Saturday, April 9, 2011

FICTION: Assassin’s Fate By C. S. Roberts

The knife lay steady in his hand. It was perfectly balanced, crafted for one purpose and one purpose only. To take a life. He felt his steady heartbeat, his breath was calm. He was ready.

People milled around him, commoners, servants and traders alike. Zahir didn’t see them, he didn’t hear them. They were nothing to him.

From the corner of his eyes, he intently sought out one among the many. During the past weeks he’d come to know him. He probably knew the man better than the man did himself. He always came to know his targets, that was his style. Some would have rushed into killing their target to conclude the contract and collect the coin. He didn’t and he took pride in that.

He was discrete and his discretion set him apart from his fellow assassins. His killings were seldom, if ever, recognized as an assassination. That’s why most of his contractors called upon him. They needed secrecy and he could deliver.

His target paid the vendor for his wares and resumed his way across the market. He waited until the man was almost out of sight before he followed him. He took care to keep his distance, to keep enough people between himself and his target. If he was noticed too early, things could get ugly, real ugly.

“I do not want to know how,” his contractor had said. The light of a single candle on the table between them cast eerie shadows on the man’s face. The room was small, barely enough for a table and the two chairs occupying it now. “I’m told you are capable enough to figure that out for yourself.”

Zahir had only nodded. He knew the type well. They loved the melodramatic. They acted all courageous and manly, but didn’t have the stomach for the details. They weren’t like him, that’s why they needed him. He knew it and they knew it.

“This man I want you to silence,” the man continued. Couldn’t even call a spade a spade, the assassin thought sneeringly. “He’s crossed me…”

“I don’t need no reasons,” Zahir interrupted. “I only concern myself with the killing.” He smiled as he saw the man flinch at the word ‘killing’.

Resuming his composure, the man said authoritatively, “I will give them nonetheless.” All right, the man needed to air his grievances, he needed to appease his conscience, to justify himself. He’s not the first one to give into this urge. Let him. A good assassin is not only good at killing. I will pretend to listen, pretend to care.

“I have always been a friend of the people,” his contractor started. “But this man…” As the man continued to voice his reasons, Zahir’s thoughts were already on the when, where and how of the killing. How would he fulfill his contract? When would he strike? And where?

“So, do we have a deal? My coin for his death?” the man asked. Apparently, the man had finished appeasing his conscience. He put his coin on the table between himself and the assassin.

Not saying a word, Zahir took his knife and, to his contactor’s surprise, cut his left hand. Biting away the searing pain, he was used to that, he clenched his hand into a fist. His blood flowed through his fingers and unto the table.

The blood represented that blood that he would spill. It represented the commitment to see this through until the end.

“Blood will be spilled, whether it be his or mine. Blood will be spilled, to that I commit,” Zahir spoke the sacred words. These words bound him to the contract, bound his life to the contract. The candle wick flickered as if a draft disturbed its peace.

The assassin handed the knife to his contractor. With trembling hands, the man took the knife and, hesitantly, cut his left hand. A small red line formed on his palm and the blood slowly dripped onto the table.

“You know what to say?” Zahir asked the man. His eyes wide with surprise, pain and not a little fear, he barely managed to shake his head. “Then repeat after me.”

“Blood will be spilled of my accord. My debt will be paid whether in coin or in blood. To that I commit.” The man’s voice trembled as he repeated the words one at a time.

With these words, the contract was concluded. Zahir felt the familiar tingling when the oath settled into his body and cured the stinging cut in his hand. His contractor felt it too, judging by the surprise that clearly showed in his face. Definitely his first time, the assassin thought. They’re always surprised to learn of the blood oath.

“We now share a blood oath. If broken, the bond in our body will unfurl and consume our body with fire.”

And so the contract was sealed. He had left his puzzled contractor without another word.


As a young boy, Zahir had lived in the well-to-do part of town. His father had been a successful trader and although he was away from home for long stretches at a time, the boy was fond of him. But he adored his mother and was with her every chance he got. Life treated him well.

Until, when the boy had barely seen seven springs, his father had lost his job. Unable to find a new job he took up drinking as his favorite pastime. To make ends meet the boy had to do his share, which for a boy his age meant either slave at the docks or become a pickpocket. He opted for the latter.

