Blood and Money
by Steven Savile
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Chapter Four: Death in the Family
Blind optimism wasn’t a particularly useful trait for an assassin. Isra was neither blind nor optimistic. He knew full well that Faris could not be trusted, no matter how generous an offer his own skin was.
Isra knew people, be they the rich and greedy of one tier of society or the guttersnipes and backstabbing thieves of another. He lived in both worlds. He was surrounded on all sides by the best and the worst, and the worst always outnumbered the best. That was just the way of things. He knew full well his sister's husband wasn’t going to be true to his word. Nevertheless, he had decided to give the weasel a chance to prove him wrong. He owed Sana that much. Still, he was angry with himself for giving Faris the opening in the first place. He had known he couldn’t trust him with his secret, but had desperately wanted to believe he could. The old adage held that blood was thicker than water, with family being blood. But Faris was not blood. He was scum.
Had Faris been anyone else in the world, he would not have left the fortune-teller’s tent alive. That Isra had allowed Faris to plot murder and walk back out into the Nightstalls without sporting a second smile cut into his throat from ear to ear was testimony to the fact that Isra was as capable of being willfully naive as the next man.
But that didn’t make him stupid.
He followed in shadows, slipping between stalls and tents. When their cover ceased to be available, he climbed higher, working his way onto another roof, never letting his traitorous brother-in-law out of sight for even a moment on the long walk back to the home the man shared with Isra’s sister.
Faris kept glancing back over his shoulder to see if he was being followed. The movements were nervous, scared. But like a fool, he never looked up. This was not the behavior of a man grateful to be given his life and about to keep his end of a bargain. Far from it. This was the furtive, shiftless behavior of a man who trusted no one because no one had reason to trust him. It was the circle of lies. Faris was afraid for his life because, in Isra’s position, he would have been planning the exact moment to slip the knife in between his brother-in-law’s third and fourth ribs, ending his problem. So right now, even as he pushed and bullied his way through the crowded streets, Faris would be scheming, trying to find an angle, a way to gain some sort of advantage even as he ran for his life. That was just the nature of the beast.
Isra had to give Faris credit, though—he was at least doing his best to make shadowing him interesting, slipping into a hovel and out the back door, climbing garden walls and cutting through one of the bathhouses. Had he just looked up he would have saved himself a lot of sweat and trouble, given the baking sun, but as it was dark stains ringed the loose white shirt that clung to him as he moved, while Isra matched him step for step.
From his rooftop vantage, the assassin could see everything, Katapesh laid out like a doll theater beneath him. The height of the midday sun meant that he cast no shadow down onto the streets below.
Faris showed no sign of being in a hurry to go home. Rather, he was making a tour of the city, visiting certain establishments, very particular houses and places of business. These were all places where messages could be left for the kinds of people who do not want to be found easily, those magicians and alchemists who did not wish to treat with the masses, but dabbled in unsavory concoctions to gain whatever effect they so desired.
He was going to have to be on his guard for whatever nasty surprise Faris in mind.
Another hour of this, and then Isra realized that Faris had retraced his steps, returning to a shop that had already benefited from his patronage. Only it wasn’t a shop, it was a pesh den. The one where he had first slipped out through the rear door and made off over the wall. And suddenly it all became clear: the fool still thought he was being followed, but that the eyes watching him belonged to a bigger fool than him. His little detour was supposed to have gone unnoticed, with Isra tricked into thinking that Faris had been inside losing himself in some narcotic haze all this time. Perhaps the revelation of Isra’s second life hadn’t been enough to dispel the illusions he’d woven around his first one after all?
He watched Faris walk tall, happy to be seen on his journey back to his home.
The man was whistling.
He deserved to die just for that.
∗ ∗ ∗
"Every face is a mask."
Night fell fast. That was the twin curse and boon of living in a desert land.
Isra visited the house he had bought for his sister and her family. He was an unwelcome guest. He had never resented the gift, nor even considered it an act of generosity. She had married for love instead of money, and that had always made him happy.
The bargain he had struck with himself was simple enough: if Faris treated her well, then he would make sure sufficient money came in from investments for them to live well. And despite his duplicity, Faris at least loved and cared for her and wanted to provide for his family, just like any man would, even if no amount of money would be enough.
They weren’t going to be on any boat tonight, meaning Isra was about to make a widow of her. For all his arguments to the contrary, Faris was right in one thing: Isra was quite capable of being a cold-hearted bastard.
Under cover of darkness, Isra wore yet another mask, this one transforming him into the Nightwalker.
In the unlikely event that he was seen, people would walk away. That was the beauty of being one of the most renowned and feared men in a city. Even though the chances that he was hunting them were slim, no one was willing to take the risk when the alternative was to run and live.
