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Four Seasons (In One Day)

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Childhood was a blur of faded memories up until a specific point, just like that half asleep state, when one was still a little lost in dreams, that happened upon waking up in the morning. For Malik, it started with blue flowers blooming around the house.

 

Not many plants survived the harsh climate of Masyaf. But in the beginning of spring, there would always be these little flowers. He picked them carefully and threaded the most beautiful ones in his beloved brother’s hair, because they matched the color of his eyes. Kadar had the brightest blue eyes that he had ever seen – and that he would ever see.

 

Back then, neither of them had known what these eyes meant. They were children, so young that even Malik wasn’t allowed to train yet. But there were things he knew. Father was always on missions for the Mentor – ‘Al Mualim’, he had learned the name while listening to the adults – and ever since Kadar was born, he almost never came home. Mother had said that with two growing boys, he had to work more to be able to support them. He didn’t know that the Brotherhood didn’t take contracts involving money and that no matter how many assignments he took, Father would receive allowance considering his rank and family. Sometimes, Mother smiled sadly, and later, he would learn that the look on her face was called ‘remorse’.

 

Malik had his fair share of it too, even in his early life. Like that time he went to play outside but Father visited while he was gone and he only got to spend a few minutes with him when he came back. Or when he left his brother alone to get something from another room and he came back to a crying toddler who had fallen to the ground trying to follow him. These were small things, but in the mind of a child, it seemed of the highest importance. And then, Mother got sick.

 

At that time, Malik was already a part of the youngest group of apprentices. He had to spend a lot of time attending classes, so he didn’t notice right away. Mother would always ask him about his day or listen to Kadar’s babbling. And maybe she was a little pale, maybe she would cough in the middle of a sentence. But at the tender age of six, there was no way for him to understand these subtle signs. Even if he had, she could have easily pretended that it was only a cold, a harsh one perhaps, but only a cold. She could keep up pretenses quite well – about that, and about other things that he was still too young to fully grasp. That was why he didn’t notice until it started to get much worse. And it took years. By then, there was nothing to be done, and in truth, she had been condemned from the start, because no one knew how to cure this illness.

 

In the meantime, he trained to become a respected assassin, just like Father. He learned the three tenets and the maxim of the Creed and how the Brotherhood worked – doubts about the reasons his parents had given to justify Father’s constant absence started to seep in his mind – and he quickly became one of the best apprentices in his age group. The teachers would praise his intelligence, his good calligraphy and his reading abilities. But even as a child, Malik lacked good social skills and was already developing the stern personality that would follow him in adulthood. Rather than going outside to play during breaks, he would be found reading or reviewing whatever he had just been taught. If asked why, he would launch himself in long explanations about integrity and morals and standards – which felt weird in the mouth of a child, but he would never admit that he had just learned most of it in books that he didn’t even understand. When actual fighting lessons began, he would practice the same moves endlessly. It made him able to grasp the basics easily, and he was sure to make Father proud the next time he came back to the fortress.

 

But it wasn’t enough. Because Father had a friend, someone he respected and admired a lot, and that man’s name was Umar Ibn-La’Ahad. And Umar Ibn-La’Ahad happened to have a son that was only a few months older than Malik himself. And his son’s name was Altair.

Altair was a thorn in his side.

 

At times it felt like this boy was everything he wasn’t. Altair was loud, Altair was fun, Altair was popular, Altair was a genius. No one cared that his calligraphy was horrendous or that he would rather play pranks on unsuspecting people than listen to the teachers. Even Father would sing his praise, and that easily made a perfectly pleasant discussion turn sour. ‘Altair has already mastered this move’, ‘Altair wouldn’t need advice’, ‘why don’t you use Altair as an example?’ and it got Malik fed up very quickly. So he resolved to avoid the topic of training – just like he had learned to avoid mentioning Kadar’s eyes and how beautiful they were, because it always made Father’s behavior turn cold – and spent a lot of time asking about Father’s missions. That way, he got to hear amazing stories about places he had never seen and people he had never met, and no one got upset. As long as there was no mention of a certain someone, he was perfectly happy.

 

It was not that he hated Altair. He barely knew him. But there was no denying that his behavior infuriated Malik. He was not a genius, he got better with tremendous amounts of hard work. And he was honestly fine with it, until the other boy began skimming through ‘useful’ – ‘practical’ would have been a better word – classes with ease, causing trouble and hindering his efforts. Really, he wouldn’t have minded at all – or at least not as much – if discussions about Altair’s accomplishments hadn’t started following home. By the time they were nine, even Kadar – his baby brother, the apple of his eye – talked about him with admiration. So maybe none of his feelings were justified, because clearly Altair was so great but he couldn’t help the unease that settled in his stomach – deep down he knew that it was jealousy and he refused to address it, he would not be the lesser man – and sometimes, he felt very alone.

