Blood and Money

by Steven Savile

Chapter Two: The Masquerade

The fact that someone wanted him dead was a bitter pill for Isra to swallow, but not a particularly surprising one. Act like an idiot long enough, splashing the cash and taking it as gospel that every woman in the city had been put there for your pleasure, and you were going to incur a certain amount of jealousy. That was just part of the image he had cultivated to hide the Nightwalker from prying eyes. And he was good at it. No one in their right mind would suspect Isra Darzi was capable of anything beyond getting drunk and making passes at the lithe, long-legged ladies.

Of course there was the risk that went along with the kind of women he chased—or rather the husbands of these beautiful creatures, who had the nasty habit of thinking they owned them. But that was all just part of the game.

And Isra was rather fond of the game.

No, the thing that disturbed him was the fact that, of all the assassins in the city, the Nightwalker had been hired to carry out the kill. The Nightwalker was by far the most sought-after killer in Katapesh. His contracts commanded vast sums of money because they were always completed. Always. Like death and taxes, the Nightwalker was one of the few things that could be relied upon. Which of course made this whole thing slightly farcical. How was he supposed to kill himself and uphold the legend of the Nightwalker without actually killing himself?

At least three people knew his services had been retained: the client, his agent Mirza, and him. Mirza wouldn’t talk—it wasn’t in his interest to slay the legend, not when he lived off the commissions it brought in. So that left the client.

When someone wanted a man dead, it usually went one of three ways: One, they blustered and shouted about it drunkenly in a tavern, making idle threats. Two, they made some half-assed attempt themselves and generally botched it. Or three, they got serious about it. And the Nightwalker was very much part of option three.

So the question was twofold: who wanted him dead, and of that long list of jilted lovers, cuckolded husbands, and bankrupted merchants he’d left trailing in his wake, who could afford the price?

He felt reasonably sure he could discount the traders, given that when he was through with them they were invariably too poor to rub two coins together.

Katapesh was a thriving city. Anything and everything could be and was traded, no matter how exotic or expensive. In any mercantile hub there were rich men—lots of them. Where one man could profit at the misfortune of another, it was assured that the rich and powerful would cluster around like vultures waiting to pick off the dead and dying. Isra had rivals. He wasn’t naive enough to think otherwise. Two or three were certainly wealthy enough, but they were also the closest things he had to friends. Not that friendship meant they could be ruled out. How many times had one friend stabbed another in the back?

Then there were the jealousies that went hand-in-hand with being family. His own brother-in-law, Faris, married to his sister, Sana, made no secret of his envy. But Faris was a coward. He was the kind of man who chose option one, getting drunk and blowing hot air, listing all of the tortures he’d visit on Isra’s skin. But once the drink had worn off Faris would crawl back under his stone. Isra had very little time for the man, but his sister seemed to be taken in by his “charms.” They had a young son, Munir, who thought his father could do no wrong, though the boy’s affection was not always returned. Invariably when Isra went round to play the favorite uncle, Munir would end up with his arms wrapped around the assassin’s legs, begging him not to go.

But if it was one of this select group of suspects—friends and family—then from what he knew of them, they were all more than capable of carrying out the killing themselves, and would quite probably have enjoyed it. They certainly weren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty. So that would have put them squarely in the option two category. It all came down to means, motive, and opportunity. He couldn’t control means, but the client certainly had them, as well as a motive. What he could control was the opportunity.

Isra already had the first inklings of a plan coming together in his mind. He needed to draw the knife for his would-be killer.

It would need to be carefully orchestrated. But if he could manipulate his enemy into attacking him, and make sure it happened in front of a whole host of witnesses who would willingly testify to the seemingly unprovoked assault, full of outrage and shock that one of their own could go bad, he could kill three birds with the one proverbial stone.

Well, kill one bird—the client. Safeguarding both his identity as the Nightwalker and the assassin’s untarnished reputation were more like protecting the other two birds, if you were going to be picky about it.

Of course it would have been a lot easier if he knew who wanted him dead.