Faris would be waiting for him. That was inevitable. Isra could only hope the man had the good grace to do it somewhere private. He had no wish to kill the merchant in front of his sister, and especially not the boy. The trauma of watching his father die would scar Munir for life, turning him into the real victim tonight. No, Isra wouldn’t let that happen.
The house was larger than they needed, the gardens far more ornate than was practical, with a huge fishpond that looked like a knife scar in the moonlight. The main house was three stories high; the top floor taken up with the sleeping quarters, the middle floor with Faris’s study and work rooms, and the ground with kitchens and artisanal spaces. The huge gabled roof was weighed down by overhanging eaves.
From his hiding place, Isra could see Faris pacing back and forth before the study window. He appeared to be alone, but Isra wasn’t about to risk taking anything at face value. He made sure his mask was in place. Appearances could always be deceptive.
He had a decision to make. Or, more accurately, he had the first of many decisions to make. He couldn’t go into the house through the front doors, that was a given. He had already planned out a relatively simple traverse up and across a vine-covered wall that would take him up onto the roof. From there he’d swing down again, coming into the house though the open window of the room where Faris had chosen to make his stand. There was every chance that Faris was both hoping and expecting him to enter the house by that route, and had planned for it. Poison on the windowsill, a needle in the shutter to deliver it straight into his bloodstream, or a crossbow bolt lined up ready to punch through his heart and push him out of the window to a tragic death... or any of many other scenarios. But the truth was any other way could be just as dangerous, if not more so, because they entailed having to move through the house from room to room without dragging his sister and her boy into the middle of things.
Of course it all hinged on whether Faris had decided to make his stand or not.
∗ ∗ ∗
Faris was ready for him; he must have heard Isra's footsteps on the roof.
There was a moment when Isra was vulnerable, as he slipped in through the window. Faris could have lunged then—he had a dagger gripped in his hand—but something made him step back.
He waved the knife, motioning for Isra to stay back. It was as though he’d completely blocked the death of his two bodyguards from his mind. Perhaps it was a coping mechanism?
“I've decided to stay,” he said.
The mask covered Isra’s disappointment. “Unfortunately, that isn't your decision to make. I was quite clear when I told you what would happen if you tried to stay here. We both know you can’t be trusted, and you’ve had all the choices I’m ever going to offer you. You made the wrong one. And now I won’t trust you with anything, least of all my sister.”
“Trust!” Faris spat. “You talk about trust when all you do is lie? Everything about you is a lie, Isra. You pretend to be one thing when you’re really another. You offer me everything I want, but without actually giving anything away. You are a liar, plain and simple. I could kill you now and no one would blame me.”
“Look at where you are, who you are. You’re not my brother-in-law here; you’re an assassin. You’re the Nightwalker. You've broken into my home. I don’t know it’s you beneath that mask, Isra. I have a right to protect my family.” His grin was cruel. In his headl, he was already making all of the excuses he would need to cover himself with the Pactmasters.
“I didn't want to have to do this,” said Isra, closing the gap between them.
Before he could get within striking distance, Faris hurled a high-backed chair into his path.
Isra danced back a step, staying out of reach.
“What's the matter?” called a voice from the other side of the door. Sana.
Isra wanted to call out to her, to tell her not to come in, but he knew her well enough to know that that would only bring her into the room. She was contrary like that.
“Quickly,” Faris cried, a fake note of panic in his voice. It was ludicrous pantomime, and no one in her right mind would have been taken in by it. His eyes were bright with bitter mirth. There was no smile.
Sana didn't get help.
She opened the door just as both men knew she would.
“What’s wrong?” she started to say, but then caught sight of the Nightwalker standing by the window.
Isra held out a hand, trying to calm his sister before she could panic, but he knew the sight of him there, in her house, was a terrifying one. He should have left then and there, just taken two steps back and jumped out of the window. But he didn’t. Instead, he remained rooted to the spot, while she moved closer to her husband.
That solidarity cut deeper than any knife possibly could. Even though there was no way that she could recognize him, it hurt Isra that she would go to this snake for protection.
Instead of pushing her behind him, though, Faris put her between him and Isra, using Sana as a human shield.
It took her a moment to grasp that all was not as it had seemed, and then a note of genuine fear crept into her voice. “What are you doing?”
Faris ignored her. “Put down your knife,” he said.
“This is between you and me,” Isra said flatly. “There’s no need for her to be dragged into this.”
“Please Faris,” Sana cut across them. “What’s this about? What’s happening? Who is this man?”
“So many questions, dear wife,” Faris rasped in her ear. “All you need to know is that this is the man who wants your husband dead.”
