Blood and Money
by Steven Savile
Chapter One: Nightwalker
It was well after midnight in the garden. He was not alone. Aphids crept and crawled across his bare skin, and a hot wind blew in from the desert. The unseasonal sirocco was an excuse for madness. Men would use it as a rationale for particularly savage beatings, claiming the wind had driven them to it.
Isra had no patience for weak men or liars. He did, however, appreciate the beauty of the well-tended garden.
The topiaries of Hasim Rakhman's palace were legendary, all manner of fabulous beasts carved out of the shrubbery to stand guard over the merchant’s equally legendary maze. Isra stood in the shadow of a leonine predator. The scent of jasmine was thick in the air, overpowering other, far subtler musks from the many more delicate plants in the garden.
He hadn’t moved so much as a muscle for more than a quarter of an hour. In the landscape of shadows, even the slightest movement, a finger moving to scratch an itch, was exaggerated and could so easily betray him. Despite the fact that Rakhman had a dozen men patrolling the gardens, none of them had marked Isra’s presence—but then, he was good at what he did. Even so, Isra was well aware that the longer he waited before making his move, the greater the chance of him being discovered became. It wasn’t magic, just was simple mathematics. Probability. He used the skill in his other life, when the sun was up and the Nightwalker didn’t exist. It was the kind of thinking that had helped make him rich.
But with the sickle of moon high in the sky, he was very much the Nightwalker now, and his instruction had been clear: kill Hasim Rakhman on this night. The client was very particular about the timing. It had to be tonight. He would make sure Rakhman was vulnerable, and it was up to Isra to exploit that weakness and get the job done.
And the reason his client could assure him the principal would be vulnerable? He was captain of Rakhman’s personal guard. The price of loyalty? About half a year’s salary. That and a shapely woman eager for said guard captain to take her overweight husband’s place in bed. Permanently.
It was always the same. No matter how complicated clients believed their motives to be, they always came down to lust. Be it for money, power, or sex, it was always about craving more.
But that didn’t explain why there were so many guards in the grounds tonight.
Sweat trickled down into the bay at the nape of Isra’s neck. Still he did not move.
He hadn’t stayed alive this long by walking blindly into traps, and this was some kind of trap. He harbored no illusions about that. It would have been easy to slip away into the night and leave them to whatever game it was they were playing, but he had an obligation. The contract was open. He was the Nightwalker. He was the killer who never failed to execute a contract. He breathed in deeply, savoring the heat in his lungs. He could understand why the heat of the night drove men to thoughts of passion and murder. People were simple creatures at the best of times. The constant heat robbed them of the ability to think, reducing them to the most base of instincts. It didn’t matter that they wouldn’t stain their hands with the blood, they craved it just the same. Who was he to deny them? There would be blood tonight, he promised himself.
He studied the marbled facade of Rakhman’s palace, his eye drawn to the veranda that led into the merchant’s study, and caught a glimpse of his employer, the regally handsome captain of Rakhman’s force pacing back and forth within. He was huge, and more than capable of snapping a weasel like Hasim Rakhman in two like a brittle twig—a corpulent, sweaty one, but a twig all the same. But his hands had to be clean. That he was here rather than in some public place making the kind of spectacle of himself that would ensure he had an alibi only added to Isra’s sense of unease.
Again the thought of simply slipping away into the darkness and leaving them to get on with whatever petty little game they were playing at occurred to him, but again his damned professional pride got in the way, killing the notion in a heartbeat. He had been paid to do a job, and he would do it to the letter of the contract. And if it wasn’t what his erstwhile paymaster wanted, well, it would serve him and his dead master right.
Hasim Rakhman came out onto the veranda, alone. He had a cup in his hand. Isra could see the wraiths of steam curl up from the hot drink. The fact that he was dressed rather than in some silk nightgown was another telling detail that betrayed his trap. Rakhman wiped his brow with a large white handkerchief. The temperature had dropped several degrees in the time Isra had taken up his vigil, which meant that it was fear rather than heat that was causing the fat merchant to sweat. And the longer Isra made him wait, the more jittery he was becoming. It would have been a mercy to put him out of his misery, but the Nightwalker was not in the business of mercy.