∗ ∗ ∗

The social scene was such that two days was not considered to be too short notice for a party; exclusivity demanded a certain amount of secrecy, after all. Lavish banquets could be brought together in a matter of hours. But then, with the market stalls filled to overflowing with every treat imaginable—and many unimaginable—Katapesh was a gourmand’s paradise. The cost was of no concern. Wealth necessitated a certain extravagance as far as Isra’s carefully cultivated reputation was concerned.

Invitations had been dispatched to the great and the good, the rich, the devious, the powerful and the influential—in short, anyone who was anyone in the city received the enigmatic card with the time, the date, and Isra Darzi’s crest. He liked the simplicity of it, treating the invitation as a summons rather than a request. It appealed to his sense of importance in terms of the social structure of the city. He was fairly certain that whoever wanted him dead would be there, blindly oblivious to the fact that they were the guests of honor.

Knowing the way the mind worked, Isra was fairly safe in thinking that anyone who failed to attend could be ruled out. Hosting the party—and a masquerade at that—was effectively painting a target on his own back. The masks assured a level of anonymity that would make it so much more difficult for any would-be killer to resist the chance to wield the knife himself.

It all came down to managing the opportunity. Isra had to ensure that each of his suspects had equal chance, not only to slit his throat, but to get away with it—hence the masks. They offered the illusion of facelessness, and in his experience cowards were braver when they didn’t think people could see them.

The notion of a masked ball appealed to Isra’s sense of humor. On the morning of the masquerade he had a second package delivered to each of the four men he suspected of wanting him dead: animal masks. There was a different one for each of his would-be killers, each reflecting his own thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the recipient’s personality: a calopus, a jackal, a lizard-skinned razorscale, and a mongrel dhabba in turn. It amused Isra to take the joke a little further, and along with each mask was a note assuring the guest that his host would be donning an ass’s head.

In fact, Isra had no intention of actually being at the gala for more than a few minutes, and certainly not in the guise of an ass. Yet such was the expectation when it came to Isra Darzi, ever the joker, and the deception could only help with his shell game. In reality, Isra would be far up above the party, lurking among the rafters or in the shadows of the eaves. Watching. He had tethered his proverbial goat as bait, now all he had to do was wait and see who came for it.

∗ ∗ ∗

"An assassin cannot afford mercy—nor expect any for herself."

Isra donned his mask. He had chosen to be a great black-feathered bird. Guests were still arriving, and the chatter as they mingled was at first muted, the music of the string orchestra swelling to fill the domed chamber, its echo giving the notes a haunting quality as they swam around the animals below.

Dragon danced with camelopard, lion with janni and sand eel. Robbed of their features, every woman was more beautiful simply by the grace of her movement, the curve of hip and thigh, and the suppleness of her limbs as she moved across the dance floor. Each man, on the other hand, seemed to take on the persona of his chosen mask, the bulls pushing through the crowd, the pugwampis skirting the edge and watching the women, the calopi prancing and the peacocks preening. Human behavior never ceased to amaze Isra, and here, playing out beneath him on the dance floor and around its skirts, was a perfect encapsulation of city life and the social strata of Katapesh. The pig and the boar, he saw, gravitated to the food, eating with their hands.

The music changed, the tempo picking up. It was reflected on the dance floor with the animals moving gracefully from partner to partner, taking hands, bowing heads, drawing bodies close in the anonymity of their masks so that they might push up against each other in ways they never would have dared without them.

The ass moved through the crowd, tossing his head back and braying every now and then, before leading a swan onto the dance floor. The ass assayed a bow, and then began a crudely amusing courtship dance. For five minutes he was very much the center of attention. Isra took the opportunity to slip down from the rafters, moving swiftly and surely to the balcony, then from the balcony down into the press of bodies below. The mask was snug. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck, mingling with the stitched feathers to make a heady musk.

