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People died because he lived. And if that was the only way to carry forward in this life, then so be it.
There had been a particularly strong blizzard in the neighboring caliphate of Demenhur three nights ago, and Sarasin was chillier because of it. The combination of desert heat and the wayward cold rattled Nasir’s bones, yet here he was, far from his home in Sultan’s Keep, the small portion of land from which the sultan ruled Arawiya’s five caliphates.
Nasir’s missions to Sarasin always gave him a sense of nostalgia he never could understand. Though he had never lived here, it was the caliphate of his lineage, and it felt familiar and strange at once.
He came here for one act alone: murder.
Leil, the capital of Sarasin, was crawling with armed men in turbans of azure. Three stood guard at the entrance to the walled city. Billowing sirwal, instead of tighter-fitting pants, hung low across their hips, vain muscled arms glistened bronze. A gust of desert air carried the musky odor of hot sands, along with the chatter of children and their scolding elders.
Nasir studied the sentries and slid from his mare’s back with a heavy sigh. He had no need for a skirmish with a horde of lowborn men.
“Looks like I’ll be taking the long route,” he murmured, rubbing a hand across Afya’s flank. She nickered a reply, and he tethered her beside a sleepy-eyed camel. She was his mother’s horse, named after her favorite of the Six Sisters of Old.
He climbed a stack of aging crates and leaped from awning to awning of the surrounding structures, balancing on jutting stones, his ears still ringing with orders from the Sultan of Arawiya. He likened the sultan’s voice to a snake, softly creeping into his veins and penetrating his heart with venom.
He scaled the wall and leaped onto the nearest rooftop with practiced ease, sidestepping the ornate rug sprawled in its center, jewel-toned cushions strewn to one side.
Sarasin’s open skies were as bleak as his thoughts and forever downcast in gray, brightened only by the expectant hum of the upcoming camel race. He had little interest in the race itself—he was here for the cover it provided and the man it promised.
He vaulted to the next rooftop and swayed when a blade arced down a mere fraction from his face. A girl of about thirteen leaped back with a gasp, dropping one of her twin scimitars to the dusty limestone, her concentrated drill broken. Nasir’s gauntlet blade thrummed, but the last thing he needed was to kill unnecessarily. As if your kills are ever necessary.
He lifted a finger to his lips, but the girl stared slack-jawed at his hooded attire. An assassin’s garb of layered robes in black, etched with fine silver. His fitted sleeves ended in the supple leather of his gauntlets, blades tucked beneath the folds. The traditional gray sash across his middle was shrouded by a broad leather belt housing smaller blades and the sheath of his scimitar. The ensemble had been engineered in Pelusia, the caliphate as advanced in mechanics as in farming, so there was nothing finer.
“Hashashin?” the girl whispered in a way that promised his presence would be kept secret. A winding cuff resembling a snake encircled her upper arm, blue jewels studding its eyes.
No, Nasir wanted to say to that voice of awe. An assassin lives an honorable life.
There was a time when a hashashin danced and the wicked perished, merchants rose to power, trades fell to dust. The glint of a blade turned the tides of the world. They had been poets of the kill, once. Honor in their creed.
But that was long before Nasir’s time. He didn’t live. He existed. And no one understood the difference between the two until they ceased to live.
The girl grinned. She was too fair for Sarasin standards, with white hair stark against her brow, but it wasn’t uncommon for the snow-brained Demenhune to turn up here, particularly womenfolk. Demenhur’s caliph was a biased crow who would blame women for old age, if he could.
She picked up her scimitar, continuing with praiseworthy maneuvers that would guarantee her a sought-after place in a house of assassins, but Nasir didn’t comment. Fewer words worked best in his world, where a person encountered today could be a maggot’s feast tomorrow.
He swept past her and leaped to the next rooftop, which overlooked houses of tan stone. The streets below were empty, except for the rare camel being pulled along. Dusty lanterns hung from eaves, the glass long ago shattered into the desert.
The rooftops ended and Nasir dropped down to Leil’s sooq. Stalls with rickety legs spread across the expanse, tattered cloth in an array of colors shading goods from the meager sun. The stench of sweat and heat stirred the air. Bare-chested urchins ducked beneath tables and between swaths of fabric as a good-size crowd meandered the stands. Here, the ghostly landscape was alive.
It would be even busier at noon, when the sharp scents of nutmeg and sumac would entwine with meat-filled mutabaq as merchants catered to the workers who mined for coal and minerals in one of the worst places of Arawiya: the Leil Caves.
Now vendors extolled other wares—bolts of fabric in bright colors muted by the dull skies; spices in enough hues to paint papyrus; carved stone platters with designs so intricate, Nasir did not see the point.
He shoved past a gaggle of women and nearly stepped on a salt merchant cross-legged on a rug, sacks of the precious commodity perched around him and a sharp-eyed falcon on his shoulder. The weathered man looked up with a toothy smile, excited at the prospect of a new customer.
Until he saw Nasir’s garb and the gleam in his eyes turned to fear.
Others had begun to take notice. A woman dropped her newly purchased sack of grain. Nasir lowered his head and pressed forward. If he passed close enough, their whispers brushed his ears. If he passed closer still, they would dare to look at him. They knew what Nasir strode for, dressed the way he was.
So he pretended not to notice when a bag of dinars fell from his side and scattered across the dusty ground, sand muting the glimmer of the silver coins.
It was better this way. It was better for Nasir to be as evil as Sultan Ghameq in their eyes. Because in many ways, he was. Maybe even worse.
Still, the people of Sarasin had become hardened to the life that grew more desolate by the day. Their caliph had just been murdered, their lands wrongfully seized by their own sultan. Yet no one seemed any more disturbed than they had been before.
Stand up, he ordered them in his head. Defy. Fight.
Self-derision tore a sound from his chest. Not even you defy the sultan.
And the ones who dared to raise their heads: Nasir killed.
Text copyright © 2019 Hafsah Faizal