 

When the apprentices reached the age of ten, they would undergo a small series of trials to determine which ones would be trained to be the future generation of assassins. Obviously, eclipsing everyone’s performance, Altair passed with flying colors, exceeding all expectations. As usual, Malik had to get to terms with being only second best. He was proud of himself, of course, but Father was a very forward man and would often say that second place was only the first place among those who had lost – as there was no proof that he had been the best in his year, it was easy to find comfort in thinking that he was merely boasting – so he didn’t bring it up.

 

He was placed in a two-person room in the fortress, as the novices were always paired with another. At that time, Mother’s illness got worse, and some days, she was unable to leave her bed. He tried to ask for the opportunity to stay at home to help her, and he was sure that he would have managed to make his case, but she learned of his plans and chastised him until he let go of the idea. Malik didn’t want to put too much responsibility on his brother’s shoulders, but still made him promise to help Mother as much as he could.

 

His new roommate was called Rauf. He was an energetic boy who talked almost as much as Kadar – it was comforting somehow – and was always ready for a spar. He had wild curly hair that he adamantly refused to cut too short and that would take strange shapes in the morning, which would never fail to make everyone laugh. And of course, because Malik’s luck was abysmal, two doors down in the same corridor was Altair’s room.

 

Just like he quickly grew closer to his own roommate, Altair and the other boy, Abbas, became best friends. Which meant twice more trouble. Now that they lived in close quarters, Malik could only avoid his – one-sided – rival for so long, and it went from bad to worse when the other began to notice him.

Altair was not a bully – unlike Abbas who would be mean for the sake of being mean just because he was a little taller – but he liked teasing other novices, daring them to try stupid things, and the amount of trouble everyone got in seemed intimately linked with his mood. And Malik became his favorite target, because he was easy to get a rise out of and could live up to the challenges. When they finally learned to climb, a lot of their competitions became races – against each other, against time – and even if the genius won most of the time, he always came close second, and that was enough to keep them both interested. Abbas, for all his boasting, barely participated – he probably enjoyed winning a lot more than he enjoyed the challenge – and Rauf almost always got left behind – but he would comment and cheer without fault – so it was mostly just the both of them. But he was still very serious – uptight, some had mocked – and even if being taunted made him snap more often than not, he would never accept anything that interfered with his duties, whether it was classes or taking care of Mother. He still hated the comparison between them, but somehow, seeing that Altair didn’t take criticism to heart always made him feel much better.

 

The end of their careless childhood – as much as it could be for children destined to be assassins – came abruptly with the siege of Masyaf. Of course, no one told the novices was exactly had transpired but there were rumors and both Umar Ibn-La’Ahad and Ahmad Sofian were dead. Malik thought that it would be the end of it. He even tried to comfort his two classmates because, underneath his mixed feelings, Altair had really become a friend, and even if Abbas was a bully, he didn’t deserve to lose his father. But Mother’s health was even more concerning than before.

However, her illness didn’t impair her senses, and she noticed something about him, something that he had been keeping as secret as he could. The day she confronted him about it, his cheek hurt for hours where her hand had landed, but it was nothing compared to the pain that the blow brought to his mind. He didn’t protest though, because she was right, and he was wrong. All of him was wrong. He tried to redeem himself in her eyes so he spent a lot of his time in the village, taking care of her. Which is why, like many others, he could only assist to the downfall of Altair and Abbas’ friendship.

 

He was coming back from the village in a hurry, as he was almost late to the training session scheduled in the afternoon. He was to spar with Rauf – and maybe Altair would bait him into a fight too – with wooden swords. They were all close to becoming assassins now, albeit of the lowest rank, and knowing that there were only a few months to go made everyone restless. Malik thought that it would allow him to help Mother more and to take care of Kadar too, so he waited impatiently for the promotion.

He ended up being just in time at the training ring and he slunk in the crowd to join Rauf who was watching Altair and Abbas take their stances. He saw it right away, the sun reflecting so brightly on the blades that they appeared white. He had no time to ask why Labib had let them take real swords, and if they could too – he hoped so because he was already a bit envious – before the fight began. The clash of metal against metal was more violent than anyone could have expected, and even from a distance, it was easy to realize that Altair was the first to be surprised.

It had never happened before, but Abbas clearly had the advantage. They seemed to be talking, hissing things at each other, but over the sound of the swords, it was impossible for him to hear the words. At least that was until Abbas, pulling out a knife that glinted dangerously, began screaming. He had Altair backed into a corner and pressed the blade against the sensitive skin of his neck. Never before had Malik felt so powerless. And judging by the look on the instructor’s face, he wasn’t the only one.