Isra moved freely amongst the assembled guest without actually getting involved in conversation with anyone. After all, everyone knew the ass was the host. No one wondered or cared about the great bird flitting through their midst. He kept visual contact with his doppelganger, never letting the ass’s head out of sight. He hadn’t prepped his stand-in beyond telling the man to make sure he was seen, to play the gracious host, to flirt outrageously with the women, and to carouse and make merry—meaning the actor had no idea quite how much danger he was in. As long as he remained the centre of attention he’d be relatively safe, though of course more than one assassin used the sheer exposed nature of public gatherings and the press of the throng to cover his actions. But those were professionals. Isra was dealing with ruthless businessmen here, not ruthless killers, though they did share certain instincts. It was when Isra gave the signal for the ass to move out onto the balcony, out of prying eyes, that things could turn interesting.

Isra slipped out through the balcony doors. He had driven three metal spikes into the wall to make a ladder. Success or failure came down to preparation, and that meant controlling every variable he could possibly control. He climbed them quickly, pressing his back to the sandstone. He was gambling that any would-be assassin wouldn’t look up. It was a safe bet. The killer would want to drive the knife home and get off the balcony fast. Anything over a few seconds out there would increase the chance of discovery.

The ass’s head lingered with a small group of women for a while before making his excuses. The balcony doors opened, and the man came through. He leaned on the balcony rail, taking the night air. It was a blessed relief to be out here in the cool, and for once Isra found himself hoping it would take the killer a while to pluck up the courage to do the deed, just so that he could enjoy the relief from the sweaty heat of the ballroom.

No one else came through the doors for five minutes, and then the only visitor was a woman intent on getting him alone. She came up behind the ass’s head, wrapped her arms around his waist and whispered something into his cauliflower ear. The decoy brayed out a laugh, slapped the woman on her own ass and sent her scurrying back into the ball.

Isra’s muscles began to cramp, but he’d spent hours in worse situations. It was all about discipline and keeping the blood circulating. He flexed and relaxed his thighs, working the individual muscles one at a time.

He lingered a few minutes more, and with nothing happening was about to give up on the fishing expedition and send the decoy back inside, ready to believe that he’d been wrong, when the unmistakable head of the black jackal peered in through the balcony arch. His brother-in-law, Faris.

Isra didn’t move. He willed Faris to announce himself, to come out onto the balcony and slap the ass heartily on the back, all good friends together.

Any hope Isra still maintained was dispelled by Faris’s single furtive glance. The jackal gave a signal to someone else behind him, then disappeared back into the crowd of revelers. The music swelled again, then lowered, partygoers whooping and cheering as the belly dancers began. The bells on their hips and toes and wrists replaced the strings, creating an entirely new melody.

A woman, wearing the head of a meerkat, slipped out through the door and onto the balcony. There was nothing seductive about her movement, and she clearly had no intention of flirting with the ass. It took Isra a heartbeat to realize Faris’ game: he had bought another assassin with him.

Isra slipped down from his perch without so much as a whisper from the fabric of his clothing, and half-stepped, half-stumbled deliberately into the meerkat’s back, pushing her off balance, then grasping at her as though to hold himself up, just a moment before her blade would have plunged into his stand-in’s back. The meerkat cried out in surprise, losing her balance, but before she could react, Isra swept her feet out from beneath her and dropped onto her back, driving his knee into the base of her spine, hard. He cuffed her around the temple with the hilt of his knife with enough force to leave her reeling, and then looked up at the confused decoy.

“She's drunk,” Isra said. “I will take care of her. You’ve done well, but you can go now.”

The ass nodded, maintaining the silence he’d been paid for, and went back inside to enjoy the gyrations of the belly dancers. It was the way of things. He had done what he had been paid for, no more, no less, and no explanations were needed. After all, he had no idea that Isra been playing the part of guardian angel, nor how close the assassin’s blade had come.

Isra slipped his hands beneath the meerkat’s mask and pulled it off to get a proper look at the woman. He didn’t recognize her, but her pale complexion marked her as an outsider. The fear was only evident in her eyes, and she was quickly mastering that.

