The air is cold tonight. I would not expect this, not where the Nile meets the sea; all this water should better hold the heat of day. A sudden gust whips past and I see Djal tug his robes tight around his chest. Something unnatural on the wind has stolen its warmth. Or is it just the cloudless sky and my restless mind? This city is not familiar to either myself or my two companions; I am thankful for the stars that aid our watch. Djal shivers, then speaks, "If we could scout this meeting place in the day, perhaps we could see it better and it would be warm."
"Ah, but if you were stronger, perhaps the cold would not bother you," mocks Mkhai while he struts through the alley, arms wide and inviting the cold. His words are not without truth; Djal is thin for one of the guard and thicker muscle would serve to keep him warmer.
"Do not provoke him, Mkhai," I speak in stern but gentle tone. We exit the alley to a wider road which I am happy to find still empty. Within a few paces, I turn and step through an arched doorway and Mkhai follows closely. When Djal ducks through the arch after him, I say "Djal, we must do this task while the city still sleeps. Think, then tell me why."
After a moment of silence, "We are the pharaoh's guards. Were we to study this place openly, it would reveal the meeting place before it occurred. It could give someone time to set a trap."
"Good. Mkhai, tell me what makes this place safe."
Without hesitation, Mkhai replies, "These houses create walls on three sides. The fourth is a wall with one entrance from the road. This garden is not to be trafficked," he walks to the pavilion in the center, placing a hand on it before continuing, "The shade this provides will also protect from arrow and spear if someone were on a roof."
Eagerly, Djal adds, "Notice the height of the walls as well. They are too tall to leap from and climbing down would be too slow to take us by surprise," I reply with a silent smile; they are learning well. Djal then asks, "Rashidi, is there really so much danger?"
Glancing between the two, I sigh, knowing that although Djal voices it, the question comes from both. I dismiss their question with a wave and give the area one last look before I am satisfied. "We are done here. The sun should rise soon and we will find food at the market. Both of you will keep your ears open while we are there. Then you will answer your own question."
The sun just barely breaks into view as we reach the market. All manner of merchants prepare their wares, boasting a much wider variety than the small markets south near the palace. Mkhai and Djal bound off in search of things they have not before seen while I stroll and scan leisurely. At first, the scent of cinnamon hangs pleasantly in the air, heavy enough to taste, before a mix of flowery perfumes accosts my nose and turns my stomach. I wave my way past it, approaching a stand of foreign swords. The vendor hands over a blade to examine while he explains its origin.
"You will not find another like it. I know this craftsman personally. See the care he has taken on the grip alone? I fear you must buy now or perhaps never. Talk of a new law threatens I may never bring his country's wares here again."
Gripping by the blunt edge to better see the hilt, I remark, "The quality is excellent, indeed," I then take the sword by its hilt and slash at phantoms in the street, then finish, "but the broad blade is a straw too heavy for my taste."
Continuing down the market, I pass three merchants selling papyrus scrolls, though only one offers them blank. There are more than a few jewelry carts, as well as one tent which sells the same fine, dyed silks from which it is made. I only stop to browse again when I come upon a vendor of musical instruments; my wife deserves a truly beautiful flute to match the melody she can play. A shame, none of these call to me. Mkhai returns to me with three cooked fish in hand; I look through the crowd to find Djal's head towering above and signal him over to us. We walk to an abandoned cart that makes for adequate seating, far from the noise of the street to eat and I ask what news has reached their ears.
Cautiously, Mkhai whispers, "Several merchants were complaining about a new trade law. Is it the same law that Pharaoh is coming here to talk to the foreigners about?" I nod, and he continues, "How can they dare to speak badly about the pharaoh?"
Djal looks as though he wants to speak, but we must wait a moment before he says, "They are careful not to mention Pharaoh, only the law. Still, it must affect many people for them to speak of it like this. It sounds as though he would prohibit trade with many nations." He scratches his chin for a moment, "The people of this and other cities near the sea profit from that trade. Maybe it is not a good law. What do you think, Rashidi?"