 

The most striking memory he had from that day was the Mentor’s apparition, a dark shadow cutting against the light while Abbas’ voice was still ringing in his ears.

 

“Liar! You’re a liar! My father didn’t kill himself!”

 

Labib launched into action and grabbed the screaming boy just as Al Mualim gripped Altair’s shoulder. In a second, the seemingly desperate situation was defused. His respect for their leader increased tenfold, and too busy pondering on that, he had barely registered his friend’s words.

 

“I lied… I’m sorry, I lied…”

 

Later, he learned that both Abbas and Altair were to spend a month in the cells of the fortress as a punishment. It felt harsh, particularly as one of them appeared to be more of a victim, but one had to abide by the Creed, and such a fight between members of the Order should not be overlooked. Nonetheless, as much as Malik respected the rules, he would have liked to know all the details of this story before being dragged in useless gossip by Rauf and the other novices.

 

When the two boys came out of their temporary confinement, the rooms had been switched. Rauf went with Abbas and Malik ended up with Altair. But that arrangement only lasted a week – during which his new roommate stuck to him like a leech, probably starved of human contact and attention. Unexpectedly, Altair was promoted before everyone else – and thus granted new quarters as he had nowhere to go but the fortress – and Abbas had to stay behind for one more year. If people had things to say about it, they would do it out of earshot of the Mentor, who clearly played favorites. Father went back to praising Altair, which ended one day with a screaming match and Malik storming out of the house to go back to his quarters.

 

He never saw Father again after that. He died brutally on a mission in Damascus – of all places, it was probably the safest, that was ridiculous – and his body couldn’t be retrieved. Malik heard gruesome details, because the man had apparently served as an example, and shielded his brother’s ears from it. He grieved a little, but as with everything, he was quick and efficient: Father had been an absent man, and his behavior had been too cold for him to be really close to his children. Rauf came to inquire about his state of mind, and even if he waved the other’s concerns away, he was still glad to have a friend onto whom he could count – and maybe he wondered if he had put effort for nothing in his relationship with Altair from whom he didn’t hear a word, but of that, he wouldn’t tell anyone.

 

As if she had been waiting for that to let go, Mother passed away a few months later, just after Malik was promoted. This time, he was truly sad, because despite her flaws, she had done her best to raised Kadar and himself well, and there was also the safety of his secret that she had kept to herself until the end – he had promised her to not let it have an impact on his life that he intended to honor her wish. But he didn’t have the freedom to be depressed for long now that he had his brother to take care of. He made a deal with Al Mualim himself – he respected the old man and he feared him even more, but he was willing to do anything for his brother – so that he could stay behind in Masyaf until Kadar passed his trials. And so, for a year, he followed the literary training intended for a future Rafiq. Strangely, he excelled at it. His map-making skills, in particular, earned him a lot of praise.

 

When Kadar was old enough and got a roommate and chambers in the fortress, Malik was sent to Jerusalem to complete his apprenticeship. Being away from the fortress was both a blessing and a curse. He hated being that far from his brother, but he could also avoid to much closeness with others and have time to work on keeping his promise to Mother: he would be a good assassin, and most importantly a good man. ‘Like your father,’ she had said and he was the proof that it was true, so there was no arguing that.

Once he was ready to take his own missions, the Rafiq sent him back to Masyaf. Upon his return, he barely saw any of his old classmates. He only met with his brother and Rauf, studiously avoided Abbas – for his temper had only worsened after the events, even if it had been years – and Altair was always away on an assignment or another.

 

The rumors began when he was twenty. Altair was told to behave rashly, disobeying orders and disregarding the Creed. His former classmate – were they even still friends at this point? – was becoming brash and arrogant, causing trouble on his way. Then Altair became a master assassin at twenty-five – unheard of but the idiot had always been a genius and, yes, Malik was a bit jealous – and as he had no superiors but the few people who held the title of Dai and the Mentor himself, he became even more uncontrollable.

 

A year later, when Kadar, Altair and himself were assigned together on a mission, Malik’s superior was getting on his nerves before it even started. There was no way that such a show off could be a good influence on anyone and much less on the young man he had spent the last few years raising. Of course he knew for a fact that all the young assassins looked up to the man, but still. He couldn’t help but point his flaws and transgressions, and being dismissed in front of his younger brother didn’t help with his dissatisfaction.

 

He threw a last look behind him before entering Solomon’s temple. The sun was burning bright, promise of a hot summer to come, and Malik turned away to let himself be engulfed in the darkness of the ruins. After that, everything went too fast.

 

Malik’s last memory was seeing Kadar’s eyes – his beautiful blue eyes – and the way they dulled like flowers wilting as spring left.