Blood and Money
by Steven Savile
Chapter Three: Fortune Favors the Dead
For Isra to claim that he was a master of disguise was akin to saying cash was king down in the Nightstalls, capable of buying everything from rare strains of poison to souls, either figuratively or literally depending on which gossip you listened to. It was well known that commerce was the only god worth praying to. That was the essence of the Golden City.
It went without saying.
But it was also wonderfully understated.
Disguise wasn’t simply an essential talent given the Nightwalker’s line of work; it was something the assassin took peculiar delight in. Isra Darzi had always been fascinated with masks, and how a man might be one thing and appear quite another. The greatest mask of all was the one he wore every day when he pretended to be himself, and that one required no mask at all.
Passing himself off as the would-be assassin had been deceptively simple. All he had needed to do was switch animal heads and adjust his gait slightly. It was the most basic of physical theatrics, but people were easily fooled, especially when they saw what they expected to see. Faris expected his brother-in-law to be the one doing the dying, so Isra gave the man what he needed. He made sure his brother-in-law caught a glimpse of him making his escape, then discarded the mask and moved quickly to retrieve and dispose of the body he’d thrown from the balcony. It suited his purpose for Faris to believe that his assassin was still alive. Isra was confident, almost arrogant as he walked through a room, because if he didn’t already own it, he almost certainly could if he so desired. The new walk gave the impression of someone with far less confidence and a more furtive nature.
Part of him still refused to believe that Faris was behind the contract. After all, they were close.
Isra dredged his memory for things that had transpired between them, trying to recall any possible slight, but coming up with nothing. Was it money? Jealousy? Some half-assed notion of prestige? Did Faris expect to inherit everything—the house, the businesses, the network of contacts and traders spread out across the kingdom—after his brother-in-law’s death?
Isra barked out a bitter laugh. Faris was going to be in for one hell of rude awakening when the will was read and named the boy, Munir, as Isra’s heir, with Mirza as his agent, acting as trustee to ensure his interests were looked after until the boy was of an age to assume control himself.
The assassin had never expected this to be a permanent arrangement, assuming that he would have a son of his own eventually. He had wanted to ensure that the family wealth would not only remain within the family, but be tied to it by blood, rather than by something as ephemeral as lust.
Isra’s head was full of treachery as he walked through the bazaar.
The Obari winds blew unfettered through the tents and stalls. The sea breeze offered blessed relief from the hot winds that had been blowing in off the Mwangi Expanse.
The bazaar was full of bustling life. Everything they said about the Emporium was true: everything was for sale here, no matter how esoteric or exotic. Isra made his way to a less familiar part of the tent city, the air rich with heady spices that in no way masked the redolent tang of narcotics. Open pitches and overflowing tables spilled out into the narrow allies between the traders’ tents. Many of the merchants had traveled far from Katapesh to bring back the toys and trinkets of distant lands. The further, the rarer, the most costly.
Representatives of the trade guilds walked the aisles, making sure that their pay masters weren’t being cheated out of their due. More often than not they looked like grubby-faced urchins and downtrodden souls. Without official emblems, their affiliations were impossible to tell.
Over the belling tops of the tents, one of the many minarets of Katapesh pierced the clear blue sky. This one was part of Abadar’s temple. It was also the tower from which Hashim Rakhman’s guard captain had taken his swan dive.
A shock of white hair cut across Isra’s path, the sharp-nosed Garundi turning to look him straight in the eye, then turning away. There was a moment, when their eyes locked, that Isra thought the Garundi was another one of his brother-in-law’s pets, but the man seemed to realize he was staring and broke eye contact without so much as twitching, never mind reaching for a hidden blade. Isra was tempted to ask for directions, just to prolong the man’s discomfort, but decided against it, primarily because he didn’t fancy removing the scarf from his face. Why increase the risk of being recognized just for a little sport? His intention was no grander than anonymity. He wanted people to see a man lost in the maze of stalls and tents. Thousands of people a day passed through the bazaar, making the chances of being recognized slim. Pulling away the scarf, even for just a moment, took that slim possibility and raised it. How high, he had no way of knowing, but it wasn’t worth the risk.
