The master's strong men release me to the merchant city with a purse of gold, though I am not to bring back any goods today. I walk my normal path, careful not to draw attention, as I casually browse fruit, meat, and cloth with no intent to purchase. This must be my hundredth journey here, but only the third time I have entered the exotic animal shop. Discreetly, I ask the purveyor for a sand speckled scarab eater. He nods to acknowledge the code and leads me to a hidden back room where sits the Envoy of Anubis' Hand, a guild of assassins. A courier of bloody contracts is not the job I would have chosen, though a man like me has little choice. I am slave to a household of greater men and I can do no other than what I am told; I suppose I am better off than those digging the tombs farther up the Nile or carving stone in sunlight all day.
The envoy is a withered old man, obscuring his face under a hood pulled too far over his eyes. His unsettling smile is all that greets me, deep wrinkles surrounding a mouth mostly full of gold teeth. Those few not crowned are cracked by age and stained dark by wine. Worse yet is his voice, coarse and dry, but ever cheerful and eager to please such that it is shamelessly dishonest. I lay the purse on his table as I place the contract in his chill and trembling hand. He unrolls the parchment to read.
"You know who this target is, do you?" The old man no longer smiles, rather his lips press together as though a terribly sour wine were on his tongue.
I shake my head in reply; never before have I spoken to this man and I am not about to break pattern.
"Oh, but surely you know this contract is unusual. . ." He tilts his head to the side and leans in to me as his voice inclines slightly. I cannot be sure whether he spoke a statement or a question.
To this, I nod slowly. Slave, I may be, but I am no fool. I know the purse contains thrice the customary down payment, an amount of gold I could not gather in ten lifetimes. Clearly something is different about this deal.
"Allow me to satiate your curiosity." He sits back against the wall and begins to smile again, "This contract would have us murder no less than the pharaoh himself. Doubtless we could accomplish this feat. I imagine poison would be easiest, requiring only two slaves to be planted. The first could be a cook or serving boy, but the second would have to be the slave who tests his food for poison. It would require some time. A slave cannot hope to get near the pharaoh's food without three years of loyal, proven service, and twice that again to become his tester."
He pauses to stare at me, showing that wide, toothy grin, perhaps expecting a reply. When he realizes I have none to give, he throws the bag of gold at my face in a sudden fit of rage.
"Nine years!" His words turn harsh as he forces them out between strained coughs. Discarding the pleasant facade, he persists, "Nine years to murder the pharaoh. No less! And your owner wants this done before two moons pass. Truly, it could be done with brute force, but I will not waste an army of talent to get past the pharaoh's guards and your owner certainly will not pay for it! Cannot pay, even. Some still believe the pharaoh's best guards to be blessed with power, impossible to take unawares. My assassins might turn on me were I to command it! And they would be wise to do so."
I sit speechless, afraid to flinch. The man regains himself and his smile before he continues, "However, I know. . . one possibility left to your owner. There exists a nameless man, devilishly hard to contact, who enjoys the riskier tasks. In fact, he is quite picky that way. If the target is not heavily guarded or otherwise extremely dangerous, he may take the offer as an insult to his skill and instead murder his employer. It has happened at least two times, but I am sure he will have no qualms with this contract. More than this, he is less expensive than we are. Your owner should be pleased to hear that. I shall show you how to contact him." He unrolls a map of my city and places a crooked finger just so, "This is where you must hang a violet cloth. If he passes through town, this will signal him to meet you in this alley," the finger slides a few streets over as he speaks, "You must be standing here before the light of day fails and wait well past its time. He will only approach under full cover of darkness."
. . .
The sky is dark, this alley is not safe and I am afraid. How many nights must I do this before I can deliver this vile contract? Half the moon has passed while I waste each evening, jumping at shadows and watching the sun set with the notion the assassin will meet me here. I have done exactly as instructed; the violet cloth hangs from the bathhouse and I stand as the sun sets. Tonight is as close to full cover of darkness as can be. While the air is not entirely without light, the moon wanes to nothing and the stars are blocked by cloud. Waving my hand in front of my face to dimly see its outline, I pray this is not some sort of joke.
"What challenge do you bring me?" a voice echoes through the dark alley. I spin round to find its source and am faced with only deep purple garments walking towards me.
"My master bids that the pharaoh be murdered before he meets the ambassadors." I answer warily. The garments approach slowly as I struggle to see what occupies them. There must be a man there, I know it; he is just a man. As he draws close I notice a pair of disembodied eyes bordered on the right by an artful, floating red pattern.
"The pharaoh is but a boy." When he speaks, I see a mouth open in the darkness, tongue and teeth glistening from what little light lingers in the air, "Again, what challenge do you bring me?" Although the voice carries no hostile tones, I fear for my life as I have never done before. I tell myself one more time that he is just a man.
"The pharaoh will be protected by guards. The best in Egypt - best in the world," I hurriedly stammer and take a step backwards cautiously, "Some say blessed. Anubis' Hand would not touch this contract."
"Very well, deliver your contract. You need not fear me." We approach one another, and all the while, I repeat to myself that he is just a man. One of his hands takes hold of the contract while the other firmly grips my wrist. His touch is cold, rough and gritty. He bows slightly, and it is then - only then - that I am able to see the details of his face. The pattern is an intricate twist of three red lines tattooed and flowing from the middle of his forehead to his temple, then down around his eye and cheek, with one line continuing around his mouth to finish at his chin. The features of his face are otherwise unremarkable, save for his ears, which grow pointed at their tops.
He turns and walks away silently; the feel of his touch still lingers on my arm. I see more of the red markings that stream down the center of his back before he vanishes.
Is he just a man?
The next grain of sand to fall through the hourglass is here.
Feeling lost in time? Start at the beginning.