers.

But they were only mere representations of the real form, a fabrication of the true landscape. Not only bogus, but empty, devoid of life. There were no people.

“Where is everyone? Where are our people?” I snapped out of the hallucinations that make me feel more lost and insignificant than I already was.

Kadar hesitated, unsure. He didn't have the words. Instead, he pulled me to a fissure in the gel-like walls that were supposed to appear seamless and eternal. He said nothing, only stood aside and allowed me to see for myself. I peered slowly into the gap.

I saw Eagle Eye, his wife and son exchanging information in low tones over a fire, the glow pouring into the shadows of their eyes and I could also make out the mental fatigue encompassing all of them. But it was something that had to be done and overcome. War was not kind to anyone. I would know.

I searched for my husband, but he wasn’t there. This fact distressed me. Where was he? Was he safe? Had he been injured in the scuffle?

I reached for the gap and without warning, the scene changed, brightened. It was daytime, hot and dry. The air was smoky and there was not a cloud in the sky. Jerusalem… My home. I had not seen it in… twenty-six years. I had been away from home for that long… It felt like eternity.

Why had I been brought here? What was the point in showing me home? I had not wanted to see my city, though it was lovely to see that it had not changed much.

As if listening to my command, the view shifted to a river, several miles outside of the city, a birthplace for life. And apparently for death as well. I could see there had been a disturbance in the embankment, a mound of dirt, freshly dug. A grave.

There was also a noise, unnatural. Soft sobbing. I could see an old man beside the grave, weeping. He was on his knees, his head in his hand, bent over as if in prayer during worship. I didn’t even have to ask to see anymore. He had brought me home.

I fell to my knees and clawed at my chest, sobbing vocally, without tears. I tried to tear my heart out, to give it to him, to give him any shred of life I had to him. But I had nothing and I cried out in frustration, “I would die for him if it would take away his pain.”

“You already have.”

I turned to see not Kadar, but a demon. It was Kadar in an alternate form. His bright eyes were gone, with empty, dark sockets staring widely down at me. He was shrouded in a red aura that flowed out of a wound in his middle that bled and gushed over his lower half.

I looked down at myself and pulled my hands away from my middle, a slight tingle there bringing back memories of my own demise, the blood pouring from the slit in my stomach. Kadar and I were one and the same, in both death and in purpose of said death. We had both given everything to Malik. There was nothing we could do anymore.

I glanced back to the gap, pushing aside the gruesome memory, and I found that the scene had altered, though not by much. Malik was leaving the grave, riding out into the horizon, stone-faced, resolved, and almost cold. Behind him, a young boy watched his back, yearning to call out his name, pleading silently for his father to turn around, just once. But he knew Malik was too far gone to even recognize him. So he remained quiet and turned back to the grave to pour out his soul to his dead mother.

I blinked, backing away. I could watch no longer. I did not want to see my family attempt to cope with my death, for it made this life more torturous, knowing there was no way to comfort them. But I felt I had to continue, to rip myself apart further. It was only fair that if they suffered, I did as well.

I returned to the gap and the scene had drastically changed. I was in a black room, not unlike the one I was held in for those two long, heinous years. It was dark, though some light did filter through the barred window. What a luxury that must have been. I assumed this was in the middle of the old village that Eagle Eye and his men had taken refuge in. There was a man in the middle of the room, bearing Templar armor, tied to a chair, his head lolled down, covered in blood and sweat. A figure circled him like a vulture and came into the light, the moonlight illuminating Malik’s cold, glassy eyes.

I swung around to Kadar for explanation. “Time flies in the blink of an eye.” I turned back to the scene, my fear eating away at my middle as I saw Malik kneel down to inspect the man, yanking a knife from his belt.

“Tell me. Why did you do it? What possessed you to murder an innocent?” Malik hissed, his voice laced with poison.

The Templar shivered with anxiety, his eyes wide and gleaming with tears. He was a young man, perhaps in his teens, one who had never seen the likes of war, who thought it would be an adventure. One who got in more than he bargained for. The Assassins were a storm that nobody tempted.

“I- I-“ The boy was too terrified to formulate words. Malik, angry with the lack of a proper response, slammed the blade into the boy’s kneecap. He screamed, crying for mercy.

"I have to stop him.” I was deeply disturbed, feverish with determination. I couldn’t say the same for Kadar, who seemed… disappointed.

“You can’t. You will not be able to get through to him. He cannot feel you,” he murmured, as if he had seen this show of power a thousand times, “Believe me, I have tried. The only way to reach through to him is via his dreams.”

But by that point, I was consumed with the sickening display before me once again.

“Give me a straight answer, boy, or I’ll rip your damned knee off.”

The young man sniveled, snot running from his nose and tears dripping down to his bloodstained tunic.

“I- was only- doing what I was t-told.”

Malik, enraged by that statement, dragged the dagger up to the boy’s thigh, parking it close to his manhood. The boy was howling, begging.

“You killed my wife… Who gave you the order to kill my wife?!” Malik demanded, his voice cresting and brinking on the verge of hysteria.

The poor child could barely muster out his next words. “I am sorry.” He whispered.