"It is not my place to think, Djal. Mine is only to protect my Pharaoh." I point the remains of my fish at him, "As is yours. Despite his youth, he is still the pharaoh. None question him."
We finish eating and make way for the docks where the pharaoh will arrive, though he is not due until the sun reaches its highest. A few hours to relax would be welcome, but alas, Mkhai was chosen to come with me; if there is one thing Mkhai abhors, it is a moment of peace. I turn to him, expecting his sly grin, strong stance and quick jabs. He does not disappoint. I block his first volley, which was varied enough, but he quickly falls into a comfortable series of repeated swings. I anticipate a blow to catch and pull at his wrist, knocking him off balance. Before he topples, I grasp the collar of his robes and right him.
Djal laughs, "Try and try, but you do not seem to be getting any better."
"Then you do not look close enough. Mkhai is getting faster, but he still does not vary his strikes."
Mkhai offers a dare, "You should spar with Rashidi. See how well you do."
"I would sooner spar with you. It takes a fool to fight the pharaoh's best guard." Djal mocks as he throws a straight kick at Mkhai, who sidesteps it. Mkhai retaliates with a swift volley that leaves his mid section vulnerable. Each motion of the attack is dodged, but Djal thinks too long about how to exploit the opening, allowing Mkhai to recover from it. Djal retaliates in sloppy fashion and Mkhai simply shrugs the blows off. It ends when Mkhai returns to his pattern, affording Djal the time he needs to devise the proper counter.
It is a wonder that the young pharaoh believes these two will be enough to keep him safe. Though they do show promise, both have yet to taste true combat. Were the decision mine to make, I would have no less than three veterans with us. Our current situation only begs to be exploited. Despite my advice, the child insists this will be enough.
I should not speak this way of my Pharaoh, using that word to mean more than his age. His faith in my ability is endearing, but I believe in his youth he has overestimated my skill. Blame lies on the father, of course. Bedtime stories of glorious combat and words of my family's special talent, however exaggerated, have given rise to dreams and fantasy. I fear he may even wish that an attack will occur and award him a tale of his own. But I do not judge, for it is not my place. Mine is only to protect my Pharaoh.
. . .
So here I wait, on another cold, cloudless night. I do not mind the waiting. It allows me to concentrate on my talent. What the stories claim a talent, is in truth an art handed down through my family. My father taught me of what he called the soul's fire, which every man has, that burns in proportion to his character and will. The art allows us, with focus, to feel this flame, and to see it. At first it was difficult; the world around would dull to view a man's flame. With practice, it has become natural for me to look upon a man, see his fire and infer his intents. To cast my gaze across this city requires a great deal more effort.
I cannot see far, three, perhaps four streets away. Within my view are numerous small flames of varying hues. These do not interest me; regardless of virtue, they are of minor significance. These are people going about their day, doing what they must to survive. The assassin will be a large and bright flame, as it requires strong will and driving purpose to murder. What I cannot guess is its color. Most assassins are wicked creatures, delighting in the deed itself, which will burn a deep red. A small few will believe what they do is righteous, bringing about a better world, and will burn light blue. Still others could be degrees between, from oranges to yellows to greens, performing their service for gold or other interests.
Odd that the attempt has not yet been made. The night is still young. I will wait and prepare. The art of soul fire is more than simply sensing the flame of others. Looking inward, one can learn to control his own fire, bringing speed to his step, strength to his strike. It is in this way that my family has better served the Pharaoh than any other. It is said, at least by my grandfather in his ailing years, that with enough practice and a pure enough soul, one would be able to manifest his flame. My father never believed him, but as a boy I was enamored with the idea. Alas, I have never achieved such a feat. It is not for lack of--
Blood in the Nile, I know that flame. None carry a violet hue, none save him. The assassin is here and this night will likely be the trial of my years.