She wasn’t satisfied. Panic was slowly being replaced by anger. The fear remained, kept in check by some very basic survival instinct. “You’re hurting me, Faris.” She didn’t try to break free of his grasp.
“He will not attack a woman. He only kills those he’s paid to kill. He’s honorable like that. He won’t kill someone who simply gets in the way. Don't you know who he is?”
No. Please, no. Don't tell her. Isra gritted his teeth. He could only make the plea in his mind. She would recognize his voice. Maybe not instantly, but it would come to her eventually. He didn’t want Sana to know what he had become. The extent of his folly was driven home in that one moment of clarity.
“Do you want her death on your hands Nightwalker?”
Mute, Isra remained motionless, fighting every single muscle in his body as they tensed, ready to explode with brutal force.
Any lingering hope that this might resolve itself peacefully died then.
This wasn’t going to end well for Faris.
“Do you know where I’ve been today, Nightwalker?” Faris raised an eyebrow. His ugliness seemed to become more physical with every breath he took, as though the blackness inside was manifesting itself on his skin. “I have been to see the alchemists, apothecaries, and every practitioner of tainted magic I could track down. And can you think why?” It was a rhetorical question. “No? Then let me tell you, brother.” Isra winced, hoping Sana would miss the familiarity in the taunt. “I’ve coated the runnels along the edge of this blade with a poison so toxic that I need only touch the steel to flesh for it to take effect. It’s a very particular poison. It will paralyze in moments, but not kill. That will only happen if I break the skin. There is no antidote. Nothing that can be done to reverse the process. Do you take my meaning, Nightwalker?”
Until that moment, Isra hadn’t noticed that Faris was wearing gloves, but now it made sense. The man held the blade only inches from Sana's throat. His words had the desired effect: she stopped struggling against him. The first tears broke and ran down her cheeks as her world was turned upside down. She was a feisty woman, always had been, but she wasn’t physically strong enough to free herself. Certainly not without her bastard of a husband touching the poisoned dagger to her cheek. She knew it and he knew it.
“Better not cut yourself, then.” Isra said.
“This blade was meant for you, Nightwalker.”
“Did you really believe I’d let you close enough to prick me with it, Faris? You’re a bigger fool than I took you for. Put it down and let her go. It doesn’t have to end like this.”
“Oh, but it does,” Faris said.
There was movement on the other side of the door. Both men heard it.
Faris’s grip around his wife’s throat tightened, an element of panic stealing into his face as the boy, Munir, appeared in the doorway. “Father?”
The boy caught sight of Isra then, but rather than being frightened by the black-clad assassin, he didn’t seem to be concerned at all. Isra remembered the moment back at the ball when he thought the boy had seen him. Did he know? Or was he just too young to understand what was happening here?
“Get out of here, Munir. Back to bed. Now.”
“You’re hurting her.”
“Don’t argue with me, boy. Bed.”
Faris turned his head. It was the smallest of movements, but Isra sensed this might be his only chance to end this well. He closed half of the distance between them before Faris realized he was on the move.
A look between rage and disbelief flashed across the merchant’s face. Then, coldly and deliberately, Faris yanked Sana’s head back and drew the blade across his wife's throat.
Arterial blood pulsed, the first spray describing a huge arc that spattered down Isra’s face and chest, the second and third smaller, until the blood barely bubbled from the wound.
“I might not be able to fight you, brother dearest, but I can take someone you love.”
Rage like nothing he had ever experienced surged through Isra. It was thunder in his blood. Lightning in his veins. It was a desert khamsin inside his skull, pounding relentlessly against his temples, trying to shatter the plates of bone. It was a djinn whipping up sand to blast his skull to dust.
Isra had never killed in rage. Ever. The Nightwalker was always in total control of mind and body. Death was clean and swift, delivered with one eye on escape. Control meant no mistakes, no unnecessary suffering.
But Isra wanted Faris to suffer. He wanted him to scream and beg and plead for his life. He wanted to break him and every bone in his worthless body. A thousand cuts could never be enough. He wanted to flay the skin from his back, to shred the flesh as he peeled it away from his bones. And he wanted Faris to feel it all.
He pulled twin daggers from the sheathes on his hips, blades flashing in a blur of motion. He cut high, across Faris’ cheek, and low across his belly, opening the gut up. Faris dropped the poison-tainted blade, falling to his knees and clutching his stomach as a rope of intestine slowly began to unravel through his fingers. He tried desperately to force his guts back inside his body. He was dead, but didn’t realize it.
Isra could have left him then. It would have taken days for the murderer to finally die.
But that wasn’t enough.
Faris’s screams curdled in his throat as Isra opened a second cut on his face, matching the first. “Smile,” the assassin said coldly, and cut again, scraping the knife across Faris’ forehead. Blood streamed down into the man’s eyes.