Isra broke away from his hiding place and ghosted through shadows. So complete was his mastery of his own body that he didn’t displace so much as a single leaf on any of the many plants and bushes he crept past. Rakhman’s men continued their patrols, oblivious to his presence.
Isra was within six feet of the fat man when he decided to spring the trap. Still it took Rakhman a moment to get through the shock of disbelief before the alarm was raised.
“Seize him!” Hasim Rakhman cried, waving his handkerchief above his head. Isra smiled coldly, enjoying the soon-to-be dead man’s frantic signaling. He could flap about to his heart’s content. No amount of it was going to save him. The guards were ready to slam shut the steel jaws of their trap, but Isra only needed a second to close the gap.
The captain of the guard rushed out of the study, sword drawn, but did nothing to prevent his employer's death, so perhaps there was at least a grain of truth to the lie Isra had been sold? The Nightwalker didn’t hesitate. He had his knife out, already balanced in his hand. Hasim Rakhman screamed in panic, flapping about all the more desperately now as he tried to protect his face, but left his stomach wide open for the assassin’s curved blade. A single slice of the cruel knife quickly stained the man's shirt red. His hands clutched at his stomach. He howled in pain. The Nightwalker granted him one last scream before he drew a gash across his throat—deep, from ear to ear—and silenced him once and for all.
With the deed done, the captain chose his moment to close the gap between them, calling, “To me!” as he did. In that moment Isra grasped just how many snares had been set within that initial trap. The captain had never intended his master to survive the night. The fat man had trusted him, and that had cost him his life. Isra did not trust anyone.
“Time to make peace with your god, assassin,” the captain rasped. His grin was every bit as cruel as Isra’s knife. His eyes darted left, betraying the rush of the first of his guards. Isra dropped his shoulder and thundered his elbow into the trachea of the man on his left. The guard went down clutching his throat. Isra spun away from the captain, sweeping out his right leg to dump the second running guard on his backside. He stamped on the man’s face, driving his heel into his nose and rupturing it.
Isra gave the fat man a final glance, to be absolutely sure that he was beyond saving, and launched himself upward, using the great earthenware pot that housed a lemon tree to push himself to within grasping distance of the balcony railings above. He swung his legs up as the first sword sliced through the air, missing him by inches. The lemon tree teetered, then toppled, the great pot shattering and the noise creating the moment of confusion Isra had hoped for. The Nightwalker hauled himself up over the balcony rail as the sword clattered against the marbled wall. He moved quickly now, grasping the trailing vines that grew up around the balcony doors, trusting them to hold his weight as he scaled the side of the palace. He risked a glance down over his shoulder. The captain wasn’t about to give up his prey, not when he needed someone to pay the metaphorical price of his master’s death. He was stronger than Isra, but the assassin was more agile. In a fair fight the assassin wouldn’t have stood a chance, but there was nothing fair about a moonlit chase across the rooftops of Katapesh when death was on the line.
Isra bounced on his toes and pushed upward again, reaching for the roof. He broke his cardinal self-imposed rule of climbing by stretching a few inches beyond what was comfortable. Off-balance, he worked his fingers into a crack in the masonry. Isra swallowed the panic instinct, forcing himself to breathe evenly as he lifted himself carefully upward, gradually taking all of his weight on three fingertips. Then he drew his right leg up, keeping his body pressed flat to the marbled wall, until his instep dragged over another crack, this one barely a wart across. Again, it was just enough. Between fingertips and toes he had the leverage he needed to boost himself up high enough to grab the gable. He slapped his right hand flat on the clay tiles and for a sickening moment he hung there, forty feet above the ground, clinging on by his fingertips. He kicked out, scrabbling for purchase until the tarred sole of his shoe gripped something on the wall, and then he was over the top and lying on his back looking up at the sickle-shaped moon.