His father began to loath his son who succeeded to provide for his family where he had failed. As time progressed and he was still unable to find a job, he began to drink more and more. He was a mean drunk, blaming the boy for his misfortunes and started to hit him every chance he got. Provided he wasn't to drunk to. Then he was contend to yell and curse at him.

And then his mother fell ill. Zahir wouldn't leave her bedside, infuriating his father who was by now totally dependent upon his young son. Even though Zahir had seen his mother deteriorate day by agonizing day, her death caught him completely by surprise. His father didn't even seem to notice.

The young boy was lost, roamed the streets like a lost soul, unable to come to terms with his mother's death. On top of it all, his father became more viciously abusive and with his mother gone Zahir stood alone against his father's drunken fury.

Where the boy had endured the beatings before, he found he could not now. So one day he left his home, never to return again. He hadn't looked back once. That, the boy had decided, was his old life. And he was desperate to start a new.

But he soon found out life on the streets didn't provide him the freedom he was desperately looking for. In fact, it was not at all what he had expected. It was a hard life. He was starving most of the time. Having no steady place to sleep, he had to make due with sporadic periods of restless sleep. He was miserable and, although he didn't yet admit it to himself, he was thinking of going home.

Until, late one night, he stumbled into a part of the city he hadn't been before. Zahir had been wandering aimlessly when he was startled by a sudden sound from a nearby alley. Silently, careful not to make any sound, he sneaked closer to venture a peak.

In the alleyway a man in a long black robe stood hunched over another man who lay on the ground. The light of the moon reflected off the knife the black-robed man held confidently in his hands. Zahir could clearly see the blood dripping from the tip of the knife. The man on the ground lay motionless, a pool of blood beneath him growing by the second.

Shocked young Zahir gasped, took a step back and ran into a pile of boxes that fell over with a loud crash. The black-robed man had heard the sound and was now standing upright, looking around to identify the source of the raucous.

Zahir froze, held his breath, and stood in fear while the black-robed man approached menacingly. He could not keep his eyes of the knife, his eyes wide with fear... and awe.

“What have we here?” the black-robed man said in a low, yet pleasant voice. “A little eavesdropper? Feasting your eyes where they shouldn't, aye?”

Too scared to speak, Zahir only shook his head. The man took one step forward and towered over him.

“What's the matter, boy? Someone cut your tongue?” The man casually waved the knife in front of the boy's face. The boy's eyes were full of awe which did not escape the man. He fell silent for a while. Then, abruptly as if he had made up his mind, he asked the boy, “Do you have a place to go?”

“No,” Zahir managed to say, his voice shaking with fear.

“Ah, so you do know how to speak. Do you have any family?”

The boy shook his head.

“No one is taking care of you?”

“Only me,” Zahir said quickly, afraid that the man would bring him back to his father.

“Very well, then. Follow me.” The black-robed man spun around and walked away, seemingly uncaring whether the boy followed him or not. The boy hurried after him.


Someone crashed into him and shocked him back into the present, condemning the memories to the back of his mind. The man offered a hasty apology in passing, and was already on his way without waiting for a reply. Biting back his anger, Zahir brought back his attention to his target. He was negotiating with a vendor over a piece of silk. The vendor feigned indignation, but his target would have nothing of it. He started to turn away, but a gesture of the vendor stopped him. With a smile, his target handed over some coins and left the disgruntled vendor to his business.

Zahir had been following his target all morning as he strolled the Tolday market inspecting the wares of the vendors that gathered en masse for the largest market in town, in the county even. Although the assassin prided himself in being patient, he couldn't help but wonder how much time a man could spent in the market.

But he knew of course. Over the weeks after closing the blood oath, Zahir had started to learn more about his target. His routines, his behavior, his passions, and his reputation, which was surprisingly good. The people respected him, admired him, Zahir would even go so far as to say they loved him. He came to know that his target did charity work, went to church regularly. He was a saint. Amazed at himself, Zahir felt hesitation. Who was he to question his contractors bidding? Coin was all he had ever cared about. Yet doubt gnawed at him.

Normally, his targets were scum as were his contractors, killing each other over petty grievances that had wounded their macho egos. This was different. His contractor was scum, no doubt about that. But his target? He wasn’t so sure about his target.

Why would that matter? The assassin asked himself. Contract is contract. A kill, a kill. You never questioned the morality of your actions before. Why start now?

But he knew the answer before he'd asked the question. Because now morality became part of the equation. He didn’t think twice about scum killing scum or about killing them himself. But killing a beloved member of society by all accounts a good man? Now that did make him think twice. But what was he to do? He was bound by the blood oath.