The hook was baited. He had sent a message to Faris, supposedly from his hired knife, despite the fact that her corpse could quite happily rot in its current resting palace for months without ever being found. He didn’t need months, he only needed hours. The message had said simply: “Bara the Fortune-Teller’s tent. Sunset.”
Isra arrived early and paid the fortune-teller off, buying the tent for an hour with enough coin to almost certainly buy the pitch outright. He didn’t want to be disturbed. He had a feeling things could quickly turn ugly, especially if his brother-in-law didn’t come alone. Isra had long since learned to trust his gut instincts.
Faris sent his two bodyguards in first, then entered the tent himself.
Isra stepped in close and grabbed the first guard, twisting his wrist until the man cried out in pain, then twisted some more, pushing hard on the elbow and breaking the man’s arm in one swift, precise movement. He cast the man aside, ramming an elbow into his temple as he stumbled. The guard’s legs buckled and he went down. He wasn’t going to be getting up in a hurry.
The second guard had no more luck, despite the fact that he had drawn his knife and lunged towards Isra. The assassin’s instincts saved his life. He stepped aside from the blow, grasped the bodyguard’s arm at wrist and elbow, and turned the blade back on its wielder. The curved knife sank deep into the stunned man’s chest. A blood-red rose blossomed on his shirt. The moment of shock was all it took for Isra to finish him.
Isra hadn’t wanted this; death had never been his intention.
“Their deaths are on your hands,” Isra spat. “I hope your money’s good in the afterlife.”
"Not even family comes between Faris and profit."
Faris turned on his heel, looking to flee, but Isra hooked a foot out and dumped him on his face. The man went down with a grunt, reaching out for the tent flaps of the door to stop himself from falling and nearly pulling the entire construction down on top of them. With all the noise, there was no way the other stallholders could have failed to hear what was going on, but discretion in this case was the best way to keep trouble from their own door. The bazaar lived on a basic premise: it’s always someone else’s problem.
“Money?” Faris snapped, only hearing the one word and ignoring the rest as he blustered and struggled to rise. “You've had your money, and I've still no proof that the bastard is dead. Without his body, I cannot claim his place, so you can forget all about money.”
So, when it came down to it, this was all about money after all.
Blood and money.
Isra removed the scarf from his face. He savored the shock and fear as it crept over Faris’s own.
“How...?” The man sank back down. He looked, quite literally, as though he had seen a ghost, which of course he had. “You’re dead... I saw...”
“The question isn’t ‘how,’ brother, it’s ‘why.’ Why would you want me dead? Why did you think that you’d be able to take my place? If you had asked me for anything, I would have given it to you. Anything at all.”
“Give?” Faris spat. “I don't want your charity! I want more than that. I deserve it!”
Isra was torn. He wanted the best for his sister, Sana, and for his nephew. They were the innocents in all of this, but they were the ones that were going to pay the highest price. Killing Faris would destroy them, even if they never knew who was behind his death.
“There’s only one thing you deserve, Faris,” he said slowly. “But fortunately for you, I love my sister more than I hate you. So there has to be away out of this—some way we can both get some sort of satisfactory resolution that doesn’t involve spilling your guts all over this tent.” He thought about it for a moment. “You want to be in charge? You want control over the family interests? You’d consider that a victory?”
“Of course,” Faris said. “But that’s not going to happen now, is it?” He gestured to the two dead men.
Isra followed the direction of his movement, but his mind was elsewhere.
This was the moment. It all came down to this.
Could he trust Faris? What would happen if he gave the man the opportunity to play the part he wanted so desperately?
Suddenly, Isra wanted to laugh. They were in the middle of a fortune-teller’s tent, dead men left and right, and he was trying to look into the future. He might as well look into the crystal ball now and ask the mists to part...
“What are you thinking, Isra?” Faris suddenly sounded like Isra’s brother-in-law again, rather than the man who’d paid money for his death. “Talk to me.”