“Oh, I will make you sorry, you little bastard.” Malik chuckled, darkness in his voice. The demons around him burst into laughter, which was deafened by the inhumane sounds of wailing and wet shrieking.

I tore myself away. I tore at my soul, trying to control the frenzy within me. My husband… was a monster. Maybe... he had always been a monster...

No. He wouldn’t do that to another human. But that was clearly a moot point. I must not have known my husband as well as I once thought I did. I wondered if sacrificing myself for him was the right course of action. It seemed to have done more harm than good, as he was clearly unable to move on. I felt the only way to make that fair was to torture myself as well, by watching.

Kadar seemed indifferent, as if this were nothing new. Perhaps, Malik doled out torture to the Novices on a daily basis. He seemed… skilled at it. The dark art of torture must be learned like everything else. But how could he do that to another person, especially over…me? The boy didn’t intentionally kill me; I had jumped in the sword’s path. I killed myself for Malik so he would live. Therefore, would this torture be disserving my memory, dishonoring me or my son in some way? There was no way to justify torturing a child, even a Templar child, one not much older than our own son. He was of humanity, of which my husband was quickly shedding himself of.

This could not be… this could not be the same man who had saved my life in the streets so many years ago, whose warm, dark eyes lured me into a nest of safety, who had given me such bliss, who loved me in spite of who I was and where I had come from…He could not be this cold-blooded killer. Not even a killer, but a torturer, who denied life and death at the same time.

There had to be a way to fix this. He had to be able to be assured that I was not going to stand for this. He had to know…

I stepped into the fissure without hesitation, hoping to interfere only to find I was not in the cell, but in another room, a bedroom. Malik tossed and turned in his bed, lost in his nightmares, completely riddled in them. He clutched onto some fabric, and I recognized it to be my old nightgown. He gripped it close to his face like it was his last shred of surviving the rest of his life, though my scent was long gone.

He jerked violently every so often and moaned in his sleep. He looked so stricken, so heartsick, that my previous thoughts were obliterated. So lost… My soul ached to hold him, just once. I needed him to be happy. He, nor I, could continue on like this.

I reached out gently and touched his face. I couldn’t feel his skin, nor even his heat, but I could feel the energy around him. There were bad forces at work within him, and they watched me angrily, as I had shoved them away from their playground.

“I’m here, love. I am all right. Do not be sad for me, for there is no more pain. It breaks my heart to see you like this. Please, do not worry for me anymore, and be happy again. You will be with me someday.”

My voice was soft, on the verge of breaking, but I tried to remember all the times we had had together. Laughing and smiling, when we were carefree and young, a bowl of soup that steamed, a million stars above us, scattered chess pieces, water dark around us and our breaths leaving in silvery bubbles to the surface, the air giving way around us as we fell to the earth, a stolen kiss in the hay, a hand caressing my face in the darkness, desert sands changing to mountain air, stormy nights, swords and knives, an alien creature, books that may or may not have been appropriate for anyone to read, nightmares and confessions, a dress and bare feet, music in the night, bed sheets and bliss that made us want to laugh and scream at the same time, our son draped in the warmth of a pool and our arms, snowflakes and snowball fights. Shining eyes that were brighter than the darkness of my mind... and a reunion that would come to be someday.

And all at once, his face softened into a smile. He was no longer tense and he relaxed, almost going limp. His nightmares were gone. He knew I was near. He knew I would never be far.

I smiled and turned around to look at Kadar. He didn’t return my gaze, only stared wide-eyed at the Assassin that crept like a cat around Malik’s bed. The intruder's eyes were liquid venom, malicious and hungry. The glint from his knife caught in those evil eyes.

I tried to rouse Malik, but it was to no avail. He was too lost in his peacefulness. I guarded him, but the stalker passed through me. I was not human. I was only a spectre, made of nothing more than air and energy.

I began screaming. No one heard me but Kadar, who pulled me to him. I fought and kicked, but Malik’s fate was sealed. Kadar begged for the stalker to stop. He didn’t listen. We were both crying and whimpering, even as Kadar yanked us back into the grey emptiness of our afterlife, where he held me in his arms and let me weep.

“It’s been done,” he said quietly, “He didn’t feel a thing. He’s not suffering anymore. He’ll be with us soon.”

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

Time has no meaning in this life. It spins so fast that one cannot and won’t bother to try and keep track or keep up with it. I did not know how long Kadar and I held each other, but it was the only thing that held me together.

Not that I could have fallen apart. There was no physical way I could have. But my soul felt like it could burst and scatter like leaves in the wind. That’s the one bad thing about this place. You have no control over what happens in the world around us. We can’t even hurt ourselves. We have nothing to hurt. We only bear eternal sadness.

The desert sands shifted around me. It was not home, but it was a close façade. I watched from the top of my tree, scanned the land around me as it molded and gave way in the wind. Some might say being alone would prevent you from being hurt. I say it’s a hell all by itself. I missed the ones I love, missed the way it used to be. I did not bother checking on my loved ones because I knew I could not save them. I did not want to see them all turn into monsters. But I didn’t want to be alone. I wished I had never existed. All that I had lived for was gone.

