Frank Menser and Nickolas Cook
There were advantages to properly timing the more unpleasant tasks in life. The city paused in the business of the day, as the Mullahs called the faithful to worship in the late afternoon. The loud cries from the minarets, from which sounded the devotion were not too different from the cries of one who needed to be slain; or so the murderer hoped. He had plied his craft, carefully timing it for this reason, leading the man out of the market place and the mid-day heat, under the excuse of seeking a cooler place to converse.
The slayer looked up from the corpse whose throat he had just slit. “Ashta,” the man had called him; the words formed on frothy blood foamed lips as he died. It did not matter to Ashta that his name should be known to his victim; his words reached no one in the back alley. They had been alone.
Ashta grunted as he wiped his knife on the garments of the man. Ashta was not his born name, but as a name, it worked for the moment—even if as names went, it was rather short. Longer names Ashta knew were for the rich who could afford to maintain the luxury of excess verbiage. He was, but a simple cut-purse and part time assassin from an obscure village in east Turkistan. Sometimes people called him Ashta the Slicer, but never in public, where one could loose a hand, or a head for such embellishments. Ashta did not care what they called him; as long as he was paid.
Ashta pulled the corpse out of the middle of the alley, tucking it behind some wicker baskets. He then kicked some sand over the blood trail. They would find it soon enough, he knew. But at least he would have time to escape.
He reached into his vest and withdrew an amulet. The man, a Genoese trader, had been wearing the bauble; which was the reason for his death. Ashta had been contracted to retrieve this by a powerful local Emir’s slave. Though heavy, it appeared to be a cheap piece, just red amber in the shape of a teardrop. It was mounted in copper, as was the chain. Ashta looked at the back of it. Except from some odd looking protrusions, it appeared flat and featureless. Aside from its value as a jewel, Ashta did not know why it had been so important for this lord to obtain, that a cutthroat of his abilities had to be hired; instead of just regular soldiers, of which the Emir had plenty.
The trader had also spoken a name, “Nephilette.” It was not a name familiar to him, but Ashta felt an odd chill as he repeated the word out loud. The name and the amulet held power; he could sense it, almost like the power that emanated from it poured its heat into his veins. He felt energized.
Ashta considered the bag of gold waiting for him as reward; some how money seemed trivial when compared to the thing in his hand. Ashta found himself drawn into its amber eye. This…he decided, was worth keeping. It meant trouble. Seeing—and possessing— Ashta knew, were two things often separated by death. In this case, it was likely to be his. There was a mystery here, of a dark and sinister kind. For a moment he considered delivering it to the Emir. That, he sensed, would be practical. But Ashta knew Allah never favored the unadventurous.
Ashta tucked the bauble back inside his vest. Then, pulling his veil up over his face, and shedding his bloody robe, he made it back into the market where he found an open space in the kneeling crowd and assumed the position of the faithful.
Emir Asreth Ben Abu Dali toyed with his beard in frustration, as his slave, Chalem made his report. Ashta had been correct; the trader’s body did not stay hidden long. Stray dogs were tearing the corpse when the Emir’s guard found it. A quick search had revealed that the amulet had been taken. The Emir had no doubt that the tall lanky thief had it in his possession. “By the seven gates of Hell,” he cursed, “I shall hang his rotted head above the city square.”
Leaving his slave behind, Asreth slid behind some nearby curtains which hid the door to a hidden passage. He climbed down a long flight of stairs. Grabbing a torch from a nearby wall he mumbled some words and the torch lit. Asreth followed the lead of the flame through a myriad of corridors that ran deep beneath the palace. Finally, he entered a room that was darker than the rest. A room blocked by heavy iron bars. Asreth withdrew a key from his pocket and opened the lock. “I need you to serve me,” he said to the one within.
The streets of Karahissar were rich with activity in the early evening hours. Beneath the shadow of its rocky cliffs, men paid but lip service to the teachings of the Prophet regarding vices.
Ashta found himself a lovely companion, a sultry Spanish girl named Pilar. He had come upon her in a clothing shop where she was working for scraps. The owner seemed eager to part with his foundling employee and added her to the price of a robe. As they walked, Pilar told him that she was formerly a slave to a Moor who had fled the Inquisition in Cadiz; only to fall victim to the curved blade of an Ottoman soldier. Ashta knew well who the man was. They had quarreled and the dead soldier was the source of the gold in his pocket. Ashta was not about to leak that knowledge to the girl, for if she talked, it could cost him his head. So he remained silent and to the best of his abilities; polite. Pilar had a nice spread of hips that he preferred investigating under more pleasant circumstances. So, garbed in his new ill gotten regalia; and with one hand grasping a wine sack, the other around Pilar, Ashta was quite unprepared for the pair of ruffians that blocked his path.
