Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Assassin's Tale (Alternative Bible Stories)


I am going to find him. That little rat Belshazzar has scampered between the shadows of this palace for far too long. But tonight – that idiot Emperor's years of misrule will come to an end. By tomorrow, a new head will wear the Golden Diadem of Power, that of Cyrus the Persian- my employer.

Our preparations have been exacting. His close bodyguards have been threatened, then bribed to look the other way. Of course, they will then be blamed for the assassination, but intelligence and anticipation was never their strong point. The normal palace guards have either been distracted with drink, or sent out on spurious missions to keep them busy elsewhere. Afterwards, it will be blamed on an unfortunate and regrettable breakdown in the Emperor's personal security.
And that is how I do things. Because I am the Remover, the Adjuster, the Toppler of Thrones. And tonight, his death is my purpose. It will be quick. Silent. He will be found in the morning. And after appropriate mournings and ceremonies and retributions have been duly paid and handed out – my employer will regretfully replace him.

It is time. I emerge from the cupboard where I was hiding, into the main dining hall. I am barefoot, the soles of my feet hardened by years of tramping the desert – but my senses are alert. The plan of this building is completely committed to memory. I know all the hiding places, every hidden door... and yet one can never be sure. If a man can be bribed once, he can be bribed again by a rival bidder, working from the opposite direction. So I stand still, listening. The immediate area is completely deserted. In the distance, I can hear kitchens still active, but it is of no consequence. There was a feast last night, but the tables have been cleared, the chairs replaced in readiness for the morning. Now I can enter the private apartments – and most particularly, the royal bedchamber. There are three corridors to be walked, a balcony to be crossed, a roof or two to be scaled, another window – and I will be there. How do I know all this? Because I did it one night last week, when my target was visiting his mother.

Finally, I cross the hall. It is darker than I expected. This was the most dangerous moment, the time when I could be found, ambushed, caught red-handed, if only my unsuspecting quarry knew it. But the initiative has now been passed back to me, and the hunt begins.

The first corridor. Tapestries on the walls, the occasional statue. I pause. Then I go on. The first corner, a passageway back to the kitchen, but there is nobody watching. Quickly, I turn right, faster down the next corridor, along which a guard could still wander towards the kitchen in search of a bite to eat. I move faster. Careful! Turn left, past the deserted guardroom. 'A criminal dereliction of duty', they will say tomorrow. 'A mistake over the timing of shifts'. Heads will undoubtedly roll. I trust they are having a good time down at the Palace Gatehouse, where an excellent party will be hitting its second wind by now. The beer and prostitutes cost me enough.

A servant coming this way! Hide behind the tapestry. Keep still, control your breathing. Nothing must seem out of place. The secret of being hidden is not to disturb anyone’s train of thought, heighten their senses, notice that extra shadow in the corner. The servant hurries closer, then trots past within an arm’s touch of me, carrying a plate of food, humming to herself. A peaceful soul, unaware of an assassin’s knife that could separate her from her life in a second. Then she is gone. I continue walking.

Along the last corridor. It leads into a new wing of the palace, constructed last year but not with a view to security, which will be again seen as a regrettable oversight. Then towards the balcony, a good place to catch the morning breeze, but also to reach the royal apartments if one is so-minded. I catch my breath. It is a dark night, with no moon of consequence.   From here, I must quietly leap down a short distance to an adjoining roof.  The passageway below is not wide, but it is far enough down to make a simple mistake costly, which is why this was a good moment to pause, to catch one's breath, and check. A few servants are still moving around somewhere, but no obvious guards.

I clamber over the balustrade, holding the rail behind me as I tense, ready to make the standing leap. No-one is waiting underneath.

I leap. 

Silence, then a noisy landing on an angled roof, scrabbling for possession of a grip, handholds, anything to give me traction. Hold still. I catch my breath again, and listen. Is anyone coming, muttering about hearing something? No. Over the ridge, adjusting my weight as I move from handhold to handhold, gently stepping, not loosening any tiles. Done. Now I descend to the balcony on the other side, to access the royal apartments. Normally, a guard is posted nearby. My knife is ready – but as I edge closer... there’s no-one there.