Kadar left at some point. I was not sure where he went off to, but he had not returned. Part of me wanted the company and the other part didn’t know what there was to say. The empty silence was awkward, yet comforting, as I knew there was at least one other troubled soul here with me.

I stared into the red safety of the sun. The breeze blew warm across my face. It was peaceful here. There were no sounds save for the howling of the desert winds, the arid, dry smell, the insignificance of my soul next to the horizon. It was all so much bigger than me. I couldn’t understand it. Maybe it was better that I didn’t…

There was a cry in the distance. My head darted in the direction of the disturbance, and I jumped from my tree. What could possibly be out here making such a fuss?

The voice echoed throughout the hills of sand. A cry of joy. A warm voice, deep and benign, the color of russet and dark ink. The voice was sunlight and familiarity, a laugh I had not heard in all eternity. It pulled me to him, a rope that could not be untied or cut. I knew that voice almost as if it were my own.

I could see them, both of them, two figures molded into one. Two brothers who had been so far away from each other for years. They’d found parts of their souls they had once thought lost forever. They were never going to be torn apart again.

Malik, my husband, looked so… radiant, shining brighter than the sun. Young and made anew, he was glowing, inside and out. A sight too beautiful for human eyes, for human minds to even comprehend. My soul let go of all burdens and lifted to the sky. All that mattered was that he was happy. He wasn’t a monster. He had no more demons. He was just Malik. He was everything to me.

When he looked at me after Kadar pulled away, Malik looked as though he had opened his eyes to the world for the first time, like he had seen a new world after a long journey. He was crying, or about to. I already was.

I ran to him and leapt into him, wrapping every part of me around him. He was holding me so hard to him I feared I may burst. Sparks seemed to be flying through us, an incandescence spreading between us. It was everything our last reunion wasn’t. Him and I… We were always meant to be. I was surrounded by him, his hugs never having been this tight before because we were only human. It wasn’t possible to be this close, as we were practically connected, lost inside one another…

A hand on my left shoulder blade dug into me and at first, I believed it to be Kadar hugging us both. But Kadar was behind Malik. I could see him.

Confused, I pulled back and I took in the abnormal extremity. It was his twin arm, one that had not ever been there. He flexed his left hand, in shock of the feeling. It was foreign, unnatural I daresay, only because I had never seen him with both arms. I touched it, running my hands down the smooth skin, the solidness of him.

“Malik, your arm…”

“I’m… whole again. I feel like a real being again.” His voice was soft and laced with velvet.

“You’ve always been real to me,” I reminded him, touching his face, “I don’t know where I went right, but you’re everything to me.”

“Rajah,” Malik whispered, his voice almost agonized with passion, “Allah, you’re an angel. You’re perfect. You’re more than I deserve. I love you, I love you, I love you…”

We were both crying at the intensity of being together again, a feeling so long denied between us. We were holding each other so hard it would have killed us if we were still human, as our physical forms could not handle this passion. I loved him so much. I was overflowing with it.

“May I join you two? This looks rather fun.” Kadar’s voice seemed distant, but it was enough to distract us. Malik opened his left arm and Kadar dove in.

It was awkwardly quiet, as I was smashed between them, and then Kadar started to sway us. “This is so romantic it's painful.”

Malik managed to boot him out with the playful exclamation of, “You know what romance is?”

I could feel Kadar dart up to me and peck me on the cheek. “Be careful, Malik. I might steal her from you and show her some real romance.” He wiggled his eyebrows and cackled merrily.

“Not before I kick your ass to kingdom come!” Malik snorted challengingly.

“If you can catch me!” Kadar sprinted up the hill and Malik was after him, like two children. I blinked. I could not even surmise what happened.

Movement out of the corner of my eye made me turn and break out into a grin. Two figures holding hands. A woman and a young man. Mother and son…

I ran to them, engulfing Maria and Sef in my arms. They were home. They were here. They were all here. All lovely, all beautiful. While Malik and Kadar spoke with Sef, Maria planted a kiss on my cheek and hugged me. I had missed her. I did not think she knew how much.

Together, we all watched as Altaïr worked to free Masyaf and cleanse it of its dictator. We watched as Masyaf’s secrets became safe with Altaïr’s death. He would be here soon. We were all looking forward to reuniting with him.

Malik later turned and I looked at him.

“Where do we go from here?”

Malik smiled. “I think I have a place in mind.” He turned his head skyward to the twinkling dots above us and began to ascend. He paused only to extend his hands. Without hesitation, I took them and followed him as we became the stars, always in each other’s eternal presence. We watched over Tazim in his journeys through the Middle East, discovering unknown places, like Petra in the deserts of Jordan. He would soon have a family and continue the Brotherhood’s work after Altaïr’s passing, spreading its ideas across the world.

We watched as the world changed and grew smaller. We watched wars consume the land and then the rebirth of new life come from those wars. We can see the ebb and flow of time, changing everyone and everything like it had done to us. We watch over you as you read the ending of our story. But it’s not the ending of yours. No. It is only the beginning.

And when the world ends, the stars will remain, watching, always watching and waiting. We are all that remains. We will always remain.