“Hold Dog,” said the larger of the two, a stout Arab, who brandished a Kattara sword. “You have gold enough to please the houri; perhaps you might share some with us.” His companion, a lean pox scarred Berber in a blue turban, skulked behind his friend with his hand on the hilt of his own scimitar; which was still tucked in his sash. His eyes never stopped moving.
“And if I choose not too?”
Then you shall taste of a different metal,” the Arab said raising his blade and slicing the air.
“Fool,” Ashta spat, “you wave your blade like it would stir a breeze to cool us.” He roughly shoved Pilar to the corner of a nearby building, not for her protection as much as to give him room to fight. Then he let his robe fall from his shoulders, spinning it so it was loosely wrapped around his left arm. He drew his curved pulwar from its scabbard just in time to parry the downward stoke of the Arab’s sword. At that moment the Berber lunged forward, seizing Ashta’s robe with both hands and pulling hard. Thrown off balance by the move, Ashta fell over backward, narrowly missing the backstroke of the Arab. The Berber tugged again at the robe and it came free. Ashta who was flat on his back was too busy to care. The Arab struck again and again, using his blade like a hammer on the prostrate giant. Finally he appeared to tire, for the blows became sloppy. Ashta noticed the man was wheezing.
“You had best come to a fight in better shape, you fat cow,” Ashta said, springing to his feet. Ducking another blow, he slashed sideways with his pulwar, slitting open the Arabs belly. The man dropped to his knees clutching his guts. Ashta struck again, his blade slitting the throat of his attacker. He turned to look for his other attacker.
The Berber had retreated down the alley, taking with him Ashta’s robe. “Curse him,” Ashta said, “I will have to buy new clothing.” He wiped his blade on the corpse and then checked his sash and found his purse was still there. But the amulet was gone. Then he remembered; it was tucked in the pocket of his robe.
“By Allah’s breath, no wonder the dog ran off. He must have felt the weight of it and thought he had my money.” Ashta paused, feeling a strange sense of emptiness wash over him. He would not rest till he found that Berber and retrieved the amulet from his corpse.
Turning to the girl who was cowering where he left her, Ashta yanked her to her feet. “Come with me wench; this night has been costly. Let us see if you can make me forget that.” Ashta threw the girl over his shoulder and headed off into the night in search of an inn.
The night’s dreams came and went with troubling clarity. There was a woman; one of incredible dusky beauty, but cloaked in shadows. She wore a veil—translucent, and set in dark pearls and gold, but dark so her face was not known to him. Yet Ashta felt as if there were a frightening familiarity to those masked features. If he could just lift the veil; so close, but beyond his reach. For a moment he caught her stare. There were worlds in her eyes, strange places where cosmos whirled like dervishes lost in the dreams found in opium dens. Beyond her masked features, Ashta could sense Horror. Scenes of violence and death by the thousands, unmentionable acts of torture and debauchery presided over by the dancing voluptuary. As she danced her long fingers tipped with black nails flexed like claws. Ashta stood transfixed by the sight of her awful beauty, and yet she seemed trapped as well, dancing within the red amber confines of the jewel…
Near dawn Ashta awoke to find the girl had slipped away. He did not care, she had been soft and satisfying enough; the coin spent upon her did not seem wasted. Ashta reached over to the table by his mat. His purse was there, a bit lighter, but not by much. A thief himself, he appreciated that she had been courteous enough to not leave him broke. Ashta laughed as he twisted the ends of his long red mustache. “Allah gives and takes.”
Downstairs at the inn, Ashta ate his breakfast; some bread dipped in olive oil which he washed down with a cup of goat’s milk. Tossing a coin into the hands of the innkeeper, a fat Syrian; he made his way out to the street.
Ashta gazed up at the fortress atop the mountain. Any troops sent to watch the streets had to come from there. If he stayed there for any time, he would have to learn their schedules, the better to time his own enterprises. However, this morning Ashta’s mind was set on one thing; locating the Berber thief.
Setting his direction towards the center of the city, Ashta walked through the market place ignoring the vendors who screamed the virtues of their wares; silks from Syria, rich spices from the south. One merchant shoved an orchid into Ashta’s face while exhorting the virtue of such flowers in obtaining women. The Turcoman shoved past him and continued on till he reached an alley. This is what he was looking for, The Street of Thieves.