Turning to Djal and Mkhai, I command, "Take Pharaoh and leave. Carry him if you must! Make haste for the palace by any means you can!" They move without delay as I turn back to find the assassin gone. How could he move so fast? No, that is not what happened. Ancestors curse me, I have broken my concentration and lost my sight of him!
No matter. He will make way for my Pharaoh's room; I can intercept him there. Although I plan to stop his pursuit, at worst I shall delay him enough to allow escape. Last I faced this man, I could not best him. I will need all my strength to defeat him now. I burst through the door to find my guards still arguing with my Pharaoh.
"Why are you still here?" I shout.
"Your men could not answer why I should leave."
"There is no time. Do as I say if you wish to live. Bar the door. The assassin will be forced to enter though the balcony. As soon as he does, remove the brace. I will engage and delay him while you leave for the palace." I speak with such a tone that leaves no room for question.
Standing hidden in the corner by the balcony, I ready my scimitar, hoping to take an early advantage. With such grace as I have never seen, the assassin swings through the window on rope from above. A deft flip through the air blends seamlessly to a combative stance with two small blades drawn. Whether by the sight of his skillful, fluid motions or his frightful, ash smeared skin, my guards stand stunned. He stands still a moment, as if to bask in the fear he instills. As he shifts his weight ever so slightly forward, I know my trick has worked. The time is now.
I lunge with all the swiftness I possess, which proves not enough. His left blade meets mine and is thrown from his hand, sinking deep into the wall. The jarring sound wakes the guards from stupor as they scramble to open the door. I follow up only to meet with his right blade; our weapons lock with each other. In another graceful move, I feel his free hand on my wrist, then both weapons are flung to the other side of the room. The man had just sacrificed his blade to disarm me of my sword. Very well, my strength was always in hand fighting. Perhaps this will work to my advantage. I react and land a quick strike to his chest, distancing us from one another.
I look to the door and shout again, "Why are you still here?"
"He blocked the door on the other side!" Djal yells.
"We'll cut through!" Ensures Mkhai.
He turns to close on my Pharaoh; I must hold his attention. I intercept, grasping at his robes to demand he face me alone. I must protect my Pharaoh. We exchange few true blows, most swings end in blocks and deflections. The leather scraps tied to his wrists as bracers soften many of my strikes. I catch his fist and pull him forward, landing a knee solidly into his abdomen. My foe rolls aside and resets his stance, appearing unharmed. He resumes his attack, somehow invigorated. I focus my fire to match his speed, intensifying my strikes. I feint a block, allowing his fist to connect so that I may land an attack of my own, driving my palm into his chin. The assassin staggers back until I throw a foot to his chest. The kick barely makes contact when he catches it and counters with a sweep. I stand quickly to a defensive pose; he takes the moment to spit blood before giving me a curious, analyzing gaze. Up and down his eyes glance until they rest on the scar just under my eye. He cracks a smirk while he readies himself. Four years past and he does indeed remember me; I suppose that should be a compliment.
I hear the door breaking but my foe does not flinch. He is now more interested in this combat than his target. He renews a mighty assault with rapid strikes I struggle to defend. The smirk has become a sinister grin that revels in this combat. I must focus. His fury intensifies, but I swear I feel no pain. I shrug off the attacks, seeking the right moment to retaliate and finish this. I see the opening, and trap his right arm with my left. I cannot explain why, but some instinct compels me to reach for his face. His left arm swings at my side but I ignore what pain it causes. I grip tightly across his temples and force him over backwards until his head lands on the ground. My hand erupts in a flash of bright blue flame; I hear a wailing voice that soon fails. The flame extinguishes and my foe lies unconscious. As I release his body, a strange metal clatter rings through the room. Looking down at the assassin, I discover a spike, once concealed, now protruding from his bracer and dripping a bright crimson fluid. My legs falter as I realize the odd warmth on my side is my blood running onto the floor. I hear more screams, my vision fades, and I collapse.
It is not my place to feel sorry for myself. Mine is only to protect my Pharaoh.
The next grain of sand to fall through the hourglass is here.