And then, as Isra knew it would, came the question he had hoped his brother-in-law wouldn’t ask.
“Where did you learn to fight like that? How did you manage to overcome...?” Faris didn’t quite finish the thought. He didn’t need to.
“The assassin you sent to kill me?” Isra said bluntly.
Isra made a decision. “I have a secret, Faris. I’m going to tell you something now that will change the course of your life, and mine; a secret that has been gnawing away at me for a long time now. It is an itch that needs to be scratched.” He locked eyes with the man on the floor. “You might say that I’m two people. There’s the Isra you know—or think you know—and there’s the other me, the other Isra that’s now consuming my life. Making money offers no thrill. There’s no pleasure in a deal well struck. Not compared to my other life.” He crouched down so that the two of them were on the same level. “You see, I am the one they call the Nightwalker.”
The cogs whirred away behind Faris’ eyes. “You? No...” The fear returned, yet as quickly as it came, a look of cunning stole in to replace it.
“Here’s what I’m thinking, Faris,” Isra said. “If you want to be the head of the family so desperately, then why not? I could disappear. It wouldn’t be difficult. I haven't been seen since the party, and it's not such a huge stretch of the imagination to pretend that your assassin succeeded.”
Faris thought about it for a moment. “What would you do?”
“I would be free of the bonds that weigh me down, free to do something that I get satisfaction out of. Something more challenging.”
“Or just starting fresh without the expectation of being a drunk with too much money and too little sense. I’m tired of this life, Faris.”
Faris looked incredulous. “And you would be out of our lives for good?”
Isra wasn’t going to lie. “No. Not for good. You’d have control of the day-to-day things, but I’d still want a hand in decisions that affect the business. You would be the public face of the family, the man everyone dealt with.”
“I’d be your puppet, you mean?” Faris’s lip curled.
“That’s not how I’d choose to see it.”
“How you’d choose? Your words are slippier than a sand eel, Isra. I’d be your puppet, dancing to whatever string you decided to pull.”
“Think about it, Faris. It's the best I can offer.”
Faris laughed. “Oh, I shall think about it. Long and hard, brother. I shall think about nothing but, but I shall bide my time. Decide in haste, repent at leisure, as they say. I have much to consider. Perhaps I should just reveal that our beloved Isra, patron of flophouses and pesh dens, is the fearsome Nightwalker? Let’s see what becomes of you then. You think you have enemies now... imagine what it’ll be like when half of Katapesh finds out you’re responsible for the death of a friend, or family member, or employer. Go on, imagine—think about what you’ve done, how your crimes have impacted their lives, and the ripples of them spreading out from person to person. Imagine how much they hate you.” Faris smiled grimly.
“I wouldn’t make threats if I were you,” Isra said.
“You wouldn't? I don’t believe that for a minute. You’re a bastard, Isra.”
The man they called the Nighwalker looked at the huddled merchant in front of him, seeing him properly for the first time, and realized that he may have made the biggest mistake in his life by sharing his secret.
It had to end here, one way or another.
“I tried to offer you a way out of this, Faris, but you’re a bigger idiot than I gave you credit for. I’m going to make you a promise now, and I want you to think very, very seriously about it before you say anything. If you so much as think the word Nightwalker, I will make sure you’re dead before the thought can reach your lips. I offered you a way out because I love my sister, not out of any kindness I feel toward you. You’ve mistaken love for weakness. Instead of taking me up on my kindness, you’ve proven I can’t trust you. So here is my final offer: leave Katapesh and live, or stay and die.”
“Leave Katapesh?” The merchant’s eyes were wide, incredulous. “Are you serious?”
“Deadly,” Isra said, and stood. “Take you wife and son and start a new life far away from here, Faris. Get on the first boat out of the city and start fresh somewhere else. Be the head of your own family, out of my shadow.
“Because if you’re still in Katapesh when the moon rises, I will find you. And I will kill you.”
Coming Next Week: A death in the family in the final chapter 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.