Every city had one, though it did not go by that name, lest some ambitious Caliph find it too easily and purge it of its inhabitants. This one was oddly enough called The Street of the Lotus. As Ashta walked through the narrow stretch, he could here whispers of dealings and the rustle of cloth, brushing doorways where desperate men ducked to hide in wait for victims to rob. Harlots stared from doorways and smiled their welcomes. Ashta knew the hand hidden under their girdles concealed the knife they used to cut purse strings—and sometimes throats. Honest men never walked this street without armed escort. Ashta walked alone. When one surly ruffian ventured too close, with a Kard knife half hidden in his hand, he growled softly in his deep voice. The man smiled the smile of a jackal recognizing his own kind. He sheathed his blade and disappeared down a side street.
At last Ashta found the place he sought, a narrow doorway in a building whose white stucco walls had seen better days. He entered and immediately found himself in a small courtyard with a garden. Beyond was another door where an armed slave stood, leaning on his spear. He spoke to someone inside and then turned to Ashta gesturing for him to enter.
“Allah’s blessings fall upon thee who enters my humble abode.” The occupant of the room was a man who looked to be well past seventy. He waved to Ashta, pointing at the cushions indicating for him to be seated. The Turcoman noted the man’s eyes looked jovial, but the calluses and scars on his heavily bejeweled hands spoke of years of active toil with weaponry. A pair of black veiled women rose from the cushions they sat on and retreated to a side room. A moment later they returned carrying mugs of wine and a platter of dates and sweetmeats. These they laid before the two men and then seated themselves in the corner.
“You are Selim the Persian?”
“Yes, if a name will suit your needs,” the oldster replied. ‘Allah has cursed me by so many names, that I fear he might not know me in Paradise.”
“Yet I am told that you know the names of many men,” Ashta said. He raised his cup and drank deeply of the wine. “I would know the name of a thief.”
“Such information as that can be unhealthy to one in my trade,” Selim said, as he bit into a date. “My skin is not as thick as this fruit—and more easily punctured.”
Ashta grunted in aggravation. The old man spoke too smoothly for his liking. He was not one to play games with words. “Your scars betray you, Selim. I fear that you are still a better swordsman than many.”
Selim leaned forward and poured more wine into Ashta’s cup. “You have the bearing of a Slav. With those blue eyes I cannot see much of one of the faithful in you. Are you a Janissary?”
“My father was—or so it’s said. In a raid my mother was cast screaming across his saddle bow and ravaged, but she never knew him after,” Ashta snarled.
“You take offence at this question?”
“Does it affect how we deal?” Ashta fought to keep his hand from his knife. The admission stung him as it was an old shame.
“No, young lion,” Selim said, “It is merely an observation. I like to know the manner of men who sit in my home.
“But, to business. What can you tell me of this man you seek? Is it a quarrel?”
“The dog stole from me. He skulked around whilst his companion, a fat Arab who was the better of the two, met with misfortune.” Ashta tossed a small bag of coin before the elder.
“I see,” said Selim, “I had heard of an Arab who had his belly slit last night. I am told that his companion left the city this morning bound for Amasia.”
“I do not know, except the Sultan Memhed with his Ottoman dogs has made a move on Constantinople. There is booty to be had for anyone who joins his host. Many have gathered to Amasia in the west to restore his flagging reserves and to gain glory for our prophet. Others may go to seek to vanish in the midst of a war.”
“And would this dog have a name?”
Selim picked up the coin purse and weighed it in his hand. “The Berber is called Balksid.”
Ashta spent the day making his preparations to journey to Amasia. For a reasonable fee, he was able to purchase from the innkeeper a horse suitable for the trip and supplies as well. From the market place he added a fine double curved bow so he could hunt game as he went. Ashta had considered a matchlock gun, but the bow struck him as more efficient. So instead, he purchased a Jaghnol, a war axe with a fixed spike on its end. To take Balksid’s head, Ashta decided with grim satisfaction.
As the Sun set, Ashta went out to seek entertainment. It would be a long dry trip to Amasia and part of him wanted to find that Spanish wench for a proper goodbye.
As he walked the back streets Ashta had the disturbing sense of being followed. He stepped back into the shadows and listened carefully to the night sounds around him. Somewhere a man was shouting in victory over a gambling win. From the sound of his voice, Ashta decided he would not keep his winnings long. Near him, he could smell the rich scent of spiced lamb. Through an open widow he could see a woman serving dinner to her family. A noise made him turn in time to see a street cur ducking into the alley behind him, growling as it passed. That must be it; he thought and resumed his search. There was a tavern just a few blocks from where Ashta walked. He set his feet in that direction.
“Who goes there?” A night watchman stepped out from a doorway scimitar in hand.
“Just a man in search of a place to drink,” Ashta said.
“Then down the road with you, or I’ll call the guard.” The man’s hand shook, so that his blade reflected flashes of light from a nearby torch.