He didn’t have time to catch his breath. Isra rolled over onto his stomach and pushed himself up.
Had the captain been as thorough as Isra would have in his place, the assassin would be dead now—he offered his silhouette to the moon as he ran across the rooftops. All it would have taken was one well-placed archer. But the captain wasn’t as good as Isra.
The assassin moved fast, circling the domed roof. He was light and nimble, his trade relying on guile and speed over brute force. The man following him was anything but. Isra noted the grating slip and crash of tiles behind him with grim satisfaction as the captain of the guard lost his balance. The captain’s sheer muscle mass made him far less dexterous than the assassin, which was exactly what Isra was banking upon.
With luck, the man would either fall, ending his pursuit the hard way, or give it up the easy way. Either worked just fine for Isra—but then, given his position, beggars could hardly be choosers.
He found what he was looking for on the far side of the roof: the flag post flying Hasim Rakhman’s family standard. He didn’t need to peer down over the edge. He knew his city well. The market lay beyond the wall of Rakhman’s property with its mismatch of colorful tents all squashed together. He smiled grimly, thanking Norgorber once more for looking out for his favorite son. Miracles, in Isra’s experience, had no need to be any more miraculous than a well-positioned flagpole in a time of great need. He had practiced leaps like this a thousand and one times before. He started to run, lengthening his stride to use gravity to the full, and launched himself off the roof into the air, kicking out.
"The Nightwalker always finishes the job."
It felt like flying, even though it only lasted for a heartbeat.
Isra snatched at the flagpole just below the trailing ropes of Rakhman's fluttering standard. The assassin swung through a quarter-circle before releasing his grip, completely changing the direction of his fall. As he came down fast, he reached or his knife. The blade was still slick with the dead man’s blood. Isra didn’t have time for the luxury of philosophy—the blade had taken one life and was about to save another. That was just the way it went.
He hit the silk roof of one of the trader’s pavilions hard, tumbling head over heels as he bounced and slid from the roof of the tent. Moving instinctively, Isra stabbed the blade into the fabric, using its resistance to arrest the speed of his fall. It wasn’t so much that he allowed himself a glance back to the roof of Rakhman’s home as the geometry of his fall afforded him one, but either way, the captain of the guards was nowhere to be seen. Only an idiot or a hero would attempt to follow him down this way, and it was clear the captain was neither.
Isra didn’t allow himself the satisfaction of thinking he was away, not yet. He moved fast, running between streets to a low point amid the garden walls and narrow stinking alleys and scaled the side of one of the hovels, moving from wall to window ledge to overhanging tree limb to rooftop in a series of gambits, and then took off across the roofs, leaping and scrambling from house to house. This was his city, up here. No one knew the high paths like he did. Finally he felt safe enough in his escape to take stock of the mess.
He had been set up. There was no other way of looking at it. He had been hired because he was the target. They wanted to lure him into the jaws of their trap and spring it closed on him.
No, he corrected himself. He wasn’t the target. The Nightwalker was. There was a subtle difference, in that no one knew he was the assassin.
So someone wanted the Nightwalker dead. Well, that was going to make things interesting from now on. Perhaps it was time to lie low for a while, just concentrate on being Isra, the lecherous wastrel squandering his family’s hard-earned fortune on wine, women, song, and more women. There were certain benefits that went along with the role, obviously—there was nothing so expensive or exotic his money could not buy it. But man could not live on such frivolities alone. For now, though, that was a bridge he would have to cross when he came to it.
A tile slipped traitorously beneath his foot. The shift beneath him sent Isra skidding precariously close to the edge. He teetered there, arms windmilling wildly until he caught his balance. He cursed himself. He had been careless, and it had almost cost him dearly.
It had also saved his life. A single rooftop away, he saw the unmistakable shape of the damned captain charging like a bull across the tiles, bearing down on him.
Isra spat a curse, and in a heartbeat was running again. This time there was an element of fear in his blood. The captain was relentless. Isra was going to have kill him, but he had no intention of going toe-to-toe with the warrior. He needed to use the terrain to his advantage—after all, this was his city. The captain belonged in the world below, not up here.