The assassin walked around the dead man, grasping a tangle of hair and wrenching his hand back, scalping Faris. It was brutal and ugly. His hands were slick with his brother-in-law’s blood, but it was his sister’s that burned him.
He pushed the man to the floor. Blood soaked the boards.
Isra walked around him again, then pulled Faris over onto his back and went to work once more.
Faris’ body was so far lost to shock that he almost certainly couldn’t feel a thing.
Isra didn’t care.
Heavy footsteps sounded on the bottom stairs. Two men, Faris’s help, came rushing up the stairs, too late to save anyone.
The assassin’s blades peeled away layers of skin and meat, scraping down to the ribs. He reached in, snapping two of the bones so that he could reach in and tear out the heart. Isra wanted to feel it stop beating in his fist, but Faris was already gone.
Isra was so blind to his surroundings that he missed Munir bending to grip the poisoned knife in both hands. The first he heard was the slap of bare feet on bloody floorboards as the boy ran at him, blade gripped thrust out before him.
Isra looked up a fraction of a second before the boy could plunge the knife into his throat and reacted instinctively, slapping the boy’s wrists so hard his hands sprang open and the poisoned blade spun away, clattering to the floor. The force of the blow sent the boy sprawling through his parents’ blood. Isra picked up Faris's knife and plunged it into the man’s corpse.
It was over.
The footsteps pounded reached the top of the stairs, dragging him back to the present.
He had to get out, and quickly.
Isra snatched up his knives, and with one backward glance to check on the boy, slipped through the window again just as two men burst into the room. They were muscle-bound thugs built for intimidation, not for running across rooftops, and they knew it. Neither made a move to follow as Isra leaped from the window ledge and disappeared into the night.
∗ ∗ ∗
Half an hour later, he was cleaned up and changed into his normal attire, and had the reek of alcohol back on his breath; he was Isra the merchant prince once again, though today all the cares of the world had come home to roost. He would never be the same again. He was grateful that he could enter his sister's home by the front door this time.
There was no need to climb the stairs. He knew what was up there.
He was shaking as he listened to the bodyguard describe what had happened, and how he had caught a glimpse of the bastard Nightwalker disappearing through the window. The man made himself sound like a hero. He had given chase, but the assassin had used black spells to throw him off the roof and he’d barely escaped with his life.
It was all rubbish. Isra didn’t care. Let the man pretend.
“I’ve sent word to the Pactmasters,” the bodyguard said, “but there’s not much they can do for Master Faris or your sister. Do you want to see the bodies?”
Isra shook his head. “No.”
“Young master Munir is in his playroom. I fear he saw everything.”
“I’ll take him with me. Then, when I’m gone, I want you to burn this house to the ground. I don’t want him to have to see it ever again. Will you do that?”
“I don’t think—”
“I’m not asking you to think. I’m asking you to do one thing for me. I’ll see you are well paid for it. Can I trust you?”
The man nodded.
“Good. Trust’s so important.” Isra meant it on levels the bodyguard couldn’t possibly grasp.
He went through to the boy’s playroom, hesitating at the doorway to put on yet another mask, though this was the most difficult one of all to draw down. He had just made the boy an orphan. He didn’t know if he was going to be able to look the child in the eye and lie—or worse, if he wasn’t going to have to. He wasn’t sure what he would do if the boy knew... But he’d find out soon enough.
He knocked once on the door and opened it.
Munir lay on a cot-seat, his face turned away from the door. Isra wondered if Munir had consciously chosen to lie facing his parents’ bodies on the other side of the wall, or if it was coincidence.
He sat on the edge of the bed and rested a hand on Munir’s arm.
The boy didn’t react.
Isra made a promise to himself and to his sister in the room beyond: he would take the boy under his wing and be the father he deserved.
He spoke softly, saying anything that came into his head, but the boy didn’t seem to hear any of it.
The one thing Isra didn’t say was that everything was going to be all right.
Isra gathered Munir into his arms.
“Is there anything you want to bring? A toy? Something special to you?”
Munir didn’t answer. He pressed his face into Isra’s chest.
Isra could feel their blood on his skin. No amount of scrubbing had been able to cleanse him. Surely the boy could smell it on him? Surely he knew who Isra was? What he had done?
Munir didn’t fight him as Isra carried him out of the house for the last time.
Tomorrow it would be a ghost, just like the boy’s parents.
The only ghost Isra had ever intended to create was the Nightwalker’s. But something else had happened in that room. Instead of dying, the Nightwalker had become immortal.
That side of him, the killer, would live forever.
Coming Next Week: Ghouls and goddesses in a sample chapter from James L. Sutter’s new Pathfinder Tales novel, Death’s Heretic!
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.