“Peace, brother, I am on my way,” he said saluting the guard. Ashta made a mental note of where this house was. There might be some good booty to be had, and the fool guarding it would be easily dispatched. He would have to remember this place when he returned.
The tavern was disappointing. The wine was of poor quality and the women—older ex-slaves well past the blossom of their youths. In the corner, a couple of Jews were conversing. At another table, some guardsmen seemed involved in a dice game. Ashta watched the women dance for a while and then bought a jug of the best wine he could obtain. After tossing some coppers on the floor for the dancers, he left.
A mist had begun to form and the cobbled street took on an unnatural hue. The night had become quiet so the only sound was that of his own feet as they scuffled against the rough stone beneath him. Ashta sniffed the air as a sweet scent teased his nostrils. It was a rich perfume, that worn by women of a better station than he was used to. “What rich merchant would hide his love nest in this slum?” Ashta mused. At that moment his eyes came to rest on a house; one of better quality than the rest. It had a high wall, its top adorned with spikes surrounding it. Perhaps, he wondered, there might be something worth the taking there.
There was a door in the wall. It opened and a form emerged heavily wrapped in gossamer veils. It was that of a woman, tall and slender. A streetwalker or a dancing girl, Ashta noted with a grunt of satisfaction. At last the night was providing the entertainment he sought. He smiled as she approached; shedding her veils like so many skins. As they fell, her golden figure appeared for an instant to be formless—almost insubstantial—then it resumed its shape but changed into ever more enticing forms.
What is this?
The woman shed all her veils, bathing her figure—naked in the moonlight. Just one veil remained, that one hiding her face. Ashta paused taking in the full impact of her beauty. She was long limbed and long wasted, with breasts that made his hands ache with the desire to touch them. Perched in her navel; an amber jewel moved in rhythm with her dance. Her hips moved with the grace of a mountain leopard. She moved to within inches of him, dancing seductively slow. Teasing him with almost touches, her large green eyes stared—deeply locked into his. Ashta was a tall man, well over six feet; but she seemed inches taller. He reached for her; intending to crush her into his embrace, but she darted back, like a whirl of smoke, leaving the last veil in the Turk’s hand. The girl spun raising her hands like a mask, just below her eyes. So…you are some rich man’s toy; or another’s wife seeking pleasure in disguise. “You need worry not of me,” he said laughing, “Houri, I shall keep your secret tonight.”
Ashta dropped the wine jar he was holding and; reaching out with the speed of a snake, grasped her wrists and pulled her towards him intent upon a kiss.
Suddenly her eyes changed to glowing pits of amber fire, her hands dropped from her face exposing yellowed rotten teeth set in withered hairy jaws that snapped at him. Ashta recoiled. Under the sweet perfume he could smell the foul stench of the crypt on her breath.
The creature broke free from Ashta’s grasp and swung an open back-handed blow that sent the Turk tumbling to the ground. His cheek burned and he felt blood running down his face. Before he could act; with a hawk like swoop she dove at him passing inches above his body. As she did, Ashta felt her sharp claws slash at his vest. Ashta rolled to his knees and drew his pulwar, slashing as she passed over him yet again. The blade went through her like a hand through smoke. From the creature’s mouth came a cry that was an awful perversion of laughter. “What manner of demon jinni are you?” Ashta muttered.
Whatever it was, the creature flew between the Turcoman and a nearby torch, her body transparent silver smoke. Ashta lost sight of her and then winced, as icy fingernails raked his back, making him drop his sword. Then she settled into a shadow near the door of the wall; so only her face was visible. Her foul mouth assumed a deadly smile. Apparently, Ashta realized, she was not going to kill him quickly.
Grabbing his blade, he scrambled to his feet, and ran over to the torch. His blade—which was wet from the spilled wine—burst into flame. Startled, Ashta cast it away from him, right into the face of the creature.
The thing screamed in agony and for a brief second, Ashta again saw her face, opened and bloody from where the blade had cut it. Then it vanished into the night.
“Did I kill it?” Ashta searched the shadows, but there was no sign of the thing. Picking up his sword, he retreated back to the inn.
Asreth Abu Dali looked with scorn upon the jinni as she rematerialized before him. From her wounded face and empty hands, he knew she had failed. “She whom we both serve will not be happy with this,” he spat.
The jinni said nothing, but settled into a purple haze cloaking the corner of her cell. Abudali stroked a large ring on his middle finger, from which emanated a bluish glow. Where it touched, the cloud drops of blood fell like rain; staining the stone floor beneath. He heard a moan of pure agony that chilled even his corrupted soul. Abudali forced a sneer to his face.
“Next time, I will slay you,”
* * * * *
(Join us next month for the next exciting chapter of THE EYE OF TIME, an original web serial novel by Frank Menser and Nickolas Cook)