He cast about, looking for somewhere narrow and preferably precarious. There were dozens of obvious locations that suited his purpose. Katapesh was littered with minarets and sharp-angled rooftops. Isra ran for the nearest, racing along the crest of a great hall, using the spine of the watershed as a path. The captain came crashing behind him, clay tiles crushing beneath his heavy boots.
“You really don’t have to do this,” Isra called, gasping for breath as he swung himself up onto another rooftop. He wanted the man to think he was running out of ideas as quickly as he was running out of breath. His plan depended upon it.
The captain planted his hands on his knees, doubling over as he battled to catch his own breath. When he looked up Isra was already on the move.
A wooden stair coiled around the outside of the minaret. Isra hit it running, the captain not far behind him. The captain didn’t waste his breath on words.
And then they were at the top, a few feet between them, the captain moving menacingly toward the assassin. It was a long way down. The platform was precarious, the wood rotten in places. It creaked and groaned beneath the big man’s weight, but it wasn’t about to break. Isra wasn’t going to be that lucky.
“We can go our separate ways, never see each other again,” Isra offered, doing his best to sound reasonable.
“I don’t think so,” the captain said. He drew his sword.
The sun was beginning to come up behind the captain, giving him wings of fire.
“Well, you can’t say I didn’t offer,” Isra said flippantly. “Shall we dance?” He extended a hand, goading the big man to come at him.
The big man did.
Isra waited until the very last possible moment, danced back, and then pretended to stumble. As the captain launched his attack, the assassin went to ground, crying out to mask the fact that the fall was an act. As the captain came in for the kill, Isra swept his right leg around in a tight arc and took the big man’s feet out from under him.
For one agonizingly long moment, the stretched-out silence between heartbeats, it looked as though the captain might save himself.
Then he was falling. Unfortunately for him, those wings of fire didn’t help him fly.
Isra turned his back. He had no desire to watch the man die. His secret was safe. That was all that mattered. He climbed slowly down the wooden stairs. It was time to go home, get some sleep, and in the morning go back to being the good-for-nothing merchant prince squandering his family fortune.
But first, time to do what the night’s dead men had failed to do: put the Nightwalker to sleep once and for all.
There was a drop box hidden away in a deserted part of the city. It was where Isra collected his assignments from Mirza, his agent, and when necessary left messages. The assassin worked blind. Mirza had no idea of his identity. He didn’t need to. He was there to filter hits and provide a layer of safety between Isra and his Nightwalker identity.
The pair had long ago established a signal to denote that the assassin was laying aside his knife: a black pearl. Isra wore one on a string around his wrist. As he reached the drop box, he snapped the string and opened the lid, ready to put an end to the game. He’d almost gotten himself killed tonight, and he was in no hurry to repeat the experience. What was the old adage? Go out on top before you go out in a box?
He dropped the pearl into the metal box and closed the lid.
Isra was three steps away before he realized that the pearl hadn’t made a sound as it hit the bottom—meaning that it had fallen on something soft. He took a deep breath and went back to the drop box. Isra opened the lid again and reached inside.
There was an envelope. Another job. It would be the last, Isra promised himself, tearing the envelope open.
Inside was a single slip of paper with a name written on it.
It was an impossible assignment. No matter how legendary the Nightwalker was, there was no way he could complete the kill.
Isra Darzi just wasn’t the suicidal type.
Coming Next Week: Masks and masquerades in Chapter Two of "Blood and Money."
Steven Savile is the internationally best-selling author of almost twenty novels and many more short stories, set in both original worlds and those of Primeval, Stargate SG-1, Warhammer, Torchwood, Dr. Who, and more. He won Writers of the Future in 2002, has been a runner-up for the British Fantasy Award and short listed for the Scribe Award for Best Adapted Novel, and won the Scribe Award for Best Young Adult Original Novel. For more information, visit his website at www.stevensavile.com.
Illustration by Florian Stitz