Isra bent down so that his face was only inches from her ear, and whispered, “Do you know who I am?”

The woman didn’t try to move—not that she could have with his weight pressing down on her.

“I am Isra Darzi,” he said, slipping the blackbird mask from his face. He placed it on the floor next to her mask. He saw the momentary realization flicker through her eyes. He was the mark, and she’d been fooled into showing her hand.

“Yes,” he whispered, nodding. “But I am also so much more than that. You might know me by another name. They call me the Nightwalker.”

The woman struggled desperately, wriggling around like a worm beneath him, but no matter how fiercely she fought him, she couldn’t free herself from the pressure of Isra's knee in the base of her spine.

She tried to cry out, but the assassin pressed her face so hard to the floor that she could barely spit out a muffled groan, and that was more than drowned out by the cheers for the belly dancers.

Isra grasped a tangle of the woman’s hair, yanking her head back, and then leaned in close, like a lover, wrapping his free hand around her neck and up beside her jaw. He didn’t say a word as he released her hair and brought his hand around to cup her other cheek. He gave both a sharp twist. She twitched, dead nerves giving one last command to her muscles, bucking beneath him, and lay still.

He had been taught the technique as a child, killing chickens for the kitchen table. There wasn’t much different between the physiognomy of the species when it came to their necks and the damage breaking them caused. Killing, done properly, was about ending life, not enjoying the suffering of the victim.

Isra slipped the bird mask back onto the dead woman and picked up the discarded mask that she had been wearing.

Faris would be looking for her to re-join the festivities, and despite the obvious biological differences, Isra and the woman were actually a similar build, so if he moved quickly there was every chance he might pass for her as he slipped back into the crowd of bodies.

But first he had to dispose of the corpse.

He pitched the dead woman off the balcony, wincing at the crash it made as it landed in the bushes, and turned to go back inside.

Isra caught the briefest glimpse of someone rushing away from the balcony doors. Someone who wasn’t supposed to have been at the masquerade. Someone that may well have witnessed everything. Someone who, more tellingly, might well have heard everything...

That in itself wouldn’t have been cause for undue concern. Loose ends could always be tied up. But Isra knew it wasn’t going to be that simple. He couldn’t believe the damned fool Faris had brought Munir—his own son, and Isra’s nephew—with him to the party.

Isra really didn’t want to have to kill the boy.

But, all things considered, he would happily wring his brother-in-law’s neck.

Coming Next Week: Threats and promises in Chapter Three 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

Illustration by Florian Stitz.

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Tags: Blood and Money Florian Stitz Pathfinder Tales Steven Savile

Loving this series thus far!

Androlphas wrote:
Loving this series thus far!

Thanks, glad you're having fun with it.

Androlphas wrote:
Loving this series thus far!

Seconded! This is great stuff.

Monrail wrote:
Androlphas wrote:
Loving this series thus far!
Seconded! This is great stuff.

I can't begin to thank you guys enough for taking the time to comment, and obviously for enjoying the series. It's always really exciting and a little nerve-wracking coming into an existing world like this and trying to add your own little brand of fantasy to it, but I fell in love with the Pathfinder world when I was reading the background material, and really hope that people can feel that in the stuff. I'm also loving the tease element of one part a week... of course I know what happens next ;)

Certainly enjoying this story! The plan was so airtight, as I was reading I thought this was to be a 2-parter. Obviously not! I hope he doesn't have to kill the boy, maybe Nightwalker 2 in training?

Itchy wrote:
Certainly enjoying this story! The plan was so airtight, as I was reading I thought this was to be a 2-parter. Obviously not! I hope he doesn't have to kill the boy, maybe Nightwalker 2 in training?

You'll just have to wait and see, but part 3 hits in a couple of days, so it's not too long to wait... the brown stuff is about to hit the fan though :)

Great story - I suspect from the description of the brother-in-law that there may be more than one target on Isra's back, though.


More than one target is a good possibility. A case of mistaken identity is also. Nothing more messy and awkward for an assassin than killing the wrong person.

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