THE CLOAK OF SHADOWS
By Jon Nixon
It is a popular jest, among the bandits who plunder the roads to Khazaan, that the walls of the city were built to keep the thieves in; for in Khazaan the craft of thievery enjoys the status of art. The most expert of thieves are popular heroes, their work attracting as much discussion and dispute as that of the finest painters. Ask twenty citizens who is the greatest of thieves and you will be given twenty different answers. They will all be wrong.
- - -
The landing clock chimed twice and Arghoul turned to study the woman who lay beside him. Her breathing was shallow and her eyelids flickered. She was balanced on the edge of awareness and would wake if he moved. Arghoul stifled his impatience. It had taken a year to prepare for this night and he must wait another hour.
The woman rolled towards him and laid an arm across his shoulders. He eased it away. She mumbled her dead husband's name and he scowled with contempt. Warm breath on his cheek and cold deed in his heart, he waited.
- - -
Arghoul's year had turned slowly, weighed down with frustration and wasted investment.
In the previous winter a dreadful fire had torn along the Street of Tailors, stopped only by the fortuitous location of the canal at one end and the deliberate blasting of the orphanage at the other. In the days following the fire, Arghoul had learned that the tea merchant Ptaakis, fearing a similar disaster might ruin him, had parted with his entire stock; a sale amounting to hundreds of thousands of Shillings. Given his fear of fire it was certain that Ptaakis would not keep such a fortune in paper money, but no one knew what investment he had chosen.
It was when Arghoul began to spy on the merchant that an audacious plan occurred to him. Ptaakis lived in a fine town house with his daughter Alessa, together with her shiftless husband and their three-year-old son. Arghoul's sympathy had been gladly accepted when the husband died, but he had misjudged the weight of the young widow's grief. It was six months before she let him into her bed and six more before she told him what he wanted to hear.
- - -
The clock struck three. Alessa's breathing had become deep and slow, and Arghoul knew he would not wake her, so he slipped from the bed and swiftly dressed. Then he leaned close and caressed her for the last time, amused at the thought that the hand which stroked her slender neck had crushed the life from her husband's throat. With a touch as light as leaf-fall he kissed her and was gone.
Outside the room he surveyed the landing. Every shadow was familiar, every ornament in its place. He crossed in front of the clock, smiling at his own cleverness as he matched his stride to the swing of the pendulum, hiding each step in the faint click of the mechanism.
A floorboard creaked and Arghoul froze, trapped by the noise the way an animal is trapped by torchlight. It was not possible that he had made a sound, which meant there was another at large in the house tonight. Recovering his composure, the thief sank into the shadows of an alcove and waited.
A door squeaked open and the hall was suddenly flooded with candlelight and the smell of wine. Arghoul cursed his misfortune as Ptaakis' old servant stumbled onto the landing. The routine of a hundred nights had been broken on the one night when it mattered. He fingered the haft of his knife. The servant himself presented no threat but might wake others who did, and if he showed no sign of leaving it would be necessary to silence him.
To Arghoul's relief, the man headed for the stairs and disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. Arghoul allowed himself a grunt of satisfaction. If he were fetching another bottle from the cellar he would be gone for at least five minutes. Arghoul would be finished in two.
Silent as an unspoken thought he opened the door to the master bedroom and approached the bed.
Ptaakis' skin was bleached white by moonlight. His face was twisted with pain and the air rattled like gravel in his lungs. Arghoul knew that he was dying.
Gently, Arghoul passed his hand under the old man's pillow and withdrew the small velvet bag that was hidden there. His eyes widened at the weight of the bag and, turning it, he dropped its contents into one hand.
The diamond was even more beautiful than Alessa had described a flawless drop of cold white fire. Greater wealth than an ordinary thief could dream of, but Arghoul was no ordinary thief and he knew the true worth of such a gem. It was the old man's lifetime locked in crystal, his last investment, the future of his grandson.
Arghoul's reverie was broken by the sudden realisation that an ominous quiet had descended on the room. The awful noise from the old man's chest had become nothing more than a slight wheeze, and when the thief looked up he found himself staring into his victim's outraged face.
Only a supreme confidence in his own ability kept Arghoul from precipitous action. Every instinct called for careless flight, but the possibility that he had woken the old man was inconceivable and so he remained perfectly still. He was rewarded by a lack of recognition in Ptaakis' eyes; a baleful look, full of anger and despair, but one directed at the world in general and not Arghoul in particular. Arghoul experimented by taking a small step to one side. To his relief the eyes did not follow him, but continued to glare at the position he had vacated. The eyes were open, but the Ptaakis still slept.