How odd. Everything is quieter than I expected. Most of the servants are asleep.  The Emperor's official mistress of the moment will have been returned to the harem with sufficient payment, her master's demands now suitably satiated. The food and drink of his birthday celebration hopefully did their work.

Soon, I am softly padding along the final corridors, checking at every door. Finally, I reach the royal bedroom, where he will be asleep. There are normally several guards keeping watch here. They will be loyal, but unintelligent, the sort who can be easily distracted by a commotion outside. And whilst they investigate that, I will enter from the other side to do my will. Such things are easy to organise with the minimum of equipment, which is why I always carry a long length of waxed twine for engineering such a commotion around several corners of a corridor.

The room has two guarded entrances. However, the surrounding corridor has alcoves where ornamental pots are set on display, ready to unbalance and fall if someone rigs them appropriately. A quick tug on my twine from a distance, a moment’s distraction.... and that is usually enough to allow me ingress into a room from an opposite direction, to end a life.

But there are no guards. I approach the door, listening. Nothing. Is the king asleep? No sound inside. Elsewhere with his mistress? Unusual, if so. I turn the handle, quietly pull open the door.
Except it isn’t quiet. A loud squeak emanates from the purposely unoiled hinges. It echoes down the corridor, its vibrations almost shaking the air. Disaster. But as I gaze into the bedroom, the Emperor looks up from his desk, where he has been reading.

‘Do come in. I’ve been expecting you.’ 

He reaches over the desk, picks up a bell, rings it. And then the walls fall in.

The walls of the bedroom ripple, are torn away, and six armed guards step forward from behind the tapestries that masked their hiding places. No time! I run back, slamming the door shut on them. And run back along the corridor. Don’t look back. I can hear the shouted orders, the pursuit, the stamping footsteps, they’re coming.  I’m faster, I know where I’m heading. Unless they planned this, knowing my route? No matter. Run. Turn left, right, the balcony. They’re still asleep. Turn. Climb. Footsteps. Shouting. Someone screaming. I’m up. On the roof. Running, jumping over the ridge, ready to leap up , over the passage. Only there’s someone waiting.

‘Come on then!’

Two guards, smiling, on the other side, looking down from the main palace behind the balustrade, the way I came in. How? Waiting with swords. I’m cut off. Behind me, the sound of a guard trying to follow me on to the roof. 

‘Come on!’ shout the guards behind the balustrade, like it’s a dare, a circus show.

They’ve got me, they think. It’s a joke.

Any other routes? Jump down to the passage? I look down.

‘It’s a bit of a drop!’ shouts one of the guards. ‘Try it!’ From where they are, they can see the others climbing up on to the roof. The second guard shouts, ’He’s over here!’

The twine. Make a loop. Pass it over a chimney. Abseil down. Done it before. If not long enough, then at least break my fall. Prevent a sprained ankle. They watch me, fascinated.

‘Hurry up!’ shouts the second guard to the others on the roof. ‘He’s got a rope!’ Inexact, but true. They can’t touch me unless they jump across.  Better to stay where they are and direct the others. I check the twine, as it cuts into my hands. Then I’m on the way down, half-dropping, the twine cutting into my back, my hands, but I let it out gradually. Down one floor, walking down backwards. Two floors. Jump?  More twine. The sound of guards below in the passage, shouting, they’ve seen me. They’re waiting for me to come down. In front of me, a window. Shutters open. Dark room inside. I swing in, land on some kind of table. Things fall to the floor as I lurch into them, fall off the table. The sound of metal. Where am I?

Shouting outside. They’ll be here soon. Working out which room is behind the window on the first floor. My eyes adjust. All around, glittering things. Gold. A treasury? Next to an open window? Where’s the door? There. I make for it, trip over something, pick it up. A candlestick. Heavy. A weapon? It might parry a sword-thrust. I take it and run out.

A new corridor. Which way? Right. No reason. Just run. Left. Sounds, shouting from somewhere. Bells. More guards soon. Then – a familiar place. The royal bedroom. Back here again? How? Door already open. The last place they’ll look. I leap in, turn, hear someone behind me, lash out with the candlestick, hear a loud crack.