Standing on the roof of a building, Zahir kept an eye on his target. He had been anxious all week for this, his first kill. The black-robed man told him he was ready. Zahir had thought so as well, now doubt gnawed at him. He knew the black-robed man was watching him intently.

The black-robed man. He had never told him his name, and Zahir had never asked. What use were names anyway? He had just continued to call him the black-robed man ever since their first encounter in the alley some five years ago.

He had followed his target through the small streets of Ackabhar all day. But he had been patient. He knew that sooner or later an opportunity would present itself. Trail a target long enough and they always make a mistake. Even the most paranoid of targets had some flaw in his routine that would prove fatal, or so the black-robed man assured him.

And there it was. His target entered a blind alley. Zahir made sure nobody followed him, before he climbed down to street level to follow his target in.

His target was only twenty feet in front of him. Zahir unsheathed his knife. Swiftly, silently, he approached his target. Nine feet. Zahir picked up his pace. Five feet. He was now so close he could smell his target. Three feet. He held his breath. His knife lay in his hand, ready to strike.

He could hear his target breath heavily. One foot. With force, Zahir thrust the blade into his target, killing him instantly. Dead before he hit the ground.

“Most people think assassins are ruthless murderers without conscience or trepidation,” the black-robed man told him later that night. Zahir was tired, but listened to the man's words with fascination.

“Even our contractors despised us, that is until they need us...,” the black-robed man continued. “They, at least, had reason to want another man dead, or so they say. It is not only coin that interests them. Even though it mostly is, whether they admit to it or not.”

The black-robed man leaned forward and looked Zahir in the eye. “Despite these widespread misconceptions, there are two things an assassin holds sacred. The blood oath and life.”

He must have seen the surprise in Zahir's eyes because he continued to explain, “An assassin doesn't take a life lightly. That distinguishes assassin from common murderer. The blood oath ensures that a life isn't taken without cause or without payment of debt.”

“But isn't killing our livelihood?”

“Yes, it is. But never forget that your targets are human beings with aspirations and dreams. We decide over life and death, but we are not gods. Pride comes before the fall.”


His target approached a large intersection, which tore his attention away from idle musings and back to the present moment. He’d have to make sure he wouldn’t lose sight of his target. He had never been handsome, but he wasn’t ugly either. Women and men alike didn’t take note of him. There had been days he wished it wasn’t so. Now he considered it a blessing. Watchful eyes sought out the pretty and the ugly. He didn’t attract attention in a crowd which was a blessing in his line of work. Still he took care not to attract notice as he picked up his pace to gain some ground on his target. Making sure he could see his target at all times, he followed at appropriate distance.

He’d have to wait for the right moment to strike. His contractor wanted his assassination public. So he needn’t take care to make it look like an accident or a mugging turned bad. In a way, Zahir detested that. His gift, as he referred to it, was subtlety and he hated displays of brute violence. But, in the end, his contractor’s word is law. He would submit to it.

“Make it a bold statement,” his contractor had said. ‘Public and risky would do the trick.” That he could deliver. He, after all, was the best in his line of work.

Following his target to the large square in front of the palace, he slowly approached his target. He would wait until he was in eyesight of the palace guards. How would that be for ‘public and risky’?

So close to the kill everything around him faded. He had only eyes for his target. Usually all doubt and thoughts vanished from his mind as he came close to his target, his mind fully set on the task.

Now, doubt gnawed at him again, clawed at the steep walls of his consciousness, screaming to be heard. What is this? He thought incredulously. I doubt my work?

The harder he tried to force it out of consciousness, the stronger it pushed back. This is a good man, his conscience screamed. Killing him would mean crossing the line. You would be no better that the scum that hires you, your only interest coin and disregard for human life.

Yet his blood oath bound him to this contract. The sanctity of the blood oath was as much born out of fear as out of reverence for their profession. If he didn’t fulfill it, he would die himself. There was no way out. That’s what the blood oath is for. Granted, it was designed to protect the assassin against defaulters, but he was bound to it nonetheless. Could he imagine sacrificing his own life for another’s?

He was now so close to his target that he could feel his warmth, hear his heartbeat. It was now or never. In this familiar situation, body outweighed mind. Instinct took over. His knife flashed in the sunlight as he struck. He was, after all, an assassin…

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