The old man's eyelids drooped and closed, his breathing became laboured once more, and Arghoul took his leave.
Crossing the landing again, Arghoul entered the final room on this floor of the house. The boy lay sleeping in a small bed beneath the skylight through which the thief would make his exit, and it was when he leaned over to lift the catch of the window that Arghoul caught sight of the toy.
Clutched to the boy's chest was a crude rag figure. It had been a gift from the father he had barely known, and the boy would never be parted from it. Unable to resist a final cruelty, Arghoul reached out and expertly slipped it from the child's arms.
- - -
High above the streets of Khazaan a lone figure danced in the moonlight. Cloudless and bitter-cold, night had dressed the city in silver, but the leaping man left no mark in the frost. With the grace and arrogance of a cat he skipped from roof to roof, boldly trading the safety of shadows for the exhilaration of flight. These were the houses of the rich and the mighty, but their rooftops belonged to the thieves of Khazaan, and Arghoul was the greatest of thieves.
Arghoul's heart pounded at the enormity of the crime he had committed. In a single night he had stolen the love of a woman, the dreams of an old man and the innocence of a child. There was nothing left to steal. Drunk with pride, he increased his pace. With a cry of pleasure, he leaped to the next building, and lost his footing.
Crashing to the roof, he slipped towards death. In vain he clawed at the ice. With two free hands he might have found safe purchase, but panic had locked his grip upon the child's toy. He kicked out in desperation, breaking slates, which skittered away and cartwheeled into the street. He reached the edge of the roof and for a moment his feet were caught in the gutter, but it tore beneath him. In a confusion of limbs and lead piping he tumbled backwards into space.
Arghoul's descent was halted by a firm grip on his wrist. A small, dark figure, possessed of surprising strength, drew him up and set him down upon the roof.
For a moment Arghoul sat gasping for breath, nursing his wrist and regarding the small figure in the hooded cloak of midnight black to which he owed his life. His natural relief at this change in his fortune was tempered with healthy cynicism. The motives of a black-clad figure prowling the rooftops of Khazaan in the early hours were unlikely to be altruistic, and his position was still far from secure.
"You are no watchman," Arghoul observed slyly. "What is your business on a roof at this hour?"
The stranger reached up and drew back her cowl to reveal a face of striking beauty. A thick mane of blue-black hair framed a round face with strong features and dark, dark eyes, which dragged at his soul.
Silently Arghoul ran through the possibilities; witch, demon, vampire? Unlikely; even the supernatural succumbs to market forces and in this part of the city the wealthy had banished such evils years ago. The answer was both obvious and prosaic.
"Another thief," laughed Arghoul, "you are just another thief."
The stranger smiled slightly and bowed her head in confirmation. Arghoul's caution crumbled before his arrogance.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked. "I am Arghoul, Greatest of Thieves. Who are you?"
He watched the dark woman and his temper was drowned in her impassive stare.
"Who are you?" he asked again, less sure of himself.
She smiled and drew her cloak about her, the way another might step into shadow. At last she spoke, and her voice was as soft and pure as the tolling of a distant bell.
"I am Death," she told him.
Arghoul could not doubt her words. He turned and looked down into the alley, knowing with cold certainty what he would find. His own body lay twisted and broken at the foot of the wall. The doll stared back at him and the velvet bag lay open, its contents lost in the sparkling frost.
Death leaned forward and kissed him softly with a touch that was cool but not unpleasant. She let him sit for a while and when he was ready she drew him gently to her, wrapped him in the cloak of shadows and carried him into the night.
I'm English but I live in Holland with my wife Ann-Marie and our two year old daughter Emily. I work as a Systems Administrator but I'd rather be painting seascapes in Cornwall. My interests include drawing, skiing, sailing, malt whisky, Go (an oriental board game) and playing with my daughter's train set.
I'm not what you'd call a prolific writer; "The Cloak of Shadows" is only my second story. The first was an embarrassing Edgar Rice Burroughs pastiche novel written in school exercise books. I spent the intervening twenty years staring at blank sheets of paper. However, I'm currently working on a cyber-punk whodunnit- which may mean three completed works this century!
I would be very interested to receive constructive criticism from readers.
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