And see the Emperor Belshazzar lying on the floor, sprawled in front of me. The guards stream in through the doors, both doors, and then I’m being held down on the floor by lots of arms and hands and feet. There is a sharp blow to my head.  And everything goes black.

When I wake up, it’s still black. I’m lying on a cold damp floor, and everything hurts. I sit up, and feel the leg-irons on my ankles, and a thick heavy chain fixed to the wall. I try to stand, but it hurts. And that’s the way it is for a long time. I go back to sleep, as it seems the most sensible thing to do. The reason I am not dead, is because they will want to torture me. Even if I tell them everything I know, they will still do it, as an object lesson to all assassins from rulers everywhere. So I may as well sleep whilst I still have limbs to curl around me.

The light burns. I wake. People! A lantern. Hands picking me up, dragging me out. Stairs. Corridors. Sunlight. But then a blindfold. Why? I am taken along more corridors, then a room. Then I am thrust down in a kneeling position.

 ‘So, you are the one who did it?’ A voice from in front. Unfamiliar. I nod.

‘Who paid you?’

‘Muraz.’

‘How much?’

‘500 talents.’

More questions. More answers. I have nothing to gain from holding anything back. I explain everything. My background. My methods. How I was contacted. How I planned it all. Perhaps this will make the inevitable torture unnecessary, but I doubt it.

‘I’m curious’ says the voice. ’For an assassin, you’re being rather helpful. Is there anything you’re not going to tell us?’

‘I’m a professional,’ I sigh. ’A paid servant.’

‘Who obviously takes great pride in his work.’

Silence, for thinking. I kneel there, waiting. Will they pull me apart with horses? Hang me, then disembowel me? Death by burning, or boiling? There are so many slow, slow ways.

‘Unchain him.’ They do, but keep the blindfold on.

‘Assassin’, says the voice, ‘you did a good job for me. You removed an awkward monarch who delighted himself in destroying cities and nations. His family are degenerates. His clan are parasites. And he shows no respect to the gods. But then you dispatched him with a blow to the head from a sacred golden candlestick, looted from a Temple in one of his victims’ cities. I would call that justice of a kind. And you have earned your money.’

A complete turnaround. I don’t know what to say, but then... ‘Sir, may I ask a question?’

‘One.’

‘He knew I was coming. They were waiting for me. Somebody must have told him. Someone knew I had been paid to do this. What happened?’

‘Remove the blindfold.’

They do. And when my eyes have adjusted, I see Muraz, standing next to a chair where Cyrus the Persian is seated, looking at me with a quizzical smile. Cyrus, who will now inherit the Empire of Babylon because Belshazzar has fallen, by my own hand wielding a candlestick. I have been working for Cyrus, without knowing it.

Cyrus speaks again. ‘Assassin, the old Emperor was warned by one of his advisers, name of Daniel. There was an incident at the birthday feast last night, and the adviser was called to interpret some words that had appeared on a wall. “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.” It’s an old language – Hebrew. It means, apparently, “Measured, weighed, and underweight.” Daniel said it was a message from a god that the king’s days were numbered. He had been using that god’s sacred treasures as serving bowls and plates for his feast. Then you somehow managed to crack his head open with one of that god’s own sacred candlesticks. So I am honoured to be in the presence of a sacred assassin. Apparently.’ Cyrus raised an eyebrow. ’So he knew you were coming. Not that it helped him.’

I was led out by Muraz, paid by a steward, and sent on my way. It seemed like a good time to go on a long journey, somewhere distant, before anyone thought about changing their minds.

And as I rode out of the city, I wondered. Was it possible to be a sacred assassin? What kind of god employs people to do his will instead of just doing it himself? Is that a weakness – or a strength?   Were there other gods who might need my services? Or might this one want to use me again? A curious puzzlement. I thought hard. Perhaps this could be the beginning of a new career.  




(From the Bible's Book of Daniel, chapter 5- 'The Writing on the Wall.')
                  


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Any requests of subjects for future posts in 2016? No idea too stupid for consideration. And yes, I know I am a bad writer, so don't bother saying that unless you can write something better. But maybe there's a topic buzzing around in your head that you'd like to see covered... because I've got a keyboard here, it's loaded with letters, and I ain't afraid to use it.